Blood from a Stone

The era of practical reconciliation is a wrong turn in the road. It is more than a backward step. A backward step would seem to indicate that the ground that has been lost can be easily regained. This is not true. The native title rights that have been extinguished can never be resuscitated. Cultural heritage that has been destroyed by development cannot be reclaimed. Missed opportunities to education cannot be compensated for. Mortality rates decreasing will not bring children back to life. For these reasons, the Howard Government’s policy of ‘practical reconciliation’ requires close scrutiny. This ‘practical reconciliation’ describes a policy of government funding in targeted areas of socio-economic disadvantage, namely, employment, education, housing and health.

What had begun as a disturbed and shocked response to the rise of Hansonism has been replaced by the complacent concession that perhaps things had gone too far in the other direction and that the current xenophobic conservatism is a credible and sensible way forward for Australia. Hugh Mackay’s social research is identifying this change in mood of the general populace. Nothing reinforces this picture of the current orthodoxy more than the Prime Minister’s statements published on the front page of the Australian on 6 May under the banner ‘PM’s reconciliation hope’. There the Prime Minister noted his belief that ‘the widespread rejection of welfare, and a lesser emphasis on the rights approach by Indigenous activists such as Noel Pearson showed the debate was shifting towards the Coalition’s viewpoint’.

The clear agenda, articulated more carefully and precisely by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Phillip Ruddock, is one of assimilation and integration. This, of course, is not a new ideology, but a throwback to the paternalistic days when Welfare Boards and Aboriginal Protection Boards dictated the lives of Indigenous people and their children. It is an ideology that has been used in the past, did not work then, and has not only been rejected by Indigenous people, but has left a lasting legacy of disadvantage, trauma and family breakdown that is still plaguing Indigenous communities and families today.

The cynicism of practical reconciliation

While the rhetoric of ‘practical reconciliation’ states that it will see policy target the problems in Indigenous communities, the budget figures show that there is little money spent on the issues that are affecting Indigenous communities and a lot of money being spent on stopping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights from being recognised. If there ever needed to be more evidence of what a farce the federal government policy of ‘practical reconciliation’ is, the 2001-2002 Portfolio Budget Statements provide plenty of fodder. What Howard didn’t detail is that part of this $2.3 billion went towards defending the Stolen Generations case brought by Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo in the Northern Territory, and went into the various areas of the government arm that were actively trying to defeat native title claims. That is, although it was ascribed to ‘practical reconciliation’, this money has been spent preventing the recognition and protection of Indigenous rights.

The federal government claims to have spent $2.3 billion on Indigenous issues in the last financial year. ATSIC received only $1.1 billion of that. The other $1.2 billion, spent through various government departments, is not monitored closely enough to ensure that money allocated for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues through government departments is being used effectively, efficiently, and for the benefit of our people. In 1996, ATSIC funding was drastically cut and, as a result, family violence programs had to be terminated. The 2001-2002 Portfolio Budget Statements show, however, that the federal government has only spent $2 million on Indigenous family violence. This should be compared to the $16.3 million dollars allocated to the Attorney-General’s Department and to the States for litigation against native title claimants. The money spent on a key issue like family violence can also be compared to the $450,000 dollars that was spent on Indigenous cultural, education and recruitment programs by the Department of Defence and the $4.362 million provided by the Health Department to supplement the costs of the army involvement in infrastructure projects in remote communities.

We need to be diligent about how federal dollars for ‘Indigenous Specific Programs’ is being spent. There is no sign that these budget allocations will be placed in programs that will be of benefit to Indigenous people and communities. For example, last year’s federal budget included as ‘Indigenous-specific’ $2.2 million to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry portfolio for pest and diseases monitoring and surveillance in North Queensland under the North Australian quarantine strategy. The cynicism displayed by the government towards ‘practical reconciliation’ can be best evidenced by the use of the issue of family violence as it affects Indigenous families as the cornerstone of the practical reconciliation agenda. The federal government had underspent $4.6 million of its allocation for domestic violence projects stating that it could not find appropriate programs to fund. At the same time, ATSIC allocated $4.3 million to specific family violence intervention and said during Senate estimates that they could have easily spent the money unspent by the Office of Status of Women.

More of the same

The federal government recently reiterated a greater emphasis on mainstreaming and assimilation when the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock, addressed the ATSIC Policy Conference on 26 March 2002. There he set out the five points guiding the government agenda: a shift towards individuals and families and away from Indigenous organisations; an emphasis on jobs and education; partnerships between Indigenous people and the government, which would underline the responsibilities of Indigenous people; an emphasis on substance abuse; and recognition that general programs need to cater to Indigenous needs so that Indigenous services wouldn’t be used when mainstream services could be providing them.

Although Ruddock’s talk was titled ‘Changing Direction’, the policy statement did not indicate how mainstream services were suddenly going to start performing in a way that would begin to meet the socio-economic needs of Indigenous people. It did not indicate how this move to rely more heavily on mainstream services was going to remedy their continuing failure to recognise and cater for the unique socio-economic and cultural issues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The need for specific services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has occurred because of the inability of mainstream services to provide for the specific needs of Indigenous people. This is particularly so in the areas of health, housing, employment and justice. There is nothing in the plan put forward by Philip Ruddock to indicate that those mainstream services will now be able to cater to the specific needs of Indigenous people that they have historically been incapable of addressing.

Misunderstanding the role of ATSIC

These gaps in service delivery are most times expected to be met by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission (ATSIC). However, there is some confusion about ATSIC’s roles and functions and it is often assumed that it can fix any problem. What is often not appreciated is that, although it has primary responsibility for infrastructure and CDEP, it has only supplementary responsibility for other areas — housing, legal services, domestic violence. It has no fiscal responsibility for the areas of health and education. In addition, last financial year, although its expenditure was $1.2 billion, $857 million was quarantined, leaving only $343 million in discretionary funds to fill in the gaps in federal government policy and service delivery. This has to include $155 million for operational costs and $16 million in federal government taxes. So effectively there was only $172 million in its discretionary fund. It should be noted that when $400 million was cut from the ATSIC budget by the federal government in 1996, most of the programs cut were infrastructure programs. These were the programs that were largely focused on capacity building in communities and for individuals.

ATSIC’s ability to fulfil its role as a supplementary funder is restricted by its fiscal constraints and institutional limitations. The Commonwealth Grants Commission reported in 2001 that the failure of mainstream programs to effectively address the needs of Indigenous people meant that Indigenous specific programs were expected to do more than they were designed for. A report this year from the Australian National Audit Office noted that this places pressure on ATSIC funding where mainstream programs do not cope with the demands, and as a result ATSIC programs often substitute rather than supplement funding from other agencies.

ATSIC is a unique experiment in public administration. It has an elected arm that has accountability to its Indigenous constituency and then it has a bureaucracy that is, under the principle of the separation of powers, supposed to be neutral. The bureaucracy has to report to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and to the Board. Navigating the distance between the political agenda of the Board and the political agenda of the government is an on-going challenge. The scrutiny and accountability ATSIC receives is in stark contrast to the other government departments administering parts of the ‘Indigenous specific programs’. They have no review mechanisms for effectiveness or for accountability to the Indigenous community.

Given the institutional tensions within ATSIC as a policy making organisation, its pending review is something that must be closely monitored. It is right to review ATSIC at this point in time. It has been there for twelve years, and has gone from an appointed to an elected Chair. It is also timely given the tendency to increasingly devolve responsibility for Indigenous issues to the States. It is a very different institution now than it was under the leadership of Lowitja O’Donahue. The potential for reimagining the structure and role of ATSIC at this moment could be great. As then Acting CEO Geoff Scott stated in a memo to ATSIC staff in May, 2002: ‘The review would not be seen as a threat but an opportunity to objectively and constructively examine the role and responsibilities of ATSIC’.

An ATSIC review should also come as no surprise. It has been part of the federal government’s agenda for a while and was certainly part of their election platform. The review will consider the adequateness of advocacy and representation of Indigenous people (particularly Indigenous women), service delivery and the role of reviewing the effectiveness of legislation. There are problems with the structure of the organisation that Ruddock has identified. He has also said that the review will not be prescriptive and will be done in consultation with the Board of Commissioners. If the government undertakes an independent, constructive and honest review of the operations and effectiveness of its functions, it will be of benefit. If the agenda of the review is tainted by the continuing cynicism of the federal government about Indigenous matters, it will be a wasted opportunity and will perpetuate the problems of developing and implementing effective policy.

On the ground

The Howard Government’s policies have done nothing to alter the socio-economic disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This embrace of an assimilation policy as the new cornerstone in Howard’s Indigenous policy is a dangerous direction and it is disturbing that there has not been more vocal opposition to this reversion to policies that were rejected more than thirty years ago as being fundamentally flawed. It highlights the fact that the federal government has no vision on Indigenous issues and can only repeat antiquated and out-dated policies.

Things are happening in Indigenous communities, and it is not because of federal government policies. The most exciting and transforming activities within the Indigenous community are not propelled by government policy but have been facilitated by Indigenous people themselves. For example, Indigenous women have been seeking solutions to endemic levels of violence in Indigenous communities. They are the ones who set up the community-based initiatives and institutions, the dry-out shelters, the medical centres and the community buses when government policy fails. They make things happen when the federal government can only find $2 million dollars a year to allocate to family violence in Indigenous families.

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