Sunday, 4 September 2016

Tectonic shifts or mere tremors: resetting Indigenous affairs policy

There are increasing indications that the Federal Government is adjusting its policy settings and shifting position in relation to Indigenous affairs.

The current state of play is depressingly downbeat. The Closing the Gap strategy appears stalled and progress frustratingly beyond reach. The stop/start/stop/start debate on constitutional recognition appears at risk of still birth unless the government can develop a consensus vision for the path forward based on a constructive relationship with the broad Indigenous leadership. The Government’s moves to revamp Indigenous funding while cutting some $500m from the forward estimates were at best a public relations set-back, and at worst a policy mistake which will reverberate adversely for a decade. In the remote employment program designed by Minister Scullion and administered by PMC, the imposition of tough participation requirements in the remote income support program has seen breaches of participants skyrocket, as many participants in effect are forced out of the program and denied access to income support.

Following an election which saw a number of high profile Indigenous MPs elected, and the associated prospect of greater focus on Indigenous issues within the Parliament over the coming term, and the Prime Minister blindsided into establishing (with the NT Government) a Royal Commission into child protection and youth detention in the Northern Territory, it must have become extremely clear to the Prime Minister and his key advisers that the Indigenous affairs portfolio is an area which demands more proactive policy management than it has received to date. The Prime Minister and his advisers will be increasingly conscious that the potential upsides in Indigenous affairs are extraordinarily hard to grasp and retain; while the potential risks and downsides encroach on all sides.

In these circumstances the location of the Indigenous affairs bureaucracy within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet creates a particular vulnerability for the Government, and in particular the Prime Minister. I have written previously on this topic; link here.

The fact that the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion, who as a CLP member was closely associated with the former CLP Government in the Northern Territory led by Adam Giles, and yet appeared to be totally unaware of the youth detention issues which emerged on the ABC Four Corners program must have caused the Prime Minister to wonder whether he was wise to reappoint him as Minister. The Minister’s apparent lack of awareness is surprising as he is renowned for keeping a close ear to the ground and for his skill in relating to people in the bush.

Until Minister Scullion’s original appointment, it had been accepted wisdom (at least within the bureaucracy) that it would be unwise for any Prime Minister to appoint a Territorian as Minister for Indigenous affairs. The myriad potential conflicts of interest were seen to be just too great.

Prime Minister Abbott saw himself as Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, so may have felt that the potential conflicts of interest would be moderated. Or he may have just taken the view that the issue wouldn’t matter. The comprehensive rejection of the NT CLP Government by bush communities at the recent NT election, and the deep-seated and open antipathy of the major Indigenous organisations in the NT to Minister Scullion will have been noted by the Prime Minister, and I would argue, confirm that the potential for conflict between loyalty to Territory interests and national interests is very real indeed for any NT based Indigenous affairs minister.

Of course, as a senior National Party senator in Canberra, Minister Scullion is given extra leeway since the Prime Minister will always be loath to antagonise his coalition partners unnecessarily. Even so, it appears that following the recent federal election, Senator Scullion’s position in the ministry was threatened by an internal challenge from younger up and coming MPs within the National’s party room. In these circumstances, one obvious defence is to seek a stay of execution based on a promise to depart at some specified time in the future.

The Nationals party room endorsed Senator Scullion’s ministerial appointment, but we don’t know what, if any, the terms of that endorsement were. We do know that following his Government’s election defeat, Adam Giles canvassed the possibility of a move to Canberra, and that this earned him a vociferous rebuke from Shane Stone, a former CLP Chief Minister of the NT, and a Liberal Party powerbroker. What few have focused on however is that for Giles to make such a move, there would have to be a vacancy. The obvious vacancy would be a decision by Senator Scullion to retire.

There are other indications that the ground may be being prepared for Minister Scullion’s exit as well as a change to the departmental arrangements for the Indigenous Affairs Group within PMC.  The Minister’s longstanding chief staff has reportedly moved on and is being replaced on a short term basis by a well-respected Indigenous bureaucrat from PMC. And an unannounced review of the Indigenous Affairs Group (IAG) is underway. As I argued in my earlier post, the likely outcome is the establishment of the IAG as an autonomous agency within the PMC portfolio, although other administrative options also exist.

While I think the arguments for separation of the IAG from PMC are strong and outweigh those for the status quo, there are many potential critics of such a move (both within and outside the Government). It could be characterised as a downgrade in status, and has the potential to further antagonise the Indigenous community.

To mitigate any such criticism, the Prime Minister could do a number of things: he might appoint an Indigenous Minister – Ken Wyatt would strengthen the Governments capacity to counter the political and persuasive firepower of Labors three Indigenous members. He might also change tack, and seek to actively reach out to the broader Indigenous leadership, thus reducing the potential pool of critics.

Minister Scullion’s recent media release announcing that he will shortly convene a workshop with the 18 organisations which signed the Redfern Declaration is consistent with such a strategy, and begins the process of rebuilding a better long term relationship with the Indigenous leadership. Should a future decision be taken to provide funding to the National Congress, it would ram home the point that the Government is seeking a new relationship.

Of course, I may be wrong, and the Government may be blithely unaware that it has dug a hole for itself in the indigenous policy area, or it may be aware, but decided to do nothing. Assuming my assessment of what is happening is correct, or close to correct, there are a number of implications which follow.

One set of implications relates to the nature and quality of stakeholder engagement, and in particular, where and how the Government obtains advice and feedback on its Indigenous affairs policies. To date, apart from the bureaucracy and corporate players such as Andrew Forrest, it has relied on the Indigenous Advisory Council chaired by Warren Mundine as the formal mechanism for stakeholder engagement. The nature of the advice provided by the Advisory Council is quite opaque.

In addition, from time to time the Government has been prepared to engage with other influential Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Ian Trust in relation to particular issues. Yet to Pearson’s frustration, the Government appears to have failed to progress the Empowered Communities proposal championed by Pearson and others in any substantive way, and thus has an extremely limited capacity for formal engagement at regional levels. As Pearson noted in his January 2016 speech to the Press Club:

We are seeing good things in isolated areas but not seeing the tectonic shifts which are needed…there is a structural challenge in the relationships between our people and governments….it will soon be a year since we submitted out blueprint. It appears we may have cast pearl under swine. There has been no proper engagement in the ideas we’ve proposed and the institutions that we believe are necessary to rationalise that relationship…

In addition to Pearson’s plea, the issue of engagement with regional Indigenous people and voices is an area which requires attention in my view.

Second, the history of government/Indigenous interactions is littered with examples of governments of all political persuasions under-estimating the resources and focus required to establish, maintain, and sustain effective relationships. The risk for the Government is that it reaches out to the Indigenous leadership, establishes some forums, provides some funding, but assumes that this will be enough to bring Indigenous interests on board. History tells us that not only will tokenism not succeed, it will ultimately be counter-productive.

Third, the Government appears to lack an overarching substantive policy agenda in Indigenous affairs. The Closing the Gap strategy is mentioned from time to time, but does not appear to be driving policy directions. The Government is fighting off a conservative push within its own ranks to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Its mantras on jobs and on school attendance are directed as much to the expectations of the wider community as to the aspirations of Indigenous citizens.

What an overarching policy agenda might be is the crucial question, and ideally would be a matter for dialogue between Government and Indigenous interests. My intuition tells me that the development of mechanisms to allow regional indigenous voices to be heard in the policy development process would be a good place to start.

Adjusting the Government’s approach and associated narrative in Indigenous affairs would be a smart move politically, and would open up opportunities to reset policy directions which might begin to ameliorate the deep-seated and systemic challenges Indigenous citizens face. A change of Minister at the end of the year, or early next year, would create greater opportunities for improved stakeholder engagement, and facilitate the introduction of new ideas into the policy mix. Establishing a stand-alone agency would begin the process of rebuilding the skills, capabilities and capacity to understand what is going on – in short, the intellectual capital - which was deliberately stripped out of the Indigenous affairs group following the Government’s election in 2013. Ultimately, rebuilding these capabilities would improve the quality of advice available to the Government from the bureaucracy.

I suspect that the Prime Minister is keen to see such a re-set. Given that the PMO and central agencies such as PMC are inevitably focused on managing the political challenges of the day, and thus by definition are less focused on driving systemic changes which will deliver longer term outcomes, the risk is that the commitment required to make the re-set work will dissipate over time. Establishing formal structures to reinforce whichever changes are determined upon, and building in a degree of transparency would help to mitigate this risk.

In complex areas such as indigenous affairs, there are rarely effective short term fixes. The best approach is to live by the maxim that ‘good policy is good politics’. Initiating a series of short term tremors to the policy framework will only be effective if it not only undermines the foundations of the current dysfunctional arrangements but if it also leads to a tectonic shift towards addressing the underlying causes of Indigenous disadvantage, and towards creating a policy environment where Indigenous interests feel they have a voice.