Explainer: Indigenous policy and the 2013 federal election

Neither party should lose sight of Indigenous issues ahead of the federal election. AAP

With the federal election in our sights, we are reminded of the long journey ahead in addressing past wrongs and present challenges for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

Historically, the similarities outweigh the differences when comparing the positions of the two major parties on Indigenous issues, and the current policy approach is remarkably bipartisan.

NT intervention

Most obvious among these policies is the controversial Northern Territory intervention in remote communities, introduced by the Howard government in 2007. It was encouraged by the ALP in opposition under Kevin Rudd and then continued in government.

In 2012, the Gillard government extended the policy for another decade with the Stronger Futures legislation, focusing on employment, education, community safety and policing, alcohol management and welfare payment income management.

Observers protested the government’s discriminatory, punitive measures and the lack of meaningful consultation with the targeted communities. From the opposition benches, the Coalition criticised implementation aspects but has broadly supported all measures.

Closing the gap

Labor’s second important Indigenous policy is the Closing the Gap Strategy. Originally negotiated by Rudd in 2007-08 through the Council of Australian Governments, the strategy is primarily implemented by the state and territory governments under National Partnership Agreements.

The six target areas covering health, education and employment reflect federal priorities but are generally state responsibilities. Progress has been limited so far, with increased pre-school access and infant mortality rates overshadowed by poor NAPLAN results and fluctuating employment participation.

Nevertheless, as Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin has argued, real results will only be achieved with a long-term commitment made by all levels of government and guaranteed funding which goes beyond the life of each government’s electoral cycle.

The Coalition has supported these targets, and committed to continuing to develop the Australian Employment Covenant and GenerationOne. Over the weekend, opposition leader Tony Abbott pledged A$45 million for the GenerationOne scheme, which provides for training and employment for Indigenous persons.

Constitutional recognition

Another policy area with significant bipartisan support is the planned referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians as the First Peoples in Australia in the Constitution. Opposition leader Tony Abbott is firmly in favour of the vote and in a notable break with Coalition policy under former prime minister John Howard, he recently praised the symbolism of Rudd’s apology and Paul Keating’s Redfern speech.

Abbott acknowledged that:

…practical and symbolic reconciliation are two sides of the same coin.

Indigenous land and developing the North

The size and potential of the Indigenous land estate has long been an area of contention. The intractability of the native title system has slipped off the policy agenda for all but the Greens, however both major parties support the funding of conservation activities on Indigenous land on declared Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs).

In one of the few detailed policy announcements from the Coalition to date, the policy for developing Northern Australia promises to deliver investment in education, employment, health and infrastructure, along with increased migration, but pays little heed to Indigenous priorities in the region. In a tone reminiscent of the Howard era, the Coalition notes with disapproval the “red tape” faced by mining companies and other commercial interests seeking access to Indigenous land.

The Labor party has announced a similar plan to develop the Territory but no details have been released.

Coalition policy: new engagement?

Abbott is noted for his passionate concern for Indigenous issues. Annually visiting remote communities, particularly in Cape York, Abbott demonstrates an unusual commitment to understanding Indigenous perspectives. His closeness to socially conservative Indigenous leaders Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine has been widely noted.

While announcing the Liberal Party’s Indigenous affairs policy ahead of the election, Abbott named Mundine as the Chair of his proposed Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, which will “focus on practical changes to improve the lives of Aboriginal people”.

This hand-picked body looks very similar to the Howard government’s National Indigenous Council, and marks a departure from the Labor government’s pledge to support “community-led initiatives” and encourage Indigenous leadership at the community level.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has a close relationship with prominent Indigenous figures like Warren Mundine - will this affect his policies on Indigenous issues if he wins government? AAP/Alan Porritt

In a speech to the Sydney Institute in March, Abbott reconfirmed the 2010 Coalition election commitment to bring Indigenous affairs under the prime minister’s portfolio, with a dedicated Minister for Indigenous Affairs, marking a “new level of engagement” for government.

The opposition’s shadow Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion explains that this will improve cross-portfolio coordination, with oversight from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Coalition’s current focus on budget restraint may raise concerns about Indigenous-specific programs future and government-funded organisations. It has criticised wasteful spending and targeted state and territory governments for inefficient policy implementation.

Scullion challenged the ongoing government funding for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which was established by Labor to engage in consultation and policy advocacy. The Coalition promised to “overhaul” the Indigenous Land Corporation and Indigenous Business Australia.

Unexplored issues

Most Indigenous affairs funding (an estimated 78% of expenditure) is allocated through mainstream programs, rather than Indigenous-specific programs. Indigenous Australians are more intensive users of mainstream services on a per capita basis, having greater needs in terms of health, employment, education and housing.

Mainstream policy initiatives of the current Labor government in the lead-up to the election - such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Better Schools (Gonski) funding program - may have significant implications for Indigenous Australians.

Important issues also remain unexplored in Indigenous policy. As both parties focus resources on remote communities, the 75% of Indigenous Australians living in regional and urban parts of Australia are neglected. Statistical inequality, as observed in the Productivity Commission’s reports on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, cannot be addressed without increased concentration on the social and economic disadvantage of many Indigenous peoples living in urban areas.

Closing the Gap absorbs much focus in funding terms and reporting for Indigenous Australians. It reflects priorities determined by governments, and neglects what is important to Indigenous communities. There is a need to consult with the communities for policies to reflect the needs and priorities of Indigenous communities.

Indigenous policy is notorious for its complex delivery structures with multiple agencies working across different levels. This complexity means that there is a lack of transparency in terms of actual expenditure.

Inconsistent data collection makes it impossible to know whether funding has been spent or if it has had the intended impact. In a 2010 confidential report to Cabinet, the Department of Finance observed the “dismally poor” outcomes despite substantial expenditure due to duplication and poor coordination, threatening Indigenous policy effectiveness across all levels.

Governments of all parties at all levels have a responsibility to address these concerns and create better policy for Indigenous Australians.