Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Infinite space and bad dreams: the WA Government's roadmap for remote communiites

The WA Government’s Regional and Remote Communities Strategy


Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2.


The WA Government has just announced its policy vision and future directions for remote communities in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of the state.

The policy announcement follows the Government’s retreat from its November 2014 decision to close up to 100 remote communities after a national backlash against the decision, and presumably as reality dawned on the Government that there would be myriad adverse consequences of carrying through with such a blunt sledgehammer of a policy. That original WA Government decision was precipitated by the decision of the Commonwealth to cease its longstanding funding municipal and essential services in remote communities given that primary responsibility for these functions rests with state governments.

The Commonwealth became involved in funding these communities in the 1970s when it became apparent that State governments were not delivering basic services to their Indigenous citizens. Upon coming to office, the current Commonwealth Government resolved to cease this funding, and provided financial compensation to state and territory governments to encourage them to accept the ongoing funding responsibility.

The ABC article linked to above reported that the WA Government received $90m in compensation payments, albeit characterised by WA officials as being “forced to accept” the payments. The arrangements over the compensation paid to the states by the Commonwealth are quite opaque, and in particular, there has been no line of sight in relation to the use of those funds by the relevant state governments.

The new policy framework released this week is a substantial improvement over the previous approach, but remains a deeply flawed approach. An ABC report on the policy is here.

The WA policy approach echoes moves a number of years ago in the Northern Territory by the previous Commonwealth and NT Governments to focus investment support on major communities. This policy approach appears to have been substantially reversed in recent years, following changes to the NT Government’s ministry and in the face of much greater political contestation for the Aboriginal vote in the NT.

The WA Government report is titled Resilient Families, Strong Communities: A roadmap for regional and remote Aboriginal communities. It can be found here.

I will refer to the document and its attendant policy settings as the roadmap. It was based on a year’s work by a Regional Services Reform Unit led by a former head of the WA Housing Department.

The Positives

The roadmap appears to have been based on a serious attempt to consult key interest groups, and to put some process around what is undoubtedly a complex set of inter-related issues. The fact that the Government is prepared to put out a formal document outlining its policy intentions and providing a rationale for those policy intentions is highly commendable, and a rarity in Indigenous affairs policy contexts in recent years.

A second positive is the revised and more nuanced policy approach evident in the roadmap. It confirms that Indigenous people have a right to choose where to live, and to choose their own lifestyles, while clearly indicating the Government's views on what it will be prepared to support. It also confirms that it will not be seeking to actively close communities, although over time, there is a substantial risk that some, if not many, will cease to be chosen as places of residence by Indigenous people.

The third positive is that the roadmap explicitly acknowledges the rights of Indigenous citizens to access their country, and signals that government recognises that it understand this to be an important priority for most Indigenous citizens in the north west of the state.

The fourth positive is that the roadmap makes clear just how difficult and challenging are the circumstances facing remote communities and their residents. While the roadmap only addresses the implications of this obliquely, it is evident that change, development, better wellbeing, will take time to achieve and will require both persistence and a degree of stability in government policy settings.

Fifth, the roadmap is refreshingly honest about the structural incapacity of government agencies to work together cooperatively (an issue which extends way beyond Western Australia) and the absence of community input into the design and implementation of government services. And it explicitly acknowledges that Aboriginal citizens have a voice and deserve to be heard.

Sixth, the Government has been prepared to allocate extra dollars to addressing these issues, including from the Royalties for Regions program. While there is not a lot of clarity around the investment proposed – a table listing each initiative and the proposed investment over the forward years would have been helpful – it is clear that there is increased investment.

The Negatives

Notwithstanding the positives, and the evident good intentions of the ministers and bureaucrats involved in developing it, the roadmap is in my view deeply flawed.

There remains a deeply embedded assumption in the roadmap at virtually every level that there is only one way forward for Aboriginal people (essentially around acceptance of mainstream values based on the economic organisation of mainstream Australia), and that Aboriginal people must be encouraged or incentivised to ‘choose’ that pathway. The risk is that policymakers will revert to aggressively pushing Indigenous people towards the worldview which permeates mainstream Australia rather than allowing Indigenous citizens to choose their own futures.

Yet while the assumption is that Aboriginal citizens should just get on and make changes to their ways of living, governments have been unable (for decades) and remain incapable of making the structural changes to bring Indigenous spaces into mainstream arrangements. The two obvious examples in the roadmap are land tenure issues relating to remote communities, where the roadmap identifies the issue, but provides zero indication of how it proposes to proceed; and the responsibilities of local governments which have been off the hook for over fifty years in providing basic services to Indigenous citizens. Clearly both these policy zones are highly contentious and politicised. My point however is that there is a double standard in play; Aboriginal citizens must change, the mainstream has the luxury of avoiding necessary change.

There are a number of related and subsidiary negatives embedded within the roadmap. At almost every salient point, the roadmap is hedged or caveated. To take one example, the “Priority Action” for remote communities is described as follows:

The State Government will identify up to 10 communities by the end of 2016 with which it will work to upgrade essential and municipal infrastructure and introduce commensurate charges” (emphasis added).

Apart from the fact that the structural solution would involve working with shire councils and not communities, the words in bold are used to deliberately provide a degree of flexibility for government policymakers. Yet one of the roadmap's five principles underpinning regional services reform is that Aboriginal people should “have certainty about the State Government’s framework for investing in remote communities”. 

A second example is in the section of the roadmap dealing with Family-centred services. After identifying an over-investment in reactive programs responding to the acute symptoms of long term trauma and disadvantage, the roadmap states that “over time”  the State Government “will look to” invest more in prevention, earlier intervention, capacity building and family empowerment. The obvious point to make is that if the analysis is correct, then it requires immediate action, not a promise on the never-never.

A related negative is that at key points the roadmap fails to provide certainty to Indigenous interests. The section on Land Tenure is perhaps the most egregious example. The Directions Statement states unequivocally that the Government “will make tenure changes progressively….to support improvements in essential and municipal services, assist the supply and management of housing, facilitate economic and social development that is restricted by current tenure”. However, after a page of text outlining the challenges facing tenure reform, the roadmap concludes by stating:

The State Government is considering policy and funding options to streamline arrangements for Aboriginal individuals or corporations that want to use the (Aboriginal Land Trust) estate more productively …(emphasis added)

The inability of the report to provide certainty for Aboriginal citizens in key areas is a major flaw.

A final negative in the roadmap is the excessive reliance on trials and pilots. I won’t go into detail on the various pilots in the roadmap, but merely note that governments in Australia from across the political spectrum have exhibited a tendency to rely on geographically limited initiatives which have the political advantages of allowing governments to be seen to do something while keeping costs down. Often they are justified on the basis that what is required are ‘place-based’ solutions. There are strong arguments for place based initiatives in Indigenous policy contexts, but they should operate in every place, not just a few.


I haven’t dealt with every issue in the Government’s policy roadmap. For example, the roadmap proposals for Housing have both positive and negative elements. The roadmap is worth reading in full as it is relatively short, largely free of jargon and easy to comprehend.

The WA Government has indicated that it proposes to consult further with key stakeholders going forward regarding the implementation of the roadmap. Hopefully Aboriginal interests will actively utilise this opportunity to put their own reactions and views on the table.

Perhaps the most significant issue going forward will relate to the bona fides of government regarding this process. Without greater certainty about key issues, without meaningful consultation, and without a commitment by government to reconsider its own ways of operating, Aboriginal citizens would be within their rights to form a view that this roadmap, while not a sledgehammer, is merely a more sophisticated and nuanced implement – perhaps one of those screw nutcrackers which progressively increase the pressure until the nut shell disintegrates  - to crack the nut which represents an Indigenous determined future for remote citizens and their communities.

Revised 21 July to correct minor typographical errors.

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