I’ve posted over the fold a draft of a speech I’m delivering at a seminar being held tomorrow on indigenous policy in the wake of the recent Howard-Brough intervention in the Northern Territory.
In part it’s a more reflective version of the angry post I wrote here at Troppo on the day the policy was announced exactly a month ago, although it also contains some additional issues and observations.
I would be interested in any constructive feedback readers might have to offer.
When the recent federal intervention in Northern Territory indigenous affairs (the Howard-Brough plan) was first announced, it instantly polarized public opinion. Many appeared to take the view that, because child sexual abuse and extreme violence in indigenous communities were such drastic problems, and something needed to be done, then the Howard government should be given the benefit of the doubt and supported. Others reacted with suspicion given the Coalitions poor record on indigenous policy after 11 years in government and the remarkable coincidence in timing between the sudden interest and an imminent federal election. I have to confess I was in the second group. Nevertheless, it gives me no pleasure to observe that, almost exactly a month after it was first announced, the Howard-Brough plan gives every appearance of being mostly (though not entirely) just an expedient electorally-driven stunt which will do little to effect long-term positive improvements to endemic Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage, let alone ameliorate in any meaningful way the epidemic of child sexual abuse and family violence which was the purported pretext for federal intervention.
Although both Howard and Brough have asserted that they have assumed responsibility and are in it for the long haul, most of the initiatives announced to date are short-term expedients which will have little or no long term positive impacts. There have been no promises to provide greater financial or material resources in the long term, without which any emergency intervention is mostly pointless. Perhaps the Howard government is still formulating its longer term responses, and funding commitments will be announced soon. I certainly hope so. Unfortunately however, Federal Minister Mal Broughs comments on Monday evenings ABC Lateline program rather suggest otherwise. It appears that the Howard government has no intention whatever of assuming any meaningful long-term additional funding responsibility. Instead, the Howard-Brough plan operates on the premise that all the Commonwealth will be doing is sending in some AFP and interstate police, supported by troops, as well as evaluative medical teams, as a short term initiative until the NT government takes over its constitutional responsibilities. Here is what Brough said (speaking in the context of a similar offer to the WA government):
TONY JONES: Is the duration of such an operation like one that you are offering open-ended?
MAL BROUGH: Yes, it is. In the same way as it is in the NT, it’s open-ended until such times as appropriate long-term strategies are in place.
TONY JONES: And the funding as well? Is the funding open-ended, as well?
MAL BROUGH: Look, exactly what we’ve said in the Territory, we’re there for the long haul. We are not going to take over the responsibilities and the funding of all of the Territory and Western Australia’s constitutional responsibilities, but we are there until such time as they are fulfilled.
Thus, when Howard and Brough talk about being there for the long haul, they merely mean that they intend leaving short-term visiting police in place until the Territory government re-assumes responsibility and implements more permanent programs. However, as I will discuss a little later, the NT government has very limited capacity to fund additional or expanded indigenous programs, while the problems in indigenous communities are huge, complex and will be take large amounts of money and many years of determined, co-ordinated endeavour to effect real and lasting change.
Sending in medical teams to conduct comprehensive physical examinations of all indigenous children is a useful if modest step. By definition, however, it will have no long-term health effects in the absence of enhanced ongoing programs staffed by additional permanent doctors, nurses and health workers, which the Commonwealth is not offering to fund and the NT government cannot to any significant extent. Moreover, these health examinations are unlikely in themselves to detect more than a handful of additional cases of sexual abuse.
Similarly, squads of interstate police sent in for 6 months or so may have a short term positive effect on law and order in some especially dysfunctional remote communities, but will also have no long term effects in the absence of a permanent expansion in police numbers, which again the Commonwealth isnt offering to fund and the NT government cannot to a significant extent.
This is by no means the first time Territorians have experienced laura norder police blitzes on indigenous crime. Former CLP Chief Minister (and trusted Howard government adviser) Shane Stone famously implemented a program some years ago to monster and stomp indigenous drunks and vagrants. It had no measurable long term effect. The offenders in question are mostly hard-core alcoholics. A short-term police blitz does not stop their activities, it just displaces them for a while to towns or communities where police activity is less intense. As soon as the blitz ends the drunks return, and so does the violent crime. Ninety per cent of remote communities are already nominally dry, but such restrictions are ineffectual in the absence of both adequate permanent policing and sound alcohol rehabilitation programs. Only well funded and carefully designed programs (like the NT governments Living With Alcohol strategy) can combat indigenous alcohol abuse and the violence and community dysfunction it engenders. But the Howard government isnt offering to fund either more police or alcohol rehab programs.
Instead, Howard and Brough assert that the NT government must do so, while simultaneously asserting that the Martin government has been derelict in discharging its constitutional responsibilities:
MAL BROUGH: Well, clearly we intervened in the Northern Territory because (a) we have the constitutional capacity to do so and (b) we came to the conclusion – we being the Commonwealth – that there had been a total failing on the part of the Northern Territory Government to protect its citizens. That was brought out in the “Little Children are Sacred” report.
In fact, no Australian government has covered itself in glory in its conduct of indigenous policy, as measured by the plethora of appalling statistics in almost every area. However, that condemnation applies equally to the Howard government itself, which has been in power for 11 years, has vastly greater financial resources than the Territory government, and undoubted constitutional authority by virtue not only of the territories power in the Constitution (section 122) but also the race power (section 51(xxvi) which allows it to legislate for Aboriginal people as a result of the successful 1967 referendum. The condemnation also equally applies to state governments, and Brough even acknowledged elsewhere in his Stateline interview that the situation in indigenous communities in Western Australia, Queensland and some other states is every bit as bad as the Territory.
The assertion by Howard and Brough that the Martin government could and should be doing and spending much more in indigenous policy (especially law enforcement) is both glib and seriously misleading. The NT already spends more than twice as much and has more than twice as many police personnel per head of population as the Australian state average. But the Territory needs high police numbers, because serious crime is dispersed throughout a huge geographical area in many small and remote communities. Its a function of the Territorys geographical size (20% of Australias land mass), tiny population and the fact that almost 30% of that population is indigenous (compared with just 2% in most other parts of Australia) and indigenous crime rates are frighteningly high. The combination makes effective law enforcement an expensive nightmare. The Martin government announced a couple of years ago that it would recruit an additional 200 police (after police recruitment had been frozen under the former CLP government), but so far hasnt achieved that target mostly due to ongoing losses of existing police to poaching by interstate rival police forces. With Australian police deployed to trouble spots all over the world, and in an age of general full employment, the Territory government will certainly need to offer substantial incentives to attract more police to serve in the harsh conditions mostly encountered in remote indigenous communities. But that runs the risk of a budget blowout, as firemen, ambulance officers, nurses and teachers demand corresponding pay increases to serve in remote locations. Sadly, as all opposition politicians rapidly discover soon after winning power, the complex realities of government dont match the simplistic rhetoric of many media pundits. Governments cant simply wave a fiscal magic wand and solve complex, entrenched, interrelated problems like this.
The Territory is funded by Commonwealth Grants Commission formulae at a much higher rate than the more populated States, in large measure precisely because of its sparse population and high indigenous population. However, and contrary to some claims (including by disenchanted former Martin government adviser and academic Dr Rolf Gerritson), it appears that the Territory government does not under-spend on indigenous programs. As a recent Indigenous Expenditure Review by respected economists Saul Eslake and Professor Ken Wiltshire found:
In 2004-05, an estimated 49.7 per cent of the Northern Territory Government’s expenditure was related to its indigenous population.
An estimated 43.2 per cent of the Northern Territory Government’s revenue (from the Commonwealth) was related to its indigenous population over the same period.
In 2004-05, indigenous-related expenditure by the Northern Territory Government exceeded indigenous-related revenue by 6.5 per cent or about $175 million.
Indigenous-related expenditure exceeded a per capita share by 73 per cent and represents 2.44 times the per capita expenditure related to non-indigenous persons in the Northern Territory.
Despite the high level of expenditure, outcomes for indigenous Territorians against a wide range of indicators remained poor relative to those of non-indigenous Territorians.
Moreover, the Territory governments fiscal position (and therefore its ability to fund enhanced indigenous programs) is also severely constrained by the accumulated public debt from 23 years of government by the Coalition-affiliated Country Liberal Party. As this [see Powerpoint slide] graph shows, the Territorys net state debt is vastly higher than that of any other state or territory. It currently runs at around 8 per cent of GDP, at a time when the all states average is around minus 2 .i.e. most other states and territories have no net state debt at all, as a result of prolonged boom conditions and generous GST revenue.
By contrast, and again as the graph shows, the Territorys net state debt was about 3 times higher as a proportion of GDP than any other State or Territory (except Tasmania) when the Burke government lost office in 2001. The debt was incurred partly as a function of the need to remedy a deficit of basic infrastructure and services in the Territory at the time of self-government in 1978, but was also generated by a series of misconceived and financially disastrous white elephant infrastructure projects like the Trade Development Zone, Douglas-Daly project, Yulara Resort and the Darwin and Alice Springs Sheratons. As the graph also shows, the Martin government has adopted prudent fiscal policies since it assumed office, and net state debt has fallen steadily since 2001 (although again in considerable part due to GST revenue receipts).
Net state debt remains a major constraint on the ability of any Territory government to fund significant expansion of indigenous programs. So too does electoral realpolitik. Although 30% of the Territorys population is indigenous and much of our Aboriginal population suffers horrendous poverty and disadvantage which merit first priority on equity grounds, Territory elections are won and lost in Darwins northern suburbs. No Territory government would survive for very long if it attempted to spend much more than the current 49 per cent of total revenue on indigenous programs.
That isnt to deny that there are areas of waste and mismanagement in the NT governments current expenditure. One might argue, for example, that the interest burden on the $150 million or so borrowed for the Darwin Waterfront development could have been better spent. However, tempting though it is to decry a development that bears a disturbing similarity to CLP fiascos like Yulara and the TDZ, the $8 or 9 million per year in debt servicing costs that would have been saved by avoiding this questionable discretionary expenditure on the Waterfront project would not go very far towards remedying the massive problems in Aboriginal communities. A Territory government might be able to find an additional $10 million per year, perhaps even a little more, for indigenous programs through shifting priorities. It certainly should do so and should stand condemned if it doesn’t. But that sort of amount will scarcely make a dent in the scale of problems involved here.
The fiscal and political reality is that indigenous poverty and disadvantage (including alcohol abuse, child sexual abuse and community violence generally) can only be tackled if the Commonwealth is prepared to fund a greater effort. That is why we must not let John Howard get away with posturing and pretending to take decisive remedial action on the crisis in indigenous communities, when in reality its mostly just smoke and mirrors. That isnt to suggest that money is the sole determinant, or that indigenous communities and families themselves need not take greater responsibility for their own decisions and actions, or that mutual obligation strategies (as advocated by people like Noel Pearson) arent a critically important part of the policy mix. But significant increases in spending are unquestionably needed, to provide greater numbers of police, teachers, doctors, nurses and health workers on an ongoing basis, and to begin making inroads into the $1.5 billion housing backlog which currently sees 20 and even 30 people living in each house in more than a few remote communities.
Only the Commonwealth can fund such programs, and yet they form no part whatever of the Howard-Brough plan, indeed Brough explicitly disavows any intention or obligation to provide such additional funding. The measures he and Howard are implementing are avowedly short-term, designed to stabilize the situation. They may well do so. But what then, when the troops and interstate police go home in 6 months time? Recent arrests of child sex offenders in Kalumburu and Halls Creek in Western Australia illustrate that boosting law enforcement resources in remote communities can have a significant positive effect. But the enhanced police presence there, funded by the WA government in the wake of the Gordon Report, is permanent. It takes time for women and children to build up trust in local police and develop confidence that they will be protected if they lodge a complaint against a violent partner or community member. Six month police blow-ins from interstate will not create any such confidence.
Nevertheless, at least one aspect of the plan has potentially longer term implications. The announced policy of tying welfare benefit entitlements to school attendance and other behavioural changes may conceivably form a useful part of a comprehensive and effective program to achieve real improvements in remote communities. However, the benefits are likely to be negated, at least in the plans present announced form, by the complete failure of the Howard government to consult with indigenous people and communities and seek their support or at least understanding of the objective of attacking passive welfare dependency and engendering real commitment to the education and skills development without which genuine self-determination and economic independence can never be achieved.
The Howard governments peremptory imposition of tied welfare benefits in Territory indigenous communities stands in contrast to the process of consultation and local ownership of similar programs currently being introduced by Noel Pearson and his Cape York Institute in Hopevale and some other north Queensland communities, on which the Howard-Brough plan appears to be loosely based. I understand that the Galiwinku community on Elcho Island is also at a fairly advanced stage of discussion towards implementing a similar program linking welfare benefits to school attendance and other behaviours.
Simply imposing such measures universally and pre-emptively, without any of the hard work of patient persuasion that Noel Pearson and Djiniyini Gondarra have done, will most likely result in alienation and sullen, silent, passive resistance that will doom the measures to failure. Individual material incentives dont function the same way in a collectivist society where both benefits and burdens are shared as a result of kinship obligations that remain powerful even in the most dysfunctional communities.
The other aspect of the Howard-Brough plan which will certainly have significant long-term effects is the forced imposition of 5 year leases over community town areas, and the abolition of the permit system for entry to Aboriginal land. These appear to have little or no connection with the professed immediate goal of reducing child sexual abuse and violence in indigenous communities. Instead, they are ideological measures grounded in a neoconservative conviction (common in conservative thinktanks like the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies) that mainstreaming Aboriginal communities by forcing their integration or assimilation with the broader economy is the best way to achieve economic progress.
Is this conviction justified? And what are the legal and constitutional implications? I agree with Noel Pearson that welfare dependency is a central part of the malaise affecting Aboriginal communities, and that engaging with the broader economy and generating employment are critical steps in addressing these problems. Moreover, perhaps opening up access might facilitate the development of new wealth and job-creating enterprises in a few communities. In some communities, businesses related to tourism or mining may prove feasible. In most, no such opportunities exist. Businesses in small rural towns throughout Australia (not just indigenous communities) have been closing down progressively for 50 years or more, under the impact of a range of social and economic forces that no federal or state government has ever been able to reverse. Australia is one of the most urbanized nations in the world. There is no sensible reason to imagine that the trend will prove any different in indigenous communities, merely through removing the permit system and granting secure commercial leases to prospective investors. Indeed, the prospects for viable new enterprises are dimmer in most indigenous communities than in country Australia generally, especially while literacy and numeracy levels remain so low and a range of cultural factors militate against businesses which employ local people in Aboriginal communities being able to compete on a level playing field in the broader economy.
If there was a realistic prospect of stimulating the growth of productive, employment-generating enterprises in indigenous communities by stripping away Territory Aboriginal peoples basic property rights, it might be worth the sacrifice (although doing so without notice, consultation or informed consent would remain unconscionable). But no such prospect exists in any but a handful of communities. Few real jobs will ever exist in most remote communities, certainly not enough to overcome the blight of chronic boredom, hopelessness and welfare dependency which are the root causes of alcoholism, child sexual abuse, and endemic and horrific levels of violence. More likely, enterprise development strategies should concentrate on creating employment opportunities in Territory towns and cities, with flexible working hours and job sharing to facilitate regular travel back to home communities to maintain family and ceremonial commitments. Imagining that one can somehow create thriving, employment-generating business cultures in most remote communities, especially by merely abolishing the permit system and creating 5 (or even 99) year leases, is a misguided fantasy.
Given that removing the permit system is likely to make pedophile activity, drug and alcohol trafficking more rather than less difficult for police and other authorities to control, there seems no sensible reason for imposing such a measure. Although claims by some of a covert land grab are a little hyperbolic, the fact remains that the right to exclusive possession of land (i.e. the right to exclude others from access) is a central attribute of freehold title. John Howard could not implement this policy anywhere but the Territory, because it would trigger a claim for financial compensation as a result of the Commonwealths obligation under Constitution s51(xxxi) to give just terms when it acquires property rights from a resident of any State. That obligation does not protect Territory residents, indigenous or otherwise, a feature of Australias Constitution re-affirmed by the High Court as recently as 1998 in the Newcrest case.
Somewhat ironically, Aboriginal Territorians would not today be subject to having significant aspects of their basic property rights stripped away by the Howard government had their land councils not campaigned aggressively and successfully against Territory Statehood back in 1999. A parallel irony is found in the fact that these basic rights are being removed by a Prime Minister who boasted not so long ago that we will decide who comes here and the terms on which they come. Making such decisions is a right that all other Australian landowners enjoy, but which John Howard is about to remove from Aboriginal Territorians without any compensation. Compensation is being promised for the 5 year leases the Commonwealth is compulsorily taking over town areas, but not for the permanent removal of traditional owners rights to control access to those town areas.
Sadly, I doubt that a Rudd Labor government federally is likely to prove significantly more likely to commit to major increases in indigenous expenditure than the Howard government. It would be a mistake to regard Mr. Rudds rapid in principle endorsement of the Howard-Brough plan as merely an immediate pragmatic political response designed to avoid being wedged by John Howard. Rudd and many of his senior shadow Ministers are by nature and training fairly conservative technocrats themselves, and their attitudes to indigenous policy issues in government are likely to differ only marginally from those of the Howard government.
Consequently, if the Federal government will not and the NT government cannot fund substantial increases in indigenous expenditure, what major new policy initiatives (if any) are feasible? Here are two areas where initiatives could be adopted which would be likely to effect major positive change over time (especially in conjunction with mutual obligation-based policies to reduce passive welfare dependency and enhance education and skills development):
(1) Development of innovative, well-designed and more affordable modular housing designs for indigenous communities, with housing being built by one or more major enterprises owned by indigenous people in partnership with existing building companies and with seed funding provide by federal and NT government programs. A concerted attack on the backlog in indigenous housing in the Territory is the key to beginning to remedy many aspects of Aboriginal disadvantage, including child sexual abuse. A plan based on well designed, modular, prefabricated structures is likely to clear the backlog for a significantly lower cost than $1.5 billion, while also delivering housing more appropriate to indigenous lifestyles.
(2) A proposal by former Productivity Commission bureaucrat Stephen Rimmer for an Aboriginal Rights and Responsibilities Commission. It would be a formal evaluative body which would report to the Council of Australian Governments (and the public). Its remit would be to render the success or otherwise of Aboriginal programs more transparent by measuring their effects and reporting on them publicly. There are many indigenous programs run by federal and state governments and even local communities, and some have been quite successful. Yet there is no coherent structure for evaluating or learning from such initiatives or assessing how the more successful ones might be expanded and adapted for wider implementation. This lack of co-ordination or sound evaluative processes applied equally in the days of ATSIC and before that the old DAA/ADC federal bureaucracy.
Implementing measures like this, along with the 97 recommendations of the Wild/Anderson report “Little Children are Sacred”, which Howard and Brough used as a pretext for their intervention but have since completely ignored, would make inroads into child sexual abuse and many of the other dreadful problems that afflict so many indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and the rest of Australia. The Howard-Brough plan by contrast will achieve almost nothing of any lasting value. It has, however, at least dragged indigenous issues momentarily into the national spotlight, and that provides an opportunity for knowledgeable, articulate advocates like those present here today, to shame or persuade governments into embracing more meaningful programs. It is an opportunity we must embrace and capitalize on.