In recent times, there has been much questioning of the (in)ability of government to transform Indigenous social conditions, with calls for the corporate, philanthropic and social enterprise sectors to take greater charge of social policy. Yet for all the critique, there is a lingering hope beating in many hearts that the government is the logical place to turn to for leadership and reform.

The 2020 Summit which ushered in the new Rudd Government with such media fanfare captured these contradictions: for every call for action to remedy past failures, there was an expectation that “the government” should do something, fund this, inquire into that, establish a centre for something else. Somehow, despite the gathering of some of Australia’s most independently minded protagonists, the solutions were exactly what the government is perfectly orchestrated to deliver.

So how does it happen that we ask for more of what we know to be the problem? Well, background papers were prepared which primed participants toward an analysis of “the issues” in predetermined ways. Indigenous futures were cast in health, employment, education and training statistics, so participants knew in advance to diagnose solutions in terms of these governmental categories.

Participants were frustrated by, but powerless to interrupt, rants of predictable kinds; and the group-think that the very staging of a workshop ordains into shape assumed a dynamic of its own. Our “solutions” were developed in carefully facilitated group sessions, with roundtables, whiteboards, butcher’s paper and the requirement for consensus and reduction.

Only dot points or caption phrases that were unarguable (such as “build community capacity”; “respect Indigenous knowledge systems”) could survive the punishing collective editing processes and pressure of the clock; while the task of collapsing the contributions into something palatable for ministerial and media display was left to anonymous public servant helpers, specially recruited from the ranks of the young and promising to serve the discreet, invisible, yet highly consequential task of final editing.

The process did not release innovation but enervation; yet the force of the process was so powerful we participated anyway. We complained among ourselves, yet we upheld it. And we called for interventions and programs to be designed by the very people whose singular competency lies in creating formulaic policy setting processes such as these. In other words, it was a voluntary technique of bureaucratic perpetuation, sustained by people who are otherwise regarded as fierce intellects, independent reformers and community activists.

Indigenous health suffers from exactly this ventriloquism. Far from being democratic, the workshop process exerts a stranglehold on analysis. Yet try getting anything done in the fiercely democratic Indigenous health arena without convening a group process first, and see how far you get!

Genuflecting to reified indigenous health truisms in group sessions is not only de rigueur but impossible to defy: one does not want to be seen as less “on side” than others in the room; while being called upon for a consultation or presentation is itself part of the public health reward system. The strain of involvement in events which many participants will secretly condemn for their mercilessly mechanical processes and predictable outputs is offset by the allure of seeming to be doing good, and occasionally really doing good; combined with the attraction of being well regarded by key “players” whose good opinion is coveted.

The take home message for health advocates is that disrupting these deeply internalised processes requires more than public health urgency, well-worded “Close the Gap” strategic papers or even new funding.

An entire cultural order is in place which is designed to reproduce approaches and analyses that are familiar and known. Innovation gets captured and crushed, while logic and that elusive thing called “evidence” cannot permanently rupture bureaucratic practices and institutional routines — especially when the ostensible system radicals are holding the whiteboard markers.

So is there an alternative to workshops? Can they be made useful? Of course. Small is better than large. Task-specific meetings among people who have resources, acumen or technical knowledge to contribute will always be a superior way of getting things mobilised.

It is the cultural work performed by group processes and the awful condition of kow-towing when Indigenous health is the subject that needs to be called into question. It is the pressures of racialised and politicised identity performances that need to be more closely scrutinised, if Indigenous health issues are to be analysed and addressed with greater accuracy and fearlessness.

*Tess is a former senior bureaucrat who directs the School for Social and Policy Research at Charles Darwin University. Her book Bureaucrats & Bleeding Hearts: Indigenous Health in Northern Australia will be launched in Sydney this Thursday, with guest speakers Fred Chaney and Associate Professor Paul Torzillo. Don Watson will speak at the Melbourne launch on September 22.

Want to respond on this issue? Join the conversation at Crikey’s health forum, Croakey, here.

Peter Fray

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