Prime Minister John Howard has proclaimed the major policy shift within indigenous affairs since reconciliation. It’s taken Howard 10 years since assuming responsibility for the portfolio and repudiating, in deed if not in word, the previous Commonwealth government position on self-determination and reconciliation.

It is an extraordinary realignment and yet it wasn’t foreshadowed nor funded within last month’s budget for 2007-2008. I’m already looking to where Howard’s policy rubber will hit the reality road.

Indigenous affairs has always had a moral core. At its centre race relations is about man’s inhumanity towards fellow man. Black people are exasperated by the failure of white Governments to respond with purpose. Hundreds of reports, investigations and inquiries carry indigenous peoples’ petitions for change. The key to positive change is glaringly apparent -– focus on results and charge institutional change with Indigenous leadership. Look at the wonderful improvement in educational outcomes achieved by Dr Chris Sarra in Queensland for proof.

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There are only 500,000 indigenous peoples across Australia. With about 70% of that population living in the towns and cities of urban Australia. It would be irresponsible for the Commonwealth government to distort its resources and misplace its priorities through ignoring the majority of the black population.

There will be no more hair-splitting or sophistry in indigenous affairs. The Commonwealth government has assumed the authority vested by the 1967 referendum — it is now exercising sole responsibility for the portfolio.

That constitutional change means that the Commonwealth can assume responsibility across the States too. And it should do so. Finally the buck will stop at one desk. Finally there are clear lines of responsibility for achieving measurable, real improvements in the lives of indigenous peoples.

Every initiative, every piece of legislation, every extra dollar should be clearly linked to improving the quality of an Indigenous life. It is the responsibility of the media, the Senate, the Opposition and vigilant citizens to pass every idea through this screen. If there isn’t a direct, clear, identifiable link between the proposal and the improvements then it represents a diversion from the task at hand and we should loudly reject it.

John Howard should not use this moral challenge as a cloak for an ideologically driven purge. With the Prime Minister’s headlines we now have the cue to move forward.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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