Forrest report ignores what works and why in Indigenous policy

Tony Abbott keeps appointing businessmen like Andrew Forrest, who have limited expertise in analysing evidence and developing social policy, to advise the government. AAP/Nikki Short

The Creating Parity report on Indigenous employment and welfare, released last week by mining magnate Andrew Forrest, is in much the same vein as Tony Shepherd’s recent Commission of Audit. Forrest and Shepherd are senior business figures with limited policy expertise. They have offered the Abbott government reports that expose their lack of experience in using appropriate evidence bases to shape the recommendations they offer.

When offered a range of responses to their inquiries, they allow their prejudices to override any ideas they didn’t like.

Forrest started with his philanthropic plus business models firmly in place. This led him to assume that what worked for him – as a privileged white male – would work for anyone else. Some personal experiences and childhood memories are fed into a set of recommendations. These proclaim the virtues of the current systems of education and attached services, but without really explaining why it hasn’t worked so far for most first people.

The result, as seen in the report, is Forrest’s supposedly unified set of proposals. However, these offer options that could well make things worse. They ignore both Indigenous strengths and what the rest of us have learnt, or need to learn.

Punitive paternalism has a long history of failure

Forrest makes the same mistakes that John Howard followed by Jenny Macklin made in Indigenous policy. They also assumed that the problems were endemic to Indigenous communities. More rapid change therefore required a solid assault on the too slow assimilative processes that were needed to ensure parity success in our terms.

This involved stricter control over the “deviant” behaviours that created disadvantage. The non-compliant behaviours that are blamed for continuing disadvantage needed “tough love” responses.

As prime minister Tony Abbott said, the government needs to discourage non-optimum decision-making by using financial penalties to force good personal health care, ordered and clean daily life and education attendance. This very 19th century model reflects the colonising model that created many of the current problems, albeit with less overt, more subtle racism.

Punitive policies had a very poor record of success as colonisers sought to enforce their version of civilisation on the colonised. The report’s approach led one commentator to write:

As it happens, Forrest’s report goes well beyond his brief, and advocates a return to the paternalistic and punitive welfare models of centuries past for not just Indigenous welfare recipients but hundreds of thousands of others. There are echoes of the ‘poor laws’ of British mercantilism in his proposal to punish parents for their children’s non-attendance at school. His proposal to extend ‘income management’ – that attempt at controlling how welfare recipients spend their money which has proven so divisive among Aboriginal communities – harks back to the trust accounts of past decades.

Many indigenous communities resent policies they see as a return to punitive 19th-century paternalism. AAP/Xavier La Canna

This step backwards fails to accept that recognising and respecting the civilisations and contributions of Indigenous peoples is necessary to unravel the damages of long-term cultural dominance, which strips away communal strengths and well-being.

The United Nations and others have recognised the long-term failures of programs to “civilise” first nations. Yet we have seen returns to paternalism in the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) – the NT Intervention – and other welfare changes.

The original NTER legislation created many racially targeted programs as “special measures” and suspended the Racial Discrimination Act. Labor’s subsequent de-racialisation of income management has not stopped the program despite little or no evidence it works.

Nowhere does the report make any serious acknowledgement of systemic exclusion of both Indigenous knowledge and cultural competencies. It offers no recognition of the value of language diversity and the maintenance of cultural identity.

Missing too from the report are the data that show the failure of many of the proposed programs such as anti-truancy measures. Having children at schools that do not meet their needs does not improve outcomes.

When all else fails, trying looking at the evidence

The report shows no signs that the authors are aware of the substantial recent research evidence that finds that flaws in how governments devise and deliver services are responsible for many program failures. They need to look at what works and what does not.

As a long-term policy wonk, with direct experience in ministers’ offices, advocacy groups, NGOs, bureaucracies and academic teaching of the process, I am researching the evidence of what works and often doesn’t work. As professorial fellow in the research unit of UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, my project involves collating documentation on why so many well-funded policies and programs fail to deliver their apparent good intentions.

Fortunately, the Closing the Gap agreements established a clearinghouse on such data with the highly reputable Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The AIHW is the government’s own collector of statistics and guardian of high standards. Since 2011, it has offered its meta-analyses of the results in many of the research and evaluation reports lodged by other government authorities like the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), academic and community institutions.

The AIHW publications sum up results in a series of publications on what works and, importantly, what does not.

Briefly, what works is bottom-up, culturally appropriate programs in partnership with – and not for – local groups for the long term. What doesn’t work is top-down, centrally decided, cookie-cutter models.

On these criteria the Forrest proposals would mostly fail. Despite recognising, in later sections, the importance of local elders in processes, he suggests local engagement but only if the locals adopt the centrally set criteria and delivery models.

Forrest dismisses oral cultures and languages, and all other learning that cannot be applied in job seeking. He ignores the importance of community and focuses on fixing individuals. It is a repeat of the recipes that Lutheran missionaries imposed on the young Noel Pearson, with a few updates.

Increasing numbers of research studies show the importance of a sense of agency to social well-being. There are no clear results that validate the policies that increase controls over people’s lives, such as Cape York, which has produced very limited improvements.

When I raise this lack of evidence, a frequent response is that “nothing works, so we had to do something”. However, the risk is that what is proposed is likely to make the disconnections worse, so these proposals are not an appropriate response. As we do have data on what works and what does not, the Forrest report needs to be totally rewritten to take the AIHW evidence into account.