For decades, government report after government report has chronicled the continual failure of bureaucracies to lift Aboriginal people out of the mire of poverty and disadvantage. And for decades, Aboriginal people have been offering the same solution, as yet untried. Self-determination. CHRIS GRAHAM looks at the never-ending cycle of government reports into government failure, and the refusal of a nation to accept that it’s part of the problem, not the solution.
The elephant in the room: Self-determination
If the publication of government reports alone were enough to lift Aboriginal people out of disadvantage, then black Australia would be the healthiest and wealthiest people on the planet.
In the past seven months, at least five major reports into the appalling life circumstances of Australia’s First Nations people have been handed down by governments.
They all say pretty much the same thing. Well, almost, but we’ll come to the dissenting report in a minute.
In May, the NSW Auditor General released a report that outlined the train wreck that was the NSW government’s decade-long policy on Aboriginal affairs (Two Ways Together), noting that it had failed to deliver the outcomes intended.
In June, the federal parliament handed down a report entitled Doing Time – Time for Doing, a probe into the extraordinary rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.
That report found government programs to halt the rising incarceration rates were ineffective.
In July, the federal government was forced to release a cabinet-in-confidence document entitled Indigenous Expenditure Review.
It lays bare more than a decade of government failure, and billions of dollars of bureaucratic waste through the failed delivery of services to Aboriginal Australians. It is by some margin, the most harrowing read of government in decades.
In August, the Productivity Commission handed down its bi-annual review, which outlines Commonwealth service delivery to Aboriginal people.
The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report 2011 said exactly what was said in 2009 – government programs were failing badly, in no small part because of a lack of coordination between Commonwealth departments.
The fifth report – the dissenting document – was delivered in February.
It was the Prime Minister’s ‘Closing the Gap’ report card, an annual statement to parliament on government progress in, as the name suggests, closing the gap between black and white Australians.
Of the five reports, the Prime Minister’s is the only document to suggest government programs were starting to make a real difference. After telling parliament that Aboriginal people needed to change their behaviour for real gains to be made, Gillard said that while much remained to be done, government service delivery was heading in the right direction.
Obviously, the Prime Ministerial statement flies in the face of the available evidence. Her statement is particularly concerning in light of the contents of the Indigenous Expenditure Review, which stated the precise opposite.
Even more concerning is the reality that Gillard’s cabinet fought tooth and nail to suppress it, finally capitulating after Channel 7 took the government all the way to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and won the right to access the document under Freedom of Information laws.
All of the reports are well worth reading, because they catalogue the sort of government failure that people expect, but rarely believe, even when they see it. But the problem with them is that while they’re very good at identifying the failings, government reports have never really been particularly good at coming up with solutions.
Indeed, a common feature across all of the reports is for the authors to blame governments for their repeated failings, only to suggest governments should continue to centralise service delivery.
In other words, the reports consistently find that bureaucracies are the answer.
In fact, bureaucracies are the problem.
Which leads us to the reason why, year in year out, we keep getting reports on government failure in Aboriginal affairs policy.
Government ministers are looking for solutions in all the wrong places.
In a former life, Paul Kauffman was Associate Professor at the University of Canberra. Today, he’s Manager of Research and Planning at Aboriginal Hostels.
Kauffman has written extensively on international issues around the world, and has a particular focus on the four major western nations with Indigenous populations – Australia, America, Canada, and New Zealand.
In 2003, Kauffman published a ground breaking paper entitled Diversity and Indigenous Policy Outcomes: Comparisons between Four Nations.
It received virtually no mainstream airing upon its release.
The issue of Australia’s performance against its Western peers is a fairly sensitive subject.
We love to be compared with the US, Canada and New Zealand in the sporting arena, but when it comes to human rights – and in particular our treatment of our First Nations people – Australia has a tendency to get a little defensive.
When you read Kauffman’s report, you get a sense why.