Monday, 28 December 2015

Ruminations on the assessment of Ministers for Indigenous Affairs

The working lives of ministers for Indigenous affairs share much with ministers of other portfolios. They all work within the same political system, and face many of the same challenges and constraints.

But the Indigenous policy domain is in many important respects sui generis and any attempt to describe or comprehend it is confronted by the reality that it is characterised by a multiplicity of facets. These facets include the wide span of functional policy areas involved – health, education, welfare, land, and so forth; the fact that policy implementation is shared by all three levels of government, plus in many cases a fourth tier of NGOs, Indigenous organisations, and outsourced providers. Perhaps most significantly, the indigenous policy domain necessarily involves a host of inter-cultural issues; must of necessity (and whether recognised by policymakers of not) deal with the consequences of dispossession; and often incorporates more opaque symbolic or ideological expectations beyond the more visible interests in play. These latter characteristics are not part of the policy environment elsewhere across government.

Consequently, more than in other areas of government, ministers addressing Indigenous policy issues are confronted by issues akin to refracted images which change shape depending on the facet or lens through which they are observed.

Perhaps the most important point to note is that while the office of Minister is crucially important, and deserves the utmost respect, the incumbents are invariably human, and contain and often embrace enthusiastically the entire spectrum of human characteristics. Accordingly, as individuals, they must earn our respect and in practice, sometimes don’t deserve to do so.

Like most politicians, ministers are generally well intentioned and entered politics to pursue the public interest broadly defined. However, they are by definition successful politicians which means they have learnt to work with and within the political system, a system which is deeply flawed in its capacity to meet the needs of Indigenous citizens. The odds of at least some of these systemic biases rubbing off on a minister’s approach to his or her portfolio are in my experience extremely high.

Achieving ministerial office requires exceptional dedication and hard work, primarily in what I consider the drudgery of politics. Aspirants for ministerial office must be prepared to join a party (with all the advantages and disadvantages that this entails), seek and win preselection, maintain this support over a number of electoral cycles, win office as either a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate (the prerequisites for doing so vary for each), and keep winning over a number of electoral cycles. Ministerial aspirants must be able to relate successfully to the community at large, the political party they have joined, the constituencies which the party serves, their electorate, and the media. They must learn to operate (some might say manipulate) the internal machinery of their party both inside and outside the parliament as well as the parliament itself and its committees. Only then will they be expected to take a deeper interest in policy issues.

This is a long winded way of pointing out that the skills required to become minister for Indigenous affairs have virtually no relevance the Indigenous policy domain. This is arguably as much an advantage as a disadvantage, but it does mean that a minister’s capacity to understand the portfolio is very much dependant on his or her capacity to learn on the job, both intellectually and in terms of personal relationships.

In these circumstances, there is inevitably a risk that the working habits and traits which have necessarily become second nature and which are likely to be seen as the reason for the ministerial aspirant’s success will continue to be applied whether or not they are consistent with the demands and requirements of what is an inter-cultural realm. Indeed, there is no guarantee that a minister will continue to have any enduring interest in the Indigenous affairs policy domain beyond his or her term of office (though interestingly more than a few previous ministers have retained a strong ongoing engagement with Indigenous issues beyond their term of office).

What then is the lived experience of a minister for Indigenous affairs? 

Perhaps the primary observation should be about power. The perspective of those external to the minister and his or her advisers is generally that a minister by definition has power, and has the capacity to use it.

This assumption is false from a number of perspectives. The capacity of ministers to accrue and exercise power varies considerably, and for an individual minister can vary over time. Perhaps more importantly, the complexity of Indigenous interests, their organisations, the heterogeneous nature of indigenous leadership, and the propensity of indigenous interests to expect government to successfully address what are deep seated structural issues means that even the best ministers appear to make little headway.

Clearly ministers are powerful in the sense that they have access to cabinet, the bureaucracy, and the business sector, and thus are potentially influential, but this ‘power’ is easily overestimated, and often quite limited.

From the minister’s own perspective, their exercise of power is often perceived as hugely constrained, with every potential policy change attracting a multitude of critics, and often few supporters, often requiring the expenditure of political capital to just get onto the cabinet agenda, let alone be approved, requiring substantial time and energy just to navigate the maze of central agency rules and controls (with the concomitant reality that a minister will only have two or three major policy reform opportunities within his or her tenure and thus needs to choose carefully which ‘reforms’ to pursue). Moreover, once approved in principle, the public debate begins and the minister must craft a narrative which is aligned to the Government’s overarching agenda and endure the pain of media scrutiny and often attack, and build a voting coalition within the senate prepared to support any legislation involved.

Governments, and therefore ministers put themselves forward as offering national solutions to national problems. We are entitled to take them at face value and hold them to account. We would be naïve however to accept unquestioningly the claims of governments and ministers that they possess the wherewithal to provide solutions. The world is complex, ministers can only address a finite number of issues within their term, and many issues are not susceptible to direct intervention or remediation.

Moreover, it is useful to remember that the decisions taken by ministers and governments two years ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago, are almost always still largely in place and being administered and implemented by the bureaucracy. As a rule of thumb, I would assess that less than ten percent of the institutional structure (what I term the policy infrastructure) in place at any one time will be the subject of current political and policy debate and decision making. Accordingly, ministers are only dealing with less than ten percent of the public policy infrastructure at any one time.

Those who blithely criticise ministers for their lack of achievement, or incapacity to address a particular issue are generally choosing to ignore the constraints outlined above.

I have outlined these realities not to absolve ministers nor defend them for lack of performance, but merely to inject a sense of reality into just how difficult these jobs are, particularly in areas (such as Indigenous affairs) where there is not universal and ongoing community and electoral interest. This perhaps too theoretical analysis provides a precursor to the discussion below on the strategies available to ministers for indigenous affairs in pursuing their remit.

Scanning the history of the past three decades, I see three broad approaches by ministers to fulfilling their role.

One approach is to leave policy formulation and implementation to the bureaucracy and use the office of minister purely as a platform to pursue the minister’s political agenda howsoever he or she defines it. This is a particularly feasible strategy because the level of media and community interest in the detail of Indigenous policy is minimal and quite diffuse. The risk of being called to account for not doing anything is actually extremely low.

The second approach is to create a policy façade or fig leaf, generally based on identifying a set of tractable second or third order policy issues which appear susceptible to resolution, and use the pursuit of these ‘policy objectives ‘ as a means of creating the appearance of progress while simultaneously avoiding the intractable hard long term choices and decisions. Indeed, by focussing on second order issues, attention is diverted from first order issues. Such an approach requires the development of a high level narrative which purports to lay out the rationale for the policy agenda being pursued. The risk here is that arbitrary and irrational changes in the pursuit of the appearance of policy change create uncertainty and confusion amongst Indigenous interests and the community generally. Change is inevitable, but it is not always positive. Again, the lack of sustained media analysis and the regular appearance of apparently positive announcements make this an eminently viable strategy for a risk averse minister, particularly one keen to be promoted to a more senior portfolio.

The third approach is to forego guaranteed short term wins and focus on longer term structural and institutional changes which will not only have ongoing impact, but which change the incentives and signals which operate across different areas of the indigenous policy domain. Importantly, like the second approach, driving structural change requires an over-arching narrative or ideology. The difference is not in the existence of the narrative, but in the substance of the changes being proposed.

Clearly, these three approaches are not sharp alternatives in that ministers can adopt elements of each, particularly at different times during their tenure. However, it is my assessment and contention that most ministers fall into one or the other of these three categories. Moreover, it is my experience that no one political party has a monopoly on any of these approaches, and I can think of both Labor and Coalition ministers for Indigenous affairs who have adopted or been prone to adopting each of the approaches.

It is worth making the point too that while the first and second approaches are in my view wasted opportunities, the mere fact that a minister pursues the third approach is no guarantee of success. In particular, the strategic objectives being pursued must be appropriate in the sense that they will lead to positive and sustained policy outcomes. And the strategy must be implemented successfully, which is contingent upon a range of factors, not all within the minister’s control. Perhaps the two most important of these factors are the effective use of the intellectual capital which resides within the bureaucracy, and competent engagement with key Indigenous stakeholders and interests. And even where a minister is successful, there is no guarantee that a future minister will not undo his or her structural reforms.

How to assess the performance of ministers for Indigenous affairs is an inherently fraught and subjective task. A Prime Minister’s criteria for success will be different to those of an Indigenous person in Kempsey or Cunnamulla. Prime Ministers will look to political criteria, such as the perceptions of the wider community in relation to the portfolio, the way the portfolio’s key stakeholders have been managed, whether the portfolio is subject to sustained public criticism, and the minister’s overall contribution to the Government’s agenda. Indigenous interests will look to impacts on funding, commitment to longstanding Indigenous policy aspirations and thus will be much more sensitive to the ideological alignment of the minister to Indigenous concerns.

To my mind, a conclusive view requires a retrospective perspective of at least ten years, and even then assessment will be subjective and open to interpretation. My instinct however in attempting to assess the performance of ministers is to ask the question, ‘what long term structural reforms of benefit to Indigenous interests did the minister pursue and put in place’?

On this basis, and looking back over the past thirty years, the major structural shifts in Indigenous policy have rarely been driven by ministers, but can be seen to have been the product of deeper forces, and to have often involved prime ministers and the development of a degree of (eventual) bipartisanship.

Take the entry of the Commonwealth Government into the Indigenous funding and policy arena, initiated after the agreement of the Liberal Government headed by Prime Minister Harold Holt (pushed internally by backbencher William Wentworth and after the Arthur Calwell led Labor party had previously adopted it in its platform) and then proactively advanced by the Whitlam Government.

Or consider land rights, introduced in the NT at the instigation of Prime Minister Whitlam, enacted by the Fraser Government with Prime Minister Fraser’s strong personal support; the failure of Minister Clyde Holding’s National Land Rights proposals, followed by the judicial recognition of native title, and the Keating Government’s subsequent Native Title Act driven personally by Prime Minister Keating.

Or consider Minister Gerry Hand’s apparently successful attempt to establish a broad based representative structure in ATSIC with both a regional representative structure and an executive arm replacing the former Department of Aboriginal Affairs and thus linked closely to the executive arm of government. This was dismantled by Prime Minister Howard with the active support of the Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham within ten years.

Or consider Minister Mal Brough’s Northern Territory intervention (in reality initiated by the Prime Minister Howard in the lead up to the 2007 election at Brough’s suggestion) involving the use of the ADF, compulsory acquisition of five year leases over communities, strict alcohol and other controls, and the introduction of income management, all backed by the potential lifting of the Racial Discrimination Act. The incoming Labor Minister Jenny Macklin inherited these revolutionary policy shifts and responded by significantly increasing investment in housing and infrastructure in remote NT communities, by progressively discontinuing the more offensive aspects of the policy (the lifting of RDA protections, the use of the defence forces) while contentiously continuing the welfare reforms. The initial policy shift was driven by the Prime Minister as much as Minister Brough, and Labor’s Macklin, constrained by the Senate, was left to attempt to find the middle ground of bipartisan consensus.

These arguably random selections suggest to me that ministers for Indigenous affairs, when assessed against the criterion of the extent to which thy drove major structural policy reform, are more often than not merely placeholders within the political system, and are neither as powerful nor as influential as the wider community, the media, and Indigenous interests often assume.

This is not to say that individual ministers don’t have the capacity to do great good, particularly to Indigenous citizens (and ultimately to the nation). But a focus on ministers alone is an inadequate approach to understanding and assessing the state of play in Australian Indigenous public policy.

It does suggest, at least to my mind, that the solutions to the challenges of facing the nation in Indigenous affairs are to be found amongst a broader set of interests and policy drivers than the office of minister for indigenous affairs within the Commonwealth Government.

The makeup of the Parliament, the state of the economy generally,  the bureaucracy, mainstream government portfolios, state and local governments, and perhaps most importantly, the capacity and capability of Indigenous interests themselves will be the locus of many of the opportunities and challenges the nation faces in indigenous affairs over the coming decades.

Paradoxically, these are the very areas which are under-analysed and reported by the media and more serious political analysts in an Indigenous policy context. This gap is itself a source of potential inefficiency as each of the potential drivers of policy innovation in Indigenous affairs will perform better if they are subject to transparent and informed scrutiny.

Finally, a hypothesis: while I have argued that we tend to over-estimate the influence of ministers for Indigenous affairs in determining outcomes in Indigenous affairs, might it not be the case nevertheless that the comparatively weak influence of ministers for Indigenous affairs on the state of Indigenous policy outcomes as evidenced in the historical record is the product of poor oversight of the Indigenous policy domain by civil society generally? Do we as a nation get the ministers for Indigenous affairs we deserve?