Quiet revolution a silent disaster

16 September 2005

John Howard's government is in a world of trouble over its quiet revolution in Aboriginal affairs. And they know it.

From trials that are supposed to reduce red tape but see 76 percent of funding spent on the bureaucracy, to agreements that cost the bureaucracy $5 to get $1 into Aboriginal communities, the state of Indigenous affairs is a dog's breakfast. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is deluded.

The government's 'quiet revolution' is fast becoming a silent disaster.

There are many reasons for that, but the most compelling is that the alleviation of poverty and poor health in Aboriginal communities now relies solely on motivating the mainstream Australian Public Service and changing its culture.

Aboriginal disadvantage has built over 200 years. The APS has built a culture over 100 years. Neither change quickly.

There are many individuals within the APS who are committed to lifting Aboriginal Australia from the mire and have the capacity to do so, but they are in the minority.

Despite popular belief bureaucrats, by and large, are no more motivated to help Indigenous people than most Australians.

But even if they were, most simply don't understand Aboriginal people or culture and so won't be able to adequately meet their needs.

The US, Canada and New Zealand realised long ago that to facilitate Aboriginal advancement, self-determination was crucial. In Australia, we get 'Shared Responsibility Agreements'. The principle is not, of itself, an offensive concept. The challenges confronting Aboriginal Australia are extreme, and they require extreme solutions.

SRAs will certainly not prove to be the whole solution. They may prove to be a complete disaster. But that is more inevitable when politics becomes involved, and the whole SRA process is being driven by precisely that.

Rather than maintain the status quo while the principle of Shared Responsibility was rolled out and tested (not to mention evaluated), the Howard government instead dismantled an enormous and - despite the critics - largely effective regional Indigenous network.

Why? In the name of politics.

The decision to abolish ATSIC, and later the regional council structure, came about because the Coalition was trying to match an ALP promise. Both had an upcoming election squarely in mind. Neither were thinking about the welfare of Aboriginal people.

The result is a confused, lumbering bureaucracy trying desperately now to catch up.

But politics, having played a part in the downfall of ATSIC, also re-emerged with the construction and roll-out of the SRAs.

The Howard government committed itself to a target of 100 quick SRAs - the result is a bureaucracy scrambling to sign communities onto everything and anything that has the appropriate initials attached. The SRAs, as they are currently being practised, are mere window dressing.

Meanwhile, the core of the problem facing Aboriginal Australia remains untackled - unmet need. Sadly, it looks unlikely either Labor or Liberal will acknowledge that problem any time soon. Both have run the public line that throwing more money at Aboriginal affairs is not the solution. But both know it is, at least, in part.

The claim is simply an attempt to pander to an electorate that neither understands nor particularly cares about the plight of Aboriginal Australia.

The Australian Medical Association has identified a funding shortfall in Aboriginal health of half a billion dollars.

Numerous government reports have identified an unmet need in Indigenous housing of more than $2 billion.

There is one other aspect of politics that warrants mention.

The abolition of ATSIC was, in political terms, the greatest strategic error the Prime Minister will probably ever make. The Coalition no longer has an Aboriginal organisation to use as a whipping boy. There's no ATSIC to scapegoat anymore for the ongoing failures of the Howard government.

That is the only positive to come out of the abolition of the nation's peak Indigenous body and the only up-side of the quiet revolution.