Indigenous policy needs a complete rethink. As Kevin Rudd said during his historic speech apologising to the stolen generations, we have to stop making the same mistakes that we made in the past. Fine rhetoric — but indigenous communities now need that sentiment to guide policy makers.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have shorter life expectancy, lower levels of education, higher levels of unemployment, and are more likely to live in poverty and to live in an overcrowded house than other Australians.

New 2005-2007 experimental figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculate life expectancy at birth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians at 67.2 years for men and 72.9 years for women. These figures are well below the 82.6 and 78.7 year average for non-indigenous females and males respectively, for the same period and create life expectation inequality gap of 9.7 years for females and 11.5 years for males.

About 30 years ago, life expectancy rates for indigenous peoples in Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America were similar to the rates for indigenous peoples in Australia. However, significant gains in life expectancy have been made in the past two decades in the indigenous populations in Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America. Comparable mortality rates for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in 1990-1994 were at or above the rates observed 20 years ago in Maori and Native Americans, being 1.9 times the rate in Maori, 2.4 times the rate in Native Americans, and 3.2 times the rate for all Australians.

Indigenous people have lower levels of education than non-indigenous Australians. 49.9% of non-indigenous Australians do not have non-school qualification compared with 71% of indigenous Australians.

The Rudd-Gillard Labor governments have adopted the rhetoric of “closing the gap” to describe their aspiration for achieving socio-economic equality for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Overall, there are many positive aspirations in the rhetoric of this reform agenda. These include aims to increase the literacy rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and to improve levels of their school attendance, improve the health of Aboriginal people and reduce violence and s-xual abuse of indigenous women and children.

But there’s a gap between these aspirations and results on the ground. And there is a gap between the government’s rhetoric of wanting to take an “evidence-based” approach and its actual policies.

Some of those barriers to achieving equality for indigenous people under the current policy framework include:

The limited definitions of “closing the gap”: The areas targeted by the government in its report card are narrow. Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) have pointed out that there are serious flaws in the broader strategy, in particular, overlooking evidence of what works, including key determinants of health inequality and disadvantage critical to achieving its closing the gap targets and not working in partnership with indigenous people to develop or implement its closing the gap strategy.

Funding interventions instead of facing the underlying issues: indigenous policy is always targeted at intervention, at emergency. It rarely seeks to look at the underlying issues. Addressing disadvantage requires long-term solutions, not just interventions. Rather than always reacting to a crisis, a long-term sustained approach requires addressing the underlying causes of disadvantage. This means resourcing adequate standards of essential services, adequate provision of infrastructure and investment in human capital so that communities are developing the capacity to deal with their own issues and problems and have the skill sets necessary to ensure their own well-being. There are no short-cuts, quick fixes or panaceas. Whatever the perceptions of the electorate, the fact is that there is not enough money spent on Aboriginal housing, education and health.  The pot is too small and no government will fix the problems while all they do is engage in trying to redirect the scarce resources towards one pressing need at the expense of others.

Focus on remote communities: much of indigenous policy is targeted at remote communities — resources too. Look at where the previous government and the current government are directing resources for social housing and you will see it is primarily focused on remote communities. Yet the largest Aboriginal communities do not live in remote areas. They live in cities. The largest is in western and south-western Sydney with 28,065 indigenous people. And on the recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures it is one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities in the country, more disadvantaged than many of the Aboriginal communities being targeted by the federal government.

Ideology over research-based approaches: indigenous affairs is full of ideologies. These include the ideologies of assimilation and mainstreaming, the newer ideologies of mutual obligation and shared responsibility, and the ideology that communally held land is bad — if it is held by Aboriginal people — and should be unlocked so that non-Aboriginal people can access it. An example of the ideological approach in action is the policy of quarantining the welfare payments of parents of Aboriginal children who do not attend school. There is no evidence that shows that linking welfare to behaviour reforms is effective.

Failure to engage in a robust policy debate: when the Northern Territory intervention was first rolled out in June 2007, the Howard government silenced critics by accusing anyone who didn’t support all of the measures of “protecting” pa-dophiles. Once in office, the Labor government has done much the same. Rational policy debate over whether these policies are effective is avoided by the repetitive deployment of phrases such as “we just care about women and children” or mealy mouthed assurances that “we are committed to closing the gap”.

So what about some quick wins? Here are three fixes in three minutes, that are all about combining pragmatic politics and progressive policies. There have been claims that plenty of money has been spent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with little impact. Here are three targeted policy initiatives that would give guaranteed good results:

Quick fix # 1: adequately fund Aboriginal legal services to meet the needs of their clients: Aboriginal legal services have been underfunded for more than 15 years. The Rudd-Gillard government delivered a one-off funding boost to the community legal services sector but Aboriginal legal services are still funded less per case than mainstream community legal services. This significantly hinders the capacity of the Aboriginal legal services to meet the needs of Aboriginal people going before the courts and adds to the higher levels of incarceration, particularly as a result of the refusal of bail.

Quick fix # 2: invest in diversionary programs: despite the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, incarceration rates of Aboriginal people continue to rise, particularly for Aboriginal women and juveniles. Diversionary programs, particularly those working with young offenders, have been effective in reducing the re-offending rates. These programs — such as circle sentencing — have been trialled but resources have not been allocated to ensure that they can be rolled out in the communities that need them the most.

Quick fix # 3: support community controlled Aboriginal health services: like the Aboriginal legal services, Aboriginal health services have been underfunded, making it difficult for them to meet the needs of their client base. While there has been a push towards mainstreaming of Aboriginal health provision, there remains a strong case for Aboriginal health services. The health needs of Aboriginal people are distinctive and complex and services that target those specific needs are far more likely to be effective.

Aboriginal people still show reluctance to use mainstream services, believing they are more likely to be discriminated against. So why not try this idea, an idea so crazy it might just work: engage with indigenous communities and commit to building their capacity.

Policy makers continue to overlook and dismiss the knowledge that Aboriginal people have about solving their own problems. The research in Australia and in indigenous communities in North America shows consistently that the best way to lessen the disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous people is to include indigenous people in the development of policy and the design and delivery of programs into their communities. Apart from sounding like common sense, the research shows that this engagement assists in ensuring the appropriateness and effectiveness of those policies and programs, as well as community engagement with them, and therefore greatly increases their success.

This level of engagement requires investment in building the capacity of indigenous people and their communities. This means a commitment to something that policy makers often overlook: the need to invest in human capital. If participation by indigenous people is a central factor in creating better policy, program and service delivery outcomes, there needs to be more effort to build up the capacity for that kind of engagement. This would include:

Rebuilding an interface between the government and the Aboriginal community through representative structures so that governments can more effectively consult with and work with Aboriginal people;

Focusing on the provision of training and education in ways that improve the capacity of Aboriginal communities. This means moving away from simple solutions such as simply removing children into boarding schools and instead looking at a range of strategies that build the skill sets and capacities of adults as well as younger people who need to retain contact with their families if they do leave for better schooling opportunities;

Increasing the number of Aboriginal people in the public service and who are engaged with developing and delivering Aboriginal policies and programs; and,

Looking at flexible employment arrangements such as work-for-the-dole schemes that understand that in many indigenous communities there is no viable workforce or there are barriers to entering the workforce. Such schemes can assist with the provision of services and infrastructure in the community at the same time as they build capacity and skills within the community itself.

The ambition of “closing the gap” is an admirable one and should be the key target for government policy. However, current policy approaches are running contrary to the evidence of what works in achieving better outcomes and the government continues to ignore the clear evidence of current policy failure. The poor results from current government policy are exacerbated by the fact that the Coalition shares the same ideological approach and has not questioned government failure in this area to the extent that it has in others.

The losers in that have been Aboriginal people on the ground.

*Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman. She is the Professor of Law and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney, and is admitted to the Supreme Court of the ACT and NSW as a barrister. This is an extract from a chapter from More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now a publication from the Centre for Policy Development edited by Mark Davis and Miriam Lyons.

*This essay is part of Crikey’s Big Ideas series. We’ve had enough of sound bites set on repeat, glib slogans and half-baked committees  –  we’re looking for the vision thing. One Crikey subscriber will also get the chance to share their Big Idea with our readers: send us a three-line pitch, on an issue of national importance that gets you fired up, to [email protected] with “Big Ideas” in the subject line.