Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Fred Chaney, Director of Reconciliation Australia, addressed the National Press Club yesterday.

Their message: let’s talk long term (For the speeches in full, click here).

Calma said:

Some of the questions I raised yesterday about how the government will achieve its objectives in the Northern Territory included:

  • First, on what basis will the government intervene in one community as opposed to another? in the absence of any situational and needs analysis of what community is in most need.
  • Second, how will the government decide the appropriate approach for the specific needs of individual communities? I am concerned about a mismatch that has already revealed itself between the public debate on these issues and the findings of the Little Children are Sacred report.
  • Third, what role does the community have in this process? Why is it an ‘intervention’ and not a ‘partnership’?
  • Fourth, if the government intends to make lasting change – how will it know when such change has occurred? without the statistics and the necessary regional and local level planning.
  • Fifth, will the government conduct child protection checks on volunteers and other personnel who enter Indigenous communities to assist in this process? and
  • Will the government support capacity building to improve community engagement and dispute resolution systems within Indigenous communities?

There are serious policy issues raised by each of these questions. And many go to the capacity of government – especially within a system for delivering services that is problematic.

These are hard debates that we must have to make the government’s commitments work into the long term.

Chaney said:

Reconciliation Australia’s simple message … as it has been for several years now, is that government knows the way forward. And we know they know because the answers are presented in reports they have commissioned, in the words their operatives repeat, almost word for word, in every serious address on the subject.

We must not dismiss what we’ve learned from the last 30 years of largely failed policy in this area, just because it offends someone’s ideology. It’s time to adopt and stick to evidence based, fact based approaches.

It’s easy to pigeon hole some people by suggesting they are part of a failed past and failed ideology. Ok, well let’s turn to the learnings as expressed by the head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Peter Shergold, by Gary Banks, by Ken Henry.
Take the Productivity Commission and COAG’s key indicators as a guide or a baseline – there’s no ideology there – and laid out for us are all the principles, all the tools, which show us where to from here.

Over the past several months, I’ve been invited to deliver and redeliver in many different settings a speech about the incoherence of government policy in Indigenous affairs.

The two key factors I identify are these:

  • A refusal across all governments to face up to the real cost of meeting current and future needs — the invisible gorilla at all the government and agency talkfests which is conveniently hidden behind the (sadly effective) political line that you can’t solve these problems by throwing money at them. It is true, you can’t solve them by throwing money because you also need sound policy and effective administration to use the necessary extra funding well. But there are big deficits and they cost money to fix.


  • The “start again” syndrome which affects almost every new government and Minister. Rather than build on areas of success we reorganise. What better way to avoid responsibility now than by damning the past, reorganising, and cherish the thought that continuing failure will not be apparent until you have departed … .

I’ve been a Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and I’ve know all of the others over nearly 40 years. I, like them, have been disappointed at how little was achieved of the things I set out to do.

But over those years, a great deal has been learned about what works in delivering better outcomes on the ground, in education, employment, health and housing.

If we don’t start to apply those learnings, we’ll continue starting from scratch with every new Minister.

Put simply last week by Gary Banks in his speech to the OECD, every serious analysis of what works has four factors in common:

  1. Cooperative approaches between Indigenous people, government and the private sector.
  2. Community involvement in program design and decision making – a bottom up rather than top down approach.
  3. Good governance, and
  4. Ongoing government support – human as well as financial.

So let’s take those points one at a time – and remember these same points are made if you care to look up Ken Henry’s speech from the recent Cape York Institute conference, they’re in the Anderson/Wild Report, Tom’s Social Justice Report and they’re explained at some length in the latest report of Reconciliation Australia’s Indigenous Community Governance Research Program.

On the point about partnerships between Indigenous people, governments and others – the first big challenge is building trust. If the wider community is cynical about governments’ sincerity, it’s not hard to understand the doubt and fear, even anger, expressed by Indigenous people.

To allay those fears, and deliver on Gary Banks’ formula, the new way of doing things has to be better than the old way. Trust is only built through consistency and commitment.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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