Indigenous policy in a neo-conservative Australia

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 1 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.

  1. see Powerpoint slide[]

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
16 years ago

The most thoughtful and considered analysis of the issues that I’ve seen to date.

David Coles
David Coles
16 years ago

It is a good analysis Ken. It sets out the situation well.

I regret that I share your worry about a Rudd Labor government.

I would hate to see this rare moment of public attention on matters Indigenous wasted so I guess I would like to see just a couple more suggestions made about initiatives that could be trialled.

Your housing point is well made. ‘Bomb proof’ houses are built because they are easier and cheaper to renovate after the pressure on them and a lack of care in some cases requires major renos after, at times, relatively short periods. Many have put to me that they would be happy with modular houses that they construct particularly if they can be built on their own land where they have the right to control behaviour.

A key area that needs discussion is around employment. The Census tells us that there is a working age population of about 23,000 in remote areas of the Territory. About 8,000 are registered for CDEP which pays around $20 per week more than the dole. The other 14,000 are on benefits. There are, in round terms, 3,000 full time jobs in remote communities at the moment. With the best will in the world there is not likely to be more than another 3,000 jobs created. That leaves around 17,000 people without much hope of anything other than welfare – unless there is a change.

That has to come from Indigenous people in remote areas and from governments. Neither, or none, can do it on their own. Basically, there needs to be a change in the paradigm from reliance on welfare to self reliance. Welfare to work if you like. And that will mean addressing the Pearson line of people, kids particularly, moving away from the community to work. They can’t sensibly do it at the moment. No education, very little accurate understanding of the ways of work and no support when they hit the big smoke.

My kids left their home town for work and a different life. I didn’t like it much. Aboriginal families in remote areas will find it just as tough or tougher and they are unlikely to share my access to the net and the capacity to read my kid’s blogs.

harry clarke
16 years ago

My general comment – go for the sentiments in the last two sentences. Indeed the last three sentences of your intended speech say it all.

The third last shows your convictions which are fairly narky, often directed at things not relating to aboriginal welfare and hostile. You could learn a lot by mimicking Noel Pearson who knows how to lean with the wind and extract gains. Honestly Ken who cares about dumping on this policy? You don’t hide your obvious biases by making a few chips at the other side of politics. It sounds like an attempt to convey the impression of even-handedness.

The last two sentences are spot on and I agree 100%. Concentrate on these issues -adapting current policies to extract some lasting benefit from the Commonwealth for aboriginal people. Yes, capitalise don’t be a nark!

16 years ago

Excellently well argued polemic and as Geoff says, a very thoughtful analysis too.

Needs a bit of work though to turn it into a deliverable speech . You’ll find yourself pausing for breath in the middle of some sentences at the wrong time for emphasis.

Also I reckon it needs a stronger scene setting intro.

And at 4000 words, yer gonna be talking for around 40 minutes. Can the seminar format handle a speech that long?

16 years ago

I’d also steer clear of verbatim quoting of dialogue as you’ve done with the Jones Brough exchange. It’s hard to pull off live without either confusing your audience as to who is saying what when or else consciously or subconsciously lapsing into different voices which runs the risk of getting a laugh where you didn’t want one,

Much clearer , and shorter, just to paraphrase their exchange (eg: “when TJ asked MB on Lateline last June, MB replied that he saw, etc, etc”)…and then pull out one key quote at the end.

I reckon since you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this issue over the years, you should just go with riffing off dot points and distribute the full length speech afterwards with that lovely all purpose CYA mantra at the top “check against delivery”.

16 years ago

Not too many years ago unscrupulous art dealers made a killing from Aboriginal art, going into communities and buying paintings for what amounted to (if not actually) a few cans of beer and selling them for big money in the lucrative Aboriginal art market. It was clamped down, but it’s mentioned as recollection for how hungry that market is – and still is.

One of the unspoken reasons why this Howard intervention can be so damaging if it fails is the opportunity cost from making a massive move on Aboriginal communities. Let’s hope this intervention goes on to incredible success, which may open up opportunities which obtain support, though it doesn’t look good that way. But let’s imagine the current intervention was a deeply considered and effective one, with public cynicism annulled due to its quality, then unusual things just might happen.

One of these might be, for the sake of floating a positive idea, an occasion where the lucrative arts industry through its own volition born of inspiration from such an intervention formulated some sort of co-op or such where the returns from all Aboriginal art sold went back into Aboriginal communities (minus a reasonable admin fee, and with compensation for the dealers who rely solely on Aboriginal art as, say, a local council would compensate a stallholder or shopkeeper when changing street design). It’s just an idea, and if at all possible would have to come from a genuine public belief that finally some real changes for long suffering Aboriginals are possible – and the considerable money won’t solve the problems but it would make a difference.

The purpose of floating this idea, while it may be viewed as totally unlikely, is to show that there is a lot of money in the Aboriginal culture. Positive ideas which harness this wealth and return its reward to the communities provide not only financial return, but a reason, a purpose, a driving force for people to develop that wealth – while doing one thing so many want to do and are better suited to: to live and celebrate their traditional culture. Monies returned could be quarantined for sole use to develop this “industry”, or culture, call it whatever, to find its commercial feet. A template could be created for each community to apply, hooking them into a means for receiving returns on what they do.

This is not to take away from other more pressing needs being addressed, nor to pretend there are not extreme difficulties in it, but to walk alongside such a massive intervention. To many eyes, any attempt at Aboriginals handling money in any long term positive way is immediately rejected and even laughed at, but the key difference with what I’m broaching here is that the core use of this money is purely for the development of traditional culture in that community: what that counts for in the face of that argument I don’t know, but it does bear mention.

I have mentioned before that this traditional culture component (albeit again loosely placed here in idea) is a key ingredient missing, from the non-indigenous view, in the self-healing of the Aboriginal fate. Money is already created from this culture, and much more could be, which could be returned, and my belief is that there are good commercial (which is policy) minds which may be nudged to be brought in to examine the “traditional Aboriginal industry” if you will, as a means to self-fund it and grow it. Thinking positively, the flow-on effects into communities, where Aboriginal people can see opportunities for their own (ie unique) self expression being valued and receiving reward, may cause a shift of considerable proportions.

From the recent census, it was reported that Australians don’t find the Aboriginal culture as something sufficiently attractive to wish to visit upon, as a tourist. This is clear, anyway, in that the public is not screaming for it. However – and this is not a basis upon which to build an industry, obviously – from my experience Americans do. “I just want to see one,” they say more or less, and are intrigued if not mystified by them. Is there another market here? How can the “traditional Aboriginal culture” be packaged and sold to the US? The people I spoke to, over there, would probably never come here, and we don’t want tourists creating more problems – but can the “traditional Aboriginal culture” be sold into international markets?

So while the focus is on closing in on the Aboriginal communities, and imposing our good cultural developments on them through this intervention, there is also, I believe, and I may be a rather lone voice on this, a tremendous opportunity and inestimable value in drawing out from Aboriginality their own culture, for their own reward. (Our nation would benefit too I believe). One key ingredient for that to happen is for our advanced western commercial minds to look into this fledgling, undeveloped “industry” and find opportunity, and help develop it.

I’m hesitant to present this, not only for its looseness, but also that, should such a hugely impossible thing be firstly envisioned and then achieved, and should it thrive and return those rewards to the Aboriginal folk back into where they live, one of the very things which would drive it and make it succeed could prove its own undoing, for surely it runs the risk of greed ruining the “resource’ (the traditional culture in that community). However, optimistically, it may help protect it and continue it as well. Done well, it would be self-funding.

At a loss for anything else positive, and in the face of overwhelming problems, suffering and negatives, it’s given nevertheless.

16 years ago


I think you’ve been a little kind in regards to the medical interventions. So far, they’ve been mostly pointless. Recent news celebrated the fact that in one community of the 15 kids seen, 14 were referred to an ENT specialist. There is no ENT available. High rates of anaemia were noted – a fact already well known through the NT GAA program which provides growth monitoring of 0-5 yr olds throughout the NT. They could have just read the latest GAA report to find that out.
What is also well-known is that especially in remote areas, MBS and PBS access is way below par. They are both Federally funded. Historically, the NT has missed out because remote clinics were mostly staffed by RNs and AHWs who provided GP-type services by default, but without the Federal funding linked to a GP via MBS. That was been improving over the last decade but remains a significant problem which the current Federal intervention could further address. The PBS deficit has been partially off-set by the S100 program.

The general problem of this part of the NTERT was noted by one of the participants,
“It may not be physically possible to actually get them [kids] to come to the clinic and some of them will have had quite comprehensive medical checks before.”

So, yes, long-term commitment is the key.

On economic and housing issues, I don’t see much to disagree with. There are different ideas kicking around, but yours are as reasonaable as any.

One of the more interesting occurances was that in the week that Brough and Howard were making their pitch, the Productivity commission Chairman was winging his way to the OECD World Forum to talk about these issues detailed in the Commissions’ 2007 report on Indigenous Disadvantage that spelt out the best approach,
“Analysis of the things that work, together with wide consultation with governments and Indigenous people, identified the following success factors:
-cooperative approaches between Indigenous people and government (and the private sector)
-community involvement in program design and decision-making a bottom-up rather than top-down approach
-good governance
-on-going government support (including human, financial and physical resources).”

Evidence-based policy appears to remain a distant hope.

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
16 years ago

Thanks for your thoughtful piece which I will re-read more carefully later. I share your cynicism about the motivation and the way Brough is going about it (failing to consult adequately, generalizing about indigenous people in a way which vilifies all men and being generally very insensitive). But I am glad the aboriginal intervention has occurred. It was overdue. And I am glad it is stirring up a national debate and acting as a catalyst in driving the states out of their relative apathy.

My main concern now is about what happens next – after the law and order issue is resolved – and in particular whether any government (Labor or Coalition) will seek to seriously correct the underlying inequalities of opportunity that most indigenous people, especially those living in more remote places, face.

I think four points need to be hammered strongly. :

1.The current relative spending per capita on indigenous Australians is below the objectively assessed relative need. The Grants Commission does not assess need – it only uses actual standardised expenditures as benchmark. But others have done calculations. We cannot let Costello and Brough get away with the Hanson line that the Government is already spending ‘too much’ on Aborigines.

2. There are important economic spin-offs from more investment in aboriginal employment, education, health and housing. The Productivity Commission effectively says so.

3.Most of the ‘little children’ report’s recommendations have so far been ignored by the Howard Government and some of the measures it proposes to implement such as on permits are not in the report.

4. Governments cannot make progress unless they cooperate with the aboriginal people. This too is a major recommendation of the little children report.

By the way, Ken, are you watching this engrossing series on SBS called Circuit (Sunday evenings)? It deals frankly and effectively with most sides of the aborignal problem and it is very well acted too.

Just Me
Just Me
16 years ago

Much thanks, Ken, for the most thoughtful and knowledgable analysis I have seen so far in any media, including your realistic and fair assessment of the NT government’s position and policy on this issue.

I am afraid I too share your (and many others’) deep cynicism about Howard and Brough’s motives and commitments, and believe that their approach is likely to make the situation worse, and the indigenous people more distrusting and resentful.

I would be very happy to be proved completely wrong.

Bob Gosford
Bob Gosford
16 years ago

Yes, congratulations Ken on the best analysis I’ve seen so far.

I can only hope that through this fog of bad policy and faith that some good outcomes will result.

Ken might think about working his piece up for a longer monograph, say for The Quarterly? Broken up into discrete chapters/subjects with more quotes and graphics woven in and an expansion of the economic analysis would work in that format, not as Nabakov pointed out, on the screen in front of a crowd. Further to Ken & Nabakov’s comments about dot points, if you are as familiar with the paper & issues as seems obvious, just use the dot points as a guide and free-style it – look better to a crowd if you’ve got more eye contact and aren’t tied to a script. CAEPR and Jon Altman at the ANU have had some valuable things to say previously and of late about these matters.

I agree with most of the comments made but think the details of how well the respective governments plan, resource, implement and follow-through on the intervention warrant close and ongoing attention.

I already see a comprehensive lack of planning and resources even in this initial phase. It has been wrongheaded from the start – poorly thought-out policy and unilateral actions implemented in blind ignorance and without local engagement or coordination on any level, a chronic lack of staffing and resources in the local ICCs & govt agencies supposed to deliver on the intervention, inept communication with affected people and communities (lots of glossy & glib feed and opportunities for the media chooks though), and the creation of uneccessary uncertainty and mistrust rather than confidence and acceptance.

I note the following that will be of interest to me over the next few months –

How will the Commonwealth’s Business Managers (CBMs) operate, how far into the operations of communities and organisations will they stick there noses? Speaking to staff at local CGC’s & service organisations over the last 4 weeks or so revealed that they know nothing about the CBM that will be parachuted in (the first? will drop in here on Monday 23rd) from south with a fat salary, bonuses and incentives who will be doing what, exactly? Their jobs?

There appear to be no protocols, MoUs or similar arrangements at Fed-NTG level and nothing between the Feds and local government about who will and can do what, where and when, what will be coming and what is going to happen to what is already here. There has been next to nothing from the Feds about how many and where the CBMs will be dropped in, nor where, other than the map at the OIPC site (for an anlaysis of these sites and the related issue of the recent CDEP changes – see the excellent posts by linguists and long-time NT workers Jane Simpson & David Nash at: (also useful re the tenure issues below)

Re the compulsory acquisition of townships and CLAs I note that the NLC has long had a policy to develop Land Use Agreements (LUAs) over Township areas/CGC scheme boundaries on Aboriginal land on a number of communities in order to give the traditional owners, residents and local councils greater certainty over their respective rights and interests. At the time I’m aware of, neither the then CLP NT Govt, nor their DLG or LGANT had much interest in the proposal. The Commonwealth wasn’t even on the same page. The leases issue could still work out ok, but not if Brough et al want to use it as a trojan horse for their contentious permit and home ownership proposals. The NLC would still have the draft leases on file and are most likely using them in their negotiations at Galiwinku & Wadeye.

Further on the CA issue – they may pass the legislation but accurately surveying each of the 73 community areas will be a complex, costly and time-consuming matter for little long-term benefit – as far as I’m aware this data is contained in neither the Serviced Land Availability Plans (SLAP plans) prepared by the NTG nor the Community Government Council (CGC) schemes. In this latter regard I note that there is substantial variation in the jurisdictional areas in these schemes – some CGCs having jurisdiction and responsibility for vast tracts of land that they have no capacity to manage, while others have smaller areas centered on township areas. This was one of the issues behind the NLCs approach to land use agreements – to regularise (because the legal caoacity of CGC’s & other Council’s to occupy and use the land on which they have been placed remains, in my mind, unresolved.

I query that just came to mind was, in relation to the compensation issue is whether there there may any Native Title issues/implications – I haven’t thought this through but someone else might have a view?

Ken correctly raises the issues of lack of consultation with Aboriginal people – this is particularly relevant in relation to the proposed permit changes that have been sitting in the bottom drawer since, well, at least the Reeves report of the late ’90s and dragging them, and the compulsory acquisition proposals, out now and tying them into child abuse issues has rightly been seen as nothing more than a cynical exercise. I would hope that these proposals will get delayed by their sheer complexity and, perhaps, there will be enough gumption somewhere sufficient to send the proposals off to a Senate committee for examination – where no doubt they will look at the submissions (not publicly released as yet)to Brough’s permits discussion paper ( released in October 2006 and also at the thorough HORSCATIA ( examination of the Reeves Review, to which the government has, after 7 years, failed to respond and which contains valuable evidence from Aboriginal people in the NT about their views about the permit system (great transcripts!). I haven’t been able to find an electronic or copy (left one behind as a doorstop in Darwin years ago), though at 600+ pages it’ll be some big pdf. file …

Further to the communication issue – the NTG & Cth both have websites with varying amounts of information. The NTG’s is the most evenhanded and useful – the Cth information seems scattered acros a number of Ministerial, Departmental and agency websites. While these websites might look good on the screen, they are not effective as media for communication to people on remote communities, few of whom have the luxury I do of broadband in my house (thanks Telstra!).
The best forms of communication out here (public meetings [though there was one here a week and a half ago], local radio & TV and newsletters – even a two page spread as the NTG used last week for its LG Reform would be useful) are not being used. It is a bit rich for Sue Gordon to be complaining about misinformation from ‘outsiders’ and aboriginal people if her Task Force is creating an information vacuum. I for one cannot see any efective communication on the ground – nothing at the local Stores, or the Council, the Land Council and only bits and pices on the local radio and TV broad. The local TV broadcasts have been lost because of the National Indigenous Broadcaster that recently took over their channel.

That the Feds have only chosen to act in central australia so far without satisfactorily explaining the how, who, when and where of progess with their plan (what plan?), both here and in the rest of the NT beggars belief.

I agree with David’s comments about not losing this rare opportunity for positive change though it will be a very hard row to hoe. Employment and housing are key issues but I do not have any confidence in the Feds approach as seen to date providing any comfort in those areas. I cannot agree with the adoption of some softer version of the Pearson strategy – his approach is not so much ‘tough love’ but more ‘tough luck’ – no doubt why the Feds are so attracted to it.

For Robert & others there are a number of successful culturally-based cooperative businesses and groups operating on Aboriginal land – these include the resource agencies and associated programmes and agencies (see for example Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation & Maningrida Arts & Crafts) and for Arts centres (Warlukurlangu Artists from Yuendumu). For land management (a matter of supreme importance and a good potential source for on-country employment but lost in this current debate) see for example the Caring for Country programmes at the NLC & CLC and the complex multi-agency and Aboriginal land-holding groups working in Arnhem land & the Gulf (Dhimmurru etc)and the raft of Aboriginal land management groups scattered across the country.

Further to Jacques comments re medical screenings etc – for the past several years a number of communities in central Australia (and elsewhere – see the work of the Fred Hollows foundation) have been working with ad-hoc groups of, mainly Canberra-based doctors on providing basic eye, and more recently, ENT assessments and procedures to dozens of adults and children. None of this has, as far as I know, involved a cent of Govt money and has been funded by the medicos own money and the hard work people in communities. There may be a lot to learn from long-term coopoerative and economical approaches like this that appear to largely slip under the radar of broad attention.

Finally, in response to Fred’s points – LGANT has a media release on their website with some interesting statistics and figures about Grant Commission distribution formulae and how they affect local communities. The Productivity Commission repport is useful and would provide a lot of support for a more reasoned and sustained approach than the Feds have taken to date. There is also a good report (at the OIPC website I think?), on the reduction of red-tape in Aboriginal communities – related the the illuminating reports on the conduct of the COAG trials and now available at the OIPC site. I think the Feds have blown any opportunity (mainly through their bludering approach and sheer bad faith) to effectively respond to the biuld of recommendations in the Wild/Anderson report.

I suspect/hope however that most of the contentious issues related to the intervention will (what happened to the recall of both Houses? – apparently problems with the drafting of the Bills – oh to be a fly on the wall in the Parliamentary Counsel’s offices …) be swamped by an election within the next few months…as I’ve said elsewhere, the (d)evils in the detail…

Cheers and best and thanks for a good discussion and the opportunity to comment.

Bob Gosford
Bob Gosford
16 years ago

I left out the link to the the Jane Simpson & David Nash comments at the Transient Languages & Cultures blog at:

There is a fresh post from Jane and previous posts from her and David, with a long discussion, can be found in the side-bars.


Kevin Cox
Kevin Cox
16 years ago

The problem with initiatives to address problems in indigenous communities is the inability of governments to spend money wisely. Governments decide that “something must be done” and then they try to figure out how to do it and then impose the solution at great cost to achieve the best political outcome. There are many difficulties with this approach but the main one is that most of the money gets wasted.

How about doing something along the following lines.

Put the money that it has been decided to spend into a fund. Give all the people in Australia who are interested in it being spent wisely an equal share in the control of the funds. Require the communities on which the money is to be spent to come up with proposals – both on their own or with consultants and advisers that they hire. Now let the people with the money (that is the people who are interested enough in the problem to decide they wish to help by evaluating the different schemes) allocate the funds to projects. There are different ways of doing it but a Hare Clark voting scheme where the votes are money would be one way.

The advantage of this scheme is that we have created a market in projects with all the benefits that markets bring in allowing projects to fail and allowing good projects to succeed and with the money being spent on things that the recipients think will be of most benefit to them.

It might be argued that this is complicated and expensive. In the world of the Internet this is not complicated and it is not expensive and is a lot cheaper than the current schemes for spending money where most of it seems to go on salaries for outsiders and schemes in certain people’s electorates far removed from the problems.


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