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Indigenous policy takes a generation to change … what will the next 30 years hold for communities? yaruman

The 30-year cycle: Indigenous policy and the tide of public opinion

Last week, the Stronger Futures legislation passed through the senate - laws which extend the Northern Territory Intervention for another 10 years. The relative merits and faults of the legislation aside, equally noteworthy is the policy’s duration. It was Howard who initiated the Intervention in 2007, but there is a longer tradition at play here of public opinion shaping and forming Indigenous policies.

From protection to the Intervention

Such is Indigenous affairs that we can divide the past century into policy eras.

The first is known as the protection era, spanned the period from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Ostensibly based on the need to protect Aboriginal people from the ravages of settlers, native police and disease, Aboriginal people were made wards of the state. Most aspects of life were subject to institutional controls, including segregation into mission dormitories, indentured employment into the pastoral industry, relocations of whole families, and forced removal of children.

This was followed by the assimilation era from the end of World War II to the late 1960s, when Indigenous people were expected to advance and be absorbed into mainstream society, including through citizenship. Some of the institutional controls were relaxed but others remained. Traditional cultural practices were discouraged and mission and government settlements became hubs of modernisation, where Christian values, employment, education, housekeeping and family norms were taught.

A seismic policy shift occurred with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, ending almost 23 years of conservative party rule. During his three-year term, Whitlam heralded in the self-determination era, with its flagships polices of land rights, decentralised governance and outstations. The policy envisaged autonomous de-colonised self-governing entities managing their lives in culturally appropriate ways.

Following Whitlam’s ignoble dismissal, the Fraser Liberal government tinkered with the policy over its seven year term but left the basic cut and thrust unchanged. It was not until the 13 years of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments that much of the innovation and change in self-determination played out, including native title and the bold self-governance initiative of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC). Following its election in 1996, the Howard Liberal government set to work winding back the policy, culminated in the closure of ATSIC in 2005.


I have long wondered why the Fraser Government did not wind back self-determination, to the conservative assimilation policies that preceded Whitlam, and have largely remained a stalwart of conservative policies since. Almost 40 years later, I think similar forces are at play with the Rudd and Gillard government “steadying the wheel” of the Intervention, much to the cries of alarm from rights advocates and the Labor Left.

There is something else at play here, beyond expressions of Indigenous disadvantage, evidence and political principle.

An important factor in why the Fraser Government did not wind back self-determination was that public sentiment had moved on. Similarly, the Gillard government has felt the momentum of public opinion as it has worked out what to do with the Intervention. Damming reports of alcohol-fuelled violence and child neglect in remote communities continued to dominate public attention. The train of public opinion has left the station.

In his recent book Belonging Together, Patrick Sullivan proposes that the current policy period be coined “normalisation”, with its “intention to re-engage the State with its Aboriginal people and normalise their relations with their communities and with the wider population”.

Its flagship policies are increased government engagement, income management, stabilisation, mainstreaming, and the catch cries “closing the gap” and “real jobs”. Long gone are the institutional controls, but back are some of the modernisation themes from the earlier assimilation era.

The cycle of public opinion

Looking back across the self-determination era of old and the normalisation era to date, there appears to be a pattern that is repeating. Despite their political differences, ruling governments find themselves beholden to similar points in a cycle of public opinion.

First is the reformist government that brings in the change (Whitlam and Howard). Then there is the consolidating government which tinkers but keeps the main policy thrust (Fraser and Rudd/Gillard). This is followed by the return of the implementing government which deepens and then is perceived to overreach to the next tipping point (Hawke/Keating and perhaps Abbott?). And around the 30 year anniversary, there is a shift in public opinion which heralds in a new policy era.

According to this past pattern, we can speculate that we are approaching the mid-point of the normalisation era.

The Stronger Future legislation has signalled bipartisan support to at least 2022. And whatever effects remote communities are now feeling from normalisation, when the Liberal Party next returns to power there may be deeper reforms to come.

As the originators of the policy, the Liberal Party will be the ones to be cast as overreaching, until there is a new tipping point in public opinion. Then a new reformist Labor government will herald in a new policy era of yet unknown dimensions, possibly with elements of self-determination recast.

The 30-year metronome

Of course, the past is no predictor of the future, and there are many other competing tensions at play. I do not wish to gloss over the depth of human need or evidence supporting different alternatives. Nor the competing political principles in the triangle of equality, guardianship and choice, as described by ANU’s Will Sanders.

My point is that Indigenous affairs policy reform is strongly influenced by a pendulum of public opinion, on an approximate 30-year metronome. A potent policy driver to disadvantage in remote Aboriginal communities is what other Australians think of that disadvantage. The residents of these communities are not sufficient in number or political alignment to constitute a significant political force at the ballot box.

Similar in a way to asylum seekers, their plight captures the attention of the public, which politicians are beholden to. The clients of Indigenous affairs policy include other Australians, and 30 years is about the limit of their memory.

Policy powerfully determines what happens on the ground in remote Aboriginal communities, often in unintended and surprising ways. No matter how well policy is conceived, delivery on the ground is where it counts, and where it consistently fails.

It helps to understand that many of the drivers of Indigenous affairs policy do not derive from the places they are intended to serve. Some do, but not all. And we may have to wait another 20 years before policy is seriously reassessed.

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