Many commentators are concerned that Western democracies appear incapable of dealing with the recurrent crises confronting them. It strikes me this problem is particularly resonant with respect to Indigenous policy and politics. Australian Indigenous politics seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis since we resolved to dismantle the barriers to a full and inclusive citizenship for Indigenous Australians. Crises in Indigenous policy and politics seem to be the norm. This begs the question: is it possible to be in a chronic crisis?
The problems that confront Australia’s Indigenous society are well documented; indeed, they are recorded in clinically precise terms. Successive Australian governments have developed sophisticated accountability systems for reporting on Indigenous outcomes and the problems are long-standing and familiar.¹ Despite our deep familiarity with the chronic challenges that beset Indigenous communities, Indigenous policymaking exhibits a recidivist pattern of crises. Two are in play at the time of writing—the threatened closures of remote Western Australian communities and the persistent problem of domestic violence.2 The Northern Territory Intervention in 2007 is another recent example.
Indigenous policy crises cluster around recurring themes. Social dysfunction underpins one such theme, and includes issues such as violence, sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, petrol sniffing and juvenile justice. Then there is the Indigenous rights cluster, with issues including land rights, land title claims or racial discrimination laws. Occasionally, more mundane policy matters such as health or education bubble up and become crises. There is also another set of crises that form when governments radically overhaul the administration of Indigenous programs. These crises often entail the resetting of relationships with Indigenous constituencies, but it is unusual for the issues they deal with—such as high rates of renal failure in Indigenous communities, funding for remote schools and delivery of childcare services—to generate sustained media coverage and commentary.
Governments seem to oscillate between political hand-wringing, with ritual calls to action, and radical policy change. I contend this pattern in policy is a symptom of institutional failure, with a number of contributing factors. The political relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, for instance, is an ongoing point of contention. And politics within Indigenous Australia has at times worked against policy stability. However, the current debates around constitutional reform, and the reform of Australian federalism, raise questions about the potential for institutional change to address some of these issues.
One of the factors that contributes to institutional failure is the lack of institutional ballast in our parliamentary system or public sector to counter any overreach by executive arms of government when it comes to Indigenous policy. Much of what appear to be crises in Indigenous affairs could be avoided if government policy ideas were more strongly contested. This would be an important foil to the tendency by governments to frame policy in ideological terms. There are also no structural mechanisms at this point to bring Indigenous interests into the policy conversation. The executive arm of government can choose to consult on Indigenous policy proposals, but there is no mechanism that compels it to do so.
Crises in administration
Not all administrative policy crises in Indigenous affairs percolate into the mainstream press, but Indigenous communities and organisations always experience these crises very acutely. They invariably result in a series of crisis meetings, in which bureaucrats will explain (yet again) how the new ‘approach’ will improve outcomes for the community or organisation. An activist once described these policy encounters as ‘the follies’—a burlesque performance in which the caricatured performance ridicules the more serious business at hand. The scepticism of many Indigenous stakeholders that anything in the policy realm is really new or will lead to better outcomes is probably warranted.
The most recent adventure in Indigenous program reform by an Australian government followed the election of the Abbott government in 2013. The government had signalled in its electoral platform that it would centralise policy leadership on Indigenous affairs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). It was less clear, however, about its intention to undertake an ambitious redesign of Indigenous program administration. Indigenous programs (with some significant exceptions) were to be hoovered up from their current departmental homes, regardless of whether these arrangements had been effective, and centralised in PM&C—in spite of the fact that PM&C had minimal capability in the administration of services and absolutely no experience in Indigenous affairs. The programs were then reorganised into a new framework—the ‘Indigenous Advancement Strategy’ or IAS.3
It would be understatement to suggest the rollout of the IAS has been relatively fraught.4 It was made more difficult by the decision in the 2014 federal budget to reduce expenditure across the Indigenous affairs program by half a billion dollars.5 In October 2014 programs incorporated in the IAS were required to rebid for their funding. This threw the Indigenous non-government sector into a state of chaos, with small service-delivery organisations suddenly thrust into a competitive bidding process. The process was also poorly communicated and, from a community perspective, lacked coherent policy logic. It is inconceivable any Australian government would be so politically inept as to inflict this approach to program reform on mainstream services in, for example, education, community services or health.
The ambition of this agenda was certainly bold, but it has resulted in some unusual arrangements. Having portfolio ministers, such as in health and education, retain policy authority for Indigenous strategy recognises that mainstream services in these portfolios have a vital role to play in improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians. However, the administrative authority for developing and implementing targeted Indigenous programs related to their portfolios lies not with the respective minister but with the minister for Indigenous Affairs, who sits within PM&C. Furthermore, a number of targeted programs moved over to PM&C, and aligned with the IAS, have their legislative basis unchanged. In other words, they still lie under the delegation of the minister with portfolio responsibility not PM&C. Accountabilities are therefore muddled and carry a significant risk of disconnecting strategy from program delivery.
There is an earnest sincerity on the part of all those in government who have been executing the current reforms; everyone involved gets a gold star for wanting to do good. Unfortunately, no-one seems to have much institutional memory. Indigenous stakeholders, unlike policy leaders in government, remember too well the last radical reform of Indigenous programs that occurred in 2004. In that year, the Howard government radically reformed the administration of all its Aboriginal programs by disestablishing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and decentralising its Indigenous programs—the recent Abbott government reforms are a complete reversal of this move. Some Indigenous programs, such as those in higher education and health, were already embedded in departments, but the rest were reassigned to portfolios aligned with program objectives.
The reason for these reforms lay in the Howard government’s deep suspicion of the idea of self-determination. ATSIC, with its elected regional council structure and board of Indigenous commissioners, was seen to be the institutional embodiment of this idea. Thus the decision to decentralise the government’s Indigenous programs appeared to be a secondary consequence of this political imperative.
The Howard government reforms came with their own set of challenges. Having disconnected the programs, complex inter-governmental processes were created at a ministerial and at an executive level of the Australian public service to offset the risks of siloed policy and program development.
Shared-responsibility agreements negotiated with local communities tied local behavioural change to government commitments to fund community initiatives such as building a swimming pool or installing petrol pumps.
When the Hawke Labor government established ATSIC in 1989, the idea was for the commission to replace the administrative functions of the then Department of Aboriginal Affairs. It was a radical experiment in program governance and its design was clearly influenced by the idea of Indigenous selfdetermination. However, it too had considerable problems with its institutional architecture. ATSIC lacked significant purchase on the policy and financing agenda of the central Commonwealth agencies, such as PM&C, Treasury and the Finance Department. It also limited the extent to which distinct Indigenous sectors could influence their respective mainstream policy and financing agenda. This was most apparent when the Aboriginal Health Services (AHS) sector revolted, and advocated for Indigenous health programs to be moved out of ATSIC and into the Commonwealth health department in order to exercise more influence over health policy and financing.6 In 1995 this view prevailed. Interestingly, some commentators saw this as a blow to the ideology of selfdetermination, while others, including the AHS sector, saw it in opposite terms.
It would be wrong to characterise all decisions in Indigenous policy as radical ideological disjunctions that have not delivered benefit, as there has been modest success in some policy arenas. In health, for example, a greater focus on the use of evidence and data has productively informed an incremental development in policy, and paid dividends in providing a more rational platform for decision-making. This is further reinforced by the progressive development of institutional capability across the relevant professional bodies, public sector and health industry.
The cycle of crises in the administration of Indigenous programs is in part, however, a consequence of the lack of contestation in the policy and political system on reform proposals. It leads me to conclude that unless we address this institutional failure, it is unlikely we will create a more stable administrative environment. It is equally unlikely any new model will be based on robust notions of good public policy and program design.
Political frames. Indigenous citizenship.
What is at the heart of this problem? The answer is complex. Certainly the broader structural and systemic problems apparent in Western liberal democracies are at play. However, there are also issues particular to settler democracies that need attention. Settler democracies have a unique challenge in developing political structures in relation to indigenous peoples. Through colonisation, indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands, cultural and material resources, and also subordinated in the political structures of the settler state. Settler democracies thus navigate an unresolved tension between two distinct forms of indigenous citizenship. One of these forms recognises the historical continuities of some indigenous rights and the other contextualises the rights of indigenous peoples compared with other citizens.
This tension is reflected, albeit in simplistic terms, in the political framing of Indigenous issues. There are enduring tropes in political discourse about Indigenous Australians, which shape political speeches, media reporting and policy thinking.7 In progressive politics there is a persistent frame that emphasises the need for structural and systemic reform, sometimes uncritically valorises Aboriginal culture, and is committed to Indigenous self-determination. In conservative politics, the more popular frame emphasises the need for Indigenous Australians to change their behaviours and has a tendency to construct Aboriginal culture as part of the problem. Although it allows for Indigenous self-management, it constructs self-determination as a possible threat to the integrity of Australian sovereignty.
The problem with such ideological frames is that they limit policy thinking to simplistic binaries, when Indigenous policy requires nuance and the ability to navigate complex and challenging issues. Unchecked, the simple application of ideological frames to Indigenous issues can result in unintentional policy harm. There is also a deeper problem that sits behind these political frames: competing models of Indigenous citizenship that underpin our policy debates. For much of the history of federation, Indigenous citizenship was restricted perforce to the Australian Constitution and to the legislative programs of the Commonwealth and state governments. Some have referred to this model of citizenship as ‘citizen minus’.8
‘Citizen minus’ progressively unfolded to be replaced by notions of civic equality in relation to Indigenous citizenship. This form of citizenship normalised the constellation of rights and expectations for Indigenous Australians as they are for other Australians. This was achieved through the reform of laws relating to voting rights, and further realised as state governments progressively and independently repealed the legislation that differentially regulated Aboriginal life—including the right to marry, take a job or simply to move around the country.
This level of civic equality is a significant advance on ‘citizen minus’ but, as critics point out, it is still blind to the historical circumstances of Indigenous Australians. It ignores the dispossession and marginalisation that form the historical basis of our contemporary liberal democracy, and does not fully recognise the rights that might flow from this, such as native title. Narrowly interpreted, this model fails to realise the full active participation of Indigenous Australians in our institutions of government, opting instead for ‘mere formal and passive membership’.9
‘Citizen plus’, a slogan used by indigenous Canadians in the 1970s, is a more aspirational model of citizenship that encompasses the recognition of specific Indigenous rights, such as native title. Importantly, it recognises the ongoing existence of an Indigenous polity in the context of the Australian state. It is an aspirational model in that it provides for a policy focus on the development of targeted programs, such as in education or health, that are designed to ameliorate Indigenous disadvantage and to create an Indigenous capability in mainstream institutional structures. It provides us with a lens through which we can address some of the institutional failures that have created the cycle of crises that characterise Indigenous policy.
If we are to build a stronger platform for Indigenous development and move past the cycle of crises, we need to create an institutional environment that enables a longer term vision. We also need to ask some fairly fundamental questions of our institutions of government. Are we, for example, prepared to question the adequacy of our parliamentary system? Are we prepared to engage with reforms to our parliamentary process that support the more active participation of Indigenous Australians? These are some of the questions that could be advanced through debates on constitutional reform and on Australian federalism.
While it is true that Indigenous Australians have been more successful in the past few years in seeking representation in the parliamentary system, they are elected foremost to represent the interests of their electoral constituency. They are not elected to advance Indigenous interests, which may at times not be supported by their electorate or run counter to the policy agenda of their political party. It is also true that Indigenous stakeholders have been increasingly sophisticated in engaging with the political process through lobbying. However, there is no structural mechanism that represents Indigenous interests in our parliamentary system, nor is there a mechanism to compel the executive to consult with Indigenous interests in the development of policy proposals affecting Indigenous Australians. While this is a challenge for the democratic process it may benefit policymaking by providing the ballast needed to create a more stable policy environment with a focus on goal setting for the longer term.
1 Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014, Productivity Commission, Canberra, 2014; Australian Government, Closing the Gap: Prime Minister’s Report 2015, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2015 (licensed from the Commonwealth of Australia under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence).
2 D. Harrison, ‘Remote indigenous communities under threat’, Age, 14 November 2014; N. Vanovac, ‘NT family violence in the spotlight’, Australian, 10 March 2015.
3 Australian Government, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, ‘Indigenous Advancement Strategy’, 2014, <http://www.dpmc.gov.au/indigenous-affairs/about/indigenous-advancement-strategy>.
4 M. Langton, ‘Indigenous change propels inertia’, Australian, 21 February 2015.
5 M. Coggan, ‘Budget 2014: $534 million cut to Indigenous programs’, ABC News, 13 May 2014.
6 Ian Anderson, ‘Powers of Health, on the Politics of Self-determining Aboriginal Health’, Arena, vol. 11 (1994), pp. 32–6.
7 R. Aldrich, A.B. Zwi and S. Short, ‘Advance Australia Fair: Social democratic and conservative politicians’ discourses concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their health 1972–2001’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 64, no. 1 (2007), pp. 125–37.
8 D. Mercer, ‘“Citizen minus”? Indigenous Australians and the Citizenship Question’, Citizenship Studies, vol. 7, no. 4 (2003), pp. 421–45.
9 Mercer, ‘“Citizen minus”?’.