Indigenous policy: be compassionate, be brave

Acknowledging and honouring the humanity of others is the first step to a high-expectations relationship. AAP/Tony Bartlett

Why do we keep spending billions of dollars in Indigenous communities with so few results? It’s because we don’t have a high expectations relationship between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Setting up this relationship isn’t as hard as you might think.

There are some profoundly fundamental aspects of such a relationship which are easily understood by many decent Australians.

Ask not what you would do to them

How do you start a high expectations relationship? Acknowledge and honour the humanity of others. This fundamental first step in a relationship does two things.

It shows you think the other person is worthy of that “fair go” that we hold dearly as Australian rhetoric. It also shows you think the person is capable of lifting themselves, given the right opportunities to do so.

It defies human logic to imagine we can achieve positive outcomes if we dishonour the humanity of others by doing things “to them” not “with them”; by dishonouring Indigenous men by casting them all as paedophiles, drunks and wife bashers; by dishonouring Indigenous women and men by suggesting we are “empowering” them by making the decisions for them about which shops they can spend their money in.

Honouring the humanity of others by showing we believe in their sense of capacity and worth is the very basis of a productive relationship. Positive outcomes can almost be guaranteed.

Reach out; connect

As a school principal I always set out to connect with the humanity of Aboriginal children and parents. This was regardless of the complexities of their situation, and even if they were coming to the relationship somewhat hostile. Clearly I was paid to be in the relationship and it was incumbent upon me to reach out positively.

As we keep reaching out in an effort to connect with others’ humanity, eventually they reach to us. Together a positive partnership is possible.

As we connect at such a level we take our work more seriously and more personally. In a school, when we make our work personal the question shifts from “What do we do with this child?” to “What would I want done if this was my child?”

This should be no different at a community level. In a high expectations relationship where we take our work seriously and make it personal, the question shifts from “What do we do with these people?” to “What would I want done if these were my people?”

If we can connect with each others’ humanity we come to understand that Aboriginal people are Australia’s people. At this point a high expectations relationship can emerge.

Be fair, but firm

A high expectations relationship requires policies and processes that are both fair and firm.

Being fair in a relationship means taking time to observe and acknowledge the strengths of an individual or community. This enables us to contemplate ways of supporting, developing and embracing existing capacity, as opposed to assuming it is not there in the first place.

Being firm in a relationship means being prepared to challenge and intervene at times when individuals or communities are clearly not exercising their responsibilities appropriately.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when we only set about supporting and developing, without the courage to challenge and intervene.

This approach is marked by politicians great at issuing media releases to say how much money they are spending, but hopeless at saying what tangible outcomes are achieved, apart from a few anecdotes here and there.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when the only strategy we deploy is intervention, without a belief in individual and community strengths worth enabling and investing in. You’ll see politicians whipping uninformed electorates into frenzy, enabling gross amounts of expenditure on clumsy policies and programs that deliver little or no return, and ultimately exacerbating ill feeling toward Indigenous Australians.

A relationship is anchored by high expectations when we have the compassion to be fair, to acknowledge strengths and enable them when we can. But we must also have the courage to be firm, by challenging and intervening when we need to.