Sunday, 11 September 2016

A ‘new engagement’: lessons from the Torres Strait


Last week Minister Scullion spent a week in North Queensland, visiting communities:

“I acknowledge the important role that mayors and local councillors have in communities as the elected authority, and the Coalition Government respects their leadership and is committed to working with them to improve outcomes for their communities.” ….



…"The Coalition Government has delivered a new engagement with our First Australians and I am taking every opportunity I get to meet with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians across the country in their own communities,…



Notwithstanding the unfortunate use of the word ‘our’ to refer to First Australians, these sentiments are further evidence of a recent shift in narrative from the Minister and the Government as outlined in my last post ‘tectonic shifts or mere tremors’.

The Minister’s travels included a visit to the Torres Strait where he attended the 100th meeting of the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), and announced a $15m grant through the Government’s Major Infrastructure Program for ‘water security and sustainable infrastructure projects’ in the Torres Strait. The media release notes that the funds would be matched by the Queensland Government. Interestingly, there appears to be no announcement from the Queensland Government of this commitment; normally these types of Commonwealth-State joint investments are announced jointly. As an aside, one of the gaps in the Minister’s policy approach to date appears to be substantive engagement with the states and territories.

The following day, Minister Scullion announced a further $70k grant for a biennial cultural festival in the Torres Strait.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority is a successful institution for representing Torres Strait Islander interests, with a 22 year history of stability and organisational resilience. Australia’s Torres Strait Islanders have a strong presence on the mainland, and a long history of movement or ‘orbiting’ for employment. The TSRA emerged in 1994, in amendments to the ATSIC legislation, replacing the previous elected regional council in place since 1989. This development was separate from, but occurred in broad parallel with the slow progress of the Mabo case through the Queensland legal system and ultimately to a decision by the High Court in 1993. Both policy changes were driven by a strong sense of Torres Strait Islander identity and independence.

Those interested in exploring the history of Torres Strait Islander’s advocacy for greater autonomy should consult Tim Rowse’s biography Nugget Coombs A Reforming Life for an account of the negotiations over Prime Minister Whitlam’s desire to see the Australia-PNG boundary shift south, and Coombs’ role in developing an innovative solution which both protected Torres Strait Islander interests and protected the environment. As Rowse sums up:

‘By tirelessly presenting this formulation of Torres Strait Islander’s economic and environmental interests, …Coombs laid the basis for Cabinet’s decision, 26 February 1976, to endorse what became known as the Protected Zone….His achievement was to persuade both the Islanders and the Commonwealth that the border was but a minor detail in a settlement that effected Islanders economic and ecological sovereignty. Australia’s maritime boundary with New Guinea is one of Coombs’ greatest, but least known, achievements’. (Rowse 2002:343)

Similarly, Chapter 12 of Robert Tickner’s memoir Taking a Stand outlines his (somewhat subjective) perspective on a frustrated campaign for self-government by Torres Strait Islanders in the first half of the 1990s which led to the emergence of the TSRA within the ambit of the ATSIC legislation and Commission.

When ATSIC was subsequently dismantled, the TSRA and other statutory bodies established alongside it survived.

What is clear is that like many institutions, the TSRA emerged as an institutional and organisational compromise, reflecting as much the broader political concerns and interests of the Commonwealth and Queensland, as any rational process of policy development. For example, it arguably duplicates the local government councils which exist under Queensland legislation in the Torres Strait. Nevertheless, it has reached an accommodation with them over respective roles, and is clearly valued by Torres Strait Islanders. It thus appears to have stood the test of time within the region, and twenty two years later, attracts bipartisan acceptance in Canberra.

Perhaps of most policy significance for today, the TSRA provides a tangible demonstration that in Indigenous affairs policy, regional interests and regional representation of those interests are both important and can be successfully implemented.

Arguably, the most serious and substantial gap in the national policy framework for Indigenous affairs nationally is the absence of a comprehensive regional framework such as existed with ATSIC’s regional councils. While Torres Strait Islanders have a regional Indigenous voice, many other regions do not have one, and this contributes to the deep disenchantment within Indigenous communities over the directions of policy at the moment. The current Government’s incapacity to successfully implement the Empowered Communities proposals to date provides further evidence in support of this conclusion.

While ministerial visits backed by a frenzy of positive media releases, formal dialogue opportunities, and the occasional announcement of funding for basic infrastructure (which most Australians take for granted) all are appreciated by Indigenous interests, my experience tells me that it is not adequate as a foundation for a new policy approach which engages Indigenous citizens.

The high level history of Indigenous- Government relations over the last 15 years can be summed up as a series of key policy initiatives: the abolition of ATSIC; the imposition of the NT intervention; the adoption of Closing the Gap; the reshaping of the NTER into ‘Stronger Futures’; and ‘jobs and school attendance’. What is striking is that none of these policy initiatives, whether positive or negative, engaged effectively with grass roots Indigenous communities. This is not a surprise, because as a result of the ATSIC abolition, the structures which facilitated the expression of regional voices disappeared, and they have not been replaced.

The deep disenchantment with Indigenous policy amongst Indigenous communities is in no small measure due to the exclusion of local and regional Indigenous voices from the policy debate and discussion, and the implementation of policies which have at their root exclusionary dynamics. The tougher breaching requirements for the new Community Development Program, is a case in point. It is excluding large and growing numbers of Indigenous citizens from access to income support, and driving a deeper wedge between remote communities and the wider Australian society.

A ‘new engagement with … Indigenous Australians’ is overdue and is necessary, but it requires substantive policy change – not political spin - directed to the inclusion of Indigenous interests in the policy and political system. Any such change must be well planned, and implemented in consultation with Indigenous interests. In the three years since the Government first came to office, it is difficult to think of any such policy change which might be described as unequivocally inclusive rather than exclusionary.

The Torres Strait provides lessons for the broader Indigenous policy arena. Structures which provide a means for regional voices to be heard are important. Concepts such as autonomy, self-determination, and empowerment continue to be core aspirations for Indigenous people and are not inconsistent with the overarching sovereignty of the Australian Parliament and nation state. The challenge for governments, present and future, is to have the courage to initiate innovative policy development processes which give force to these aspirations and make them tangible.