Lost in the wilderness

Aboriginal affairs has moved a long way since John Howard won office in 1996, though whether forwards or backwards is arguable. Who would have thought that the abolition of the major structure of Aboriginal involvement and participation in decision making would occur without fuss or controversy, least of all from the Labor Party? Indeed, that Labor would actually anticipate the policy? And who would have expected that its replacement—‘mainstreaming’ and a whole of government approach—would be determined without any mechanisms for establishing accountability either to Aborigines or the wider community?

Aborigines have, for too long, been portrayed as the victims of government policies, tossed like corks in the ocean of a wider politic. Yes, politicians will do whatever they can get away with. But the fate of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and 30 years of Aboriginal affairs policies is equally a result of the words, actions and omissions of Aboriginal leaders. That many people, including Aborigines, see as much opportunity as risk in the new arrangements reflects both a failure within Aboriginal politics, and stupidity outside it.

The failure is not simply that those at the top chose unsuitable men to lead, or became so lost in the thicket of minding their own positions that they ignored the plight of Aboriginal communities. Nor is it just ATSIC’s failure to become a viable forum, to plan for Aboriginal development, or to wield the necessary resources. ATSIC as a polity never developed an idea beyond a slogan, nor were the slogans new. At a regional level it devised some systems for sharing resources, and some partnership role in setting priorities, but this capacity emanated from agendas written by others or by history. ATSIC was never able to compel governments to provide services taken for granted by the wider community. John Howard was responsible for progress in this area, without prompting from ATSIC.

The leaders of ATSIC failed to be articulate spokesmen and women, whether to governments, the wider population, or, perhaps most damningly, to Aborigines themselves.

This sealed the fate of ATSIC, even if there was a mood in some quarters that the organisation was so tame (and pre-occupied by its own shenanigans) that Aboriginal affairs had ceased to be a political problem. Yet even the Howard Government is impatient with the lack of results in Aboriginal affairs.

It is frustrated that much of the ‘action’ has been about secondary issues. There has been little attention to entrenched disadvantage, the quality of services in communities, the capacity of agencies to make much difference or the tendency of representatives to luxuriate in the disadvantage rather than change it. The big issues concern the active involvement of Aboriginal people themselves; getting kids to go to school, addressing community violence, taking charge of structures, and becoming agents for their own health. Rhetoric and symbolism—manifest in the stolen children debates, native title disillusions, or the flowery end of the reconciliation debate—are not enough. It was not the government that first encountered frustration at the grandstanding of ATSIC members. It had long been experienced by Aborigines themselves—one reason why they have been generally unmoved by ATSIC’s fate.

Seemingly it is Liberals rather than Labor members, who care about improving Aboriginal conditions. What Michael Wooldridge did in Aboriginal health will likely stand as the only thing for which he deserves credit. Brendan Nelson has visited more Aboriginal communities than anyone in Labor apart from Warren Snowdon—the only man who thinks that saying something positive about Aborigines won’t lose votes. David Kemp, generally thought a Liberal hard man, is woefully wet on Aboriginal affairs (and multiculturalism). Tony Abbott cares. Even John Howard recognises that while there are no votes in it, the state of affairs calls urgently for new approaches.

Howard has been urging the Council of Australian Governments to adopt joint initiatives on Aboriginal issues. Basic service provision in Aboriginal communities—water, sewerage, municipal services, housing, education, health care and freedom from violence—are primarily matters for state and local government. It is not the Commonwealth’s primary duty to provide such schemes because other levels of government have failed to do so. Beyond this, Commonwealth departments have rarely had their acts together where the policy of one agency often runs contrary to others. The Commonwealth has established pilot
schemes around Australia, each under the charge of a different Secretary, to promote planning, programs and action. Secretaries have been told that their bonuses depend on success.

The shift has been lightning fast. Cabinet decided national ATSIC had to go. The federal minister, Amanda Vanstone (no leader in any field of government thinking) came to Cabinet with minimalist proposals to put this into action. Virtually all of Cabinet rejected it quickly and emotionally. But there was no fallback, or more extensive proposal. Cabinet decided instead on some new principles, without the faintest idea of how they might be carried out. The politicians and bureaucrats are looking for constructive ideas. What is not clear is how these may be evaluated or how Aboriginal opinion is included in decision making. No one will be thinking much about it pending the election, and it’s unlikely that Labor will think it politically advantageous to raise the issue.     

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of The Canberra Times.



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