Friday, 16 June 2017

COAG and Indigenous Affairs policy developments

On 9 June, COAG met in Hobart. The COAG communique (link here) indicates that first ministers discussed the work underway to refresh the Closing the Gap targets and reports on jurisdictions’ initiatives aimed at assisting Indigenous people released from prison find work. Here is the relevant extract from the COAG communique:

Indigenous Affairs COAG leaders welcomed the work to refresh the Closing the Gap agenda, focussing on a strength-based approach that supports Indigenous advancement, working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This work will inform efforts to develop a refreshed agenda and targets over the remainder of 2017, implementation principles, as well as advice to COAG’s second meeting of 2017 on an approach for the next phase of Closing the Gap. 

Leaders noted jurisdictional Prison to Work Action Plans, which outline how each jurisdiction will respond to the 2016 Prison to Work Report to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people transition from prison to employment. Jurisdictions will update COAG on progress every two years.

The Prime Ministers Indigenous Advisory Council met on 10-11 May and was briefed on the refresh of the Closing the Gap targets. The communique from that meeting (link here) notes, in a section on the topic of Quality Regional Data:

[The Council] supported Government’s commitment towards access to and transparency of regional data. The critical importance of regional data to informing Indigenous leaders and communities to design and deliver effective local solutions was cited and all governments must make accessible quality data at a regional level.  This will enable community leaders to activate locally designed and delivered solutions.  

Transparent access to data at a jurisdictional and regional level is also essential to inform future policy directions when setting clear, measurable, attainable and relevant targets for the refresh of the Closing the Gap initiative over the coming year. It was noted that Prime Minister and Cabinet had provided to EC regions comprehensive data packages. The Council asked the Department to consider further ways to enhance transparency and access to regional data to inform local decision-making.

Given the Governments recent emphasis on improved evaluation of Indigenous programs, including a commitment to allocate $40m to evaluation over the forward estimates (link here), the Government’s response to the Council’s call for greater access and transparency for regional date will be a litmus test of its commitment to improved program effectiveness as well as to the influence of the Advisory Council.

On a positive note, COAG launched a new national performance dashboard (link here) which provides an extremely accessible access point for the current state of play in relation to all COAG national indicators (including the Indigenous Closing the Gap indicators).  A number of the functional sub categories (eg housing, health) display key Indigenous indicators, and can be accessed at jurisdiction by jurisdiction levels as well as nationally. This is a modest, but important initiative and COAG deserves commendation for the work done to make this data accessible.

The news is not great in terms of Indigenous disadvantage. The aim of reducing Indigenous smoking rates is not on track. Indigenous home ownership target is not on track. More positively, Indigenous overcrowding has improved in the decade to 2014, but still sits at extremely high levels. The other mainstream indicators don’t deal with Indigenous outcomes specifically, and thus may hide as many issues as they reveal.

This leads into the issue of the Closing the Gap refresh. Clearly Governments are frustrated at their inability to shift the Closing the Gap outcomes into more positive territory. I have some sympathy given that many of the targets are long term in nature and not susceptible to short term turn arounds. Nevertheless, were the refresh to lead to a new set of ‘good news’ indicators, based on specifications designed to deliver positive narratives, the consequences for the most disadvantaged Indigenous citizens could be disastrous.

Our political system operates in very large measure to fix squeaky wheels. In the political marketplace of interest group advocacy, Indigenous interests remain significantly under-represented both in terms of capacity, access to dollars, and depth of organisational capability. One of the advantages of the Closing the Gap process has been to shine a light into dark corners at the start of each parliamentary year, and thus to partially compensate for the lack of institutional influence exercised by Indigenous interests. The risk of an anodyne refresh will be to neuter even that process.

It will be important therefore that key Indigenous peak bodies such as the National Congress, NACCHO, and the land councils, to the extent possible take a serious interest in the Closing the Gap refresh process. In an ideal world, the Government would release a Discussion Paper which outlines its thinking and seeks public submissions before taking the revised targets to COAG.

The risk is that key Indigenous interests will be distracted by the argy bargy over constitutional change, and pay too little attention to a process which has the potential to allow governments to take the foot of the accelerator in addressing Indigenous disadvantage, and thus negatively impact the wellbeing of Indigenous citizens over the long term.

On a more positive note, the meeting today of Indigenous affairs ministers in Perth (link here), apparently initiated by the South Australian and Western Australian Ministers, and which apparently was not attended by the Federal Minister, seems likely to lead to the reinstatement of regular meeting of Indigenous affairs ministers, which ceased a number of years ago following a review of ministerial councils by COAG. One option would be to add Indigenous affairs to the limited list of COAG Councils (link here). 

While it is important that COAG remains engaged in Indigenous issues (and the Closing the Gap process ensures that it will), there is much to be said for greater and improved collaboration at Commonwealth and state levels and regular ministerial meetings are a good starting point.