For the first time a federal election campaign is coinciding with National Reconciliation Week – May 27 to June 3.
One hopes this coincidence might spark some serious policy focus on Indigenous affairs. So far, it has been notably absent during the early weeks of the long election campaign.
No room for policy complacency
The Coalition government has fundamentally altered the architecture of Indigenous policymaking and delivery since 2013. It:
centralised most federal Indigenous-specific programs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet;
launched an Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which focused mainly on education, jobs, community safety, capability, culture and remote Australia.
Somewhat surprisingly for a conservative government that highlighted the need for practical measures, it has focused on symbolism. This has included prioritising constitutional recognition, and Tony Abbott crowning himself the prime minister for Aboriginal affairs.
In December 2015, the Productivity Commission showed that progress has been very mixed. Little progress has been made in closing gaps for life expectancy. There has been an increase – rather than decrease – in employment gaps.
And the eighth Closing the Gap report showed the “gaps” are not closing; the only economic indicator of employment is widening.
The current policy framework is failing in both practical and symbolic terms. Statistical disparities are not being eliminated. And the road to constitutional recognition is blocked by the inability to articulate a palatable question, let alone put that question to the Australian people.
Redistribution, representation, recognition
So, what Indigenous policy proposals should Australia’s major political parties adopt?
I look to tackle this question by adopting American political theorist Nancy Fraser’s “scales of justice” framework. She proposes a three-dimensional account that encompasses redistribution, representation and recognition.
There has never been any objective assessment by any Australian government or political party of the redistribution that might be required to redress historical neglect and past wrongs on an equitable needs basis.
Instead, there have been arbitrary funding allocations and cuts. The 2014-15 budget reduced Indigenous-specific funding by A$530 million without clear explanatory rationale. This resulted in cuts to legal, violence prevention and Aboriginal childcare services.
Alongside such cuts, allocation processes through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy have become increasingly opaque. These processes are managed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which lacks capacity in program delivery.
A Senate inquiry recently critiqued the Indigenous Advisory Council’s tendering process. It has created unjustified upheaval for numerous Indigenous community-based organisations, including health services.
Neither major party has committed to fully restore the lost funding. But Labor has committed A$100 million to support Indigenous students to succeed at school.
Labor has also promised to tackle the justice gap and implement a justice reinvestment approach to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates. And it will commit an additional $200 million over five years to 2021 to double the number of rangers employed under the successful Working on Country program first introduced in 2007.
If the Turnbull government’s paltry 2016-17 budget commitments are indicative, there will be limited redistribution from the Coalition, irrespective of need.
The Abbott government discontinued funding for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. In part, this was because the Commission of Audit erroneously argued that it duplicates existing Indigenous representative advisory bodies.
But given Labor created the National Congress – which has 8,400 individual members and 180 organisational members – it seems likely an incoming Shorten government would again fund it, with Greens support.
There is consensus among all political parties on the need for constitutional recognition. However, the precise form this will take remains unclear. Only the Greens seem to take a strong position:
The Australian Constitution must recognise the prior and ongoing occupation and sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their right to land, water and resources.
This is a strong notion of recognition, which has links to the emerging native title reality. It is likely anathema to constitutional conservatives.
To have any livelihood prospects in the face of declining employment in places where there are already few jobs, forms of appropriate development will require property rights alongside native title rights. This possibility has been raised in a comprehensive review of the native title system sought by Labor in government.
The report’s recommendations have languished. Would a Shorten Labor government take them seriously?
What should be done?
In the next decade or so there will be growing diversity and difference both within the Indigenous population and between Indigenous and settler Australians.
A new policy framework that supports livelihood improvement and reduced dependence is urgently needed. This is preferable to a framework that promotes imagined statistical equality, like Closing the Gap.
The new framework needs at its core a refunded and revitalised institution of representation at national and regional levels. And it needs a new department dedicated to Indigenous Australians.
The principle of negotiation – not tokenistic consultation – must be embedded in the new approach. It should be inclusive of diverse Indigenous community perspectives and aspirations. International evidence indicates this is essential for success.
In any case, the state is failing to deliver. This is despite predictions that centralised state-managed service delivery would be more efficient and effective than community-controlled delivery.
Evidence of increased poverty, especially in remote communities, needs to be innovatively tackled to support localised community development and service delivery, and to stop the unwarranted closure of remote communities on Indigenous lands.
Significant financial resources that have been allocated to unproductive projects like income management need to be redirected to more productive development purposes.
And the billions of dollars held by Indigenous-specific institutions like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Account and the Aboriginals Benefit Account in the Northern Territory need to be actively deployed to address Aboriginal priorities rather than sit passively under government control.
The triple processes of reconciliation, recognition and treaty-making have become overpoliticised and bureaucratically stage-managed. Which party will support all three to open up future possibilities that accord with Indigenous aspirations?