Evidence-based Indigenous policy? Remote chance

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Recently, Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough proposed that young Aboriginal people from remote communities could be showcased in front-of-house roles at five star hotels in Australia’s major cities. One of a number of on-the-run policy suggestions trumpeted by Brough since becoming Minister in January, this pearler was presented as a no-brainer: addressing chronic Indigenous unemployment levels and getting young people out of dead-end remote communities whilst providing tourists and wealthy Australians with the opportunity to meet ‘real’ Aborigines and learn about their traditional culture, all in a neat and tidy uniform.

The same week, Dr John Taylor from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at ANU presented a report (link here) to John Howard’s office about emerging Indigenous demographic trends with significant implications for the way that governments approach Indigenous policy. There was little trumpeting by Howard or Brough of the more complex picture painted by the Taylor Report, particularly in relation to remote communities.

The Australian Government’s ‘quiet revolution’ in Indigenous affairs has publicly focused on remote communities as those most worthy of urgent government attention. The Prime Minister and countless other Ministers have donned their Akubras and made flying visits to various remote communities over the years, providing perfect photo opportunities of them experiencing ‘authentic’ Indigenous culture whilst celebrating the latest signing of a Shared Responsibility Agreement (SRA).

Yet for all the fanfare, recent revelations of life in Wadeye and other remote communities suggest that government approaches have not been effective at addressing Indigenous disadvantage. Ad-hoc and piecemeal funding such as that allocated under SRAs has proven no more effectual than the various other manifestations of ‘practical reconciliation’, and is certainly no substitute for the long-term investment in infrastructure, services and capacity building that many Indigenous leaders have been calling for over generations.

That the needs of the 25% of Indigenous people who live in remote areas are significant and urgent is not in contention. The fact that funding for programs, services and organisations targeted appropriately to Indigenous people is vastly inadequate across Australia ought to be similarly uncontentious (see Peter Gale article in New Matilda).

Indigenous people in cities or regional towns are not doing better than those in remote areas. The Taylor Report shows that despite living through a decade portrayed as one of great growth and prosperity for Australians, Indigenous people remained consistently over-represented in the poorest city neighbourhoods. Even in comparison with their non-Indigenous neighbours in those suburbs, Indigenous people’s living standards declined. Unemployment rates were double or even triple those of their non-Indigenous neighbours.

All of which sheds new light on the latest debate about Indigenous communities living on ‘outstations’ or ‘homelands’ in remote areas, marked by former Minister Vanstone’s comments on consigning Indigenous people to live in ‘cultural museums’ and accompanied by a chorus of political leaders and commentators insisting that such communities require unreasonable government support, are dysfunctional, and that greatest sin of all, are not ‘economically viable’.

The Taylor Report reveals that of the 2 million Australians that currently reside in settlements of less than 200 people, only 3 per cent of them are Indigenous. So why is it that the tests of economic viability only seem to be applied when it comes to Indigenous communities? Such arguments never drive policy in relation to other sectors of the community who need ongoing government support – such as drought affected farmers. Farmers, however, are apparently deemed to be such an important part of Australia’s social fabric and national identity that the debate can be about more than economics. And where there has been political will, we have found innovative ways to extend services and programs to remote parts of the country such as the Flying Doctors and the use of radio to school children on remote cattle stations.

Since the 1970s, hundreds of small, dispersed Indigenous communities have accompanied the return of land to Indigenous groups. Most of these communities have no independent economic base in the way it is understood by mainstream economists. Yet they arguably have an important cultural and customary place for many Indigenous people, and have been demonstrated to also have social and environmental benefits. Recognising this, programs such as Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), an Indigenous work-for-the-dole scheme, were introduced in the 1970s to provide a community development role and meaningful employment in places where there was no viable workforce. These schemes meant that people could be employed to fix infrastructure and undertake services, providing gainful employment and other benefits to those communities. Yet the government is removing exemptions under the CDEP scheme for people living in remote areas, stating that the focus should instead be on ‘mainstream’ employment outcomes.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

The concern many Indigenous people have about the impact of forcing people from remote communities into larger towns is that these towns are also plagued by the chronic under-funding of Indigenous services, programs and organisations. It is towns such as Alice Springs or Port Augusta that have seen the rise of town camps or temporary dwellings to accommodate people from remote communities seeking to access infrastructure and services. The increased population coupled with government neglect has led to serious and complex social problems and cyclical poverty. Given such circumstances, forcing Indigenous people to move from outstations or homelands to towns or larger urban centres will in no way address the disadvantage they experience.

In the places where there are larger populations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are increasingly treated to the government’s ‘mainstreaming’ approach, which is stretching the traditional services that target Indigenous disadvantage such as Aboriginal Medical Services. The ‘mainstreaming’ argument asserts that Indigenous people living in or near cities or regional centres should be taken care of by mainstream government departments, despite evidence that those agencies have consistently failed to provide adequate or appropriate services to Indigenous people. One of the few new initiatives in the last federal budget was to provide money for ‘brokers’ in urban areas to assist Indigenous people to access mainstream medical services, an initiative that sees funding going to an additional layer of bureaucracy rather than into the community organisations where it is needed most.

The underlying problem of the Australian Government’s policy approach to remote Indigenous and other communities is that it is ultimately driven by a belief in assimilation and mainstreaming, even though such ideologies have demonstrably failed Indigenous people in the past.

If the Government were genuinely interested in addressing Indigenous disadvantage through evidence-based policy and planning approaches, it could start by engaging with John Taylor’s ANU research on the implications of emerging Indigenous demographic trends, and by addressing some of the issues that urgently need to be considered before any new policy for outstations is developed, including perhaps an Inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (see Jon Altman, ‘In Search of an Outstations Policy for Indigenous Australians’). There are Indigenous academics proposing alternative policy approaches, for example the use of a human rights framework to improve outcomes for society’s most disadvantaged (Larissa Behrendt, ‘ Making Human Rights Matter: How can Rights Frameworks Help us create a Better Community?’)

Unfortunately, the Government is unwilling to engage with such research and prefers its policy to be developed in an ad hoc and inconsistent fashion based on the whim of a particular Minister or long-discredited notions of how best to address Indigenous disadvantage. It seems inevitable that this will amount to ‘another failed experiment’ in Indigenous affairs, and be equally disastrous for the Indigenous communities upon whom it is inflicted.

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