When the federal government announced it would abolish the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2004, Aboriginal people were understandably nervous. But luckily for them, a “bold experiment” in service delivery to Aboriginal communities was well underway, and humming along nicely.

In 2003, eight communities from around the nation had been selected to participate in the Council of Australian Government (COAG) trials, a new government philosophy personally championed by Prime Minister John Howard that was supposed to slash red tape and vastly improve outcomes “on the ground” by promoting a “whole-of-government” approach.

No need for that clunky old “failed experiment” ATSIC, former Indigenous Affairs minister Amanda Vanstone assured us. Federal, state and territory and local governments were now working in a more coordinated way to remove “silo mentalities”, “departmentalism” and other dirty bureaucratic habits. It was, Vanstone told the National Press Club, a “quiet revolution”.

Unfortunately, the COAG trials achieved precisely the opposite, at a cost of untold millions to Australian taxpayers.

Earlier this year, former long-serving Aboriginal affairs bureaucrat Bill Gray, AM, was commissioned to review the progress of the COAG trial in Wadeye. He finished his report in May. The federal government promptly suppressed it. When you read it, it’s not hard to understand why.

Gray found that rather than reduce red tape, the COAG trials had actually increased it in Wadeye. Funding streams (and their accompanying paperwork) went from 60 to more than 90 in the course of the trial.

Gray also found the trial was “leaderless”, had failed to end “departmentalism”, and had resulted in almost no change to the delivery of government services.

The community of Wadeye, ­the sixth largest town in the Territory, ­is now worse off today than it was when it signed up for the trial. Violence in the community markedly increased during the period of COAG and despite housing being listed as one of the top three priorities, the trial saw the construction of just four homes in three years, while 15 became uninhabitable and 200 babies were born into the community.

It all made for some pretty heated debate in Senate Estimates yesterday, when the boffins responsible for the COAG trial appeared. At one point, Secretary of the Department of Family and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA), Dr Jeff Harmer tried to shift blame back onto Wadeye itself.

“It’s very hard to make progress in a community like Wadeye when there’s street violence,” Dr Harmer noted. The problem for Dr Harmer, of course, is that the ‘street violence’ in Wadeye began several months after the completion of the Gray report and three-and-a-half years after the COAG trials began.

It drew angry responses from Opposition senators such as Trish Crossin and Chris Evans. But it was the sprays from the Liberal Senators that caught everyone by surprise.

Bill Heffernan had a lash, but the spit of the session belonged to Liberal Senator Judith Adams, who noted that even though she was a member of the government, she was appalled by the consistent failures of Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination and FaCSIA.

Labelling it an “absolute disgrace”, Senator Adams added: “When is this department going to get its act together? It’s just not good enough.”
When indeed? But more importantly, is Dr Harmer and the other departmental secretaries involved in the COAG trials going to get the sack? In an act of enormous political courage (to soothe Aboriginal people during the break-up of ATSIC) the government announced departmental secretaries leading the trials would be held personally accountable for the success or failure of the COAG trials. It was to be written into their performance contracts.

Indeed, the nation’s most senior bureaucrat, Dr Peter Shergold, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told a conference in 2004 that his reputation and that of his colleagues “would hang on” the success or failure of this new way of doing business.

Ironically, the only people sacked to date have been Aboriginal people from ATSIC. Not a single whitefella has lost his job as a result of the failure of the COAG trials. But we of course look forward to the government now moving to redress the balance.