Guest Post: Stephen Rimmer proposes an Aboriginal Rights and Responsibilities Commission

A friend of mine – Stephen Rimmer has proposed an Aboriginal Rights and Responsibilities Commission. If you’re wondering what that might be, you get a clue from the fact that Stephen is an old hand at the Productivity Commission (having spent a great deal of his time in regulation review). The proposal is for a body to report to COAG whose charter is to try to render the success or otherwise of Aboriginal programs more transparent by measuring their effects and reporting on them publicly. I also heard the PC Chairman Gary Banks make some sensible sounding comments on Aboriginal disadvantage and the piecemeal programs that had been found to be effective (like linking access to organised sport to school attendance).

In any event, on sending this piece to me I asked Stephen if he would be happy for me to post it here and he agreed. It is over the fold and the organisation chart to which the piece refers can be downloaded here.

A proposal to establish an Aboriginal Rights and Responsibility Commission


The very significant disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal Australians, across a wide range of social, economic and health outcomes is well documented and known. Aboriginal disadvantage is pervasive across communities, regions and generations. The social and economic gap between Aboriginal and other Australians is wide.

There has been some recent progress in closing this gap. For example, in areas such as employment, labour force participation and educational engagement. However, in other areas, such as Aboriginal Australians becoming victims of violence and rates of imprisonment, the gap with the broader community continues to widen. Therefore, at the present time the overall picture for Aboriginal Australians appears to be characterised by one step forward, one step back.

The economic, fiscal and social costs generated by Aboriginal disadvantage have not been documented in a systematic manner. These costs include fiscal costs of providing a very wide range of services for disadvantaged individuals and communities, including repairing shattered communities and lives. There are also economic costs, including Aboriginal Australians not having equal opportunities to engage in economic and wealth creating activities. In addition, social, education and health costs are significant and are evident in dysfunctional community and family networks and the prevalence of a wide range of preventable health problems.

Needless to say, these monetary costs are enormous and likely to be in the vicinity of several billion dollars per year. These quantitative costs are in addition to other costs that cannot be measured easily, such as the ongoing emotional and mental anguish and despair felt by many Aboriginal Australians.

A failure on the part of the Australian community to effectively address such endemic disadvantage will result in these costs growing rapidly over the coming years and decades. Indeed, there is a significant and growing cost to Aboriginal Australians and the broader community in not addressing Aboriginal disadvantage. Furthermore, addressing disadvantage in an effective manner would be, for Australia as a whole, a very significant national investment which would generate very high economic, fiscal and social returns in the years and decades to come. These returns would include significantly lower fiscal costs, greater economic prosperity and opportunity, stronger and more resilient communities, and significantly improved social, health and quality of life outcomes for Aboriginal Australians.

The breadth and depth of current challenges facing Aboriginal Australians represents a social, economic and political crisis for Australia which requires immediate and effective action by governments and also the broader community. But these challenges also represent a very significant opportunity, not only to correct historical injustices, but also to significantly improve fiscal, economic and social outcomes.

While there are many decision-making bodies responsible for Aboriginal services and programs, it is important to note that COAG is ultimately responsible for policy and service provision at a national level, including for Aboriginal issues. Thus, given Australias federal system of government, only COAG can drive an integrated and successful national reform agenda for Aboriginal policy and service delivery.

There are no quick fixes or silver bullets which can quickly remedy existing disadvantage. Rather, fixing the problem of systemic disadvantage will require carefully considered, coordinated and adequately resourced action on several fronts.

Objectives of this Discussion Paper

This Discussion Paper focuses on remedying a particular set of identified and inter-related problems which are discussed below. This paper should be seen, in context, as being part of a much broader reform and action agenda.

This Discussion Paper is also premised on building-on and reinforcing several positive initiatives in recent years which include, but are not limited to:

COAGs Inter-Governmental Steering Committee on Government Services, which has initiated an ongoing work program which documents and publishes a wide range of indicators of the relative and absolute disadvantage of Aboriginal Australians; and

establishment of a number of think tanks and academic based research centres, such as Lingairi and Cape York Institute etc, focusing on Aboriginal issues and advancement. The role of these organisations includes providing well researched policy advice and practical ideas about possible next steps.

These organisations and processes generate insightful information about aspects of Aboriginal disadvantage. Their important work will result in public and policy debates being much better informed in the future. However, these institutions valuable as they are operate on the implicit premise that a better informed community debate will, over time, translate into identifiable improvements in policy, service provision and outcomes for Aboriginal Australians. While this is certainly true, the extent of existing disadvantage is so large and unjust that we simply cannot wait for better informed debates to generate over time better policy and outcomes. Rather, decisive and effective action needs to be taken in the here and now.

Furthermore, these important advisory organisations are only part of the broader picture. Departments and agencies providing services and programs for Aboriginal Australians also report to decision-makers (such as COAG) about the success or failure of their services/programs. However, there is a very clear conflict of interest in having service providers also provide the main mechanism for reporting on their own performance, successes and failures.

Therefore, from an institutional and machinery of government perspective, there is a missing link between the bodies providing information on Aboriginal disadvantage (discussed above); organisation providing services and programs (also discussed above); and high level decision-making bodies (such as COAG). At the present time, there is no body that has the explicit role of systematically cross referencing and comparing information about changing levels of Aboriginal disadvantage, with the wide range of services and programs provided for (and by) Aboriginal Australians.

Conclusion: There is a need for an independent body to oversight and report to decision-makers (such as COAG) about the links and relationships between Aboriginal disadvantage and the effectiveness and efficiency of services and programs for Aboriginal Australians.

This Discussion Paper advocates the establishment of a new and independent organisation, an Aboriginal Rights and Responsibilities Commission (ARRC), which would analyse and synthesise available information about Aboriginal disadvantage and service/program delivery, and then provide policy advice directly to COAG.

The following discussion focuses on the possible roles and features of the ARRC.

ARRC drawing on available high quality information

The ARRC could draw on information about Aboriginal disadvantage, services and programs provided by:

COAGs Intergovernmental Steering Committee for Government Services Review;

Federal, State and Territory government departments and agencies;

think tanks (including Lingairi and Cape York Institute); and

other reports, papers and submissions from other interested organisations and individuals.

ARRC advising COAG about strategic areas for action

The ARRC annual report to COAG could focus on strategic areas for action, including (but not limited to):

early childhood development;

early school engagement;

positive childhood and transition to adulthood;

health and substance abuse issues;

functional and resilient families and communities; and

economic participation.

Possible features of ARRC report to COAG

The ARRC could provide advice and/or recommendations to COAG including:

a high level discussion of the features, characteristics and magnitude of Aboriginal disadvantage Australia-wide and in each jurisdiction;

what services/programs are provided by each jurisdiction to address strategic areas of disadvantage;

areas where services/programs are not provided by jurisdictions and reasons why services are not provided;

identify any gaps or duplication in service provision and any commensurate costs and/or benefits;

identify services/programs where progress is being made, reasons for such progress and identify scope for fine tuning and/or extending these programs;

identify services/programs which are not achieving the objective of reducing disadvantage in strategic areas. Identify possible reasons for failure and make specific recommendations about how jurisdictions could improve service delivery;

review Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) (and other contractual arrangements between governments, Aboriginal Australians and their communities), and report on trends, successes and disappointments; and

ways governments and communities can improve outcomes in strategic areas. This could include identifying areas where communities can do better and also recommending changes in services, programs and funding to jurisdictions.

COAGs response to and public release of the ARRC annual report

COAG could consider the ARRC annual report and then release it publicly, along with a COAG response to the specific recommendations made by the ARRC. This would provide COAG with an opportunity each year to consider the success and merits of programs for Aboriginal Australians and make regular changes to improve service delivery.

Public release of the ARRC report would enhance transparency and accountability.

Possible corporate governance and funding of ARRC

Independent and high level government advisory bodies, such as the mooted ARRC, are typically oversighted by an independent Board which establishes strategic priorities and direction. It would be important that the Board of the ARRC contain a mix of backgrounds and skills, so that complex and multifaceted issues and problems could be addressed in a holistic manner. Relevant skills and backgrounds could include senior Aboriginal leaders; experts in government service delivery, funding mechanisms; contractual agreements, and rural and remote issues. Appointments to the Board of the ARRC could be made by COAG, thus helping to ensure a bipartisan approach and appointment of the best (and most qualified) candidates.

The ARRC Board could be supported by a small secretariat of professional officers, possibly a mix of public servants and secondees from universities etc with particular skills and expertise.

The ARRC could also be assisted in its work by reference groups which consider and report back to the ARRC on particular issues and topics (eg. problems faced by Aboriginal Australians living in remote regions etc). These reference groups could be established by the ARRC on an ad-hoc basis and for a limited period of time. Such reference groups could be required to operate in a transparent and inclusive manner.

The ARRC could be established by COAG as a statutory authority, or by a decision of the executive levels of government.

It could be funded by the Australian Government, or alternatively by contributions from each jurisdiction. The fiscal cost of the ARRC could be less that $5m pa.

What the ARRC would not do?

The ARRC is not designed to achieve other objectives, such as providing a democratic forum for Aboriginal Australians, articulating a broader vision or directly providing services or programs for Aboriginal Australians.

Implementation issues

Successful implementation of this proposed model will require the support and endorsement of senior Aboriginal leaders and COAG.


The proposal made here to establish a ARRC should be seen as being part of a much wider reform agenda in this area. The ARRC is a specific initiative designed to more closely link and integrate (from a machinery of government perspective) the emerging body of information about Aboriginal disadvantage with COAG, which is the key decision-making body.

This direct link can be created by the ARRC providing COAG with independent, well informed and timely advice about the effectiveness and efficiency of services and programs for Aboriginal Australians which are provided by each jurisdiction.

The ARRC annual report to COAG could be expected to generate a range of benefits, including:

Identifying successes, best practice and disappointments

By bringing together and analysing available information on Aboriginal disadvantage, service delivery and programs, the ARRC would be ideally placed to identify and report on areas of success and best practice, as well as areas where services and programs (including action by communities) have failed to meet expectations.

Better feedback mechanisms for COAG

By providing an ongoing focus on the delivery and performance of such programs, better and strengthened feedback mechanisms to would result in COAG and the broader community becoming much better informed about the effectiveness and efficiency of Aboriginal services and programs (including those administered by communities).

A credible, independent and trusted umpire for Aboriginal services and programs

By providing independent and impartial analysis and recommendations, the ARRC could play a trusted umpire role in oversighting Aboriginal service delivery and programs.

The credibility of its analysis and recommendations and public release of its Annual Report would provide stronger incentives for service providers to achieve agreed objectives and targets, while facilitating the quick review and/or abandonment of any services or programs which are failing. It would also enhance transparency.

The attachment to this Discussion Paper provides a flow-diagram which summarises this proposal.

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14 years ago

It’s an interesting idea, one whose aims are hard to disagree with. But I wonder just how influential another such body might be on actual policy direction.

Case in point is the latest OID report. Released just weeks before the dramatic June 21 announcement by Mssrs Howard and Brough, it painted a relatively clear picture of the best approach to adressing disadvantage. Yet, if you are to read Banks’ address to the OECD World Forum and then the June 21 press conference, you’d think they came from different planets.

The proposed ARRC would be very useful, but the best approach to reducing disadvantage is already known in its’ broad outlines. However, there is a lack of will at the highest levels of government to persue it.

On it’s own an ARRC would be limited in its’ effect. But combined with a renewed Indigenous democratic forum (of some kind) and genuine political will to put the recommendations into effect, it could be highly effective.

14 years ago

There are also economic costs, including Aboriginal Australians not having equal opportunities to engage in economic and wealth creating activities.

Pity the poor black fella who isn’t terribly interested in ‘wealth creation’ or engaging in the ‘economy’.

I think a truth and reconciliation commission would be a better start. Rights and Responsibilites sounds too much in the same vein as, Mutual Obligation and we know what a load of doublespeak claptrap that is?/was?.

With all due respect to your good intentions, it sounds to me like a bureaucrat’s dreaming with the dollar as its point of focus and a roundabout way of trying to coerce the unwilling into engaging in the improbable by suggesting to him/her that he/she really should share our values, and come aboard our sinking ship. I’m sorry to criticise when I have no other solution. Perhaps that’s the part of the problem, we think we should come up with solutions. I think the idea of self determination, should be given a bit more time to work through, and be pushed, its not something the Howard Government have exactly encouraged.

The sorry state of many aboriginal communities is a direct reflection on the worst excesses of our society. We should see to cleaning up our own house first.

14 years ago

Sorry, its not meant to all be in italics. Just the first paragraph.

Robert Merkel
14 years ago

Link, is trying to preserve Aboriginal culture in a non-economic museum feasible?

Mark Bahnisch tried to make that argument on LP, but frankly his ideas for making it sustainable were rather weak IMO.

14 years ago

Robert, I’m not suggesting preserving their culture, just leaving it up to them to decide how to ‘go forward into the future’ with it, sans white fella good intentions (you know the road to hell is paved etc). It occurs to me however, that having lived for several tens of thousands of years without the need to compete with each other for the holy dollar, some aboriginal people might be a bit reluctant to take up the white man’s folly (chasing those illusive green bits of paper). And who could blame them? Its like landing capitalism in paradise and trying to convince the already quite happy thank you very much, inhabitants that its a really good idea and they should, indeed must, (we insist in fact) take it up.

I come from generations of capitalists, and so its not a particularly foreign concept to me. But if my background was tens of thousands of years of a ‘walkabout’ type existence it might be more than just a little difficult to persuade me that capitalism was the better one. I realise its the dominant culture an’ all, but that doesn’t make it the better one and I don’t really think it should be the only one. As I said, I’m sorry that I have no solution.

Geoff Robinson
14 years ago

Is the Rimmer who wrote a silly paper on multiculturalism 20 years ago? it seems a good idea, and could highlight how state governments (all Labor) fail to adequately resource basic community services in many indigenous communities.