In the wake of yesterday’s COAG meeting and the release of the Productivity Commission’s latest report on Indigenous Disadvantage, Fred Chaney’s recent speech warning against undue haste by policy makers is extremely timely. This is an edited extract from the 2009 Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration, delivered by Fred Chaney in Adelaide on May 28:

At this time, when we have made such great strides at the symbolic level through the apology and there are unprecedented positives in terms of good intentions about ending disadvantage, a critical difficulty we face is not in winning new policy concessions from governments but in ensuring governments can deliver on their policy commitments.

The fundamental challenge for governments today is no different from the fundamental challenge we have faced over the last 30 years, how do we deliver on our good intentions?

The past is a land full of good intentions. As we look at the dedicated work of the Council of Australian Governments in 2008 and 2009 it is salutary to remember that as long ago as 1992 the State and Commonwealth Governments combined in a Statement of National Commitment to work together and to deliver citizenship entitlements to Aboriginal people.

It is worth remembering the more recent well intentioned COAG trials which produced such limited outcomes notwithstanding valiant bureaucratic attempts to make the system work for Aboriginal people.

It is worth remembering these things not to be cynical or dismissive about the worth and bona fides of present commitments, but rather to understand the reasons for past failure and to ensure that the current commitments to real and measurable progress, the current commitments of substantial new funding, result in the closing the gap targets being met.

COAG has set six ambitious targets for closing the gap, and, according to the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mr Terry Moran, has committed joint funding of $4.6 billion, most of it new money towards meeting these targets.

It is also important that considerable thought and effort has gone into the difficult issue of remote service delivery and that the governments have entered into a national partnership agreement on that subject. It appears to me that they are trying to learn the lessons of the past.

This is apparent in Schedule C to the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery which sets out the service delivery principles for services to Indigenous Australians and stresses the importance of engaging with Indigenous people in the design and delivery of programs and services.

But the comfort I get from this is diminished by the contrast between the deep concerns about what is actually happening on the ground which are passed on to me and the admirable principles I have just outlined.

The concerns that have been raised with me from across remote Australia lie in the following areas:

  • High-level policy changes that substantially intact impact on local activities with limited or no consultation with the affected communities about the changes and, perhaps even more important, about their implementation
  • Lack of contact between local communities and government authorities caused I suspect by limited government resources for meaningful field engagement. Fly in fly out teams telling people what is going to happen does not comply with any of the so called principles.
  • Policy changes which are driven by ideological positions without regard to pragmatic considerations such as the imposition of individual power meters in the interests of encouraging greater personal responsibility in communities which until now have successfully paid their power costs through a bulk process. The more likely outcome will be arrears, collection processes and presumably a final sanction of having the power cut-off. This is scarcely flexibility in program delivery and more like an erosion of capacity.

But of greatest concern is the tight timetabling of the various plans meant to drive progress. It is good for governments to set targets, it is good for them to put pressure on themselves to deliver.

But there is real tension between the desire to deliver quickly and what we know about what is required to produce results. The principles set out above are a reflection of one of the most powerful lessons of the past, namely that in the absence of the application of these principles permanent positive change will not be achieved.

That is why we should be concerned that in the same agreement which captures the service delivery principles for the COAG program as it relates to remote communities we also find that:

  • Bilateral plans, with identified locations, milestones, performance benchmarks and indicators are to be agreed within three months of signing the agreement
  • The integrated service delivery mechanism is to be established within six months of the bilateral plan is being signed
  • Baseline mapping is to be completed within one month of the mechanism being established, and

Drafting of detailed local implementation plans for each location is to commence upon completion of baseline mapping and is to be progressed in consultation with local Indigenous people.

So the local indigenous people do get a look in at the point of drafting details of local implementation plans but what about before that and why are they talking about bilateral plans, that is between State and Commonwealth and not trilateral plans between State Commonwealth and Aboriginals?

The truth is that in the entirely laudable desire to show that real change has been achieved, that there are real outcomes post apology to demonstrate the bona fides of government, we may well be putting the whole admirable exercise at risk by repeating the errors of the past and precluding the Aboriginal participation which we know is essential to the success of the project.

There are at least two trip wires which could limit the sustainability of changes being pursued through the COAG process.

The first is whether governments with their timetables and bilateral agreements will permit the time required for real community engagement and ensure that communities have the resources and capacity to partner with governments to achieve shared aims.

The second is whether the agencies of government are staffed with the skilled personnel required for consultation across the great variety of communities with which governments are seeking to engage. There are people available with such skills and government could look to the mining industry for example in this regard. It is a task for skilled intermediaries who have experience in achieving results as well as in cross-cultural communication, not attributes necessarily attached to people whose skills are essentially bureaucratic.

To some extent in dealing with disadvantaged communities you are asking centralised bureaucracies to act against the order of their nature, and unless they are clearly tasked to behave in the way required by Schedule C the old command and control ways will persist to disastrous effect.

It could be useful for them to think about the way in which the mining industry has, since 1995 in Australia, re-engineered its approach to dealing with Aboriginal communities.

I have commended to governments the Rio Tinto publication entitled “Aboriginal Engagement in the Resource Development – Industry Leading Practices” published in October 2008.

This publication records that “a mutually beneficial, working relationship through positive engagement with Aboriginal groups has become a pre-requisite for advancing a project” and also stresses the importance of implementation.

Surely we can expect no less from governments? But if history is any guide we know that the skilful writing of a fine policy tends to take precedence over the boring business of implementation, and indeed the pedestrian matter of implementation can be delegated to the lesser bureaucratic orders.

There is a lot of work and capacity building in the bureaucracies to be done to deliver on the promise of COAG. We must hope that it will be forthcoming.

• Fred Chaney is a Reconciliation Australia board member and a former Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs