Indigenous affairs back on agenda

source: The Age 25th December 2004

No school, no pool. Dirty faces, no petrol. This is the new currency of indigenous affairs.

Under so-called shared responsibility agreements, remote Aboriginal communities could miss out on future project funding if they fail to meet performance targets set with the government.

The changes, flagged in recent weeks, represent the widest ranging reforms to indigenous welfare distribution since the introduction of welfare payments in the 1970s.

Gone are the days of the Keating-era rights agenda and a push to say sorry to the stolen generations, in its place the Howard government mantra of practical reconciliation.

Also up for discussion this year will be the controversial proposal to allow Aboriginal families to privately own communal land.

The plan, based on a similar scheme on Norfolk Island, would allow private ownership for indigenous families and prevent outside takeovers of traditional land.

Member of the government's new National Indigenous Council and ALP vice-president Warren Mundine believes the move will help Aboriginal communities achieve economic success through property ownership for individuals and families.

Prime Minister John Howard has said he will consider any proposal, but it has attracted criticism from other quarters.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies chair Mick Dodson said Mr Mundine had no comprehension of what land meant to Aboriginal people or how it should be held.

"This could be very, very dangerous for Aboriginal people," he said.

"The problem isn't with the land ownership, the problem is with the lack of imagination and creative thinking on behalf of financial institutions and governments."

All of this is a far cry from just two months ago, when there was widespread concern amongst Aboriginal leaders that indigenous affairs had fallen off the political agenda.

With both major parties agreeing to disband the elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) indigenous issues never hit the front pages during the federal election campaign.

Taking ATSIC's place is the new National Indigenous Council (NIC), an advisory body whose members were hand-picked by the federal government, while relevant funding had been siphoned off to mainstream departments.

Critics have argued that the NIC will be little more than a rubber stamp to government directives, with the inherent risk of isolation if its policies are deemed too radical.

As such, the coming year will provide the first real test for the NIC, on both land ownership and shared responsibility.

Although individual welfare payments have been declared off limits, Prime Minister John Howard has hinted that he wants an end to passive welfare for Aboriginal communities.

Under the draft shared responsibility agreement with the Mulan community in Western Australia, the federal government would contribute $172,260 to provide and install fuel bowsers in the town.

In return, the Mulan community must agree to ensure children shower every day and wash their faces twice a day, and to maintain proper standards of waste disposal.

Families and individuals must make sure children get to school on time and keep their homes and yards rubbish-free.

Health Minister Tony Abbott predicted there would be hundreds of thousands of agreements similar to Mulan's in the future whereby remote Aboriginal communities received incentives to improve hygiene and education.

Some civil libertarians have blasted the Mulan plan as paternalistic, while Labor has described the terms of that particular agreement as unbalanced and one-sided.

The communities themselves seem unperturbed, at a public level at least, and everyone agrees that chronic problems in health and education - as well as alcoholism, youth suicide and domestic violence - need to be addressed.

Indeed, shared responsibility has drawn friends in high places amongst indigenous leaders.

Former ATSIC chair Lowitja O'Donoghue has given in-principle support to performance-based welfare, saying the ongoing crises in indigenous communities required radical reform measures.

Patrick Dodson has also re-entered the fray after many years in the political wilderness, while Noel Pearson - a longtime opponent of empty welfare handouts - has also been more vocal in recent times, particularly on the subject of education.

Mr Dodson said that the concept of mutual obligation was actually part and parcel of Aboriginal culture, embedded in centuries-old lore and rituals.

Interestingly, all three are believed to have turned down an invitation from the government to join the NIC, as did former AFL star Michael Long.

Mr Long then decided to walk from Melbourne to Canberra to illustrate his point that too many Aboriginal people were dying and it was time for something to be done.

The woman who accepted the role of NIC chair, Perth magistrate Sue Gordon, said shared responsibility agreements were not paternalistic if initiated by the communities themselves.

"I don't view anything which Aboriginal people themselves set up as being paternalistic because it's not being imposed," Ms Gordon said at the end of the NIC's inaugural meeting in Canberra earlier this month.

"Rather it's Aboriginal people saying this is what I want to do with the shared responsibility."

What remains unclear is what will happen to indigenous communities who don't measure up, with future project funding in doubt for remote communities if they fail to meet performance targets set with the government.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone said it was highly unlikely the government would remove the bowser if the health situation in Mulan did not improve, but that it might not form another agreement with the community if that was the case.

She has also pointed to the `No School - No Pool' policy in some parts of the Northern Territory, whereby indigenous children can't swim at the local pool unless they first go to class.

Run by both the federal and Northern Territory governments, the program has by all accounts been a success.

Governments must also address the issue of deaths in police custody if it wants to win the confidence of Aboriginal people.

The recent death of 36-year-old Palm Island resident Cameron Doomadgee sparked a riot which resulted in the firebombing of the local police station, court house and police barracks.

The locals still aren't happy and some leaders have predicted the anger could spread elsewhere unless something is done.