A well-established political truism in Australia is that there are no votes in Aboriginals, and it is one most politicians from all parties hold to be self-evident. But, to their credit, this has not prevented them from trying to do something — anything — about this most intractable of social issues.

Since the referendum of 1967 every federal government with the possible exception of that of Billy McMahon has come to office with policies designed to at least make a difference to Aboriginal disadvantage. Labor leaders in particular have remained true to Gough Whitlam’s great promise: “We will grant Aboriginals land rights, not only because the case for them is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aboriginals are denied their rightful place in our community.”

He did indeed initiate land rights and Malcolm Fraser followed through with the policy. Bob Hawke set up genuine participation through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Paul Keating made his historic Redfern speech accepting responsibility for the destruction of the traditional Aboriginal lifestyle and Kevin Rudd kicked off his regime with the long-overdue apology to he stolen generations. But it is fair to say that none of them really followed through; as more urgent problems demanded attention and wider public concerns needed to be addressed Aboriginal issues were relegated to the backburner.

There were, after all, no votes in them. Once the policies were announced, their implementation was left to the bureaucrats, most of whom — while reasonably well intentioned — were pretty second rate; understandably the high flyers had moved closer to the real centres of politics. Thus it is hardly surprising that progress has been so slow.

However, there has been some. Noel Pearson may like to compare himself to Edvard Munch’s celebrated Scream, but the fact is that 40 years ago it would have been impossible to find any Aboriginal who had even heard of the painting, much less to have used it as a metaphor for his own frustration. Educational standards have improved; there is now a rapidly growing group of indigenous Australians with professional qualifications and a far greater proportion who make it at least to secondary level. Health and housing remain appalling by white Australian standards but again, there have been measurable improvements.

The gap is closing, but it is closing very slowly and often erratically; too often it seems a case of two steps forward and one step back. And of course modernisation, to use the latest buzz word, brings its own problems, notably the breakdown of traditional authority, both tribal and parental, and the introduction of drugs. In the process public priorities have changed; twenty years ago the basic problems were seen as poverty based, resulting from inadequate health, housing, education and employment. Today the emphasis is more specific: drugs and petrol sniffing, p-rnography, domestic violence and in particular child abuse. These are, according to the Productivity Commission’s report, all on the increase.

The immediate response? More money for more bureaucrats to collect more data showing more disadvantage — that’s the bad news that last week’s media highlighted. But in fact it was not all bad; some things, the Commission noted, showed promise, because there were some approaches which were clearly working. And all of these were co-operative. Wherever and whenever projects had been successful, it had been as a result of extensive consultation, bottom-up decision making and most importantly a long-term, ongoing commitment from all those involved.

In other words the shock and awe methods employed by John Howard and Mal Brough in their unilateral Northern Territory intervention were precisely the reverse of what was needed. Sure, the sledgehammer approach had had an impact; it could hardly have failed to do so. But any benefits would endure for only as long as the enforcers were there to ensure compliance. When they left, the likelihood was that that not only would the communities return to their former self-destructive ways, but things might even be worse, because the intervention effectively demolished the fragile social structures that had been in place. Genuine rebuilding would be a long, slow process.

This, of course, is of no comfort to those who are the victims of the current dysfunctional set up, nor to activists like Pearson or politicians like Rudd, all of whom want results. To Rudd’s credit, he at least set his government targets to reach in straightforward areas such as increased life expectancy against which its performance can be measured. But if last week’s report is any guide, few of the targets are likely to be attained, and even if they are other problems are simply growing worse in the meantime.

Rudd’s approach, like that of most of his predecessors, appears to be simply to try more of the same: an all out attack from all levels of government. The danger, of course, is that it will just result in more and more bureaucrats tripping over each other as their supposed clients, Aboriginal Australians, look on in helpless bewilderment. Surely it’s time, finally, for something different.

Since 1967 the Commonwealth has had the power, and many would say the responsibility, to take control of Aboriginal issues. It should now exercise it and streamline the whole system; tell the states to hand over the useful parts of their own bureaucracies and dismantle the rest. Aboriginal representatives should be involved at every level and communities and tribal groupings encouraged to retain their identity and propose local solutions: the one size fits all approach of the intervention is plainly inappropriate to societies as diverse as indigenous Australia.

This may sound radical, but really it is no more so than Rudd’s threat-promise to take over the hospital system. Except for one difference: there are lots of votes in cutting down surgery waiting lists. There are no votes in Aboriginals.