The most challenging part of Havnen’s new job will be to renew the shattered faith and trust in governments as service providers of choice — at all levels — among the NT’s Aboriginal communities. This is the elephant in the room that few in the NT and Commonwealth public services — and depressingly even fewer in the respective parliaments — can see … accepting that there is a fundamental breakdown in these key relationships should be the first order of business for Havnen — and a relatively easy one. Doing something about it — and convincing those to whom she’ll report that it is a major crisis in governance — is altogether another matter.
It is arguable that the “shattered faith” of Aboriginal people in governments as service providers won Terry Mills’ Country Liberal’s government in the NT a month ago.
Whether Mills will be able to repair that fundamental breakdown will perhaps be the real test, and making, of his government.
Olga Havnen’s first report as NT Coordinator General has the 1988 Barunga Statement on its cover and she notes that in the 24 years since that most aspirational of documents in recent Aboriginal history was presented to then Prime Minister Bob Hawke:
… the good intentions of governments and the Australian people have often been lost in the bureaucratic maze that has been established to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the different histories of Indigenous peoples. Many of those charged with the implementation of government policy and the delivery of programs in Aboriginal towns in the Northern Territory often have a very limited understanding of Indigenous people and their cultures. This has led to generations of interaction and intervention based of the perceptions of the non-Indigenous world on what constitutes success, and has continued to fail to support Aboriginal people in determining and meeting their own aspirations.
I’ve not had a chance to digest all of Havnen’s report since it was released yesterday as I’m on the road in the Gulf country a thousand kilometres south-east of Darwin.
From my brief scan I have two minor grizzles with Havnen’s otherwise ground-breaking report – firstly she devotes a lot of energy looking at the dead – and services to them – in relation to the provision of morgues and related services in the bush, rather than the very real issues around primary health care for the living.
Secondly, she appears to fail to give due credit to the two areas of service delivery, primary health care and remote land management, where Aboriginal people lead the way in terms of employment and providing effective on-the-ground services. Perhaps these very real positive aspects of contemporary Aboriginal life and work will be addressed in future reports.
As I predicted at the time of Havnen’s appointment a year ago, she would have limited powers, could easily be ignored and may well face resistance from the NT public service. In this regard she notes somewhat depressingly that:
It is unfortunate that the response of some departments and agencies to requests from my office for information and data has been met with a reluctance to comply and, in some instances, outright hostility. To those officers and agencies that readily assisted in the preparation of this report, I extend my sincere thanks.
To those that did not, I can only hope that a renewed emphasis on ‘bush communities’ by the incoming CLP Government will ensure these matters are given greater priority and cooperation.
A quick scan of the executive summary and the fifteen recommendations reveals the difference between Havnen’s approach and that of her predecessor Bob Beadman, whose four reports I previously described as:
…little more than bombastic, overblown rewritings of a history unknown and unknowable to contemporary life in the NT, replete with inaccuracies, distortions and a manifest failure to identify and deal with the real issues or present workable solutions to the problems he identified. Beadman was ever willing to criticise anything or anyone espousing a “rights agenda” and deplored the role that welfare payments play in the lives of contemporary Aboriginal communities.
Havnen cuts to the chase with her first recommendation, which points to the paucity of reliable data on the where, what and how of Aboriginal peoples lives in the NT that would provide an evidence-base for future decsion-making:
Recommendation 1 – Population and mobility
That the Commonwealth and NT Governments jointly commission credible research on Aboriginal demographic trends, patterns of mobility and migration, including the motivation for and period of relocations into, out of and between communities and regional services centre (Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin), and the long term aspirations (particularly for youth) to identify current and future service needs.
And government’s need to be held to account for and be transparent about their expenditure on programs dedicated to Aboriginal service-provision:
Recommendation 3 – Accountability and transparency
That performance measures include verifiable outcome indicators (in addition to existing input, outputs and activities) and are evaluated and assessed in terms of value for money, impact and effectiveness. That annual financial expenditure reports on Government investments in Indigenous specific programs and services includes a breakdown of administrative costs (staffing, salaries, travel etc) and direct program or project expenses.
Havnen is scathing of the current focus on “crisis/tertiary programs rather than prevention and early intervention,” particularly in relation to support for children and families.
For mine one of the key issues that Havnen identifies – and this goes to my earlier comments about “shattered trust and faith” above – is the “marginalisation of Aboriginal people in decision-making.”
The abolition of ATSIC, the centralisation of local government administration into urban areas and the proliferation of ‘advisory committees’ in place of elected Aboriginal decision making bodies, has resulted in residents losing control over their own circumstances. There is now a dearth of formal Indigenous representation in any of the key governance roles that lead decision making and priority setting in Aboriginal communities.
Ironies abound in the circumstances surrounding Havnen’s report and her appointment.
Following the election victory by the CLP in the recent elections, Alison Anderson, who as a Labor Minister appointed Bob Beadman, never a Labor man he, to his post as the first Coordinator General in 2009, now finds herself – a Labor defector, then Independent and now a CLP Minister – responsible for Havnen’s report and it’s wide-ranging recommendations and the administration of her office.
And the CLP, who would have been very comfortable with Beadman’s neo-con rhetoric and simplistic ‘solutions’, now have a Coordinator General in Olga Havnen who knows her field intimately and can make well-reasoned and rational recommendations from a very different perspective to Beadman’s.
Labor treated Beadman’s four reports with the benign indifference they deserved.
Havnen and her report are very different creatures altogether and Mills and his CLP government would do the same at their peril.