Readers with an interest in NT politics might care to tune into the streaming audio version of this morning’s ABC Local Radio morning program, where (among others) yours truly discussed a sudden outbreak of ill-discipline in the Martin government backbench. A memo from indigenous MLA Matthew Bonson to his 4 Aboriginal colleagues has been leaked to the media, in which Bonson reflected on widespread unhappiness with the Martin government in the Aboriginal community and touted a joint demand that Chief Minister Clare Martin hand over the Indigenous Affairs portfolio to an indigenous MLA.
You can hear my contribution here (Real Player) or here (Windows Media Player), starting at the 9:30 minutes point of a 30 minute audio (the whole program is worth listening to if you’ve got the time). I also reflect briefly on federal Health Minister Tony Abbott’s call in an opinion piece in this morning’s SMH for a “new paternalism” in the administration of remote indigenous communities.
Update – News Online carries the predictable Pavlovian federal Labor and Greens reaction to Abbott’s “new form of paternalism” remark. Abbott would no doubt be pleased; the dog whistle worked again (to mix a metaphor). However, if we read behind the calculated cynicism of his “paternalism” rhetoric, Abbott’s basic point is quite a sensible one. Board or committee members of Aboriginal councils and associations frequently (maybe even usually) lack a clear understanding of their role, and in particular the fact that a board generally does not interfere in the day-to-day management of the enterprise.
There are some whitefella organisations I have advised that also don’t understand this principle (not to mention some blogosphere commentators about the ABC Board). But it’s more serious in Aboriginal communities, because voluntary community associations fulfil functions that usually involve administration of hundreds of thousands of dollars and the very basic wellbeing of a vulnerable community. Boards or committees frequently oscillate between boredom and non-attendance at meetings (even when offered very generous “sitting fees”), and interference in the day-to-day management of even relatively well run organisations. This interference all too often implements or perpetuates decisions involving cronyism, patronage and even outright corruption. Employed managers usually have no viable choice but to resign or take the line of least resistance when subjected to such demands. Some white managers are actively complicit in such behaviour or even initiate it.
I certainly wouldn’t have any problem with federal government imposition of an accountability structure on Aboriginal communities that ensured that boards and committees understood and adhered to their proper role of policy and overall budgetary oversight, together with decisions on hiring and firing employed managers, though with carefully designed protections to ensure that managers could not be sacked for refusing to facilitate cronyism and corruption. Of course, what I’m talking about here is a form of protection for managers in Aboriginal communities from harsh and oppressive termination of employment. If that’s what Abbott has in mind, it certainly involves an unintended irony.
There would also need to be some form of systematic vetting of suitability for appointment as a community manager/administrator. That would not necessarily involve undermining principles of indigenous self-determination. You would simply establish a licensing system for indgenous community managers/administrators, so that community councils and associations would be obliged to select from a field of only licensed candidates. That should largely eliminate a phenomenon I have sometimes observed where a manager known or strongly suspected of corrupt behaviour at a previous community nevertheless finds little difficulty being employed somewhere else because the “bush telegraph” didn’t operate. Such people are usually very adept at manipulating and ingratiating themselves into the favour of community members.