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Can Turnbull change course in Indigenous affairs?

Malcolm Turnbull explicitly chose to assume the mantle of his predecessor Tony Abbott as ‘prime minister for Indigenous affairs’. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Can Turnbull change course in Indigenous affairs?

The opening of the 45th parliament this week featured the now firmly established practice of an Indigenous smoking ceremony, and a Welcome to Country by Ngunnawal elder Tina Brown.

The occasion included speeches from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Both assured those present of their intentions to continue efforts to tackle Indigenous disadvantage.

On the lawns outside Parliament House the same morning, Indigenous elders and community leaders joined with Indigenous MPs in a demonstration calling for Turnbull to “meet with First Peoples”.

This simple request, displayed on the lawn surrounded by the “sea of hands”, reveals the extent to which many Indigenous people feel the government has failed to demonstrate good faith.

What’s gone wrong?

For many, relations between Indigenous Australians and the government are best described as being in a state of crisis.

Turnbull explicitly chose to assume the mantle of his predecessor Tony Abbott as “prime minister for Indigenous affairs”. However, the Coalition government’s record on Indigenous affairs has been poor.

The decision to move Indigenous Affairs into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet resulted in the relocation of 2,000 staff and a critical loss of policy expertise and longstanding connections with communities. This, along with an agenda that is more ideological than evidence-based, has arguably played a role in the failed implementation of many new initiatives.

The mismanagement of a new competitive funding scheme, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, and the substantial cuts to Indigenous funding in the 2014 budget, have both had a significant impact on services and communities across Australia. Many valued organisations closed their doors at the end of the last financial year.

The lack of progress in meeting the Closing the Gap targets on Indigenous disadvantage is attributable to misplaced priorities, funding cuts, and intermittent government attention.

The punitive “work for the dole” program that applies in remote communities has seen more penalties imposed than jobs created, and has resulted in participants being unable to afford to buy food after payments have been withdrawn. The Remote Schools Attendance Strategy has shown very patchy results despite significant expenditure focused on targeted schools.

Where there have been successes, they are barely acknowledged. For example, the highly successful Indigenous Rangers Working on Country program has struggled to attract funding commitments.

In more recent times

Turnbull has repeatedly ignored calls from Indigenous leaders to remove Nigel Scullion as Indigenous affairs minister.

Scullion’s relationship with key Indigenous organisations is very tense, and his grasp of detail in his portfolio is questionable. His inadequate response to the ABC Four Corners program revealing abuse of Indigenous juvenile detainees at the Don Dale centre was symptomatic of a lack of understanding of the real concerns of many Indigenous people.

The Coalition government’s selective engagement with Indigenous leaders and representatives has been widely criticised.

Scullion has repeatedly refused to meet with the elected leadership of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples; he dismissed it as “unrepresentative”. This is despite its organisational membership consisting of more than 185 peak bodies and Indigenous-controlled organisations employing and delivering services to Indigenous people across all states and territories, in addition to more than 8,500 individual members.

Turnbull took seven months after assuming office to meet with the National Congress. He has remained preoccupied with constitutional reform at the expense of other more pressing policy issues.

During the election campaign, the National Congress joined with more than 55 NGOs working in Indigenous health, human rights, education, disability, justice and legal services and child protection to launch the Redfern Statement. It demanded “meaningful engagement” with Indigenous people, and set out evidence-based action plans for key priority areas.

Significantly, it called for the restoration of funding in Indigenous affairs, and the creation of a new standalone Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs under Indigenous leadership.

Labor responded with a comprehensive policy document. But the Coalition did little to acknowledge the Redfern Statement and its demands until after the election, when Scullion described it as a “good read”, and announced his intention to hold a workshop with the leadership of the collaborating organisations.

A chance to seize

The Turnbull government has substantial work to do to repair relations with Indigenous Australians.

With the Redfern Statement as a starting point, there are real opportunities for a genuine change of direction in Indigenous affairs. Turnbull would be wise to seize these.

Conservatives within the Liberal Party and on the crossbench will offer resistance to positive change. However, it is notable that there are now five Indigenous MPs, who all have strong media profiles and a broad range of experience, and a clear interest in working together across party divisions.

The campaign to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution risks losing momentum. But polls show there is positive support among voters for the change. Careful advocacy could see the conversation extended to include the potential for treaties, seen by many Indigenous people as the basis for more substantial engagement and respect in the Australian polity.

Most importantly, Turnbull should draw on the expertise and wisdom within the experienced and increasingly politically informed leadership of Indigenous organisations.

These advocates know their own policy areas well, understand the complex nature of the problems they work with on a daily basis, are well aware of what works, and are able to advocate strongly for the interests and needs of their own communities. Their advice is far more valuable than that of the handpicked Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, or even the public servants in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In many aspects of Indigenous policy, the government would be well-advised to move out of the way and let community-based organisations dictate priorities and goals themselves. Doing so would recognise their place not just as stakeholders in policy consultation, but as representatives of the First Peoples, and deserving of respect.

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