Closing the Indigenous gap was never going to be easy, but the reception of the Productivity Commission report will unfortunately make it harder. Media and political responses have focused on the child abuse and extreme deviance increases and have generally reinforced the widespread views that nothing has worked.

These media responses are problematic because they reinforce the propensity of governments to look for quick fix authoritarian responses, based on assumptions that the faults are with the intransigence of the communities, who fail to respond to good intentions. Headlined proposals to mandate healthy food in the outback stores ignore both the questions of freight costs and the health problems of those communities that live close to good food supplies, and therefore deeper problems than bad food choices.

There has been extra money allocated but perceptions that “throwing money at the problem” fails, overlook how much of the spending has gone to outside administration, not to the communities themselves. For instance, $88M extra allocated to quarantining income has gone to bureaucratic costs, not to the recipients and much of the other Intervention costs have gone on new white bureaucrats and the housing they need in remote communities.

No media report raises the questions of what we/the Governments/the wider society might be doing wrong. There is a scad of evidence to show that it is not necessarily spending the money that works but how it is done. The last government both verbally trashed the views of many Indigenous communities and removed their semi-independent voice and also failed to recognise that short term, top down initiatives would not work, as was shown in this report.

The current government network at COAG still failed to recognise that such approaches fail time and time again despite the Productivity Commission suggesting this, as do many other studies on this point. The Report says clearly on page eight of the Summary document.

Things that work:

Not everything that matters can be captured in indicators, and some information is better presented in words, rather than numbers. In particular, community level change may not show up in state or national data. The main report includes many examples of “things that work” — activities and programs that are making a difference, often at the community level. This Overview summarises these “things that work” in the discussion of each COAG target, headline indicator or strategic area.

Analysis of the “things that work”, together with wide consultation with Indigenous people and governments, identified the following “success factors”:

  • cooperative approaches between Indigenous people and government — often with the non-profit and private sectors as well community involvement in program design and decision-making
  • a ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top-down’ approach
  • good governance — at organisation, community and government levels
  • ongoing government support — including human, financial and physical resources.

This warning was not reported in the media. Nor unfortunately did the Commission’s report assess which policies and program over the last decade had been designed co-operatively and bottom up. These predictors of successful programs are many other reports. These show that education, employment, health, housing and family support services that are short term funded, not culturally appropriate, and linked to engaged local communities fail in both remote and urban settings.

The media emphasis on the ‘deviance’ statistics (abuse, crime etc) means we are likely to continue to get more inappropriately designed and delivered programs that will continue to blame the victims for their failures. The claims that this government delivers evidence based policies needs to be made true, but the evidence must be based on what works and not just on the admittedly horrific statistics.

The report states with some optimism “Across virtually all the indicators in this report, there are wide gaps in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. However, the report shows that the challenge is not impossible — in a few areas, the gaps are narrowing.”

Overall, Indigenous people have shared in Australia’s economic prosperity of the past decade or so, with improvements in employment, incomes and measures of wealth such as home ownership. However, in almost all cases, outcomes for non-Indigenous people have also improved, meaning the gaps in outcomes persist.

The challenge for governments and Indigenous people will be to preserve these gains and close the gaps in a more difficult economic climate.

(For more evidence, I’m involved in a new website which is documenting examples to counter the views that nothing works. We will be adding in the many examples in the Productivity Commission intersperses in its report because these and other examples show that there are answers but these relate as much to how things are done as what is to be done).

Eva Cox is a member of Women for Wik.