Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Rule and reign, earth and dust: the machinery of government in Indigenous affairs

Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust? / And, live we how we can, yet die we must.
Henry VI, Part III, Act V, scene 2

Last Friday PMC issued a discussion paper on machinery of government in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (link here or here), or in plain english, on the organisational structure of the arrangements for administering Indigenous affairs at the Commonwealth level. The Discussion Paper was released on the day of a major seminar involving the APS leadership marking 50 years of Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous affairs (link here).

The paper is apparently the first in an intended series of papers which acknowledge the fifty years since the Commonwealth gained the capacity to legislate in relation to Indigenous matters by virtue of the 1967 constitutional referendum. It does not deal with the various arrangements which exist and have existed at state levels.

The preface notes that
Future papers will concentrate on issues including policy and practice and justice, leadership and ethics. The series is intended to promote discussion and contribute to long term thinking among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous thinkers engaged in the administration of Australian Indigenous affairs.

The Department is to be congratulated on at least being prepared to canvass these issues. It is unusual to see governments expanding the boundaries of public debate on issues relating to the internal arrangements of government activities. I look forward to future discussion papers in the series. It would also be useful if the Department were to publish the various speeches given at the IPAA seminar marking the Commonwealth’s 50 year involvement in Indigenous affairs. In the meantime, here is a link to the video from the excellent Mandarin website.

Adopting a mix of historical and philosophical approaches, the paper documents the cyclical trends in the structures of government administration over the past 50 years. The author identifies two major tensions in government attempts to find effective structures: first, the extent to which Indigenous citizens have a voice – or are represented in – policy deliberations and decisions, and second, the longstanding and ongoing vacillation between the reliance on Indigenous specific or mainstream agencies, and hence structures and responsibilities. Along the way, the paper notes the propensity of governments to label as a failure the preceding administrative approaches and structures, and notes almost in passing the potential of Indigenous ‘bodies’ (mostly corporations) to fill the gap created by the reticence of governments to seriously incorporate representation of Indigenous interests within the policy process.

Notwithstanding a series of interrogatory headings and sub-headings the paper largely avoids coming down on one side or the other, contenting itself with canvassing the various pros and cons in a slightly disengaged tone. Thus we are asked to consider the following rhetorical questions without obtaining a clear sense of the author’s opinion:
·         What is the imperative to represent minority interests?
·         To what extent is representation necessary to policy success?
·         Do First Nations peoples have a right to self-determination and the continuance of separate systems of culture and knowledge?
·         How best to organise the machinery of Government?
·         Mainstream vs Indigenous specific? and
·         Why worry about frequent changes of government?

The exception is perhaps the last question: the author leaves the reader with the strong sense that the history of frequent changes of government has led to a strong sense of confusion and cynicism amongst Indigenous citizens, and that the constant change, and the concomitant turnover in whole cohorts of public servants has led to a loss of corporate memory and significant constraints in terms of policy continuity. I suspect that she is right in these assessments.

I am not particularly surprised, nor critical, of the lack of definitive conclusions. The paper is after all intended to promote discussion.

The paper is also valuable for its appendices; a list of all federal ministers for Indigenous affairs over the past 50 years, and a series of schematic summaries of the major administrative models adopted by governments over the past 50 years. I also found insightful the references to the approaches adopted by Coombs and Dexter, providing tangible evidence that the issues of ‘representation’ have been central to the effective development of indigenous affairs policy since governments first began to ‘administer’ Indigenous affairs.

The paper’s conclusion is in my view correct:
that frequent changes to policy and machinery of government changes result in transaction costs that are not well articulated or understood. These lead to inefficiencies and are often counterproductive and harmful. To engage with Indigenous Australians, government and the administrative structures of the APS need to articulate clear positions on the structural issue of representation and related decisions around machinery of government and administrative arrangements and need to be able to preserve trust and working relationships across administrative generations.

Of course, this begs the question as to whether governments generally, and the current government specifically, have managed their engagement with Indigenous citizens appropriately.

The general consensus of those who are involved in, or take an interest in, Indigenous policymaking would be a resounding ‘no’. Yet governments and ministers (and their public servants) are all different, they bring different capacities, motivations and capabilities to the task of governing. How is it that meeting the challenge of effective Indigenous engagement has eluded them all?

The answer is beyond the scope of this blog post to attempt to comprehensively answer, but I would suggest that it goes to the fundamental structural underpinnings of our society, and in particular to the substantive marginalisation of Indigenous interests within society and its institutions.

It follows that the quality of government engagement with Indigenous interests will be to a significant extent a function of the capacity of Indigenous interests to exert political influence. In turn, this requires organisation and sustained and targeted pressure. In the absence of effective countervailing pressure, governments will inevitably succumb to the pressure of competing interests and ipso facto marginalised interests (including Indigenous interests) will miss out.

It is worth contemplating the parallel experience of interest groups who do exercise political influence and power. For example, the pastoralists and the miners have well established peak bodies and deep networks into business and politics. There is no equivalent focus on machinery of government in these portfolios. The machinery of Government arrangements in these sectors are longstanding, and relatively stable. These interest groups exercise significant influence over policy processes and outcomes, and have substantial capacities to block policies which they dislike or see as anathema. Most importantly, this influence is not the result of governmental munificence or charity, rather the political power and influence of the interest groups works to engender government munificence and positive outcomes for their members.

On this (structural) reading, for so long as Indigenous interests are not in a position to exert significant, sustained and targeted political influence, they will be the objects of policy and not the drivers of policy. In such a world, the shape of the machinery of government is largely irrelevant. Hence the history of poor engagement, poor policy, and the recurring trope of ‘policy failure’.

Finally, it is worth contemplating the issue of what the next changes to the machinery of government in Indigenous affairs might look like. Notwithstanding the rather pessimistic conclusion above based on a structural analysis, there is always scope for individual and organisational agency. The world is shaped both by structures and human agency; indeed arguably they ‘dissolve into each other’ (see link here).

I note that a recent article by Laura Tingle in the Financial Review mentioned that the Prime Minister would be contemplating a potential reshuffle over the winter parliamentary break. I have previously suggested that the current structural arrangements for Indigenous affairs are likely to change (link here), and I continue to think that a change to shift the Indigenous affairs group into a standalone agency is the most likely outcome. This makes the release now of this Discussion Paper quite intriguing, as its subtext is to argue against further change. However any assumption that the department is coordinating the promulgation of a narrative of stasis in administrative arrangements would require a suspension of disbelief beyond my present capacity.