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Labor complacent as Indigenous gap widens

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Jack Waterford |  18 May 2010

http://www.housing.nt.gov.au/remotehousing/sihip'But it doesn't really feel like a Labor budget,' complained one old-timer at what felt like one of the most boring Federal Budgets we have had for years.

There is, however, a complete riposte to that. It is to be found on page 27 of the separate budget paper, authored by Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin. It tells what she and her 4300-strong department are doing with taxpayers' money to 'close the gap' between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. 'In the Northern Territory,' it says, 'at the end of April 2010 the construction of over 80 new houses was underway, with seven completed.'

Seven houses — that's not bad for three and a half years work and expenditure in the hundreds of millions. At that rate the gap will be closed in about 7000 years. It's good to see Labor on the job. A paragraph later, Macklin remarks that a recent review of the program had shown that everything was on track. This is a measure of her complacency about the worsening disaster over which she presides.

Macklin and the department frequently redefine what they are pretending to be doing, or use weasel words and vagueness. The Minister adopts anecdotal reassurances to contradict evidence.

This time 10 months ago, for example, a number of newspapers, led by The Australian, were insisting that tens of millions had been squandered on planning to build houses, on talking about building houses, on consulting about building houses and liaising with each other about it. No actual houses, as such, had been built. This was hotly denied by the Minister and the department, who used houses completed under other programs, redefinitions, hopes, expectations, plans, targets, timetables, anecdotes and blah, to insist that all was well.

Delay occasioned by resistance to FOI requests, based on a failure to follow current instructions, made it even harder to find the facts, as did the ultimate production of documents which, if amounting to the department and Minister's sum of knowledge on the matter, might account for her confusion.

At that stage, one might have said that nothing had been finished, but much was on the way. A year later, we learn that 'much' is not much.

Macklin remarks that the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program will deliver 750 new houses by 2013. It is supposed to effectively demolish and rebuild another 230 and do extensive refurbishments to 2500 others. Two construction companies, known as alliances, are then to show the recipients how a clever government agency can organise things. About one in every three people on the gravy train is black, and by my guess, these people would get about 10 per cent of the bonanza provided, via the department's management processes, to the alliance.

From time to time, COAG, or the Federal Government, will talk about the money spent as though the supposed recipients received it personally, and personally wasted it. At last guess, the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program was budgeting about $800,000 per ramshackle and environmentally unsuitable dwelling worth, were it at Forbes in NSW, or Echuca in Victoria, about $100,000.

In fairness the Minister goes on to say that on top of the seven new houses built, and the 73 under way, there have been 180 rebuilds or refurbishments completed with 110 under way. Even with these added, there is no effective progress; the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory, and the number of Aboriginal families, is increasing annually at many times the house-building achievement. The gap is widening.

This may also be so in relation to other closing-the-gap exercises, whether in getting Aboriginal children to school or in improving health profiles. But it is difficult to make a judgment, given that the Minister's approach to making a report to the people is by cutting and pasting material about education and health generally onto old press statements containing hopeful Indigenous-specific statements.

These are generally input-focused with nothing about outputs or outcomes. Perhaps that's because there are problems with statistics — even the Coordinator-General for Remote Indigenous Services is using false statistics — but that, at least, is a problem Macklin seems able to understand. She speaks proudly of allocating another $40 million or so to white folk so as to get better statistics on black folk.

Meanwhile, on the ground, words are being used to close the gaps. Here is some language from a recent poster summoning largely illiterate folk for consultations with the latest flock of white folk sent to save them:

'The Yuendumu RSD Local Reference Group will (with the support of Government) guide the development of the Yuendumu Local Implementation Plan (LIP). The Local Implementation Plan is the roadmap to get from where services and infrastructure are now to where they need to be in Yuendumu. Governments and local people need to make this plan together and then stick to it. The Yuendumu RSD Reference Group will guide the development of the Yuendumu Local Implementation Plan.'

With things so hunky dory, who needs a specific focus on Labor interests or concerns in a Federal Budget?


Jack WaterfordJack Waterford is Editor at Large of the Canberra Times

 



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Submitted comments

Spot on, Jack. But, realistically old chap, just more of the same old same old.
Since soon after the 1967 National Referendum on Indigenous Affairs we have had a continuous stream, more recently now swollen to a flood, of articles, investigations, books, reports, surveys, all telling us exactly what you have told us - namely that the general situation, with some notable but rare exceptions, is a national disgrace and progressively getting worse rather than better. Yet virtually nowhere in this tide of rhetoric do we find any real, practical, workable ideas or, more importantly, plans to fix it. "Throw more money at it" is about the only panacea offered.

It seems incontrovertible to me that three practical steps are now essential, indeed have been for some time, if we wish to make real progress:
(i) a new policy paradigm must be found to replace the "Exceptionalism" that currently underpins all government policy in this area;
(ii) serious consideration must be given to abolishing all government "Departments of Indigenous Affairs" (they are racist exercises anyway) so that indigenous Australians can be treated in a manner no different to any other citizen and can enjoy the same privileges and responsibilities as the rest of us;
(iii) a true 'National Gathering' of all involved parties - utilizing a new, different and effective participation process - must be convened so that we all, black and white, can together imagine the future and then plan for it.

John R. Sabine 18 May 2010

Keep talking it up, please Jack. I know it's not working . . and I don't know how to make it work. But at least YOU seem to be able to keep it being talked about. . . in plain language.
Thanks . . keep talking.

glen avard 18 May 2010

I have long held the wiew that a significant percentage of the public servants involved in indigenous affairs have a vested interest in NOT fixing the problems in this area for the simple reason that they would be out of a job if they did fix them.

Peter Golding 18 May 2010

I agree with you Jack and also with John Sabine. Unfortunately I can't see anything better coming from this government or from the liberal coalition who did no better when they were in office. We need a mass movement of concerned citizens to rise up and demand real action on this and aboriginal health issues.

Tony santospirito 19 May 2010

Ater my first 6 weeks of work in Katherine NT, originating in Victoria my observation is we white fellas need to work on our attitudes, institutional racism and white privilege that we do not even reflect on before we have the audacity to try and sort others out. We do need an uprising of good people who care.

Mary 23 May 2010

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