Template in place for progress in indigenous communities

Release Date: 
7 February 2015

NICOLAS Rothwell is one of the most thoughtful writers on indigenous matters, but his critique of federal government policy fails to comprehend the stark shift that is under way — in priorities, governance and practical action.

This shift will not result in communities being turned around overnight — an impossible expectation — but progress is already being made and the structures are in place for accelerated progress this year and beyond.

Rothwell’s primary critique is that continued disengagement of remote people shows that successive governments’ policies have failed. He attributes the perceived failure to passive resistance to government policies of incentives and restrictions that allegedly don’t respect indigenous identity.

Rothwell overstates the element of ideological resistance, quoting a figure of remote indigenous disengagement from the job search system that is several times the government estimates. More significantly, however, he understates the impact that long-term passive welfare dependence has had on disengagement and remote dysfunction.

Consider some of the statistics today. Only 16 per cent of 17 to 24-year-olds in remote indigenous Australia are in full-time work or study. More adults are dependent on welfare than work. Yet as recently as 1971, the indigenous male employment rate was 66.2 per cent — almost as high as the mainstream employment rate today.

The figures are similar with education. Schooling was the norm in the 1970s but has reached catastrophic levels today in remote areas, giving future generations few choices in life. Wadeye school is most instructive. School attendance was 90 per cent in 1977, but is now 50 per cent. Only a quarter of Northern Territory kids today attend school regularly enough to learn (that is, at least 80 per cent of the time).

These sharp declines aren’t the result of ideological resistance growing across time; older people in the communities despair at the decline in engagement. Rather, the disengagement has coincided with the immersion into welfare, alcohol and unemployment.

This occurs in our suburbs across people of all backgrounds, but in these suburbs there are at least people working and studying in proximity who set community expectations. In the remote communities, the extent of passivity is so high that it has become normalised. Some kids tell you that when they grow up, they want to be on welfare.

Rothwell believes that the main response to this social breakdown has been the introduction of incentives and disincentives to change behaviour. I have great respect for Rothwell, but I believe his analysis is incorrect.

The main policy response to remote ill-health during the past four decades has been more and more government services, often exacerbating the disengagement.

A government service has been created for every problem that has arisen. When children started to coming to school hungry, the government started a breakfast program. When they were bored, we started a sport and recreation program. When people started roaming at night, we created a night patrol program.

The service delivery approach has been so dominant that a typical community has one program for every five residents. A community such as Wilcannia in western NSW was found to have 102 funded initiatives for its 500 people. A further 17 were proposed.

In many cases, these services have removed responsibility from the individuals they are seeking to support. After a few years of providing free breakfasts, is it any wonder that parents no longer think it is their responsibility to feed their kids in the morning?

Where there have been incentives put in place to change behaviour, they rarely have been enforced. The former government said it would cut welfare for not sending kids to school. Attendance went up as a result but dropped again when people realised the government wasn’t serious. Only three parents had any of their welfare cancelled.

There are truancy fines in every state, but they are almost never issued. There were some incentives for home ownership, but land tenure was not reformed concurrently to allow remote people to buy their social housing.

Incentives can work, but they must be clear and enforced immediately. The Abbott government knows that change in remote communities is exceptionally hard, and changing social norms even more so.

To come to government and see radical on-the-ground change within a year is not realistic.

But the changes that the Abbott government has put in place are real and provide the platform for further progress in years ahead.

Our changes are at three levels.

The first is philosophical. On coming to office, Tony Abbott said there would be three priorities for indigenous affairs: getting kids to school and adults to work, and ensuring communities are safe.

The service delivery approach is being abandoned because it misses the essential point: that if children are not busy learning and adults are not busy working for sustenance, no amount of services or programs will improve community functionality.

The key metrics then follow — school attendance, adult work participation and rates of crime.

This sharp focus doesn’t sound radical, but it actually represents an explicit abandonment of welfare passivity and service proliferation in favour of engagement as the primary overarching goal.

The second level of change has been governance reform that streamlines authority and transfers it to indigenous regions.

Our changes started with the Prime Minster moving all federal indigenous-specific programs into his own department, giving indigenous affairs more status and authority.

Next was the merging of 150 indigenous-specific programs into five broad ones to co-ordinate activities around the core priorities.

Rothwell omits that the most important governance reform takes place at the regional level. Authority is being devolved down to a senior-level regional public servant who will have executive authority and be tasked with being a problem-solver rather than a contract manager, working in partnership with indigenous leaders on the ground.

These reforms are crucial because many Canberra-designed programs come into indigenous communities with insufficient tailoring, co-ordination or local authority. The people in Ceduna in South Australia, for example, have had as many as 95 programs focusing on youth problems.

The governance changes mean we can work in partnership with indigenous leaders in the regions around the three priorities and have accountability for them. Eight regional indigenous leader groups are proposing to establish new local governance structures (the Empowered Communities model) to ensure that there is a genuine engagement model.

Finally, at the practical level of reform, we are already seeing early results.

School attendance has increased in most of the remote communities where local school attendance officers have been employed

The first 34 schools have been identified that will get the “direct instruction” teaching method successfully pioneered by Noel Pearson in Cape York schools. Much more is required in getting children to school regularly. But a start has been made.

Twenty-four indigenous training centres have been established guaranteeing 5000 jobs for those who complete the courses. This model is radically different to the training-for-training’s-sake model that is so common.

In remote communities, we have started the rollout of full-time work for the dole along with significant incentives for people to take jobs outside their community. Andrew Forrest has given us a blueprint for further action by government, large business and training providers to boost the employment rate of indigenous people.

Perhaps the most powerful lever a federal government has to improve community safety is to stem the flow of welfare cash that goes directly to alcohol and drugs. Most assaults are grog-related. We are putting more money into police stations but also looking very seriously at restrictions on cash.

Rothwell says the income management doesn’t work but omits to mention that the mechanism of income management has been proven to work: 99.8 per cent of the managed portion of welfare payments was protected from being spent on prohibited items.

The government is therefore considering the Forrest report’s conceptually different “healthy welfare card”, with an increased proportion of a person’s welfare not being discretionary.

An increase in the protected portion may well be supported by income management participants. Two-thirds of parents who were on the higher 70 per cent income management level in Western Australia were positive about income management because of the benefits to their children.

There is no silver bullet to improving the health of remote indigenous people. But what is clear is that every healthy society that has existed (including traditional Aboriginal societies) had kids learning from adults, adults working for sustenance and a system of law and order.

Indigenous citizens are rational just like anyone else, but for too long the rational response has been a life of welfare. We need to change this through local empowerment, improved opportunities and sensible incentives. This is exactly what we are doing.