Monday, 13 June 2016

The Redfern Statement and the Challenges Ahead

Last week, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples auspiced the release of a pre-election policy agenda, the Redfern Statement, outlining a comprehensive policy agenda which Indigenous interests are asking political parties and the next Government to implement.

The Statement was compiled and released on behalf of 17 peak indigenous organisations, and had the support of some 29 mainstream NGO’s and advocacy groups. The Statement was released at a meeting of Indigenous leaders in Redfern and gained useful media coverage. (See here).

Interestingly, the Statement made no reference to land issues, and the main news story arising from the day related to a call for the next Government to establish a new Indigenous affairs agency separate from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (see here). I wrote a previous post on this issue.

My own reaction to the Statement and its attendant media releases and coverage was mixed. I was extremely pleased to see Indigenous interests and in particular Congress articulating a range of important policy positions during the election campaign, and was heartened that effort was being made to jointly develop an overarching policy agenda which is the first step in forcing political parties and governments to take the issues raised seriously.

The Statement will be a useful benchmark in assessing the state of play on Indigenous affairs going forwards, and simultaneously offers a useful summary of the extent to which the Indigenous policy agenda has been ignored by the political system over the past five years. It also provides a tangible demonstration of the importance of building policy coalitions as a first step towards policy influence within a political system which is extremely crowded with multiple interests jostling for attention let alone influence, ruthlessly pragmatic and responds only to pressure and publicity.

My reservations are largely pragmatic in nature: I fear that the Statement and its embedded policy agenda will not be taken seriously and ultimately will sink into oblivion. The reasons for my pessimism include the singular focus of the electorate and political elites on the economy and major service delivery sectors such as health and education, the short attention span of the political news cycle, and marginal status of Indigenous issues in electoral terms.

In these circumstances, Indigenous interests need to present their case in a way which is crisp, focussed, and which cuts through. And they need to supplement their initial release with some follow up media which reinforces the key messages, and pressures the government and opposition to respond. While the virtual silence of both the Governmental and to a lesser extent the Opposition in response to the Redfern Statement is disappointing, the onus falls on Indigenous interests to do whatever it takes to challenge this implicit marginalisation.

It is worth noting how business goes about the same task. At virtually the same time as Indigenous groups released the Redfern Statement, the four most influential business peak bodies, the Business Council, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the Minerals Council released a joint statement setting out their key policy ask heading into the election. IN contrast to the Indigenous statement, business focussed on one key issue, corporate taxation, and laid out a narrative which argued that more competitive corporate taxation leads to greater investment, economic growth, boosts to wages and increased national income. The Statement was published in the Australian Financial Review (AFR 9 June 2016 behind paywall), which also ran a complementary front page story under the headline “Business rebuts tax cut attacks”.

In contrast to the Indigenous approach, business have synthesised their message down to one key issue, corporate taxation. Their focus is on the arguments which support their position rather than a detailed description of the technical issues involved, and their stance is future oriented, not backward looking. The BCA website is clean, uncluttered, and takes the reader straight to the joint statement as one of three of four points of interest.

This comparison suggests that Indigenous interests, and in particular the National Congress, have more work to do to synthesise, simplify and sharpen their political messaging, while ensuring that they retain the confidence and active support of what is an extremely diverse constituency.

Admittedly, Congress is financially challenged following the current Government’s decision to cut their funding in the 2014 Budget. However this may be an opportunity. In my view, it is time that the Indigenous leadership acknowledged that not only must they speak with one voice if they are to maximise their policy influence within our political system, but that this voice must be established independent of government funding and influence. Opportunities exist to raise funds from the increasing number of significant Indigenous organisations nationally, from philanthropic sources, and even from business which over the last decade has increasingly seen and accepted the need for it to engage meaningfully with Indigenous Australians (see this page on the Business Council website).

It appears increasingly likely that Australia faces a decade or more of significant financial constraint, if not austerity. In such an environment, governments will be forced to make difficult choices. Given these accelerating challenges, it will be imperative in my view that Indigenous interests develop two broad capacities.

First, Indigenous interests would benefit from having a clear and effective voice in the broader political debate, with a capacity to both work with government and to take the debate up to government and to the public at large. The likely election of three or four Indigenous MPs across a range of parties in the next Federal Parliament will help, but will not be a substitute for an external Indigenous voice independent of the party system.

Second, Indigenous interests need to develop and sustain an independent and effective policy analysis capacity with both legitimacy and authority to speak on behalf of Indigenous interests, which would allow them to engage substantively both with the broader Indigenous constituency and with governments, state and federal. Policy issues are increasingly complex, have short life spans in public debate, and thus present only limited widows of opportunity for interests affected to have their say. Moreover, in many respects it is the macro economic and social issues which have the most potentially to affect Indigenous interests, for good or ill. Not to have a considered and persuasive view on these mainstream macro issues is to abdicate influence to mainstream interests groups and the bureaucracy.

The development and release of the Redfern Statement is a positive step on this pathway, but much work will be required over the next five years by the Indigenous leadership if Indigenous interests are not to be further marginalised by the Australian political system.

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