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Indigenous Australians have always done plenty to try to improve their lives. AAP/Marianna Massey

Look up: how policy gaps and failure blind us to what’s going on in Indigenous affairs

This week, the ABC has featured stories of Indigenous innovation, creativity and boldness that are all too often overlooked. These have included Aunty Pearl Slater teaching art and checking in with new mums and their newborns; Miranda Edwards running a childcare service aiming to give the best early education to Indigenous kids; and Sandra Anderson leading Bremer State High to listen properly to their students’ families about what’s needed to provide meaningful education.

These stories come after a recent call by prominent Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt to honour invisible work undertaken by Aboriginal women tackling domestic violence.

Behrendt is right to push back on the narratives that seek to further isolate marginalised peoples. Indigenous Australians have always done plenty.

In contrast, the Productivity Commission’s Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, released in November, presents a different picture – one of gaps.

Despite the 3,558 pages of number-crunching, socioeconomic indicators and a glossy finish, the report does not capture anything close to the humanness of Miranda, Sandra and Aunty Pearl. It also does not capture the raft of policies implemented to make their lives and others’ even harder.

Concerning here is not just how the report focuses on deficit and gaps, but how it fails to “look up” and extend its analysis to the government’s ideology, which underpins the failures of its policies. It ignores the enduring will of settler society to continue to colonise.

The narrative from the report is pernicious. The statistics weave a horrible story that legitimates interventionist approaches by government and continues to deny the agency of Indigenous people – except for the focus on negatives.

It also flagrantly looks past the reality that Indigenous people have always sought to improve their lot – just as Aunty Pearl, Miranda and Sandra have done.

This is what scholars such as Jon Altman have called a neo-assimilationist ideology – coming into effect from the Howard government era onwards — which formed a second wave of colonisation of Indigenous societies and spaces.

John Howard himself declared that Indigenous self-determination had failed; that letting Indigenous people as individuals and collectives have agency was what had stopped them from (properly assimilating and) being successful.

Howard abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the successful Community Development Employment Program, and launched the militaristic Northern Territory Emergency Response in communities across the NT.

Since then, waves of policies from successive Coalition and Labor governments have followed Howard’s paternalistic lead. This has created further impediments to thousands of Indigenous peoples doing plenty. Here are a few such policies.

The Indigenous Advancement Strategy

In 2014, much of the A$4.8 billion relied on by Indigenous sector organisations was put to tender. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy forced organisations, many small and unfamiliar with such processes, to apply in a competitive funding process.

Indigenous applications constituted only 40% of the total and a smaller 26% of successful grants. The average size of grants was $663,000, much less than the average sought of $2.8 million. This is significant: many organisations are already “running off the smell of an oily rag”.

Having only partial funding will severely limit these bodies’ ability to undertake the frontline work needed. The impacts of this debacle are still resonating; many Indigenous and community-based organisations have had to shut up shop.

Cashless Debit Card

Why mining magnate Twiggy Forrest’s proposal to expand the income management regime was acted on, even after the government commissioned a comprehensive multi-year independent evaluation of New Income Management in the NT, is puzzling.

This research provided conclusive evidence that the compulsory income management regime in the NT did not make a difference to its stated trial goals of reducing welfare dependency and fostering self-reliance. The researchers were even concerned that dependence was being further perpetuated.

So, now there is another “trial” – the Cashless Debit Card trial in the East Kimberley and Ceduna. The legislation to start the trial passed with bipartisan support in 2015. The trial quarantines 80% of welfare in trial sites to promote “socially responsible behaviour”.

Despite the government claiming early successes, based on shoddy methodology and anecdotal evidence from selected individuals, the card is causing social havoc in trial sites. It forces families further into poverty because access to cash has been massively reduced.

Cash is critical for survival in remote Australia: it is a key element of the sharing economy, one of the strengths of Aboriginal kinship and sociality.

Community Development Program

The Productivity Commission report noted slight employment improvements. However, it overlooked the remote employment policy, the Community Development Program.

This policy replaced the Community Development Employment Program, which helped communities meet their own employment, enterprise and community development needs. In its place is a distinct work-for-the-dole scheme. More than 29,000 Indigenous people have been placed in it since 2015; they now have to meet activity tests that aren’t regionally or culturally appropriate.

Under the program in 2015-16, 146,000 financial penalties were applied to 34,000 participants, compared to 104,000 penalties applied to 750,000 job-active participants in non-remote Australia. At a 33:1 comparative rate, poor Indigenous Australians are penalised for non-participation in a program they are resisting for being unsuitable for their circumstances and inferior to what operated before.

Regional services reform

This initiative from the Western Australian government fell out from the row with the federal government about who is responsible for funding the “lifestyle choices” of Indigenous people living on country.

Instead of closing down communities, the regional services reform roadmap includes the provision of services to remote locations based on their “productivity”, linked mainly to population size.

Defunding is threatened for those Indigenous communities deemed “unproductive” or “unviable”. But this overlooks how many non-Indigenous settlements in remote Australia are heavily subsidised by governments.

This has significance, given many Indigenous people in remote communities have cultural ties to country that are fundamental to their well-being. The defunding of basic services will make it next to impossible for people to stay on their ancestral lands.

What’s next?

The Productivity Commission reported on a series of indices. This reflects the dominant Western obsession with numbers.

But the numbers reported the way Indigenous people are shut out of their own narrative and stop us from asking important questions about which numbers we report on. And why aren’t we casting the magnifying glass back on ourselves as the perpetrators rather than ameliorators of deep Indigenous disadvantage?

The author would like to thank Jon Altman, Sarouche Razi and Raymond Orr for comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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