The Lifeline Book Fair in Canberra this weekend threw up its usual array of bargains and curiosities. Amongst the thousands of items on sale, I came upon and purchased a copy of the Report on a visit to Yuendumu and Hooker Creek (now known as Lajamanu) by two members of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (CAA), Dr H.C. Coombs and Professor W.E.H Stanner in March 1974, and published by the Australian Government Publishing Service.
The report reflects Coombs succinct and direct style, and characteristically begins with a summary of the Council‘s recommendations arising from the visit, followed by short descriptions of each community, the key issues they are confronting, and the administrative structures in place to manage the communities.
From a distance of 42 years, the analysis nevertheless retains an unnerving immediacy. The links to the pre-contact traditional world, cosmology and lifestyle of the residents are more clearly in evidence that would be the case in any contemporary reports, but notwithstanding the passage of two or three generations, the issues being addressed are strikingly familiar.
The report pulls no punches in identifying policy failure: ‘Judged form the point of view of the Government’s stated policies Hooker Creek is a disaster area. Our impression was that neither the Aboriginal Council nor the community which it represents believes that it is in fact or is to be trusted with any real authority.’
But it also identifies grounds for optimism: ‘On the other hand the Council includes men and women of impressive quality. Despite drink there is evidence of a sense of social responsibility among the Aboriginal residents….There is potential for achievement both economically and socially….’ (Report page 28).
Coombs and Stanner argue for greater focus on economic activity and paid employment in each community, including through employment of Aboriginal people in government investments in community infrastructure. They also recommend training for youth, and for mentoring processes to be established. Presciently anticipating the Aboriginal art boom, they seek a greater focus on local production of goods and services. They didn’t mention ‘welfare dependency’, but were clearly conscious of its pernicious potential.
Familiar issues around community stores (mentioned at length this week in Senate estimates), improved policing and law and order, alcohol control, substantial housing deficits, and arrangements for more effective community governance all received attention. That these are continuing issues of public interest and political contention confirms that our policy responses are fundamentally inadequate to the circumstances we face in remote Australia. This is not to suggest that the appropriate policy responses are easy or straightforward; they clearly are not.
What then might we do differently? One place to start is to consider the elements of the CAA report which have been discarded or never really taken on board by governments in the implementation of Indigenous policy in remote Australia.
Coombs and Stanner are at pains in their report to push at every opportunity for greater Aboriginal responsibility over their lives and in managing their affairs. Their guiding principle is that of allowing Aboriginal people choice, over both the form of their lives and the pace of change. They accept that there will be a need for specialist advice and assistance in managing complex activities like commercial operations or community governance, but they are unequivocal in articulating a principle of Aboriginal choice and control in decision-making.
Second, they acknowledge Aboriginal links to country and seek to create innovative solutions to allowing economic activities to be operated while allowing community members to reside close to country. They make the case for what they term the decentralisation movement, or what is often referred to today as the outstation movement. I am only too aware that this is not necessarily a static and unchanging aspiration, and involves difficult budget choices for governments and for Aboriginal families, but it does in my view continue to have an important place in public policy settings.
Third, Stanner and Coombs make the case in various ways for greater expertise to be built amongst the cadres of non-Aboriginal employees working in these communities. While they talk of understanding of anthropology and government policy, we might today talk in terms of cross-cultural awareness, cross cultural communication skills, and retention and continuity of skilled personnel. These continue to be issues of real salience, in Canberra as much as in remote regions.
Increasingly, and particularly in the light of the slow progress on Closing the Gap, commentators are arguing that there is a need to fundamentally refocus and re-orient our policy settings in Indigenous affairs. Those who argue for this are in my view correct, however, they almost never articulate what the new policy settings should be, and I suspect that often they do not have a developed set of ideas as to what that new framework would look like.
Moreover, it may well be beyond the political and policy capacity of any government to instantaneously shift from one framework to another. Indeed Indigenous interests would likely prefer gradual policy evolution to chaotic policy revolution.
But what is clear from the vantage point of 42 years is that necessity for change to be gradual and incremental also raises the significant risk that we don’t actually address or resolve the underlying issues we confront in Indigenous affairs. Indeed, it would appear that taking the long view, and adopting the metaphor of Indigenous policy as a radio, governments have largely adjusted the frequency of the dial, but failed to shift from analog to digital settings.
The conclusions I draw from reading the CAA Report are three fold. There is a need to fundamentally adjust our policy settings in Indigenous affairs, but it must involve structural reforms. Governments may need to implement these progressively over time, but there needs to be a system which ensures that reforms are focussed on structural change and not just about allocating the pie (whether it be growing, static or diminishing).
Second, there is a requirement for transparent policy analysis. It is notable, indeed extraordinary, that there is nothing akin to this CAA report issued by government today. The community and regional analyses are not undertaken, and were they to be, they would not be published. Both governments and the commentariat bemoan the lack of positive change in Indigenous affairs, but without transparent, policy relevant, social and economic analysis, the drivers for structural policy change do not exist.
Finally, in assessing the structural policy changes required, governments could valuably reconsider those elements of the CAA advice proffered in 1974 which have yet to be embraced by the nation. Coombs and Stanner were not prophets, they were not always right, and the times have changed, but in matters pertaining to structural policy settings, their instincts were right.