• The Recognise campaign was set up to support constitutional reform (AAP)Source: AAP
Indigenous leaders are frustrated by a series of government policy failures, meaningless rhetoric and reports that never get acted upon. This week the government finally announced the referendum council. But, asks Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, does the news come too late?
10 Dec 2015 - 10:42 AM  UPDATED 10 Dec 2015 - 11:32 AM

As 2015 draws to a close, reducing disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is ad hoc and sluggish, remaining a huge issue of contention.

Many Aboriginal leaders are clearly publicly frustrated at report after report document policy failures.

The recently released National Indigenous Reform Agreement: Performance Assessment (2013-14) by the Productivity Commission found only one of the six ‘Close the Gap’ targets is being met with child mortality rates reducing. Improving access to preschool, life expectancy, and reading and numeracy rates are all stalling. 

At the end of last week Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda handed down his 2015 Social Justice and Native Title Report making 21 recommendations for action and an expression of his disappointment that the Australian Government did not take note of the concerns about the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), so strongly expressed in his last report.

Many Aboriginal leaders are clearly publicly frustrated at report after report document policy failures.

Commissioner Gooda outlined his frustration at seeing many of the difficulties he anticipated unfolding over the 2014-15 reporting period, creating significant confusion and stress in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

Professor Megan Davis's searing analysis of Indigenous affairs issues in her 'Gesture Politics' article for The Monthly clearly outlines some of the fundamental issues that, unless understood and addressed, will mean we haven't got a hope in hell of Closing the Gap or Constitutional Recognition.

Her article begins with: "Despair. In a word, this is the universal sentiment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders I have spoken to about the state of Aboriginal policy in Australia".

 

It's not just leaders who can identify with this: it’s a strong feeling you get from the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Despite the best efforts and patience of community leaders and stakeholders, both state and federal governments have let down communities on multiple fronts.

The Abbott Government and now the Turnbull Government have continued the pursuit of punitive top-down measures and ‘tough love’ approaches to income support; the flawed IAS strategy, faux consultation and funding cuts.

Dig below the government’s rhetoric on Closing the Gap, and you’ll find failed funding strategy rollouts, funding cuts, and legislation that will drive communities into further poverty.

The patience of key players is wearing thin. Just this weekend Noel Pearson gave a frank interview to Fairfax journalist Michael Gordon. Hopefulness that the government would act under Abbott’s leadership quickly fell away and the new Prime Minister has barely engaged with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues since he was sworn in.

In his interview with Gordon, Pearson said:

“At a personal level, I'm just at wit's end… The last two years, in theory at least, is the closest you can get to power from the outside, and I look back and think, what did that count for? If I, or any other Indigenous leader, think that it's all dependent on a prime minister, or a government of the day, to do the right thing and to get it right, then we're kidding ourselves”.

Dig below the government’s rhetoric on Closing the Gap, and you’ll find failed funding strategy rollouts, funding cuts, and legislation that will drive communities into further poverty.

These words by Pearson echo feelings of betrayal borne from the Coalition Government’s bravado in promising to reduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' disadvantage (how could we forget the self-declaration ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’?) with little genuine change actually occurring?

In the same years that Tony Abbott spent a week with Aboriginal communities, the government cut funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' services, Abbott refused Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' conventions on the slow journey to Constitutional Recognition, and he referred to remote communities as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

Most audaciously, the Turnbull Government secured trials for a cashless welfare card, which forcibly restricts 80 percent of a recipient's income support to a debit card. The card – a thought bubble from mining magnate Andrew Forrest – is supposedly not targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples. We know that this is not true.

So far the two secured trial sites, Ceduna, South Australia and the East Kimberley, have a high Aboriginal population, and the measure itself originates from a report focused on Aboriginal disadvantage.

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Mick Gooda is one of many who have pointed out the disproportionate focus of the measure on our First Peoples, he said:  “… from a human rights perspective, I am concerned about the disproportionate impact that the healthy welfare card and Work for the Dole scheme may have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

Commissioner Gooda notes the obvious similarities to the cashless welfare card and the BasicsCard – a failed aspect of the Northern Territory Intervention that controls income support much the same. Our government cannot claim to be reducing disadvantage whilst still pushing paternalistic measures that have repeatedly failed in the past.

The government is purporting that there is a genuine effort for change, but time and time again, communities are learning this is not the case.

What is slipping, most dangerously through the hands of the government, is the trust of community leaders who have put so much faith and effort into creating positive outcomes.

The government is purporting that there is a genuine effort for change, but time and time again, communities are learning this is not the case.

Pearson isn’t the only community leader that is tired of broken promises. Michael Gordon also quotes Patrick Dodson, largely agreeing with Pearson, on the three big issues which Aboriginal people are focused on: Recognition in the constitution, public policy and settlement.

But, he goes onto say: "If people think that government is going to deliver any of that, they haven't learnt anything from the history of Aboriginal people's advocacy”.

This week the government finally announced news of the referendum council but is it too late? Can we continue to talk just about Recognition?

The failure of the Gillard and Abbott governments to progress Recognition in a timely manner, to address the issues so clearly laid out by so many Aboriginal leaders, means that the debate has moved on.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are looking for more: how does recognition fit into settlement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are asking what is the point of recognition with so much failed policy and funding cuts to services? So the question must be – how is real change delivered and how does Recognition fit into it?

As Davis says, there is no overarching narrative to provide powerless, impecunious communities with a sense of direction (or hope) from one government to the next.

Recognition is not that narrative, although it could be. But in the absence of an attendant framework providing for participation in and scrutiny of decision-making between ballot boxes, it is all gesture politics.

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Tasmania's Constitution is set to be changed to include recognition of Aboriginal Tasmanians, after the recommendation of a state parliamentary committee.


 

This comment piece was written by Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.

Contact Senator Siewert on Twitter via @SenatorSiewert or NITV via @NITV.