A few years ago, some members of the ALP’s Left faction were battling to change the entrenched practice whereby its ministerial nominees were always allocated the federal aboriginal affairs and immigration portfolios. One anonymous Left Caucus member referred to these portfolios as the “poisoned chalice” while another reckoned being awarded them was equivalent to being appointed the “toilet cleaner on the Titanic”.
Whether the Left lost that particular internal battle or whether wiser heads within the faction prevailed I don’t know, but in the new Rudd government portfolio allocation announced last week the convention was maintained. Jenny Macklin and Senator Chris Evans, both members of the Left, scored aboriginal affairs and immigration respectively.
A brief look at the factional allocation of immigration and aboriginal affairs might even be relevant to a present day analysis. In the early days of the Hawke government, there was no convention of allocating these portfolios to the Left. The Right’s Clyde Holding had Aboriginal Affairs until 1988, and a passing parade of Right faction movers and shakers drew the short straw of Immigration: Chris Hurford, Susan Ryan, Mick Young, Clyde Holding and Robert Ray.
It wasn’t until 1988 that Hawke gave the Left’s Gerry Hand a classic hospital pass by allocating him both portfolios. They’ve stayed with the Left ever since. (Strangely enough, Howard intially took a similar approach, allocating these portfolios to “wets” like John Herron, Amanda Vanstone and Phillip Ruddock. Ruddock hastily jettisoned his “wet” pretensions, of course, and later Howard appointees Brough and Andrews were anything but “wet”, at least in ideological terms).
In aboriginal affairs, the changing of factional allocation resulted in Gerry Hand’s disastrous application of “self-determination” principles, when he decided to combine the old DAA and ADC to form ATSIC under a popularly elected indigenous body which became a byword for waste, incompetence, nepotism and downright corruption until it was eventually abolished by Howard with Labor support in 2005. Otherwise, the administration of indigenous affairs continued largely unaltered, with ministers paying lip service to the rhetoric of self-determination and a welfarist “rights culture” approach of aggrieved entitlement, but without any corresponding significant increase in real funding, conferral of real substantive rights or any real attempt to tackle entrenched and increasing social problems in indigenous communities.
The picture in immigration, however, was rather different.
Under the Right’s assorted nominees, Labor’s approach to the immigration portfolio had mostly been characterised by a semi-open door policy towards family reunion and, to a lesser extent, refugee and compassionate applicants. It was cynically seen as a useful adjunct to the ALP’s multiculturalism agenda, a way for Labor to cement the ethnic vote in key electorates and for the Right to enlist acquiescent new Party members for branch-stacking purposes. That approach led directly to the Vietnamese and Middle Eastern ghettoes and associated crime gangs which continue to blight Sydney and Melbourne to a considerable extent, and to Geoffrey Blainey’s remarks about the pace of immigration and its effects on social cohesion (which had John Howard permanently tarred as a racist when he later unwisely expressed agreement with them).
Once the Left’s Gerry Hand inherited the immigration portfolio, however, the approach changed quite dramatically. Instead of a laissez-faire policy, Hand presided over a drastic rewrite of the Migration Act 1958 (into a form which it basically still retains) and implemented many of the draconian anti-refugee measures that lots of Howard-haters erroneously associate with the Coalition. Mandatory harsh detention of asylum seekers without visas, for example, and tight restrictions on their ability to access judicial review. Indeed, Hand’s words on announcing the former policy are just a wordier version of John Howard’s infamous “we will decide who comes here and the terms on which they come” rant a decade later. Hand said:
I believe it is crucial that all persons who come to Australia without prior authorisation not be released into the community. Their release would undermine the Government’s strategy for determining their refugee claims or entry claims. Indeed, I believe it is vital to Australia that this be prevented as far as possible. The Government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community.
Why such a hard-headed even authoritarian approach to immigration, but a soft-hearted and woolly-minded approach on indigenous affairs? Shouldn’t the plight of both asylum seekers and aborigines have engaged the compassion of self-proclaimed seekers of social justice like the Socialist Left? I suspect the answer lies in the fact that it has always been much easier for members of the Left to construct a private narrative which allows them to dismiss asylum seekers as just “queue-jumping” economic migrants (despite the palpable absence of a queue) and potential petty bourgeois members of the aspirational classes who would inevitably side with the capitalists and steal workers’ jobs if allowed into Australia. Being tough on them was an act of class solidarity for Hand and his successor Senator Nick Bolkus, which also happened to coincide with the increasing desire of corporate Australia to skew the migration mix away from family reunion and refugees and towards skilled and business migration streams.
It was much harder for members of the Socialist Left to construct a narrative which could justify a tough-minded approach on aboriginal affairs policy. However, maybe that is now starting to change. The Australian newspaper reported on the weekend that:
NEW indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin plans to negotiate with the states to replicate parts of the Northern Territory intervention around the nation, vowing to do whatever it takes to improve Aboriginal lives.
In an interview with The Weekend Australian, Ms Macklin said she was not interested in ideology, only outcomes, and that she has ordered her department to collect hard data on the progress of the intervention to provide information for a 12-month review.
Ms Macklin refused to attack the Howard government’s approach to indigenous affairs, and indicated that radical policies might be applied across the country, provided they had been shown to work.
The Left jumping into bed with Mal Brough? Could it really be true? Perhaps Macklin and the Left have finally latched onto a narrative that allows their consciences to deal with taking a tough-minded, pragmatic approach to indigenous affairs. Senior Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton expressed it quite powerfully last week, in an op-ed piece which also expressed qualified support for at least some of the principles of the Brough intervention:
Those who did not see the intervention in the Northern Territory coming were deluding themselves. It was the inevitable outcome of the many failures of policy and of the strange federal-state division of responsibilities for Aboriginal Australians. Added to this were the general incompetence of the civil service and the non-governmental sector, including some Aboriginal organisations, lack of political will and the dead hand of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
The combined effect of the media campaign for action and the emergency intervention has been a metaphorical dagger sunk into the heart of the powerful, wrong-headed Aboriginal male ideology that had prevailed in indigenous affairs, policies and practices.
It’s time for the voices of women and children to be heard. It’s time for both the federal and the Territory government to stop playing politics with the lives of the vulnerable and shut down the alcohol take-away outlets, establish children’s commissions and shelters in each community – as Noel Pearson has suggested – and treat grog runners and drug dealers as the criminals that they are. Otherwise, they will all have the blood of the victims on their hands.
In other words, the Left can now take a tough approach on indigenous issues, because it is standing up for oppressed Aboriginal women and children against the “powerful, wrong-headed Aboriginal male ideology”. Of course, that’s what Brough also argued, but it’s much easier for members of the Labor Left to accept when it comes from someone like Langton.
Nevertheless, Macklin has left herself plenty of wriggle room as to the extent to which she ends up embracing Brough’s initiatives, and has already indicated some specific measures that will be scrapped or radically changed:
However, Labor will change some aspects of the intervention program, including modifying rather than abolishing the CDEP Aboriginal work-for-the-dole scheme and reinstating the permit system that regulates non-indigenous access to Aboriginal communities.
In this (and a planned part 2) post I’ve set myself the ambitious aim of examining the key Brough Intervention initiatives to assess which should be retained by Labor either with or without amendment, which should be scrapped, and what other programs and policies should be considered to attack the specific issue of horrendous levels of violence and sexual abuse of women and children in indigenous communities, and the more general problems that beset indigenous society.
Although Brough completely ignored it except as a rhetorical pretext, the Little Children are Sacred report isn’t a bad place to start for initiatives specific to the child sexual abuse issue, and the recent Productivity Commission report Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators is an excellent source for more general policy guidance in indigenous affairs. The latter report emanated from a COAG iniative in 2003 and is the result of 4 years of co-operative analytical endeavour between Commonwealth and State instrumentalities in examining existing indigenous affairs programs to ascertain what sorts of approaches work and which ones don’t. It was published in June 2007, at exactly the same time Brough was announcing his Northern Territory Intervention. Yet Brough ignored it too!
What makes for good indigenous affairs policy?
Productivity Commission Chairman Gary Banks gave an address about the Commission’s report to the OECD World Forum shortly after Brough and Howard announced their intervention in a blaze of electorally-driven publicity. It received almost no publicity in Australia, but Banks’ observations nevertheless provide a useful framework against which to assess the elements of the Brough intervention. Some of Banks’ observations clearly support a shift in policy approach in indigenous affairs, with a greater emphasis on a “mutual obligation” approach (evident in some aspects of the Brough intervention). Banks says:
To convey the shifting policy approaches over time and their mixed contributions to the outcomes that we observe today, would require more space (and knowledge) than I have at my disposal. However, it is now generally recognised in Australia that aspects of the policy approaches since the late 1960s, while well motivated and directed at desirable ends, were implemented in ways that have had some perverse, even disastrous, consequences. In particular, equal access to statutory minimum wages and unemployment benefits effectively deprived many Indigenous people of employment, and left them dependent on welfare. …
Growing recognition of past policy failures a recognition shared by many Indigenous leaders together with an apparent worsening of the circumstances of many Indigenous communities, have contributed to a new commitment by Federal and State governments to overcome Indigenous disadvantage. At recent ceremonies celebrating the 1967 referendum, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition recognised past failures and the need to do better …
In addition to the agreed need to forge whole-of-government approaches …, key elements of the new policy approach include:
- shifting from passive welfare to mutual obligation, or shared responsibility
- fostering economic development and a greater role for private property
- improving governments ability to interact with Indigenous communities in program design and delivery
improving Indigenous governance
- recognising the need for differentiated approaches to deal with the diverse circumstances of Indigenous people.
Of course, not all elements of the new approach have been universally welcomed or accepted. Some, such as changes to community land title, are highly contentious. But their introduction has been facilitated by a shared recognition by governments and Indigenous people alike that past policies and institutions have not delivered that in important respects some have made matters worse.
When it comes to listing the attributes of indigenous programs that the Productivity Commission had found worked (versus those that didn’t), it immediately becomes evident that the Brough/Howard intervention paid scant attention to the lessons of experience:
Our analysis of the things that work, together with consultations with governments and Indigenous people, identified the following factors that many of the success stories have had in common:
- cooperative approaches between Indigenous people and government (and the private sector);
- community involvement in program design and decision-making a bottomup rather than top-down approach;
- good governance; and
- on-going government support (human as well as financial).
The Brough intervention was characterised by a complete lack of co-operation with Indigenous people and other governments. It was imposed on the NT government by deliberate ambush (carefully announced after Brough inquired and confirmed that Clare Martin would be caught unprepared with her key advisers in the air on the way to a meeting with his departmental officers in Canberra) with no advance consultation whatever with Aboriginal people, and certainly no community involvement in program design and decision-making.
Consultation and co-operation
Although the Brough intervention doesn’t even make a pretense of consultation or a co-operative approach, my own fairly extensive experience in working with indigenous communities as a lawyer over 20 years or so suggests that very few government initiatives have actually succeeded in engaging indigenous people or led to genuine agreements characterised by informed consent or a real sense of community “ownership” of proposed solutions. My own experience largely mirrors that of Toni Bauman, who recently wrote in Australian Opinion Online:
Responses to the Commonwealth Governments national emergency approach to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have often emphasised the need for consultation.1 And yet, it might not be consultation that is actually required, at least in the way it has been practised, as something done to Indigenous people. Looking back over the last 25 to 30 years, I see what is often referred to as the failure of self-determination (where consultation was the buzz word) as resulting in part from a lack of culturally competent and engaged Indigenous problem solving, decision-making and negotiation, rather than a lack of consultation as such.
The incapacity of governments to engage with Indigenous communities and arrive at meaningful, sustainable and owned outcomes through highly specialised skilled facilitation and participatory community development processes has troubled me for many years. The modus operandi of consultation has mostly been one-way communication in meetings in which talking heads drone on, poorly explaining complex information and concluding by asking: Everyone agree?. The response: hands raised half-heartedly and barely perceptible nods. Outside the meeting, participants typically have little or no understanding of what they have agreed to, the possible repercussions of agreement, or the short-, medium and long-term resources available for implementation requirements.
I see no change in this approach in the fleeting glimpses of national emergency Indigenous community meetings on national television. Moreover, the Commonwealth Government appears to see consultation as wasting time in its national emergency.
Poor decision-making and problem solving processes in which Indigenous people have been required to make decisions in a vacuum have repeatedly led to unsustainable outcomes for which no one takes responsibility, despite the Commonwealth Governments mutual responsibility, agreement-making and partnership policies. …
The missing link in government approaches to Indigenous issues is thus an adequately resourced infrastructure of community decision-making, engagement, problem solving and negotiation, based on the understanding that outcomes will not be sustainable unless they are owned by the Indigenous people involved. In the past, one solution which has often been proposed by Governments is for public servants to have cultural awareness training, but this is only a very small part of the answer. Being aware of issues which impact on Indigenous people does not equate to the necessary skills of engagement and communication, and not all individuals will be suited to effective engagement with Indigenous people. Moreover, governments and government departments themselves have major organisational communication problems and a range of cultures within them which give rise to internal misunderstandings and conflict which have a flow-on effect to Indigenous communities. These in turn intersect with those of other departments as whole-of-government approaches flounder.
Having outlined the underlying principles that must inform any successful approach to tackling indigenous policy issues (including child sexual abuse), I had intended embarking on an analysis of each of the main aspects of the Brough/Howard Northern Territory emergency intervention plan. However, this post is already too long for most readers, so I’ll leave that point-by-point analysis for part 2 in a couple of days time.