Devastating failures of Australian policy on Aborigines

Land Rights Now!

(Reposted with his permission from Tracker magazine, published by the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council.)

If the publication of government reports alone were enough to lift Aboriginal people out of disadvantage, then black Australia would be the healthiest and wealthiest people on the planet. In the past seven months, at least five major reports into the appalling life circumstances of Australia’s First Nations people have been handed down by governments.

They all say pretty much the same thing. Well, almost, but we’ll come to the dissenting report in a minute.

In May, the NSW Auditor General released a report that outlined the train wreck that was the NSW government’s decade-long policy on Aboriginal affairs (Two Ways Together), noting that it had failed to deliver the outcomes intended.


In June, the federal parliament handed down a report entitled Doing Time – Time for Doing, a probe into the extraordinary rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.


That report found government programs to halt the rising incarceration rates were ineffective.


In July, the federal government was forced to release a cabinet-in-confidence document entitled Indigenous Expenditure Review.


It lays bare more than a decade of government failure, and billions of dollars of bureaucratic waste through the failed delivery of services to Aboriginal Australians. It is by some margin, the most harrowing read of government in decades.


In August, the Productivity Commission handed down its bi-annual review, which outlines Commonwealth service delivery to Aboriginal people.


The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report 2011 said exactly what was said in 2009 – government programs were failing badly, in no small part because of a lack of coordination between Commonwealth departments.


The fifth report – the dissenting document – was delivered in February.


It was the Prime Minister’s ‘Closing the Gap’ report card, an annual statement to parliament on government progress in, as the name suggests, closing the gap between black and white Australians.


Of the five reports, the Prime Minister’s is the only document to suggest government programs were starting to make a real difference. After telling parliament that Aboriginal people needed to change their behaviour for real gains to be made, Gillard said that while much remained to be done, government service delivery was heading in the right direction.


Obviously, the Prime Ministerial statement flies in the face of the available evidence. Her statement is particularly concerning in light of the contents of the Indigenous Expenditure Review, which stated the precise opposite.


Even more concerning is the reality that Gillard’s cabinet fought tooth and nail to suppress it, finally capitulating after Channel 7 took the government all the way to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and won the right to access the document under Freedom of Information laws.


All of the reports are well worth reading, because they catalogue the sort of government failure that people expect, but rarely believe, even when they see it. But the problem with them is that while they’re very good at identifying the failings, government reports have never really been particularly good at coming up with solutions.


Indeed, a common feature across all of the reports is for the authors to blame governments for their repeated failings, only to suggest governments should continue to centralise service delivery.


In other words, the reports consistently find that bureaucracies are the answer.


In fact, bureaucracies are the problem.


Which leads us to the reason why, year in year out, we keep getting reports on government failure in Aboriginal affairs policy.

Government ministers are looking for solutions in all the wrong places.


In a former life, Paul Kauffman was Associate Professor at the University of Canberra. Today, he’s Manager of Research and Planning at Aboriginal Hostels.


Kauffman has written extensively on international issues around the world, and has a particular focus on the four major western nations with Indigenous populations – Australia, America, Canada, and New Zealand.


In 2003, Kauffman published a ground breaking paper entitled Diversity and Indigenous Policy Outcomes: Comparisons between Four Nations.

It received virtually no mainstream airing upon its release.


The issue of Australia’s performance against its Western peers is a fairly sensitive subject.


We love to be compared with the US, Canada and New Zealand in the sporting arena, but when it comes to human rights – and in particular our treatment of our First Nations people – Australia has a tendency to get a little defensive.


When you read Kauffman’s report, you get a sense why.


Kauffman’s report ranks Australia against the other nations in 21 key areas, covering everything from education and employment to health and incarceration rates.

The figures are startling.


Just 13.6 percent of Indigenous Australians have a post-school qualification, compared to 85 percent of all Maoris.


Twice as many Aboriginal Canadians speak their native tongue at home, compared to Aboriginal Australians (29.3 percent versus 13.3) and almost twice as many Aboriginal Australians left school before the age of 16, compared to Aboriginal Canadians (40 percent versus 22 percent).


In First Nations youth suicide rates, Australia is a world-beater. The Maori rate – one of the worst on earth – is 56 per 100,000 head of population.

Australia’s rate is almost double that, at 108.


Of the 21 statistical areas, Australia fares worse than Canada, the US and New Zealand in every single category, except four.


We’ll return to those shortly, because the major point of Kauffman’s report is not to belt Australia over the head with its own statistical failings.

It’s to explain why we’re failing so badly.


“Contemporary Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and United States governments claim to have pledged their allegiance to similar policy approaches,” writes Kauffman.


“All governments proclaim that they are committed to renewing partnerships, strengthening Aboriginal governance, developing new fiscal relationships and supporting strong communities, people and economies. It is significant that in the United States and New Zealand, treaty and other agreements have provided extensive educational scholarships, and individual and educational and business opportunities.


And there it is – the ‘T’ word.


A treaty is merely an agreement between two parties. In the context of Indigenous peoples living under colonisation, it is self-determination by any other name. The right to run your own affairs.


But the mention of the word on Australian soil sends politicians and conservative commentators into a tail-spin.


Like this, from former Prime Minister John Howard in 1988, while launching his “One Australia” policy as Opposition Leader (the policy which saw him call for a cooling on Asian immigration).


“I abhor the notion of an Aboriginal treaty because it is repugnant to the ideals of One Australia,” Howard said.


He offered that his One Australia policy would “…welcome all those who share our vision and are ready to contribute to it.”

Presumably, Aboriginal people who want real self-determination are not “welcome”.

Kauffman’s report, however, casts treaty – and self-determination – in a far more positive light. His report argues that in Canada, the US and New Zealand, treaties have paved the way for lifting Indigenous peoples out of their disadvantage, the resultant benefit being prosperity for an entire nation.

New Zealand in particular comes in for high praise.


“The New Zealand story is remarkable, because there was always a treaty or consciousness of a treaty and after restructuring the national economy between 1987 and 1992, Maori employment and livelihood were hit hard,” writes Kauffman.


He adds: “Since 1994 many Maori people throughout New Zealand have re-established themselves to share a reasonable if not bountiful place in the modern New Zealand economy, which with globalisation and the shift to knowledge economies, is still under pressure.


“When I visited New Zealand with eleven Aboriginal leaders in 1998, Maori culture, language, regional agreements, educational initiatives and business success were much in evidence.


“Although there is not statistical equality between Maori and non-Maori in many areas, labour force participation, median weekly income and retention of 16 year olds at school approaches similar levels to non-Maori.


“New Zealand has the best comparative data over time, and that country has shown how well-integrated policies, specifically linking training, education and economic opportunity, can significantly reduce phenomena such as unemployment within a ten year time frame.”


The point being, while most Maori will argue that the Pakeha (white people) have been breaking treaties ever since they were introduced, the sky is yet to fall in on Aoateroa.


“Maori employment and educational rates increased significantly after 1992 because of Treaty settlements and effective programs,” Kauffman says.

“There is pride in their Polynesian cultural heritage and achievements. A number of Treaty or regional agreements allowed Maori to own and work in major corporations.


“It is likely that both business assets and educational investment together were critical factors for change.”


And therein lies the lesson in Kauffman’s report. Rather than hamper Aboriginal progress, treaties have in fact formed the basis of advancement. This is also the case in Canada and the US.


But in Australia, it has been an unfortunate feature of the Australian political landscape that despite having the worst life statistics for First Nations people, we have the best record in telling the rest of world ‘how to fix the blacks’.


In August 2009, Professor James Anaya – the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and one of the world’s foremost experts on Indigenous issues – travelled to Australia to get a first hand look at the Northern Territory intervention, a Howard government 2007 re-election policy that is well-known in the international human rights community for its racially discriminatory measures.


Prof Anaya didn’t like what he saw, and said as much.


In his interim report, he noted: “After several days in Australia listening and learning… I have observed a need to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones in consultation and real partnership with Indigenous peoples to conform with international standards requiring genuine respect for cultural integrity and self determination.


“Of particular concern is the Northern Territory Emergency Response. These measures overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatise already stigmatised communities.


“The emergency response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights; treaties to which Australia is a party.”


Anaya’s comments sent the conservative commentators and politicians into a rage.


Tony Abbott, then Opposition spokesman on Indigenous affairs, responded by calling Prof Anaya – a man who has devoted his life to travelling the world looking at these issues – an “armchair critic”.


News Limited reported that Prof Anaya’s call for the Racial Discrimination Act to be reinstated for Aboriginal Territorians could trigger an “army of publicly-funded human rights lawyers” to start challenging different aspects of the intervention in court.


Inexplicably, Abbott added: “If there are any concerns about the impact of this measure … why don’t we extend it more broadly? I think that would be the way to solve the problem, not to drop the measure.”


If Abbott was annoyed, the architect of the NT intervention, Mal Brough – a man with more missionary zeal than the 1930s – was apoplectic.

“I get very annoyed when I hear people pontificating about human rights when today there will be children sitting out there in abject squalor with diseases they don’t have to have, with inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health and we have some nicety about human rights legislation,” Brough told ABC radio.


“Let’s get real, look these people in the eye, instead of coming in and telling us that we’ve offended some law rather than offending the right of a child to be healthy and happy and to have a future.”


Anaya was certainly telling Brough he had offended “some law” – namely international human rights law – but he was also telling Brough that his policy was killing Aboriginal men, women and children.


The fact is, human rights don’t cause “inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health”.


Government does. And government neglect is rooted in the refusal to respect and extend basic human rights to a marginalised proportion of the population.


It’s worth remembering Brough and his colleagues were at the end of a 12-year stint in office when he discovered the desperate poverty confronting Aboriginal people.


According to the federal government’s own report into the Northern Territory intervention, released in late 2009 after two years of the policy, the death rate in intervention communities went from 10 in the year prior to the intervention, to 84 the year after.


Suicide and self-harm rates almost doubled in two years.


The intervention caused widespread starvation among Aboriginal people, and the Sunrise Health Service in Katherine reported an immediate spike of up to 57 percent in anaemia rates in children, courtesy of the intervention’s compulsory welfare quarantining provisions. The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association warned the government that the intervention was causing “immediate and lasting harm to Indigenous people”.


In announcing the policy, Howard predicted it would cost some “tens of millions” of dollars.


The bill today has climbed beyond $2 billion.


Notably, the very first recommendation of Little Children Are Sacred, the report which the Howard government used to justify the intervention, noted: “It is critical that both (the NT and federal) governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.”


Instead, the Howard government implemented the plan without any consultation with Aboriginal people, save for one – Noel Pearson, a Cape York Aboriginal man with no links to the Northern Territory.


It’s no coincidence that the NT intervention has been such an enormous policy failure.


Which brings us neatly back to the four areas in Kauffman’s report where Australia fares better than Canada, the US and New Zealand.


Unfortunately, they provide no comfort for the current Australian approach of Canberra-control of black communities.


Under the category “single parent families”, Australia beats the US with 28.1 percent versus 39 percent. Even so, you could hardly suggest that Aboriginal families stay together longer thanks to federal government policies.


It’s just the nature of black Australia to stick together longer.


Australia also fared slightly better in smoking rates than New Zealand Maori – 45 percent versus 50 percent.

But that was in 2001. The story today is quite different.


By 2006-07, efforts to stop smoking in New Zealand saw rates cut to less than 40 percent among Maori. At the same time, rates in Australia continued to climb.

In 2011, it sits at more than 50 percent.


Australia also comes in under Maori in diabetes rates – 24 percent compared to 30 percent in New Zealand.

Again, the figures have taken a turn for the worse.


Australia’s rate increased from one in four in 2001, to around one in three today. At the same time, Maori diabetes rates have decreased.

Most notably, one of the four areas where Australia doesn’t fare worse than the other three nations is in employment.


The Maori and Native Americans had unemployment rates of 10 percent and 14.6 percent respectively. Australia’s was 20 percent, but Canada’s was 24 percent.


There’s a simple reason why we didn’t finish last.


By 2001, the Community Development Employment Projects scheme (CDEP) was starting to gather steam.


CDEP was a program where Aboriginal people worked for the dole in, as the name suggested, projects aimed at building their communities.

It was created in 1977 by Aboriginal people near Katherine in the Northern Territory, as a local solution to local problems.


The program was quickly adopted – voluntarily – by Aboriginal communities around the nation, so much so that by 1996 the Census reported it was operating in more than 250 locations.


Enter the white man, in this case the Howard government.


By the mid-2000s, the Howard government had begun branding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) a “failed experiment in self-determination”.

ATSIC had to go, Howard decided, and CDEP, which was administered by ATSIC, had to go with it. It had become a “destination” rather than a step into real employment, said Howard’s ministry at the time.


When the government finally axed the program in 2007, Aboriginal unemployment had dropped to around 13.8 percent.


Today, four years after the death of CDEP, unemployment now sits at around 20 percent again.


If you want more evidence of the power of black design over white malaise, then look no further than the federal government’s recent experiences in Aboriginal housing.


While dumping on all manner of Australian Government programs aimed at alleviating Aboriginal disadvantage, the Indigenous Expenditure Review which Gillard fought so hard to suppress actually praises one scheme – the Home Ownership Program (HOP).


HOP is one of the few government programs which is actually self-funding, and was described by the Auditor General at the turn of the century as one of the best programs in the Commonwealth.


The program enables black families to access home loans at interest rates one percent lower than the Commonwealth Bank rate. Most importantly, you also don’t require substantial savings to qualify. You just need a capacity to service the loan, and a good rental history.


HOP has been around for almost two decades. Like CDEP, it was an Aboriginal creation, having been designed and launched by ATSIC. Enter the white man again. Specifically, Mal Brough.


After the abolition of the ATSIC, the HOP program – which the Commonwealth retained – saw its waiting list blow out to several years. As a result, in 2008-09, applications nose-dived by 34 percent.


Aboriginal people – who had been queuing up to access an Aboriginal controlled and created program – walked away in droves.


The Howard government could have eliminated the backlog with a fresh injection of funds – money that it would get back through the payment of interest by Aboriginal homeowners. Instead, Brough constructed a brand new program, called HOIL – Home Ownership on Indigenous Lands. He quarantined more than $100 million in housing funds desperately needed by a people who were, in many communities, sharing a single dwelling with more than 20 other residents.


Brough’s bold plan was to encourage Aboriginal people living on their own land to purchase their own homes.


Of course, Brough never stopped to ask whether Aboriginal people in remote regions even wanted to own their own homes. As it turns out, they overwhelmingly didn’t.

Thus, after several years, the HOIL program managed to secure just 15 loans worth less than $3 million.


At the same time, the Commonwealth was forced to spend almost $10 million to administer the program. By any measure, HOIL was a spectacular failure.

In yet another government report, the Australian National Audit Office slammed the program in late 2010: “While it is necessary that costs will be incurred for the establishment of a program of this nature, the administrative costs of $9.9 million for the HOIL program were very high compared to the low level of loan activity that ultimately resulted.”


Significantly, the Indigenous Expenditure Review, recommended that money be transferred out of HOIL and into HOP.


To her credit, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin last year did precisely that. It had an immediate affect, with the waiting list dropping from around 1,500 to just over 400.


Despite the enduring failure of government, there is some light on the horizon, at least in NSW. It’s a pin-prick of light, but light none-the-less.

Earlier this month, the NSW Government announced a Ministerial Taskforce in response to the Auditor General’s report into the failed Two Ways Together program.


When the Two Ways Together report was released, Victor Dominello, the new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the O’Farrell government, publicly stated that Aboriginal people were not responsible for the spectacular failure.


It was a surprise – if not refreshing – departure from the usual blame game levelled at the victim’s of government policy.


During an interview with this writer earlier this month (at the announcement of the Taskforce), Dominello was asked why he didn’t take the well worn ministerial path of blaming Aboriginal people for the failings of government.


“Because Aboriginal people weren’t at the table,” Dominello replied.


The NSW Liberal strategy of inviting Aboriginal leaders to the ministerial table is a radical departure from standard Australian government policy. It brings Aboriginal leaders into the process as equal partners. It puts Aboriginal people at least partly in control of the solutions.


As Stephen Ryan, chair of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (publisher of Tracker) put it, “It seems to be, and I hope it is, a taskforce that can address some of the outstanding issues.


“I certainly hope it will be a true partnership and it is, as the Minister says, something that hasn’t been tried before – us, the Aboriginal community of NSW, in the room with a third of the cabinet.


“It’s something we haven’t been given the opportunity to try before, so I’m certainly grateful to the Minister and his cabinet compatriots.

“But it is called a ‘taskforce’, and there’s a hard task ahead of all of us.”


A ministerial taskforce, it’s important to note, is not self-determination. To borrow a phrase from the Howard ministry, it cannot become the destination.
But it is a step in the right direction.


Just as Australia is the only nation on earth that uses the term ‘queue jumpers’ to describe perhaps the world’s most disadvantaged people, Australia is also the only Western nation on earth where self-determination is even debated, let alone considered controversial.


There also happens to be only one Western nation on earth with trachoma, a third world eye disease which has been eradicated in poor nations like Vietnam.


And there’s only one Western nation on earth which jails black males at a rate more than five times greater than South Africa did in 1993, when the Apartheid regime collapsed.


All of the reports mentioned in this feature are available on the NSWALC website, at (follow the publications link) or via the Tracker website download page (


But if you can’t be bothered reading the 40 pages of the Two Ways Together report; if you can’t be bothered reading the 56 pages of the Prime Minister’s Close the Gap report card; if you can be bothered reading the 346 pages of the Doing Time – Time for Doing report; if you can’t be bothered reading the 66 pages of the Productivity Commission’s Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report; and if you can’t be bothered reading the 470 pages of the Indigenous Expenditure Review report, do yourself a favour and read Paul Kauffman’s Diversity and Indigenous Policy Outcomes: Comparisons between Four Nations.


It’s only 28 pages, and it contains more solutions than all the other reports combined. If you’re really stuck for time, skip to the last page. There, you’ll find a table entitled ‘Key national policies and Indigenous outcomes’.


It notes that while Canada, New Zealand and the US all have “constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples”, “Indigenous Treaties” and
“Diversity-employment policies”, the column under Australia lists “none”, “none” and “few”.


Now look at the outcomes column.


The male lifespan of First Nations in Australia is 56. The others are between 67 and 68. Under infant mortality, our figures are almost twice as bad as New Zealand and the US. Over-representation in prison: United States, 1.4 times. Australia, 14 times.

Despite this, governments in Australia are still filing report after report on ‘how they broke it’, and ‘how they’ll fix it’.


The elephant in the room – the debate we must have – is about self-determination, the ONLY proven way to lift an Indigenous peoples above the atrocious affects of colonisation.


The fact is, the solutions for black poverty lie within black Australia, not white government.


Always have, always will.


Chris Graham is the Managing Editor of Tracker magazine. He is a Walkley Award winning writer and twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting on First Nations in Australia.