Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Emerging developments in the East Kimberley: lessons for policymakers

My previous post argued the case for policymakers to give greater attention to regional Indigenous voices. This post takes the next step and examines albeit quite briefly recent experience in one particular region, the East Kimberley.

The East Kimberley was amongst the last areas in the country to be explored and colonised, and the impact of colonisation is still very much in the communal memory of communities there. Perhaps the best description of what colonisation meant on the Kimberley pastoral frontier is by Maryanne Jebb in her 2002 book Blood, Sweat and Welfare. John Boulton’s recent book Aboriginal Children, History and Health, based on evidence related almost entirely to the lives of Kimberley families, sets out a persuasive argument that structural violence with its roots in the process of colonisation is the primary cause of poor health via the mechanism of inter-generational disruption of effective parenting skills (Boulton 2016:14).

The process of dispossession continued right through to the 1960s with the establishment of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and it has only been since the Mabo case, and the passage of the Native Title Act that local Indigenous people have had any formal recognition of their prior (and continuing) land ownership rights.

The region continues to have severe social problems. A recent account in Crikey argues that the region’s Aboriginal people exhibit the symptoms of widespread trauma, and associated issues.

There are a number of policy relevant developments emerging in the East Kimberley which deserve more detailed attention. In addition, a couple of important regional Indigenous organisations are making substantial contributions to addressing the challenges faced by local communities.

Recently the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott spent a week in the East Kimberley along with Human Services Minister Alan Tudge. In a follow up opinion piece, Abbott extolled the virtues of the cashless debit card being trialled in Kununurra and Wyndham (and Ceduna), and argued that it ought to be extended to the rest of Australia. While we are yet to see any formal evaluation of the outcomes derived from the roll out of the card, the anecdotal evidence appears positive. While income management can be a valuable tool in addressing the most serious symptoms of welfare dependency, it is far from straight forward as a policy tool, particularly if used on its own, or as the primary policy intervention. I dealt with some of the issues involved in a previous post.

A key organisational supporter of the cashless debit card trial in the region is the Wunan Foundation, led by energetic Chair Ian Trust, with a strong policy reform agenda based on individual responsibility. The most recent PMC publication of Senate Order Entity Contracts lists some $3.68m in funding for the Wunan Foundation over the past year and the next two years for projects related to school attendance, early childhood, school programs and ‘remote Australia strategies’. Trust has been a strong supporter of the Empowered Communities proposal, and the Jawun organisation, which has had a long involvement in Kununurra providing local organisations with secondments from the corporate sector. Jawun has also been closely involved with Noel Pearson in Cape York, as well as a number of other sites nationally.

A second major organisation in the region is the MG Corporation. In 2005 the Ord Final Agreement (OFA) between the WA Government and local native title holders/claimants cleared the way for a major expansion of irrigated agriculture in the Ord Valley downstream from Lake Argyle and Kununurra. The OFA also provided for the establishment of the MG Corporation to manage the financial benefits of the agreement on behalf of the relevant traditional owners / native title holders. MG Corporation undertakes a range of commercial and social activities directed to ensuring the benefits of the agreement negotiated in 2005 are sustainable into the future. A quick review of its website and latest annual report suggests that so far it has done a pretty good job.

The MG Corporation appears to take a more sceptical view of the policy approaches adopted by Governments and Wunan. So for example, a former Chair, Teddy Carlton has been prominent in drawing public attention to some to the potential flaws in the ways the cashless debit card works.

Notwithstanding these differences, much of the work of the two organisations is complementary, and the region is benefitting from having a diversity of organisational advocates for Indigenous interests in the region. No doubt other Indigenous organisations in the region are making positive contributions too.

Turning to mainstream policy development in the region, the WA Auditor General has recently released a report on the implementation of the next phase of the Ord-East Kimberley Development in Western Australia. ABC media report here. The Northern Territory is undertaking its own process of opening up land for irrigated agriculture on the NT side of the border. The Australian Government’s Office of Northern Australia appears to be playing a facilitative role in the process.

Following the 2005 OFA, in 2008, the WA Government approved $220m for expansion of the Ord Scheme which had been in operation since the 1970s. In 2009, the Commonwealth approved funding to the WA Government of $195m, in what was described as a stimulus package, for 27 associated social infrastructure projects, including a number directed to improved Indigenous housing in Kununurra.

The audit concluded that the expanded irrigation projects took 3 years longer than planned, and cost $334m, an over-run of $114m. Perhaps of most concern, and most surprisingly, the audit found that there was no specific business case or detailed costings undertaken for the entire project before it was commenced in 2009 (although there were costings for the first phase at that time). The audit report pointed to a number of other issues, including a comprehensive governance structure for the project not delivering the oversight expected, and a Steering Committee which did not meet for long periods, and did not receive regular financial reports nor approve revised budgets.

The Steering Committee membership included the heads of the relevant WA agencies and worryingly (at least to my mind) also included representatives of Ministerial offices. This raises fundamental questions about the competence of the WA bureaucracy and points to a fundamental breakdown in the distinction between an independent bureaucracy capable of providing robust advice and ministers responsible for taking decisions. The necessity for a distinction relates to the desirability of providing taxpayers and citizens with an assurance that ministers have at least had the benefit of objective advice before decisions are taken.

In relation to Indigenous employment issues, the audit found that there had been good outcomes during the construction phase, with over 200 Aboriginal people employed comprising around 21 percent of all jobs, and similar outcomes for the Commonwealth funded social infrastructure package. The audit notes however that the employment created during the construction phase has not been sustained since completion.

The audit noted that the original justification of the project relied heavily on the socio-economic advantages which would be delivered. It notes that a baseline of social indicators was compiled in 2008, but that there is not plan to reassess these indicators to identify if there has been any sustained improvement.

The audit notes a new policy approach by the WA Government whereby it intends to not fund further infrastructure development on the Ord, but will limit its role to land release and negotiation of developer agreements. Private sector developers will be required to fund their own infrastructure, obtain environmental approvals and negotiate native title clearances. There are suggestions on the MG website that negotiations with the company responsible for implementing the Ord expansion are progressing over particular areas listed for development.

The conclusion I wish to draw arising from the WA Auditor General report is that centralised bureaucratic management, especially when politically directed, is fundamentally ill-suited to responding adequately to regional Indigenous concerns (and as an aside, in this case at least the broader public interest). Notwithstanding the existence of at least two substantial, competently run, and effective Indigenous organisation in the region, the bureaucracy managed to ignore them completely in implementing the expansion phase. Moreover, while these Indigenous organisations were involved in delivering some services related to the Ord expansion scheme to the Indigenous community on the ground, they had no inkling of the problems which permeated the policy management of the process in Perth.

In other words, in the Indigenous policy domain, the existence of effective local organisations is not enough to ensure responsive and effective government policy at a regional level. There must be a conscious decision by Government to engage, preferably through a formal structure which has status across the breadth of government.

Consider a hypothetical alternative, which involved the existence of a formal regional voice for Indigenous interests, and which thus ensured that governments, both state and federal, engaged with key Indigenous organisations and interests as they progressed through the various stages of implementing the scheme. In such a scenario, it seems unlikely that the deficiencies in financial planning, and in implementation of the Ord-East Kimberley Development identified by the Auditor General would have occurred and been allowed to run. It was the fact that there was no line of sight, that there was no visibility of what was happening (and not happening), which led to the poor outcomes identified retrospectively by the Auditor General.

The deficiencies identified by the WA Auditor General tell us a lot about the calibre and quality of the WA Government, its political priorities and its bureaucracy. While a serious issue, a strategy to improve the quality of political and bureaucratic governance is achievable assuming the requisite political support is brought to bear.

The more important and more extensive systemic lesson is that without a formally recognised regional forum which guarantees substantive engagement with Indigenous voices, the quality of Indigenous affairs policymaking will be structurally unsound. This is a lesson which extends way beyond the Kimberley, beyond Western Australia, and deserves national attention.