Replace do-nothing Aboriginal affairs ministers

By Galarrwuy Yunupingu | | 25th July 2009 | + MORE ARTICLES

A few weeks ago I was on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land. Some clans had come together to bury a senior man and to work on an important purification ceremony for young men, reminding them of their simple obligations and responsibilities in life.

Though I didn't know about it then, a big debate concerning a Productivity Commission report came and went during my time on Elcho. After I returned to Nhulunbuy I was able to read that there was a serious governmental meeting in Darwin and the Prime Minister was there along with premiers and chief ministers and all their advisers. This report was given to them and it shocked them a little bit, so they said a few things in the media. They said the report had reminded them of an urgent national issue and there was a success at their meeting in that they concurred they had now agreed to work together. All sorts of people were having their say. And I read that the Prime Minister said that nothing was working properly for the benefit of Aborigines. We agree on that.

But no one on Elcho Island, one of the biggest traditional Aboriginal communities in Australia, had any idea about what was being said on their behalf in Darwin or Canberra, or in the papers, on radio or television. If they saw the news they would have just scratched their heads.

The way this issue reared up and the brief noise it made reminded me of so many previous occasions: big noise, lots of chest-beating, but no real action, nothing to be seen on the ground where it matters. It reminded me how the politics of Aboriginal misery runs hot every time a new office-holder comes to Canberra and the elected members and responsible ministers have to find some answers, or at least give the impression they're trying to find answers. Three years is such a short time and they are under pressure to do something instead of biting their fingernails and having long lunches and finding no solutions. So they start with studies, and they suggest some things, then they consult and consult. Then, if they are lucky, their time comes and they leave parliament or move on to another portfolio.

Every minister I have known -- Labor or Liberal -- was no different from any other in this sense, even though some of them were my friends. They almost always request the same things and repeat the same things, then consult about the same things; then, by the time they finally have to do something, they leave, get moved or are thrown out of office.

Aborigines too often forget that a politician's full-time responsibility is to themselves and their government. That's their first commitment. Whatever portfolio they receive is just for show. Very few can break the mould and certainly not in Aboriginal affairs.

Aboriginal affairs ministers get a lot of scrutiny, so they are always busy trying to justify their decisions to the rest of their party members in parliament -- to keep their reputations intact in the hope of a better appointment -- or ducking for cover, worried sick about their jobs and whether they will be re-elected. That's the real situation.

Meanwhile, back in the bush, Aborigines have been sitting in their communities for the past 60 to 70 years waiting for service delivery and the deliverer has never arrived. I see this today with housing, health, education and infrastructure. Everything that has been said and promised in the past few years is still hanging in the wind, floating in the distance like a mirage.

How do the men and women of Elcho Island feel? Let me assure you they may not hear the debate of the day but they know that they are suffering from a neglect that seems like it will never end.

I mean these things in a constructive way, if that is possible. I don't mean to offend, just to be honest.

The last time I wrote, I spoke of the things that Aboriginal leaders are thinking about and I included leadership. Now I want to shine the spotlight around a little and see whether there is real leadership in parliament. Is there a leader in the cabinet? A Prime Minister who can take control of this agenda and make it or break it? Or are we to suffer a further endless round of consultations? Leadership is not very hard, really. It's actually a great pleasure to make a hard decision, cop the criticism and the barbs of your opponents, and to prevail on the day. But it does require decision-making and it does require effort, and not everyone can do it.

Let us have a minister who will sensibly and with great diligence take on this system that chokes us and break it up and remake it, hand in hand with Aborigines, not with jackboots and threats. Or a prime minister who will dictate to the nation that there will be real change: not just around the edges of parliament, not just on the ground, but in the Constitution, with the nation speaking its mind. And let's have a responsible leader who will undertake an intervention aimed at those who have sat too long at their desks and in their offices and done nothing, dictating to Aborigines from their airconditioned offices, living off Aboriginal money.

I'm sorry to brand every public servant or government adviser that way, but this is what happens when an intervention occurs: everyone gets tarred with the same brush and its takes effort to rise above that. We may have to suspend the Public Service Act, but it will be worth it when we really start to make the changes that are needed to allow our children a future.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is a long-serving former chairman of the Northern LandCouncil.

Direct talk and honest dealing

Galarrwuy Yunupingu | | August 01, 2009

It's a system designed to profit non-Aborigines.

This week the Northern Territory and commonwealth governments confessed the key program in the Closing the Gap strategy was out of control and that, yet again, money was being diverted from the needy into the pockets of government treasuries and non-Aboriginal companies.

Thankfully two responsible ministers in the Territory, Alison Anderson and Karl Hampton, who represent Aboriginal electorates, blew the whistle, refusing to sit by and let another scam be run against the interests of Aborigines.

What was occurring under the banner of the Territory intervention was just business as usual as government departments, big non-Aboriginal companies, consultants, employees, ex-politicians and advisers got their hands on Aboriginal money. And not just a few million but hundreds of millions of dollars set aside by Kevin Rudd and the commonwealth to tackle decades of neglect in Aboriginal housing.

This is the very thing the Prime Minister highlighted in his apology speech last year.

I keep hearing that, two years on, not one house has been built and I see it, too. Not one house. I keep getting the complaint that all the companies are doing is consulting and consulting, getting their daily fees and disappearing again. And still, even after the issues are highlighted in the national media, the argument is over how much is being or can or cannot be skimmed off the top.

Not one dollar should go on government administration or training or consulting, or profiteering. This Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program system is so familiar to Aborigines.

It's a system designed to profit non-Aborigines while nothing gets done. When it fails, the same people will ask the commonwealth for more money to do the job that didn't get done in the first place.

I thought the Howard government-initiated Aboriginal intervention in the Territory was to cut through these layers of bureaucracy but, as I have been saying, it's just business as usual.

So the challenge now faces the commonwealth government. Who will take responsibility and fix this situation? Putting two more bureaucrats in charge, which is the immediate response, is just letting two more sharks into the shallows.

And what of all the other promises? In the Territory we have been promised boarding schools. These, too, have disappeared from view. Education in the Territory remains a scandal where the same skimming is taking place to the benefit of the Northern Territory government.

What of the road upgrades? Seventy-five million dollars is being spent on one road alone in Darwin while the roads of the remote regions get worse and worse from neglect. What of economic development? What of the urgent task of building a future for children by giving them the benefits of the Australian nation? All of this is put aside, again, while we debate how much money the Territory government and the consultants and companies are entitled to skim off the top.

At the moment it is an effort to control my anger and my sense of outrage.

The Garma Festival starts in a week from now and Aboriginal leaders from across the country are travelling to Gulkula to meet. Already the message sticks are travelling far and wide. What have we to talk about two years after a so-called intervention was announced? Who will sit and treat with us, cutting through the layers of bureaucrats, advisers and consultants? When will the commonwealth government see that the only way through is by a direct relationship with Aborigines on the ground?

Let's get the job done by direct talk and honest dealings, and save millions of dollars in the process. Let the challenge be to get rid of the middle men, immediately.

When Aboriginal leaders like myself accepted the challenge of the intervention and took steps to engage and to debate the future, we trusted the commonwealth to deliver on its promises, such was the obvious determination of the main political parties. So far these promises are looking very thin and it has taken two responsible ministers from the Territory to tell us all just how bad it is. I know Rudd and his ministers have a financial crisis on their hands, but their attention must now be redirected to our efforts in Aboriginal affairs.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is a former long-serving chairman of the Northern Land Council.

Crossroads for Close the Gap

Ian Ring | | 27/07/2009

After 18 months of incredible progress, the Close the Gap campaign is at a crossroads with a real possibility that, unless there is a shift in direction, large amounts of public funds could be spent with comparatively little effect.
At this stage, all hangs on the implementation of funded programs and services to Close the Gap, and there are significant concerns about three core issues: the lack of a genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, insufficient progress towards a comprehensive long-term action plan, and an undue emphasis on mainstream rather than community-controlled health services.

The Close the Gap Coalition is remarkable and unprecedented. It brings together every significant organisation, indigenous and mainstream, with expertise in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. It includes the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, or NACCHO, indigenous doctors and nurses, the College of Physicians, the National Heart Foundation and the Australian Medical Association, amongmany others. It is not a wild-eyed bunch of radicals, but represents the organisations that will have to play a key implementation role if the Gap is to be Closed and they all speak with one voice.

The efforts of this coalition culminated in the publication of Close the Gap, a comprehensive set of targets in five integrated groups: partnership; the specific health issues that would have to be addressed if the gap is to be closed; the health services required to address those health issues; the infrastructure required for the delivery of the health services; and finally, in somewhat less detail, the social determinants which have a key bearing on health. This was pioneering work of a kind not carried out before in Australia or overseas. The logic of these five groups is simple and compelling, and the gap will not be closed unless all five are satisfactorily addressed.

Given the status, roles and expertise of the organisations, and the pioneering, systematic and comprehensive nature of the goals and targets, a close interactive ongoing working relationship with government was anticipated, to further refine the goals and targets as part of the process of developing the comprehensive long-term action plan which was the first commitment in the statement of intent signed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and other leaders. Not so. In fact government officials seem to have an astonishing and perplexing reluctance to use this valuable piece of work.

Partnership, the first group of targets, is entirely consistent with the Rudd's preamble in the statement of intent, which starts by saying, ''Our challenge for the future is to embrace a new partnership between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.''

This emphasis on a new partnership runs right through the statement of intent and Rudd's first progress report to Parliament. But Rudd is way ahead of his public servants, who instead of a ''new partnership'' have provided the old partnership, of government hand-picked individuals on advisory committees and bodies, and have rebuffed repeated efforts by Aboriginal organisations for genuine partnership.

Does anyone really believe governments can make indigenous people healthy and that the gap can be closed without the full and active involvement of Aboriginal people and their representative bodies? Indigenous and mainstream organisations in the Close the Gap campaign certainly don't, and nor do respected commentators such as Peter Shergold, Fred Cheney or Noel Pearson. History is replete with the lack of success of initiatives, no matter how well intentioned, which don't involve genuine partnership.

It will take a generation to Close the Gap. The first commitment signed by Rudd and other leaders was to develop ''a comprehensive, long-term plan of action, that is targeted to need, evidence-based and capable of addressing the existing inequities in health services, in order to achieve equality of health status and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous Australians by 2030''.

It is obvious that generational change requires long-term planning and that such planning must be done in partnership with indigenous organisations. Instead we have short-term plans drawn up by officials in state and territory governments, without meaningful participation of indigenous people and their representative bodies.

A starting point for such a long-term plan with time frames for 2013, 2018 and 2028 has been developed in the Close the Gap publication, and even at this late stage governments should sit down with NACCHO and the other organisations in the Close the Gap Coalition, and develop the promised long-term action plan in partnership and before all the $1.6billion is locked up in Council of Australian Governments agreements which may limit the capacity to actually Close the Gap.

For those wishing to close the gap, a fundamental question is what mix of services is required and how they should be delivered.

Ambiguous survey questions about service usage and questionable policy analysis have given rise to much controversy as it appears that the interpretation has been that most indigenous people attend mainstream services, and accordingly Close the Gap funds should be particularly directed to mainstream services.

However, the key question is not what is happening at the moment, but what is the best mix of services to Close the Gap. Given the lack of progress, the last thing you would want to do in such an enterprise is preserve the current service model. Even if most indigenous people attend mainstream services, it would certainly not mean that pumping much of the additional funding into mainstream services is the most effective way to Close the Gap.

The broad policy directions are fairly clear. All are agreed that if not most, then many, indigenous people attend mainstream services many, no doubt, because there is no readily accessible Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services. All are agreed that there is a capacity gap for primary health care services, and that the right kind of such services is the key if the gap is to be closed.

The Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services sector offers advantages in terms of providing the kind of comprehensive primary health care that is not only difficult to do in a general practice, but also, and most importantly, they are much more likely to promote access to health services because they are run by and for Aboriginal people. It is of little benefit to provide even high-class mainstream services if many indigenous people are reluctant to use them.

It is critical that there is an urgent effort directed towards building up the capacity of the sector through strengthening existing services and establishing new services where they are needed, But also, recognising that many indigenous people may not have access to such services now and for some time to come, it is important that those who use mainstream services receive effective services delivered in a culturally appropriate way. In short, the need is both to strengthen existing mainstream services and introduce much needed accountability for them, and to have a major and immediate capacity building plan for the sector.

The long path to Close the Gap is at a critical point.

The appointment of Warren Snowdon as Minister for Indigenous Health provides a real opportunity to make the right turn at the crossroads, and ensure a change in public service culture and approach to meet this extraordinary challenge and achieve rapid progress through partnership with NACCHO and other indigenous and mainstream organisations, the development of a comprehensive long-term action plan, a capacity building plan for Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and accountability for existing mainstream health services.

Ian Ring is professorial fellow at the Centre for Health Service Development, University of Wollongong.