Indigenous policy must be in Indigenous hands

Harnessing Indigenous experience

Justin McCaul

Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

17 July 2019

Only learning from past mistakes will improve policies for Indigenous people, Justin McCaul writes.

Improving the effectiveness of Indigenous policy has no easy, single solution. The question is complex and multifaceted, and results will require time and resources. These are just a few factors critical to more effective Indigenous policy.

In his 2018 speech to the Australian Parliament on the release of the 10th Closing the Gap report, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he intended to take a new approach to address the socioeconomic challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

He said it was time for his government to start doing things ‘with’ and not ‘to’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Expressing such a sentiment just months after rejecting the Uluru Statement and its call for exactly that meant his words could only be taken with a large grain of salt.

The idea that we want a more significant role in determining the policies that impact our lives is neither new nor novel. We are determined to be the agents of our own change.

In 2017, Oxfam Australia produced a report on the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. It was a report card on how Australia was faring in respecting the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (spoiler alert: not so good).

Not simply judging the efforts of successive Australian governments, we also wanted to highlight through case studies the largely unnoticed efforts of many of the Indigenous organisations working in policy and service delivery.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have over many decades built an impressive network of community-based organisations at national and state levels with a body of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t across a range of social policy areas.

More on this: NAIDOC WEEK Policy File: Towards a shared future

There is a wealth of policy knowledge amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that will make policy much more effective. Our frustration is not that we don’t know what to do, but how governments can translate this experience and advice into policy.

In addition to utilising Indigenous policy expertise, other critical factors are the departments and public servants that administer Indigenous policy. Before joining ANU I did some research on the challenges Indigenous organisations face in working with governments.

It was an insight into how Indigenous organisations work daily with a range of public servants at various levels of authority. Almost all Indigenous respondents I spoke with understand public servants are under considerable pressure and working within the policies set by their minister.

The organisations I spoke with were still dealing with the decisions to centralise Indigenous programs within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2013 which had caused confusion and fatigue, and the cut of more than $500 million from Indigenous programs.

Predictably, these decisions had a direct impact on Indigenous organisations, but what emerged in my discussions was Indigenous respondents seeing a noticeable loss of institutional knowledge amongst government staff who were working with their organisations.

More on this: The Uluru Statement from the Heart: A road to reconciliation

Many public servants had established relationships and a body of knowledge about the unique factors that impact on Indigenous organisations. Without this expertise, there were delays in decision making and a lack of clarity on reporting requirements.

Indigenous land management organisations felt most affected and even called for the Indigenous ranger and protected areas programs to be moved back to the Department of Environment, where staff had the technical skills and knowledge required to work with them.

Effective Indigenous policy needs public servants with not only the technical skills and knowledge but also a high degree of cultural competence for working effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations.

While there have been setbacks, there are some promising changes underway. Back in 2012, the then chairman of the Productivity Commission observed:

“It is said that ‘the greatest tragedy of failure is failing to learn from it’. But that seems to be the predominant history of Indigenous policies and programs.”

It’s taken six years, but in December 2018 the first Indigenous Policy Evaluation Commissioner of the Productivity Commission was appointed to deal with a major gap in effective Indigenous policy – the lack of a whole-of-government Indigenous Evaluation Strategy to measure the effectiveness of Indigenous policies and programs.

The Productivity Commission has just released an Issues Paper seeking public submissions to assist in developing its evaluation framework and strategy. Knowing what works and what doesn’t will help shape more effective Indigenous policy.

More on this: Indigenous suicide epidemic must end

Significant also is the appointment of Ken Wyatt as Minister for Indigenous Australians and the creation of a new agency to administer Indigenous policy.

Mr Wyatt is the first Indigenous person to hold the reins of the Indigenous affairs portfolio and the response from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to his appointment has been largely positive.

However, he has a huge challenge to reverse the belief amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that Indigenous policy – as developed by governments in isolation – is bereft of ideas and is at a dead end.

Time will tell if Minister Wyatt can meet the expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and create the space for us to start shaping Indigenous policy, but so long as Indigenous policy is focused on Indigenous voices, the future holds promise.

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