To follow is an extract of the annual Reconciliation Australia lecture, delivered today by Andrew Podger, professor of public policy, Australian National University:

Critics of symbols of reconciliation such as the Apology have at times argued for more attention to “practical reconciliation”.

This is a false choice: we need both. One without the other is not just insufficient but will be ineffective in its own right. Moreover, we need more work on both.

There is perhaps more goodwill and commitment at present to improve the lives of indigenous Australians than ever before; but “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. We need to be careful to focus on what works, to be realistic about timeframes and to sustain our efforts over the long term.
This might mean tempering some of the current enthusiasm and top-down drive in order to give more emphasis to continuity and genuine community engagement, and to expertise and experience. We also need to get the balance right between what governments and others need to do and what only indigenous people themselves can do.


Symbols play an important part in all cultures. They contribute to identity of individuals, clans and communities. They reflect the values of different cultures, reinforcing accepted behaviours and beliefs.

Symbols also help to manage relationships between cultures. They are signs of respect. They are a prerequisite for peaceful engagement and learning.

Cultures do change and evolve of course, affected by internal and external developments, including interaction with other cultures. But their gradual evolution rather than instant change provides much of the stable framework we all need, as individuals, families and communities, to manage our affairs with confidence despite the constant changes in the world we live in.

For indigenous Australians interacting with non-indigenous Australians, the question of symbols is a complex one. There is a wide range of indigenous cultures across this huge country, most obviously between Aboriginal communities and Torres Strait Islander communities, but as importantly within each of these two different peoples. Few indigenous communities have a critical mass sufficient to promote symbols that would be recognised widely beyond their own communities, and mobility over generations makes it harder for almost every community to preserve its own symbols for its own use. There is also no common indigenous language, or even a sufficiently major language that might be adopted widely.

A key challenge is therefore to agree upon some shared symbols that can reinforce cultural identity and form the basis of signs of respect from other cultures.

For non-indigenous Australians, there is a responsibility that comes with being the dominant culture. Whatever the “truth” of the events over which the culture wars of the last decade have been fought, there is no argument that the impact of European settlement on indigenous people has involved substantial losses in land, health, welfare and dignity. Whether the intent was good or bad, the outcome was dreadful for many and for a long time, and remains so for many despite the advances others have experienced. We cannot deny responsibility for what happened nor for the continuing unacceptable situation.

Acknowledgement of this has more than symbolic value — it is a sign of respect and an essential step towards reconciliation. For this reason, the Apology in 2008 was critical, and I hope in time former prime minister Howard can reconsider his position on the matter just as he courageously did about his earlier views on Asian immigration.

An important step came with the wide use, then official recognition, of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. The adoption by the Commonwealth Parliament and by COAG of statements of respect to traditional owners at official functions is another important step. But it needs clearer protocols and the firm stamp of approval by Indigenous people. I  opened this lecture with an acknowledgement to the Ngunnawal elders but I am not sure whether that was the right thing to do when Leah had already done so on all our behalves and Aunty Matilda has welcomed us so generously. Should each speaker repeat the acknowledgement? At what sorts of meetings is the acknowledgement appropriate?

Current mixed practice presents two genuine problems — perfunctory statements made by rote may devalue the symbol, and big-noted statements by individuals regardless of the occasion may appear self indulgent, not symbols of genuine shared respect.

I hope the new National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples can develop protocols that can then be adopted by all jurisdictions. For those who think this is unnecessary or artificial or boring, I would ask you to consider the seriousness of much more elaborate symbols used in New Zealand, and their evident contribution to respect and reconciliation.

This is a first small step. Subsequently, we need to clarify the status of First Peoples in our democratic framework with recognition in our Constitution, adequate protection of languages and further clarification about utilisation of traditional lands.

Practical reconciliation

Symbols mean little nonetheless if they are not complemented by action that effectively addresses disadvantages. Hence practical reconciliation is critical. The “Close the Gap” campaign — and COAG’s subsequent “Closing the Gap” agenda — is evidence of a substantial and largely non-partisan commitment by all governments and many other organisations, and of a determination that it will be effective. It presents a great opportunity.

The good intentions of so many people, however, do still run the risk of taking us down “the road to hell”. That risk may be significant if policies are driven by ideologies rather than evidence, or by advocates of immediate action who are deaf to the views and values of those we say we are helping.

There are formidable challenges, both about our objectives and the means we adopt.

There are complex trade-offs. And where there are trade-offs there is no clear right or wrong policy response, only the imperative of open discussion and deliberation.

I recall the visit to Australia by the then US Surgeon-General, Dr David Satcher, a decade ago when he met with a group of elders in a community near Uluru. He emphasised the importance of education to employment, incomes, health and independence, citing international evidence. They explained to him their dilemma because higher school attendance was increasing the likelihood of their young people leaving the community altogether. As an African American, David Satcher had not experienced the scale of this dilemma in his own country. He still pressed the elders about the importance of education, but began to appreciate the difficult challenge involved in this country both for Indigenous elders and for policy makers.

We could try to consciously direct policies to the preservation of traditional Indigenous lifestyles, but then would need to face up to the consequences. These might include continuing dysfunction and social breakdown as a result of “passive welfare”, or the risk of no less serious health and welfare problems if financial support were to be removed and the communities involved forced to take on the impossible task of a lifestyle that is totally removed from the modern world.

Alternatively, we could direct policies entirely towards economic development, withdrawing all support for those not willing to move to where there are real jobs or to pursue education and training. This would involve ignoring the likely impact on those communities which value more highly traditional culture and the scale of the adjustment that is involved in the transition to full market realities.

Even if there were broad agreement that the long-term answer must focus on economic development and integration with the real market economy — a view with which I have considerable sympathy — there are limits to the speed of adjustment that is possible or desirable. “What works” to make this adjustment also remains uncertain and, even where we have clear evidence, it is not always easy to do.

There is also a trade-off involved in the underlying assumption surrounding the “hidden hand” of markets, that decisions are made by individuals in their individual self-interest. Many indigenous people give more weight to collective decisions, beyond the areas of “public goods” and “market failures” as economists might define them, to more broadly shared responsibilities.

These are issues that require not so much debate as open and respectful discussion and dialogue, particularly with those directly affected. They are also issues that involve more than governments.

What works?

What do we know about “what works”? Certainly there is no “silver bullet”. But nor should we dismiss as failures the work of past contributors.

There has, in fact, been progress over the past 30 or 40 years, albeit slow, and this progress is more indicative of policy settings that are correct than of failures according to Jon Altman who is generally a critic of inadequate government effort. Improvements in child mortality rates seem to have accelerated in recent years. Many Indigenous Australians, probably the majority, are enjoying a largely successful transition, made over several generations, to our modern mixed economy and society. They may not yet enjoy all aspects of the standard of living of other Australians, but a growing number are highly successful. So there is no reason to throw in the towel or to dismiss the increased investment by taxpayers over this period as wasted or counter-productive. Some of it has evidently worked and is continuing to work. Given the increased average real incomes of all Australians over the last 40 years, a modest closing of the gap is not to be derided.

As mentioned, international evidence points to the importance of education for improved employment, incomes, health and independence. Notwithstanding the unease of some community elders, there is little doubt that quality education is essential to “closing the gap” and more effort is needed to improve children’s attendance and engagement. Critical to this is winning family and community support.  Also critical, of course, is the quality of the education delivered by governments.

International evidence also points to the importance of education of women  to the health of babies and mothers, and more generally to the importance of primary health care and public health measures to reduce mortality rates and increase life expectancy where there is a marked gap between these and standards in developed countries.

This evidence has certainly informed Australian governments in their strategies to improve education and primary health services.

Our own experience in Australia has also provided some guidance on “what works”. Let me draw from a range of cases which I think provides some  important conclusions.

The indigenous co-ordinated health care trials in the late 1990s were most successful where time was given to develop the service arrangements with the communities involved, where a local project manager with appropriate skills (in health, in indigenous cultures, in relationships management) was given substantial authority and flexible funding (by both the Commonwealth and the state), and where a governance arrangement was established involving not just accountability up to governments but also strong responsibility direct to the communities along with strong professional accountability. The most successful trial was West Katherine where Marion Scrimgeour was the project manager and two years were spent simply in preparatory work with communities to build capacity and a basis for local decision-making.

The COAG trials in the mid-2000s confirmed these findings. The results were mostly disappointing precisely because of failure to adopt these practices. The few success stories, such as Murdi Paaki in western NSW, involved more investment in time, more community involvement and people on the ground having more substantial authority and the continuity essential to building good relationships. Flexibility in funding was also a critical factor. Appointing agency CEOs as direct leaders of each trial had mixed effects from my observation — it gave weight to the trials and their access to resources but, unless there was also a local project manager with clout, expertise and time, it ran the risk of constraining genuine engagement and putting too much emphasis on reporting to Canberra. Continually changing policies at the centre remains a major obstacle to success which relies heavily on sustained local effort over many years.

The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association is one of the great success stories of recent years, with a dramatic increase in indigenous doctors over the past decade and a half (from under 10 to over 150 and another 150 in medical schools). Newcastle University was the original pioneer focussing on a critical mass of Indigenous students, providing intensive personal and family support and mentoring, and allowing significant tailoring of courses. Each other university now contributing has followed Newcastle’s lead. AIDA is funded by DOHA which has given them considerable freedom in the way they provide continuing professional and personal support to Indigenous doctors, as well as to students, and in their role of driving reform of education of all medical students. AIDA’s board and management have emphasised cultural links in all their activities. In doing so, they have carefully avoided partisan politics either within the indigenous political arena or more widely, but have still offered expert opinion on such matters as the NT intervention.

St Joseph’s School in Sydney was a pioneer of the idea of scholarships for indigenous students from regional and remote communities. A small scheme perhaps with limited potential for wide application, but one nonetheless with significant success built around a few key strategies — enough students to offer a safe environment, substantial investment in family and personal support, individual coaching and mentoring.

The Army’s Norforce is another success story. Its members are mostly part-time indigenous people from across communities in Northern Australia. It has officers and NCOs who have built close and professional relationships with them. It offers very practical training in useful skills in remote communities. It respects its members and gives them opportunities for advancement.

The APS record in employing Indigenous people remains mixed. The total proportion is as good as or better than in other jurisdictions and much better than in the private sector. The pattern, however, reveals some important lessons.  There are very distinct clusters of indigenous employees revealing the importance of critical numbers to provide each other with support and to have a real impact on their non-indigenous managers and colleagues. Successful employers also use targeted approaches to recruitment and personal support. Having a senior indigenous mentor like Pat Turner in Centrelink a decade ago also proved to be enormously effective.

The shift to a graduate workforce is adding a serious new obstacle to indigenous employment in the APS requiring strategies along the lines used by the university medical schools and others to invest in bridges such as traineeships and scholarships from school that may overcome the lack of opportunities to gain tertiary qualifications.

What is stopping us from applying what works?

There is some evidence that some of these lessons are being applied in some situations, with for example COAG adopting a National Partnership on Remote Service Delivery in 29 locations across the country, including shifting the NT intervention approach to working more carefully with 15 major communities, engaging local staff with clout to develop plans with each and implementing them in partnership with the communities. The APSC has also been fostering across-APS efforts to increase recruitment of indigenous employees and to provide essential support, and there is a COAG Partnership Agreement to raise indigenous employment in public services by 2015 to the proportion in the working-age population (around 2.6%).

I am not convinced, however, that our public services fully appreciate yet the implications of the approach we know works. This is because so much of it goes against the grain of today’s public service culture, and against the dominant pressures on the public service from ministers and parliaments, and the pressures on them from a relentless, impatient and often shallow media.

Even the framework established to drive the Closing the Gap strategy risks creating tensions with the approaches we know work. It involves detailed targets set nationally, and regular reports to COAG and Parliaments, an urgency that is understandable but not always conducive to consultation and engagement and developing serious relationships. If, as seems likely, many of the targets are not met, there is real danger that the funding may be cut back rather than the methodology reconsidered.

The public service itself is more top-down than ever today. A decreasing proportion is involved in direct service delivery, and an increasing proportion in supporting ministers and the political process. The latter are also imposing more constraints on the former, notwithstanding the New Public Management thrust of recent decades to devolve authority and “let the managers manage”. Today’s public service seems to value mobility and generic skills over expertise gained from long experience dealing with particular issues or communities. Governments insist on controlling communications with the public and discourages genuine and open engagement without politically endorsed “communication strategies”. They also prefer keeping things in ministerial departments and limiting the discretion and professional independence that separate agencies can use to provide citizens-centred services.

There are some practical things governments could do to start to address these problems. First they should ensure national strategies and reporting arrangements provide a broad umbrella, not a detailed straitjacket, and are realistic if still ambitious and challenging.

Second, they should establish an agency dedicated to indigenous development, with expertise in social and economic development and in Indigenous cultures, and with the authority and responsibility to employ staff close to communities with “clout” to make decisions and to influence staff in other agencies and jurisdictions.

I was surprised that last year’s Moran Report on Australian Government Administration (Ahead of the Game) gave little attention to structures. Its largely sensible proposals identified citizens-centred services as a priority but gave no guidance on the structures that might encourage better service delivery. Structures are important as they shape incentives and priorities, influencing the balance between different principles of public administration such as democratic responsiveness, professional and impartial decision-making and quality client services tailored to individual and community needs and preferences.

Where the latter is particularly important, a specialised agency with a degree of independence from day-to-day ministerial control has important advantages, including increased ability to build expertise and strong relationships with clients and community organisations.

My advocacy of a new separate agency responsible for indigenous affairs does not imply resurrecting ATSIC, which presented serious accountability problems from being an authority with its own elected leadership as well as being responsible to a minister. That arrangement was virtually unworkable despite the efforts of dedicated staff. It also made more difficult relationships with the other government agencies responsible for delivering mainstream services to indigenous people.

The new agency I would like to see would still be under a minister, but be more like a Centrelink or Medicare Australia (whose impending merger into a ministerial department I also think will prove a mistake). When I headed the Health Department I never wanted the then HIC to be taken over by my department as I recognised and valued its stronger customer focus which I feared would be lost in any merger.

This new indigenous-focused agency would not be responsible for all services to indigenous people, but would be a centre of expertise which mainstream departments and agencies could draw upon. It would nurture ongoing relationships with communities which those departments and agencies could be required to liaise with. It would also help to develop community-based plans the other organisations could be required to respond to. This would, of course, require cabinet authority.

The agency could report to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples as well as its minister on performance against those plans, thereby providing Congress the wherewithal to engage politically with the government on a more equal basis.

Another important strategy for the APS is to nurture more indigenous employees into the SES and leadership positions, particularly (but not solely) in managing indigenous programs. This needs dedicated effort. Agencies responsible for such programs may have more opportunity to recruit and develop indigenous staff, but other agencies have an important role too in offering career development opportunities to broaden skills and position people for leadership responsibilities based genuinely on merit.

Policies and practices we are not sure about

There is an important debate under way about the role of economic incentives and personal responsibilities in ensuring policies and practices aimed at Closing the Gap are effective. It is not an entirely new debate, though there are important new elements to it.

The introduction of CDEP in the 1970s was aimed precisely to withdraw “sit-down money” and to require personal work effort to earn social security benefits. The more recent concern that CDEP itself was becoming an obstacle to gaining sustainable, long-term employment in the market place, however, has considerable validity. In towns and cities with unsubsidised job vacancies, CDEP with its ongoing income subsidies and inadequate work test in respect of the market employment opportunities involves a disincentive for real jobs and real careers. It was right therefore for governments to progressively remove CDEP where there are well functioning labour markets. There is evidence that other forms of time-limited support are more effective in these situations, such as wage subsidies with skills training requirements.

Abolition by the previous government of CDEP in remote areas of the Northern Territory without realistic job opportunities, however, was short-sighted in my view, though even in remote areas we need to consider more carefully options for encouraging people to move from CDEP “employment” into unsubsidised jobs.

A more hard-nosed approach to indigenous enterprises might similarly improve their effectiveness. Too many communities seem to think the enterprises are about compensation for past losses rather than serious strategies to improve Aboriginal employment and independence. If they were about compensation only, they would be far better invested in BHP shares rather than roadhouses and country town shopping centres. Their only real justification is to create employment opportunities where the indigenous owners are determined to support Indigenous employment as well as to make a profit.

The mining industry’s efforts to reduce high cost fly-in-fly-out labour and to provide that labour with more support, are seeing important increases in employment opportunities for indigenous people in remote areas, drawing on investments in education and training and leading in time to opportunities for substantial career paths. Governments also at long last are recognising that their own service delivery jobs are real employment opportunities that could be better used for indigenous advancement. National Parks, for example, is making progress in this respect but there is much more that others could be doing instead of employing more non-indigenous Australians in remote areas.

There may also be opportunities, as Noel Pearson has suggested, for indigenous people from more remote communities to have their own (reverse) fly-out-fly-in schemes, gaining employment in cities and regional centres, or seasonal work in rural areas, without losing their connections with their communities. This would allow them to provide “remittances” home (as commonly occurs for developing countries), and still arrange sufficiently frequent and lengthy visits back to maintain community ties.

Other big private employers such as some of the banks are showing interest in improving employment opportunities for indigenous Australians including in regional towns and cities, and there may well be room to pursue Pearson’s approach, but this will rely also on alternatives to CDEP to ensure suitable incentives and support are in place. Increasingly the obstacle is not a lack of employment opportunities but a lack of suitably skilled and work-ready indigenous people to take them up, a problem requiring more investment by governments and business in education and skills development in consultation with affected communities to encourage family support.

This agenda is rightly opening up debates about applying more market-based approaches to other programs such as housing and land reform. Economic development literature suggests there is opportunity for substantial gains from harnessing incentives for personal and family benefits via individual rather than collective ownership. But we also need to be realistic about demand and supply in remote localities and, as I mentioned earlier, the legitimate community and cultural interests that might be jeopardised by the operation of pure markets.

These debates should be welcomed so long as they are constructive and well-informed, not presented as unquestionable new truths nor rejected as necessarily incompatible with indigenous community welfare. There is room for more trials and evaluations to test the impact of more market-oriented approaches. Closing the Gap necessarily involves increasing indigenous education and employment everywhere, with unsubsidised private sector jobs dominant, but we must also recognise the legitimate concerns about preserving cultures even when this means trade-offs, ongoing special treatment and prolonged transitional strategies.

In welcoming such debates, we need to be careful not to encourage more short-term shifts in policies that disrupt the bottom-up process that requires time and the building of personal relationships and the capacity for local discretion and action. Rather, national policies should be facilitating rather than prescribing, and should allow dialogue between those working on the ground and those working on high-level policy, as well as among Congress and between Congress and government ministers and their departments.

Responsibilities as well as rights

Noel Pearson has also made an important contribution in emphasising responsibilities as well as rights, and identifying the moral hazard involved whenever governments step in to provide social assistance by reducing incentives to self-help.

I do not interpret this as a demand for unilateral withdrawal of government welfare programs or other assistance, but a call for a less paternalistic approach and, as importantly, encouragement of fellow indigenous leaders to shift their attention from lobbying governments to taking a stronger role within their own communities. It is also important to recognise this has been happening and that it is an onerous duty which can have personal costs.

There are no magic answers for Alice Springs or other towns with large numbers of unemployed, itinerant Aboriginal people exhibiting anti-social behaviour towards each other as well as other residents. The recent increase in the problem is partly the unintended consequence of unilateral action such as the NT intervention to improve conditions in remote communities. Government authorities can attempt to impose penalties for anti-social behaviour and to limit access to alcohol, but experience shows this has limited success without the strong support of indigenous leaders. Governments can also attempt to use carrots rather than sticks, offering housing and other community services and amenities, but knowing more social assistance adds to the moral hazard and provides no guarantee of more responsible behaviour.

Critical to success will be engagement between indigenous leaders and the individuals, families and clans involved, and between indigenous leaders and the relevant authorities. A mix of carrots and sticks may then have a positive impact, at least over time. They are more likely to be successful if there are more indigenous faces among the authorities.

There was merit in many of the initiatives taken during the NT intervention, but the lack of consultation inevitably made any gains short-term and contributed to the displacement of problems in one place with equal or worse problems elsewhere. Yet consultation on its own would probably not have ensured success. Genuine ownership of the measures being taken is critical — that is, acceptance by communities and their leaders of responsibility.

None of these are easy issues, and progress is likely to be slow and not always steady. The important advance is the willingness to talk about responsibilities as well as rights; the danger is any assumption that responsibilities can be imposed from afar.


Reconciliation and Closing the Gap require not so much a choice between symbolism and practical measures, but both. Similarly we need approaches that recognise both rights and responsibilities.

More effort is still required to define and explain the symbols that reflect indigenous cultures and that can be used by non-indigenous Australians to show respect. An early task for Congress is to advise on the most suitable protocols for recognising prior ownership of land and showing respect to the elders concerned. Parliamentary endorsement of these would provide the authority that is needed. Subsequently we need to clarify the status of First Peoples in our democratic framework, with recognition in our Constitution, adequate protection of languages and further clarification about utilisation of traditional lands.

More effort is also required to pursue “practical reconciliation”. The increased investment by governments in recent years is most welcome, and the commitment over ten years and more provides the basis for sustained action. But the approach needs more continuity of policy settings to facilitate much more bottom-up development and engagement. It also needs some easing of the pressure of top-down strategies, targets and reporting.

Structural and cultural change is also needed in government and the public service, as they are in serious danger of becoming part of the problem rather than the solution through top-down programmatic thinking and excessive change and mobility.

In particular we need to establish a dedicated agency outside a ministerial department with a strong community based approach to planning and implementing service delivery. It should exhibit less mobility amongst its staff, particularly amongst those working in communities. It should ensure these have real “clout” and access to a flexible budget.

Indigenous employment in the APS and other public services also needs more investment, particularly by key agencies which can ensure a critical mass of indigenous staff, build supportive networks, ensure senior Indigenous models and mentors and promote career development.

The recent shift to more market-oriented approaches should continue to be pursued, but not unilaterally enforced by the centre, recognising legitimate trade-offs and lengthy transition requirements.

There is a remarkable opportunity at present, with strong support from all jurisdictions, a widespread and genuine desire across the Australian community for better outcomes and willingness to contribute, and a long-term commitment to substantially increasing funds. Let us ensure these good intentions do not degenerate into paving another road to hell. We must grab this opportunity and ensure it makes a real and lasting difference by not setting unrealistic expectations or pursuing simplistic and constantly changing policy prescriptions.

Peter Fray

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