• Treasury Laws Amendment (2017 Measures No. 5) Bill 2017 (Australian Government)
OPINION | How a culturally distinct group of people are spoken of is reflected in how they are treated, and the chosen wording of the Productivity Commission Act is not consistent with today’s standards, writes Karen Wyld.
Karen Wyld

27 Feb 2018 - 3:49 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2018 - 4:08 PM

Many Australians might have missed it, due to one political distraction or another, but the tenth Closing The Gap report was delivered to Parliament in February. This was the Coalition’s fifth annual report, matching Labor’s five years of steering this bipartisan initiative.

As expected, there wasn’t much good news in the report. Only three of the seven targets are on track, compared to just one the previous year. Late last year, the Coalition announced a refresh of Closing The Gap, acknowledging they could achieve more through meaningful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations.

Failure to engage has unfortunately been embedded in Closing The Gap, right back to when this inter-government approach was developed during the Rudd government. And, to be honest, not engaging or working collaboratively with First Peoples has been a common factor since the beginning of colonisation. Change Down Under is slow.

Given the Coalition’s refusal to even consider the Uluru Statement, their announcement to consult with First Peoples over a refresh has been met with scepticism or weariness. And their handling of Closing the Gap has met with criticism from Labor’s Senator Pat Dodson.

The refresh consultations have already commenced. And there has been reasonable attendance from both community and organisations. Whether we approach this from scepticism or hope, we all want change.

Over the ten years since its inception, Closing The Gap has had a few minor tweaks. During the 2017 Closing The Gap annual report, the intent to create an Indigenous Productivity Commissioner was announced. The Commission’s enhanced role in Indigenous policy evaluation was included in the 2017 budget, linking to both Closing the Gap targets and the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. This Indigenous Advancement Strategy also lacks engagement and, since its inception in 2014, has been heavily criticised.


An archaic definition of 'Indigenous'

Before an Indigenous Commissioner can be appointed, an amendment to the Productivity Commission Act 1998 needs to occur. A definition of Indigenous needs to be added, and the chosen insertion into the Act (Section 3 a and b) is:

Indigenous person means a person who is:

a)      A member of the Aboriginal race of Australia; or

b)      A descendant of an Indigenous inhabitant of the Torres Strait Islands.

This chosen wording is not consistent with today’s standards. For many First Peoples, and Australians with a broad understanding of history, this insertion reads like the archaic and offensive language of blood quantum, which formed the basis of over a hundred years of violence and discrimination for First Peoples. It also lacks awareness that Indigeneity is much more than descent, as it is linked to relationships, kin and community, and ongoing cultural practices.

‘Identity politics’ has become a term used to derail conversations about racism and discrimination, but the politics of identity is tangible. How a culturally distinct group of people are spoken of is reflected in how they are treated.

‘Identity politics’ has become a term used to derail conversations about racism and discrimination, but the politics of identity is tangible. How a culturally distinct group of people are spoken of is reflected in how they are treated. It is important to remember that terminology is fluid, changing over time. But who determines this identity language, definitions of being, is a human right.

Looking at the definition in the amended Productivity Commission Act, it would be easy to think that those responsible for penning and approving it do not know us – the First Peoples. For we have asserted our identities, and shared our histories, cultures and stories, over and over again. But the current representatives of this settler-colonisation continue to prove that they do not really know us. Which begs the question - have they even been listening?



The 'administrative definition'

Because First Peoples in Australia are so diverse, with approximately 600 distinct cultural groups at the time of invasion, there is no universally agreed definition of identity. However, a commonly used one has been in place since early 1980s. It’s sometimes referred to as an ‘administrative definition’ because it is often used by services and programs. It is also known as the three-pronged approach.

An Indigenous person is:

  1. Of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent,
  2. Identifies as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person, and
  3. Is accepted by the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities in which they originate or live.

It is not perfect, and some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can find it challenging to demonstrate points one and/or three. This is mostly due to the violence of colonisation, which is not only a process of land theft, but heavily impacts on First Peoples’ social structures. In Australia, this included government policies that were designed to control First Peoples’ cultural practices, and to break apart families and communities. Draconian government policies were put in place, many of which were based on blood quantum, such as incarceration, assimilation, segregation on to missions, and forcibly removing children.

No matter the criticisms of the above 3-pronged definition, it is arguably more appropriate than what the federal government has chosen to use. And, it should be noted, this is a choice.


Questioning cultural competency

Perhaps it says something about the cultural competency of the team involved? Or perhaps their lack of research skills? Despite it being a heavily documented subject, where even the Australian government’s Law Reform Commission has published definitions of Aboriginality

It’s possible the government may have also overlooked their obligation as signatories of the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Where First Peoples’ rights to determine identity is clearly stated in Article 33:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of Indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.
  2. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures.

Although this Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2007, the Australian Government, under the leadership of Rudd, did not announce its intent to become a signatory until 2009. Again, change is slow Down Under. 

This lack of goodwill to allow First Peoples their rights to determine their Indigeneity, on an administrative, community and individual level, is an example of where non-Indigenous people truly need to listen more. And individuals, government and organisations need to adopt respectful terminology.

This year-long delay in appointing an Indigenous Productivity Commissioner, and the perceived absence of First Peoples engagement in the process, is perhaps another sign that this government is not working in a collaborative manner.


A non-Indigenous Productivity Commissioner?

Another concerning element of the Act’s amendment is that the Indigenous Productivity Commissioner does not have to be Indigenous or have kin relationships within Indigenous communities.

It has been demonstrated that effective programs, services and policies aimed at Indigenous peoples need to fully engage with Indigenous people. Not just on a community or stakeholder level, but in appointing Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in senior roles. Change needs to happen from within and without. Appointing an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person in this key leadership role is essential for change.

Will appointing an Indigenous Productivity Commissioner help a bipartisan government improve on its continuous under-performing in key policies such as Closing The Gap and Indigenous Advancement Strategy? Not without meaningful engagement with First Peoples - before, during, and forever.  

And not without appointing an Indigenous person in this role. A person who has the confidence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, because they demonstrate their Indigeneity to the standards set by their peers, not the government’s.

Until then, we will continue to ask: Australia, are you listening?

Karen Wyld is a freelance writer, novelist, and consultant of Martu descent living in South Australia. Follow @1KarenWyld