Friday, 13 November 2020

On Red Earth Walking



What's past is prologue

The Tempest Act 2, scene 1


The Australian Policy and History Network has published on its excellent website (link here) two reviews of historian Anne Scrimgeour’s recent monograph on the history of the 1946 Pilbara strike On Red Earth Walking (link here). The first by historian Tim Rowse explores issues of Indigenous agency and policy transition elaborated upon in Scrimgeour’s history. The second by historian manqué Michael Dillon explores the lessons for the present in the history of the strike. Both reviews are recommended.

Anne Scrimgeour’s book (link here) is also highly recommended to anyone interested in Australian political history, Indigenous affairs policy, and the history of north-west Australia.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Policy Invisibility: Indigenous Disability


O jest unseen, inscrutable, invisible,

As a nose on a man's face, or a weathercock on a steeple!

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2, scene 1



The Disability Royal Commission has released an Interim Report on its activities over the past 18 months (link here).


The Commission issued an Indigenous Issues Paper in June 2020 (link here) which suggested that the Commission is interested in understanding Indigenous disability issues through the lens of a life course approach. To my mind, an eminently sensible approach.


The Interim Report includes no recommendations, but lays out key issues that have come to the Royal Commission’s attention to date. The final report is due by April 2022. The report includes a chapter on First Nations disability issues (pp 447- 478). I recommend interested readers look at the chapter as I have not attempted to summarise all it contains. The chapter canvasses issues such as the concept of disability within Indigenous communities; quantitative measures of disability; the comparative invisibility of Indigenous disability in public policy discussions; and an extensive discussion of the experiences of First Nations people with disability across a range of contexts.


In relation to levels of disability, the Report states (p 451):

Data recently updated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that more than one-third of all First Nations peoples (38 per cent) have disability. The data shows that more than one in five First Nations children have disability (22 per cent) and almost half of all First Nations adults (48 per cent), aged 18 years and over, have disability. [Footnote removed].


In relation to public policy invisibility, the Commission has this to say in relation to the recent National Agreement on Closing the Gap:

A 2015 Australian Human Rights Commission report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice and native title report, emphasised a need to elevate disability in the policy discussions concerning First Nations peoples. The report noted that disability had been long overlooked, further marginalising First Nations people with disability and ignoring their distinct needs. This was followed by a call from a coalition of First Nations peak organisations in the Redfern Statement for the Australian Government to do more to meet the needs of First Nations people with disability.

The Closing the Gap report 2020 does not specify disability as a priority area, despite persistent calls to include it. Disability does not sit alongside the existing indicators in the framework as a standalone target monitoring child mortality, early childhood education, school attendance, literacy and numeracy, Year 12 attainment, employment and life expectancy….

… The new Closing the Gap National Agreement (National Agreement), which was announced at the end of July this year, presented an opportunity to elevate the rights of First Nations people with disability.

The Royal Commission welcomes the shared responsibility across all governments under the National Agreement, including the references to disability status and the importance of data across some of the 16 new target areas. However, the Royal Commission notes that the changes have not included a stand-alone target on disability…

… The long awaited inclusion of disability in the Closing the Gap Framework under the new National Agreement may be considered by some as taking a staged approach to elevating disability as a key area of concern and investment. The strategy focuses on building up First Nations disability services and advocacy providers and improving the capture of data on people with disability by targeting some key areas aimed at improving outcomes.

It is welcome news that the National Agreement is being presented as a living document, open to change as new information and considerations come to light. In regards to this, the work of the Royal Commission will be a source of information to enlighten and enliven discussion regarding content on disability in the National Agreement. [footnotes excluded].


Reading between the lines, one would have to say that the Commission will clearly be giving serious consideration to recommending that the National Agreement be amended to include a specific target on disability.  Of course, the framing of an appropriate and effective target is not necessarily easy or straightforward. Depending on how the target is framed will inevitably influence both policy frameworks and funding allocations, so it is to be hoed that the Commission gives some particular attention to this issue if it is going to go down this path (a path I would support).


In an ideal world, NIAA would already be active on issues of both reducing and addressing Indigenous disability given its impact on Indigenous life opportunities and the widespread prevalence of disability within First Nations. The prospect of a set of Royal Commission recommendations within the next two years is just an added incentive. However, there is little indication that NIAA sees a role for itself in this area. A search of its website found just one document related to disability, an evaluation of the NDIS East Arnhem Co-design project (link here). This report, issued in June 2018, was heavily qualified and constrained by its focus on an early stage project, and it recommended further evaluation work two years on (ie now). There is no indication that this is happening.


Apart from ad hoc project evaluations, what is required is for NIAA to build a capability to add value in necessary and important policy discussions going forward. These include the effectiveness of the NDIS, the potential negotiation of a new disability target in the Closing the Gap domain, the policy oversight of whole of government activities in relation to Indigenous disability, and the support of key Indigenous disability service providers operating in extremely challenging circumstances across the breadth of the nation.


Disabled First Nationals citizens and their families deserve no less.


Finally, for those interested in issues related to Indigenous disability policy, I recommend the websites of the First Peoples Disability Network (link here) and the Machado Joseph Disease Foundation (link here).


Monday, 26 October 2020

The NIAA Annual Report 2020


Make not your thoughts prisons

Antony and Cleopatra Act 5, scene 2


NIAA is a new agency within the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) portfolio. The PMC Annual report had previously covered Indigenous affairs issues as Program 2 in its program structure. The PMC Annual Report (link here) deals with the Department’s oversight and assistance to advancing the Government’s Indigenous affairs agenda at pp. 105-107 of the PMC Annual Report. The Department sees its major achievements in this area as the development of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap with the Coalition of Peaks and the states and territories, as well as the development of an early national response to protecting Indigenous Australians from Covid-19 (see page 195).


The NIAA Annual Report for 2019-2020 was tabled last week (link here).


In this post, I propose to comment on three aspects of the NIAA Annual report: the overall approach of the Report; the various Activity Statements that report on areas of priority action; and the issue of evaluation and in particular evaluation expenditure. I will leave consideration of some technical issues related to the management of the Aboriginals Benefit Account to a subsequent post. While I proceed by pointing to perhaps the most egregious examples of shortcomings or shortfalls, it is my more general thesis that this Annual Report is designed to provide minimal information, and it fails to deliver a coherent account of the activities of the NIAA over the course of the past financial year.


Overall approach


I found the overall approach of the Report to be too narrow. On page 11, the Report helpfully lists the nine key functions of the agency as outlined in the Executive Order signed by the Governor General in May 2019. Yet having done so, there is no ordered (or even disordered) outline of the agencies activities against each of these functions. I won’t undertake a detailed analysis, but will point to just a few examples: the fourth function is to ‘lead Commonwealth activities to promote reconciliation’. Yet there does not appear to be any account of the Agency’s work on this issue, and the index makes no mention of reconciliation. Perhaps the best defence to this critique would be to argue that the agency’s work in relation to a voice and to constitutional recognition (see pp.38-9) is related to reconciliation. However, these activities do not involve open public engagement particularly with the wider community, and to my mind at least, do not constitute the promotion of reconciliation per se.


Similarly, the eighth core function of NIAA is to ‘coordinate Indigenous portfolio agencies and advance a whole-of-government approach to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’. There is no account in the Report of the Agency’s activities in oversighting the key portfolio agencies, no reference in the index to the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, nor to Aboriginal Hostels Limited, and only a single fleeting reference to Indigenous Business Australia. The Agency organisation chart at pp 18-19 mentions two statutory office holders, the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, and the Executive Director of the Office of Township Leasing, but neither Office is described or reported upon in the body of the report, and nor are they mentioned in the Index. There is a brief discussion of the operations of the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (pp. 181-2), although given its significance, even this is arguably too limited.


Similarly, the seventh function is to ‘analyse and monitor the effectiveness of programs and services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including programs and services delivered by bodies other than the NIAA’ (emphasis added). There is some discussion of evaluation in the Report (see below), and somewhat confusingly, in the CEO’s overview where he states:

In 2019–20, we continued to implement the IAS Evaluation Framework, in place since 2018, as a guide for evaluation of programs and activities under the IAS. The Evaluation Framework aligns with the wider role of the Productivity Commission in overseeing the development and implementation of a whole-of-government evaluation strategy of policies and programs that affect Indigenous Australians (emphasis added).


Nowhere is it made clear how the role of the Productivity Commission in overseeing a whole of government evaluation strategy meshes with the function of the NIAA to analyse and monitor the effectiveness of programs and services. And nowhere do we get a succinct description of the state of play (as assessed either by the Productivity Commission or the NIAA) of the effectiveness of whole of government programs directed to Indigenous citizens. The significance of this gap is heightened by the Auditor General’s recent conclusions in his midterm report (link here).


Arguably, there is inadequate discussion of the NIAA’s activities in relation to other functions, although there is at least some reference to activities that might come within the allocated function, so I won’t press the point.


Given the centrality of the NIAA to the Government’s Indigenous affairs agenda, there is a strong case for the Annual Report to provide a more expansive overview of the breath of the Government’s activities in the Indigenous policy domain. For example, there are a number of entities and program initiatives that are focussed on Indigenous Australians, but are the responsibility of other agencies. The significant programs administered by the Health Department, and the operations of the Indigenous Land and Sea Fund administered within the Future Fund are just two examples. There is a case for NIAA to provide a conceptual map or overview so that the reader can obtain a sense of the totality of the Commonwealth’s activities in the Indigenous policy space. A point reinforced by the NIAA functions in the April 2019 Executive Order that require it to adopt a whole of government perspective in relation to a range of matters.


Activity Statements


Section three of the Report deals with Annual Performance Statements. I don’t propose to undertake a comprehensive analysis, but instead will merely comment on a number of issues that in my view deserve to be highlighted.


Between pages 23 and 27 the Report summarises nine activities (comprising 20 sub-activities) against its corporate plan objectives. Of the 20 sub-activities, 8 were listed as achieved, 9 were partially achieved, and 3 were not achieved. Two of the ‘not achieved’ activities related to the delivery of workshops and cultural activities related to mental health services for young adults. The third related to school attendance in communities where the RSAS program operates. I have previously commented on mental health and school attendance issues (link here and here). I am sceptical of the utility of these performance templates, since they lean heavily towards process rather substantive outcomes. Nevertheless, they at least provide a starting point for assessing performance, and the NIAA is to be applauded for adopting a degree of realism in its self-assessment. What is missing however is any analysis of discussion related to the implications of these shortfalls, their significance, and most importantly, what the agency proposes to do to ensure that there is substantive progress in the areas chosen as policy targets into the future.


Embedded in the various activity statements are various clues to the Government’s policy narrative and approach in Indigenous affairs that are worth flagging or noting. So, in relation to Activity 3: ‘progressing co-design of a voice for Indigenous Australians’ (p. 38), we see the repeated reliance on the co-design motif. Notwithstanding the assertion of co-design, the Government retains strong control over the development of options by its appointed committees, will then unilaterally consider the proposals , and then initiate a process, whose details are yet to be announced, of wider consultation ‘from late 2020 to early 2021’, and then again consider how it will proceed. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process, but it is not ‘co-design’. The codesign narrative is political spin.


In relation to Activity 4: ‘Progressing constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians during the current parliamentary term, providing there is consensus and a good chance of a referendum succeeding’ (p.39).  This heading almost says it all! In the section headed ‘Analysis’, the Agency notes:

 In line with the recommendations of the 2018 Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Government supports finalising co-design of a voice ahead of constitutional recognition.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in Minister Wyatt providing an updated timeframe for the Indigenous voice co-design process on 12 June 2020. Minister Wyatt noted that the substantial impact of COVID-19 could impact on the timing of reaching a consensus and progressing to a referendum within the current parliamentary term.


Activity 4 could have been more succinctly titled ‘Don’t hold your breath’ !


Activity 9 is headed ‘Undertaking evaluations of the National Indigenous Australians Agency programs in line with the IAS Evaluation Framework’. The agency reports that it achieved publication of an evaluation work plan, and achieved the finalisation of long-term performance measures, but only partially achieved the public release of completed evaluations. These are all process targets. In the analysis, the Agency notes (p.53):

To support transparency and use of evaluations in program and policy decision-making, the NIAA committed to publicly release all evaluations. To ensure evaluations are released in a timely manner, it is a requirement that completed evaluations are published within four months of receipt of the final report. Of the six evaluations that were completed in 2019–20, four were publicly released and one is on track to be published within agreed timeframes. The remaining evaluation is complete but publication has been delayed such that it wasn’t released within agreed timeframes.


Clearly the evaluation involved is potentially embarrassing in some way. The Report provides no information on which evaluation has not been released, and no explanation for the delay: was it an agency decision, or a Ministerial decision? The Agency’s ‘commitment’ to transparency, and particularly to evidence based policy and evaluation transparency goes only so far. Readers (and citizens) deserve better treatment than this.


Evaluation Expenditure

Nowhere in the Report is there a table outlining the detailed expenditure for each of the Activities nominated by the Agency as central to its overall performance. Activity 9 relating to evaluation is no exception.


Yet on 3 February 2017, the then Minister issued a media release on strengthened evaluation in the portfolio (link here). The release noted inter alia:

The Coalition Government will allocate $10 million a year over four years to strengthen the evaluation of Indigenous Affairs programmes.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, said the multi-year programme of evaluations would be underpinned by a formal Evidence and Evaluation Framework to strengthen reporting, monitoring and evaluation at a contract, programme and outcome level.

“The IAS has already greatly improved the transparency and accountability of Indigenous Affairs funding,” Minister Scullion said.

“As a result of the reforms the Coalition introduced through the IAS, we now know, for the first time, how much money is being spent across the Indigenous Affairs portfolio – and what outcomes we expect from the investment of taxpayers’ money. (emphasis added)


At pages 82-3 of the Report, the Agency reports on ‘Administered Program Performance’. Table 4.15 lists an expenditure of $6.0m for Evaluation and Research activities against a column headed IAS. This figure falls short of the $10m a year commitment in 2017. A search of the budget papers reveals that last year there was a significant under-expenditure against budget for evaluation and research.


The PMC 2019-20 Portfolio Budget statements lists the research and evaluation budget for 2019-20 as $12m (p.45) (link here). The 2020-21 NIAA Budget Statements (link here) provide an estimated actual for 2019-20 as $5.99m and indicate that the four out years budgets will be $10m, $10.1m, $10.2m and $10.3m, presumably reflecting expected indexation off the base of $10m. The budget papers reveal that the agency only spent 50% of the budget allocation for Evaluation and Research in 2019-20. Notwithstanding this shortfall, nowhere in the Annual Report is any explanation offered. Nor is there any information on where the unused funds were redirected.


Furthermore, there are two fundamental issues worth considering. First, why is the IAS program (administered expenditure) used for this purpose and not departmental expenditure. The use of administered expenditure for a function related to the work of government has the effect of undercounting the true cost of delivering programs. If used more widely it would in effect short-change the potential recipients of programs.

Second, table 4.15 notes that total NIAA expenditure in 2019-20 was $1.93bn, comprising $1.66bn in administered expenditure and $272m in departmental expenditure. The Evaluation and Research expenditure amounts to 0.4% of this allocation.  What is the appropriate level of investment in evaluation and research for an agency such as NIAA? I would argue that it is much higher than 0.4%. Nowhere is there any discussion of the rationale for the level of investment in evaluation. The Auditor General’s mid-term report referenced above in effect make the case for much greater investment in program effectiveness, not the minimal investment that appears to have been incurred (and effectively hidden) in the Agency’s Annual Report.


Evaluation will continue to have a salient profile in the Indigenous policy domain over coming months. According to its website (link here) the Productivity Commission’s Final report on an Indigenous Evaluation Strategy has been completed and was delivered to Government on 16 October. It will be publicly released on 30 October. NIAA will be an important player in assessing the report and providing advice to Cabinet on the future directions of evaluation in the Indigenous policy domain. In due course, the Government will announce its proposed response to the Productivity Commission proposals, no doubt accompanied by further rhetorical flourishes on the importance of evaluation Indigenous related programs.




The NIAA Annual Report suffers from a lack of imagination and preparedness to adopt a more open and engaging style. It is permeated with bureaucratic opaqueness and fails to substantively engage with the most significant issues of concern to Indigenous Australians and the wider community. It is just one document amongst many; a single snapshot floating in the huge and continuing avalanche of information that tumbles out of government.  One of the strongest arguments for adopting a new and more open approach is that for so long as citizens are fed a diet of manufactured information dressed up as accountable governance, levels of trust in government will remain low.


An Annual Report is an opportunity for an agency like NIAA to bring some order and coherence to the disorganised and chaotic state of public administration in this policy domain. To describe what is going on across the country, whether in remote communities, regional towns, or urban environments in metropolitan Australia. To canvass some of the important demographic challenges facing Indigenous citizens and the nation. To describe, explain and constructively critique the impact of whole of government activities on Indigenous Australia. To explore issues relating to regulation and regulatory failure as they impact Indigenous citizens. It is an opportunity to explain, to synthesise especially complex data sets, to acknowledge different views and opinions, and to argue for the hard decisions that governments are inevitably required to make.  


The fact that such an outcome is virtually unthinkable reflects the reality that the NIAA does not see itself as having a proactive and engaged stance vis a vis Indigenous Australia, and/or that Governments have decided that real policymaking is just too hard, and that it is much easier to manufacture the appearance of policymaking. Either way, not only do Indigenous citizens lose out, but so too does the nation and the public interest.

Friday, 23 October 2020

The Auditor General’s Midterm Report


Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

Sonnet 126


There were two interesting documents released this week referencing the administration of Indigenous policy. One was the Annual Report for the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), the first annual report since it was established as a separate agency. I plan to comment on that report in a separate post.


The second was a midterm report from the Auditor General, Grant Hehir (link here) which canvassed the full spectrum of Commonwealth administration. The Auditor General has a ten-year term, and usefully, he has decided to publish a report covering the first five years of his tenure.


In his Foreword, he makes some extremely important points about the importance of public sector audit. The following extracts are only part of what he has to say:

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) is a critical part of the accountability/integrity framework for the Australian public sector. A key underpinning of this is the independence of the Auditor-General and the ANAO. The importance of independence only became completely clear to me when, after 30 years in the public service, I became an Auditor-General. Although in the public service people talk about being apolitical and providing frank and fearless advice (and I always tried to act that way), what that looks like is, and probably should be, starkly different from the statutory independence of the public sector auditor. The public sector exists to serve the government, the Parliament and citizens. As a public auditor, the ANAO exists to serve the Parliament and citizens…

… In my experience the impact of audit on public sector performance is pervasive and positive. It is far more than the publication of a report. The mere existence of audit (both financial and performance) moderates public sector activities to be more consistent with the expectations set out in its legislative and regulatory framework…

…The analysis of evidence from performance audits supports the view that the Australian Public Service has strong capability in relation to policy development… 

On the other hand there is strong evidence, from both performance and financial audits, that the public sector’s approach to procurement regularly falls short of expectations set out in the regulatory frameworks…

…Regulatory activity is the second category recording a high proportion of negative audit conclusions. Like procurement, regulation is an important function of the Australian Government and high quality regulation (whether of the private, not for profit or public sector) is crucial for the proper functioning of society and the economy. … Too strong a focus on ‘red tape’ reduction, including through not utilising the full range of regulatory powers provided by the Parliament, can often be at the expense of effective outcomes.

Further effort in improving the implementation of regulation by government entities is required.


The Auditor General then went on to make the following comment related to Indigenous administration based on a statistical analysis of ANAO audits over the past five years:

Also of concern is that the analysis of both financial and performance audits indicate there is much that needs to be done to improve the delivery of services to Indigenous Australians. Indigenous programs in the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio have the highest proportion of negative conclusions from performance audits of any portfolio, while the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio had the highest number of findings from financial audits, overwhelmingly in Indigenous related entities.

Given the priority successive governments have given to Indigenous policy these findings are disappointing.


There are further specifics in the body of his report, particularly in paragraphs 4.1, 4.2, 4.19 and 4.20 although the report does not provide much detail of the substance of the negative conclusions and audit findings. Nevertheless, it seems significant that the Auditor General chose to highlight this fact up front in the Foreword.


Further, the quantum of negative performance conclusions and audit findings is not merely an indicator of lax financial governance and oversight. While the midterm report is not definitive, it appears that many of the negative performance conclusions relate to departmental programs, while most of the adverse financial findings relate to matters within statutory corporations within the portfolio. If correct, this reflects poorly on PMC in two ways: first for its management of key programs designed to address the needs of Indigenous citizens, and second, for its oversight of the quality of the financial management within portfolio corporations. In other words, in relation to the PMC Indigenous function, the Auditor General is pointing to both program effectiveness and implementation failures and to regulatory failure in terms of the required oversight by the portfolio department and ultimately the Minister.


The takeout from such a conclusion is that the quality of the services provided to Indigenous citizens by the Department and its portfolio agencies has been less effective than it could and should be. Yet it is not clear that there is any specific process from here for taking this issue up.


Or as the Auditor General wrote in his Foreword (in relation to public administration generally):

The public sector operates largely under a self-regulatory approach. Policy owners [such as Finance in relation to resource management; the APSC in relation to human resources]  … establish the rules of operation and then largely leave it to entities’ accountable authorities to be responsible for compliance. There are almost no formal mechanisms in these frameworks to provide assurance on compliance. Often the ANAO is the only source of compliance reporting and our resources mean that coverage is quite limited…


There is much more in the midterm report of more general interest, including a restrained but direct defence of the role of public sector audit; a warning that cyber-security standards across the APS are not up to scratch; and a call for greater transparency and engagement within public sector contexts.


It seems to me that the import of the Auditor General’s midterm report for Indigenous public policy and administration is that there needs to be a greater focus on transparency, openness, on explanation, on risk-based monitoring and evaluation and importantly on ensuring that the actions of public sector agencies are making a substantive difference.


I plan to flesh these issues out in a little more detail by taking a closer look in my next post at some of the loose ends in the NIAA’s recent Annual Report. It is worth noting at this point that neither the most recent NIAA Annual Report, nor any of the predecessor PMC Annual Reports give any indication that the management of Indigenous programs and financial management of portfolio bodies is comparatively weak.


Finally, the fact that the Auditor General has chosen to highlight the financial management deficiencies of the Indigenous portfolio is significant. The fact that it based on the evidence of a statistical analysis of five years’ worth of reports reinforces its significance. This suggests that a prudent Minister and NIAA CEO would take note, initiate a process of some kind to ascertain the reasons for the poor performance, and devise an action plan to ensure that the next report in five years has a different message. The NIAA Audit and Risk Committee would similarly be wise to give the Auditor General’s conclusions consideration; and so too might the agency Evaluation Committee. Both these entities include a number of independent members.


Whether or not the Minister or NIAA initiates such a response will be an indicator of the Government’s commitment to high quality public administration in its management of Indigenous policy, and to its commitment to delivering effective programs and services to Indigenous citizens.





Sunday, 27 September 2020

Prospects for Reform: the forthcoming Indigenous Evaluation Strategy


What, must I hold a candle to my shames?

The Merchant of Venice Act 2, scene 6



The Productivity Commission Inquiry into an Evaluation Strategy is nearing completion. Its Draft Report was issued in early June 2020, and attracted 112 submission. The Final Strategy is scheduled to be submitted in October 2020 (link here).


In a previous post (link here), I bought together a series of links to various documents that I have authored or to which I contributed. Submissions on the Draft Strategy closed in early August and are available on the Productivity Commission website (link here). I haven’t reviewed all 66 submissions, but a quick scan suggests that the following submissions are worth a look for those interested: the Independent Members of the Indigenous Evaluation Council of the NIAA; the NIAA; Lateral Economics; APONT; Professor Don Weatherburn; ANTaR; and Ernst & Young.


The process from here is that following the publication of the Final Strategy, the Government will consider the recommendations and decide how to respond. There is no obligation on the Government to respond within any set timeframe. Even where it decides to implement recommendations, it may not announce them, nor give reasons. It may of course decide to leave the Strategy on the shelf, unimplemented.


Key recommendations in the Draft Report were for a new Office of Indigenous Policy Evaluation and for the creation of an Indigenous Evaluation Council. Many of the submissions referenced above commented on the desirable attributes of one or both of these bodies, as does the Draft Strategy itself.


What prompted me to write this post was the recent publication of an article on The Interpreter web site by Professor Stephen Howes from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy on developments related to the Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) within the Department of Foreign Affairs (link here).


I don’t propose to summarise his article (it is very short), apart from noting that the Office was established by the 2006 White Paper on Australian Development Assistance; was endorsed by the 2011 Aid Effectiveness Review and supplemented by an Independent Evaluation Committee (IEC); and has been widely seen as making a positive contribution to the quality of Australia’s development assistance.


The Howes article reports that the Government has this year abolished the ODE and the associated IEC, and replaced the function with a downgraded departmental evaluation section. Moreover, paralleling the Government’s abolition of the PM’s Indigenous Advisory Council (link here), the Government made no public announcement of its decisions. As a consequence, there has been no justification provided by the Government for the actions taken.


These developments raise the obvious question: given the lack of commitment to evaluation of our International Development assistance programs, what level of commitment will the Government muster for the forthcoming recommendations of the Productivity Commission in relation to Indigenous program effectiveness? Or put another way, is the Government signalling that it is not prepared to countenance a truly independent evaluation function for any of its programs, and if so, what are the implications for evaluation of the Indigenous policy domain?

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Ways of Working: The Government’s latest approach to Indigenous policy


This earthly world, where to do harm

Is often laudable, to do good, sometime

Accounted dangerous folly.

Macbeth, Act 4, scene 2



On 15 September 2020, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, delivered a speech that professed to outline the Governments new approach to Indigenous affairs. Its title: Indigenous Australia: A New Way of Working (link here).


The speech should be welcomed both for its preparedness to lay out the Government’s vision and approach in the Indigenous policy domain, and because it is one of the few set piece speeches doing so in the seven years since the Coalition came to office in Canberra.


Previous speeches by the Minister include an address to the National Press Club in July 2019 titled Walking in Partnership to Effect Change (link here) and the August 2019 Lingiari Lecture (link here).


In the Press Club address, less than three months into his tenure as Minister, he stated:

The concept of the voice in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not just a singular voice, and what I perceive it is - it is a cry to all tiers of Government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels.


In relation to Closing the Gap, he stated:

I will work in partnership with state and territory ministers of Indigenous affairs to progress work on the Closing the Gap targets. And identify good practice and to share and celebrate successful programs and jurisdictional achievements.

As ministers, collectively, we have an incredible opportunity to make a difference as leaders of the nation if we work together on targeted priorities such as the high incarceration rates. As I've said, the most important thing that I and the agency will do is to listen - with our ears and our eyes.


He went on to make the rhetorically powerful, but somewhat bizarre, statement of his approach going forward:

It's not my intention to develop policy out of my office. But to implement a co-designed process with my ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, relevant departments and with Indigenous communities, organisations and leaders.


In the Lingiari Lecture, the Minister argued for truth telling, for Constitutional recognition, and foreshadowed work to establish an Indigenous Voice:

…let me assure you that the Morrison Government is committed to a co-design process so we ensure we have the best possible framework in place to hear those voices at the local, regional and national level.

More will be said in the months to come, and much like Constitutional Recognition, it’s too important to rush, or to get wrong.


He also made the case for everyone, not just government, to ‘shift the pendulum’,

There are things that we can be doing, as individuals, as parts of organisations and as members of communities to positively shift the pendulum … We can all shift the pendulum … We owe it to our children, and to future generations to come to create an environment and culture of opportunity and of positivity…


The most recent speech, A New Way of Working, starts from the present moment and looks forward. There are few backward glances, let alone considered assessments of the Government’s policy initiatives over its seven years in office.


There is no mention of Minister Scullion’s maladministered Indigenous Advancement Strategy (link here). No mention of his revamped and excessively punitive Community Development Program (link here), nor of his failed efforts to improve school attendance in remote regions (link here). Nor of the reasons for, and progress of, the allocation of extra resources to program evaluation along with the ongoing Productivity Commission Inquiry into Indigenous evaluation (link here). No mention of the cuts and subsequent abolition of the Commonwealth’s remote Indigenous housing program (link here). No mention of the ongoing extraordinary incarceration rates impacting Indigenous Australians (link here), nor of the continuing disaster of out of home care for Indigenous children (link here). No mention of the Productivity Commission’s unimplemented recommendations on funding of children’s services in the NT (link here). No mention of the failure of the Government to initiate meaningful reform in the area of native title (link here). No mention of the Government’s failure to meaningfully fund the entities established by the Native Title Act, Prescribed Bodies Corporate or PBCs, to ensure that land management functions formerly undertaken by the Crown can be undertaken by native title holders over vast swathes of the Australian landmass (link here). No mention of the failure of the Commonwealth to utilise its Heritage Protection legislation to protect the Jukaan Cave from destruction (link here). No mention of the failure of the Commonwealth to publish let alone implement the still confidential recommendations of the Indigenous Reference Group established to advance the Indigenous policy agenda of the Government’s 2015 White Paper on Northern Development (link here).


Nor is there mention of perhaps the most successful program in remote Australia, the Indigenous Ranger Program that funds (as of 2018) 123 ranger groups and 839 (full time equivalent) locally engaged Indigenous rangers to work on country (link here). The Government announced earlier this year that it was committing $102m per annum to extend this program through to 2028 (link here). Perhaps the silence is because this is a program that deserves to be expanded by a factor of ten.


But success is noted, indeed, celebrated. The passage of a technical amendment to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 to fine-tune the arrangements made in 2013 for the return of the Jabiru township to Aboriginal ownership is ‘real progress’ empowering the Mirarr people to transform Jabiru from a mining town to a tourism destination.


I have focussed on the absence of retrospective appraisal to make the point that the impetus for the ‘new way of working’ does not appear to be due to a fundamental reassessment of the Government’s underlying policy and program approaches over the past seven years.


Indeed, many of the themes in the Minister’s latest speech replicate themes included in his earlier speeches summarised above. The Minister emphasises the overarching importance of hearing Indigenous voices at all levels. He talks again about codesign of policies and programs. He reasserts his intention not to make policy unilaterally (although the fact that he hasn’t shared publicly the Cabinet submissions he considers each week as a Cabinet Minister in the Government suggest we shouldn’t take the assertion too literally):

I said when I took on this portfolio that policy would not be made in my office. But it would be made with Indigenous Australians right across the country. And we are staying true to this commitment … we are partnering with Indigenous Australians and giving them an opportunity to inform and shape their own future.


But he isn’t prepared to rush reform, and emphasises twice the need for Indigenous citizens to be patient:

Genuine co-design takes time, trust and respect.


If we want to empower through shared decision making, if we want to ensure joint accountability and equal responsibility for outcomes we need to challenge the structures and institutions that have prevailed in our way of thinking for so long. This is a fundamental shift that will take time and require courage.


This policy of hastening slowly mirrors the arguments in his Press Club speech that constitutional recognition would take time and should not be rushed, and in his Lingiari Address that both constitutional recognition and the Indigenous Voice are too important to be rushed.


The core message in A New Way of Working is laid out early in the speech:

For decades we have strived to close the gap – to banish Indigenous disadvantage to the history books. We have made modest gains in some areas, but for far too many Indigenous Australians we have fallen behind.

This isn’t through lack of good will and intention. This isn’t through lack of funding and programmes. I would argue that many of the resources are there – but what we have always struggled with is the failure to realise sustained and improved change.

Therefore, what is the most pressing issue before us when we look at how to approach Indigenous affairs? For me, it’s ensuring that the next generation of Indigenous Australians aren’t framed by disadvantage – but by opportunity.

Social opportunity. Economic opportunity. Corporate Opportunity.

This is why we need a new way of working with Indigenous Australians.


This focus on pursuing and grasping opportunity is framed as an objective that is the responsibility of individuals and that governments can only facilitate.


The sleight of hand here is to create a false binary between government policy and programs and individual responsibility. The Minister is making the case for less government, less policy, and less funding. The mechanism that he is constructing to mediate individual aspirations and responsibility is a notional, all-encompassing, heterogeneous, and innately diffuse Indigenous Voice:

If we are failing to ensure adequate living conditions for some of our most vulnerable Australians then simply put – we are failing to hear their voices. That’s why we are developing an Indigenous voice.

It’s more than a voice to Parliament, and more than a voice to government. [emphasis added]

It is an acknowledgment that at a local level right through to our nation’s capital - the views of Indigenous Australians matter. It will be a voice for the youngest Indigenous Australian through to our Elders, Traditional Owners and Leaders. It is empowerment.


Two pillars support this framing. First is an impassioned plea for Indigenous economic development:

We need to continue to unlock the economic potential right across this nation ….This is key to ensuring lasting prosperity, and key to transforming communities and ensuring that they are able to take advantage of emerging opportunities in industry to create meaningful long-term jobs …. Empowering them to realise their economic potential.


The second pillar is an argument that conceptualises the role of government — in this new world of ‘shared responsibility’ that extends beyond governments to all Indigenous citizens — as not being to increase current efforts to directly engage in improving economic status, or reducing disadvantage, or addressing the social determinants of poor health. After all, as the Minister asserts, lack of progress ‘isn’t through lack of funding and programmes’. Rather, the role of government is to create opportunity:

…it’s our task to create the environment to realise their dreams and ambitions. That is the role of government – one that empowers, allows self-determination and supports enterprise. This is government saying we trust Indigenous Australians to make decisions that will lead to improved outcomes.


Of course, there is a place for governments to facilitate opportunity, but not to the exclusion of the core tasks of government: funding and delivering basic services; responding to the legitimate aspirations of citizens, and working to create a society built on institutions and social structures that are in the public interest.


If my reading of the Ministers speech is correct, this is indeed a far-reaching policy agenda. It is not new, but is arguably a sharper and more overt justification and rationale for what has effectively been the Coalition Government Indigenous policy settings since it came to office. It implicitly seeks to justify policy inaction, shifting policy and funding responsibilities to the states and territories wherever possible, the substantial budget reductions and policy reversals since 2013, and the failure to step up and substantively address the investment implications of sustained disadvantage. Most importantly, it appears to implicitly seek to justify ongoing social and political structural exclusion through the use of rhetorical tropes designed to resonate with Indigenous citizens: self-determination, empowerment, and listening to as yet unheard voices.


Governments are elected to govern, and they should be prepared to provide open and transparent explanations of their policies.


When governments claim everyone is responsible, or accountable, or to be heard, then no-one is responsible, accountable or heard. Governments are elected to make choices — that is what policy is all about — not to invent and promulgate rhetorical rationales for not making them.


Accordingly, rhetoric such as this:

From the Prime Minister, through to all of my Cabinet Colleagues, we all share the responsibility to realise a better future for Indigenous Australians – we are all Ministers for Indigenous Australians – and through our new approach we will realise improved employment, education and health outcomes.

And we share this responsibility with every Indigenous Australian – we welcome their input, ideas and visions...

should be seen for what it is: an abrogation of responsibility, and a cynical exercise in raising expectations that will inevitably be dashed.


Finally, the Minister’s recent speech descends into a vortex of seemingly politically inspired inconsistency, defending public debate, but criticising those who protest; criticising lateral violence (which I take to mean ad hominem criticism of Indigenous citizens by other indigenous citizens), but then criticising ‘the left’ :

To achieve real progress we also need honest debate. Debate that is unencumbered by partisan positions that show little respect for the matter at hand.

For far too long our people have been subject to lateral violence, which compounds systemic racism experienced by some in our community. Perpetrated from within. Perpetrated by those claiming to help our people. And most viciously by those on the Left.


It is not clear what the Minister is seeking to achieve with these comments, and by also citing (in text I have not included here) an associated list of epithets thrown at him by unnamed Indigenous critics. It reads as an attempt to pre-emptively take out insurance against potential critics. And seems to suggest an overly partisan perspective on the world.


There is a place for partisan politics, but in my (perhaps old fashioned) view, not in a major policy speech which normally seeks to make a persuasive case that the Government’s policy approach is directed to advancing the broader public interest.


The bottom line is that the Government is seven years into its tenure, and may well be on track to stay in office for another seven years.


My summary analysis is that under the previous Minister (Scullion), the policy framework in Indigenous affairs was essentially to reverse pre-existing policies that challenged the Government’s ideological perspectives, but resist or defer any proposals for institutional change, particularly if they involve new expenditure. But most importantly, the core tactic was to keep shifting position on the cynical but largely correct assumption that a moving target will avoid the day of reckoning. There is no better example of this than the myriad obfuscations and shifting stances by Minister Scullion on the question of renewing the national partnership on remote housing, documented extensively in previous posts on this Blog (link here).


The current Minister, 16 months into his tenure, appears to be adopting a similar policy approach. It will not work at a substantive level to improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged Indigenous citizens. And the longer the Government is in office, the ploy of presenting a moving target will become less effective.


Consider the two most salient examples: the recent National Agreement on Closing the Gap (link here) and the proposed Indigenous Voice (link here).


The recent National Agreement on Closing the Gap reflects a determined and arguably successful push by the Commonwealth (link here) to reframe the narrative on Closing the Gap from one of Commonwealth failure to one where the states are primarily responsible for meeting renewed targets. The Commonwealth and the states have committed to an ambitious structural reform agenda built around ongoing policy engagement with the Coalition of Peaks, but the hard work both on targets and on structural reform has been pushed into the future, while the political narrative for the Government will change immediately. And so far at least, all without the necessary extra investment towards meeting those less than ambitious targets.


The proposed Indigenous Voice, since 2017 when the Uluru Statement for the Heart put forward an Indigenous initiated proposal for a Voice to Parliament to be entrenched in the Constitution, the Government’s public stance has meandered through three manifestations. First, it was a straight-out ‘no’ to a voice to parliament, and a ‘no’ to constitutional entrenchment. Then it shifted to acceptance of a voice to government (not parliament), but not to entrenchment. And finally to the latest formulation, a voice that ‘is more than a voice to parliament and a voice to government’, based on a process of ‘codesign’  involving three committees, government appointed members, an opaque process, limited terms of reference, and no apparent timeline for a final government decision.


There is something Orwellian about a new way of working that revolves around the assertion that the views of Indigenous citizens at all levels matter, but that refuses — under the guise of running a flawed and convoluted codesign process — to implement a proposal for an Indigenous Voice with extensive Indigenous input and wide support. A way of working that actively seeks to shift policy and funding responsibilities to the states and territories, as if the 1967 referendum allocating legislative powers to the Commonwealth is a dead letter. A way of working that seeks to persuade Indigenous Australians that the primary role of government is to create opportunity, with the unstated implication that continuing Indigenous disadvantage or exclusion is a failure by Indigenous citizens to grasp the opportunities provided. A way of working that purports to take responsibility (‘we are all Ministers for Indigenous Australians’) but in reality avoids the admittedly hard decisions required to address ongoing Indigenous exclusion.





Disclosure: Given the topic of this post, it is appropriate that I remind readers that while I have never been a member of a political party, I was a former adviser to Minister Jenny Macklin from 2008 to 2010.