Ken Smith: We won’t Close the Gap without changing how we work with Indigenous communities

Timeless Aboriginal artwork by Jordan Roser
  • Published Date: 13 February 2018

Speech by ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith at an Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity panel, on the release on the 10th annual Closing the Gap Report, in Canberra 12 February 2018

I would like to recognise the Ngunawal people, their elders, past and present, as the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather.

Ten years on from the commencement of the Closing the Gap initiative, the ‘big policy solution’ in Indigenous affairs eludes us. While there has been some improvement in three of the seven targets, there is still so much to do both in the target areas identified , as well as in significant areas which are not part of the Closing the Gap targets, like the massive overrepresentation in both the criminal justice and the alternative care systems.

It is clear that Australia has settled into a rhythm of Indigenous affairs policy, where a solutions-focused approach to policy development and implementation leads governments and the public sector to forever trial and test new approaches, new machineries of government, and new funding arrangements.

The 2018 Closing the Gap report shows that we are not living up to our responsibility to Australia’s First Peoples, particularly those in remote communities, where the gap in health and welfare outcomes with non-Indigenous Australia is the widest.

We have made some progress in a few areas. We are on track to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020, and to halve the gap in Indigenous mortality rates, and to improve early childhood education attendance. The goals of lifting school attendance, halving the gap in unemployment and lifting literacy and numeracy rates are set to expire without being met.

However, we need to be careful to break this data down to get a better understanding of the different issues, and therefore performance, impacting on the diverse communities in urban, regional, rural and remote Australia.

These broad figures can oversimplify a complex picture. Success is not happening in a uniform way. There are different results across our vast geography, and our varied Indigenous communities.

The Prime Minister’s speech today acknowledged the need to work more closely with Indigenous communities, and to do things ‘with’ them not ‘to’ them (a mantra that is attributed to the educationalist, Chris Sarra).

Mr Turnbull agreed that the Closing the Gap targets were in some ways inappropriate and developed without buy-in from Indigenous communities.

The targets are now being refreshed. We can only hope we will end up with goals which, while still reflecting the aspirations of Indigenous Australians, are hopefully more nuanced and take into account the strengths of Indigenous communities as well.

Working through COAG, Closing the Gap should provide for a positive policy space for cross-jurisdictional cooperation. And yet, our failure to meet many of the Closing the Gap targets represents the inadequacy of the policy process, as it stands, to respond to the widely differing needs and aspirations of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In particular, we must remember that whilst our thinking supports a common process for policy development and implementation, this may not always align with the view of diverse communities with their own cultural traditions and experiences.

In a great contribution to the 2016 Australasian Evaluation Society Conference, Peter Johnson outlines his work with the Kanyirnnpa Jukurrpa communities in the Western Desert area and reminds us:

“Martu live in a different culture… It means their interests, their inspirations, their fears, their motivations, their perceptions and their priorities are all different… We can’t apply mainstream policy prescriptions or expect mainstream policy answers to work.”

Making any refreshed process a success will require a change in the way our governments approach the design and delivery of Indigenous policy.

There is a consensus that we need better consultation with Indigenous communities, co-production of policy and localised implementation. But how do we fully realise these aims?

There is a danger that the intention of creating a genuine partnership with Indigenous communities, and doing things ‘with’ them not ‘to’ them will not make the transition from rhetoric to reality.

Politicians have an important leadership role to play, but much of the work needs to be done on a day-to-day basis by the various services on the ground which are accounting up into their silos rather than out into the community.

This must include involving Indigenous communities in every phase of policy design and development; respecting their knowledge and culture; and employing Indigenous people at all levels of our public services.

In December 2017 ANZSOG, in partnership with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, held a forum which, for the first time, brought together the most senior Indigenous public servants from across Australia and New Zealand.

Delegates to the forum emphasised repeatedly that there are no clear policy solutions in the Indigenous affairs space. If there were, we would not be repeating past mistakes, searching for the ‘right’ machinery of government which continues to elude us, and dealing with some of the same issues that have persisted since the 1967 referendum (and indeed since Europeans came to these shores).

It is difficult for government and those of us in the public sector to acknowledge that we do not have the policy answers. We do not know best.

The public policy challenge in Indigenous affairs is immense, and a substantive rethink of our assumptions and approaches is necessary. It is vital that we acknowledge this. Only by recognising our failings can we open ourselves to a new way.

We must broaden our thinking beyond the technical details of Indigenous affairs policy, or the machinery of government for administering that policy. I would encourage us to think about this public policy challenge as one of subsidiarity in decision-making within our federation, and of trust from our governments and public sector in First Peoples as the guardians of their own futures.

This would represent a dramatic but important change.

Since the 1967 referendum which empowered the Commonwealth to make policy relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, we should acknowledge we have been experimenting with decision-making arrangements.

We have seen a huge amount of churn, as structures are repeatedly changed to try and balance the need for centralised oversight with the delivery of services by governments and communities.

The fundamental issue here is a critical lack of alignment between the three domains of government: political aims, the policy process, and the administrative or service delivery arrangements that support them.

Glyn Davis, Catherine Althaus and Peter Bridgman argue in The Australian Policy Handbook that no political agenda can be achieved without coordination between these three domains. Without harmonisation between domains, governments lack the organisational and analytical capacity to deliver on their political commitments.

Calls for the creation of a voice to Parliament in the Uluru Statement from the Heart were a structural response by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to properly inform our political domain. Without constitutional recognition of our First Peoples and their prior sovereignty, and clarifying the collective links to the political systems, it is impossible to also get alignment of policy and delivery domains. This remains a key issue in getting the three domains to align to achieve the changes we strive for.

This is not a new issue of course. Henry Reynolds in his book, The Whispering in our hearts recalls a speech in the 1840’s by barrister and politician, Richard Windeyer who argued against Aboriginal rights and claims to land, but finished the speech thus:

“How is it that our minds are not satisfied?... What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

The loss of ATSIC has deprived us of a representative Indigenous voice in policy and service delivery coordination, and that loss has not been fully replaced.

This does not mean we cannot be innovative in transforming the way government engages Indigenous communities in the policy or delivery process.

The principle of subsidiarity should guide our approach to Indigenous affairs. This means more than consultation and involvement of our First Peoples in policies intended to improve their communities, to improve their educational, health or employment outcomes.

Subsidiarity dictates substantive and autonomous decision-making power at the local or regional level. We need to imagine arrangements in our federation that give First Peoples control over decision-making of Indigenous public policy, as well as the implementation of that policy.

These communities possess a deep knowledge of their culture and history. The longest living culture on earth, no less. They do know best, and it is time to listen to them.

Localising decision-making and implementation of Indigenous public policy will require trust. In ANZSOG’s work with Indigenous leaders in the public sector, the question of trust has been foremost in the discussion. The public sector needs to trust, empower and acknowledge First Peoples and their communities as leaders in the policy space.

This will be the first step in breaking the rhythm of machinery of government change and searching for policy solutions. We need to change the paradigm of Indigenous public policy and trust Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to lead change, not only in the two domains of policy and service delivery, but also in the important domain of political leadership. Only then might we begin to close the gap.

"Timeless" artwork by Jordan Roser