Remote regions slide off the radar
- Nicolas Rothwell
- From: The Australian
- January 08, 2011
SOMETIMES it's what doesn't happen that most influences the terrain of politics.
Sometimes the pattern of the times is disclosed most truly by what isn't said, and so it has proved with a vengeance during the past year in the hard field of indigenous policy-making.
The continuing troubles of remote Aboriginal Australia, well over half-way through the five-year term of the Northern Territory intervention, have largely disappeared from the radar of public debate. Indigenous issues went almost unmentioned by both main parties during August's federal election campaign.
Only three years ago the social breakdown in remote communities could trigger a national emergency: today, the subject is mantled by a heavy silence, broken only by staged media events and a slow drip-feed of statistic-laden press releases, each documenting a dream of progress towards "closing the gap".
This vanishing is by intent as much as through weary indifference. When Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin came to office she told her political colleagues her aim was to remove remote-area indigenous issues from the headlines, where they had stayed ever since her Coalition predecessor, Mal Brough, launched the "NT emergency response" in June 2007.
The intense focus on Territory communities and the measures taken to control them had made palpable not just the disquieting texture of remote community life but also the details of the commonwealth government's blueprint for their reform. In those days, reporters and politicians fanned out across the Territory on investigative missions.
Yuendumu in the desert, Yirrkala in the Top End and the plans for their regions were constantly in the public eye. Brough used shock tactics, drew sharp lines in the sand, had targets for fast-paced change. Macklin's manner has been quieter, and more gradualist, in part because of a difference in philosophy, in part because of an intriguing set of political dictates, dictates that are still to the fore, and that determine much in the management of Aboriginal affairs as her second ministerial term takes shape.
Brough's measures were very plain. He aimed to transform the communities, in just five years, to make the remote settlements much like ordinary Australian country towns.He wanted more policing, proper education, a complete redrawing of the social system. An end to restrictive permit access to big Territory communities, the entry of private enterprise and land leasing, the scrapping of the CDEP (community development employment projects) part-time work schemes, the introduction of mandatory income management, a vast housing program. These basics of the NT Emergency Response were proposed, funded and rushed through federal parliament into law.
The Coalition hoped for victory in the late 2007 election, but privately expected defeat. Brough was seeking, in time-honoured fashion, to enact changes so deep they would tie his successor's hands. In fact his game-plan went even further: it was clear to everyone involved in Aboriginal policy that if he held on to power he would dismantle the Territory's Aboriginal institutions, above all the two large land councils that controlled access to indigenous land. For him they were the ultimate collectivist gatekeepers.
This was Macklin's inheritance. In her first ministerial term she stepped ahead with caution, recognising that the Coalition had staked out a clear, coherent set of initiatives. If Brough's moves were a revolution, it is accurate to describe the policies pursued by Macklin, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and their cabinet colleagues over the past three years as a "restoration", but a restoration of a cautious, calibrated kind.
Federal Labor's low-key indigenous affairs approach results from a calculation both of the resistant policy challenges on the ground and the political positions in the ALP support heartland.
Many in the progressive wing of Labor opposed the intervention root and branch, and regarded it as an infringement of Aboriginal rights. Macklin and her colleagues, though, paid at least a degree of attention to indigenous thought leaders such as Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, who had laid the intellectual ground for the NTER, and backed some of its key measures. Thus the new minister and her circle of advisers accepted elements of the intervention policy, even if they disliked its martial atmospherics.
Labor was in an odd position: key ministers no longer had trust in the party's old suite of welfare-based policies, and adopted much in the rival camp's approach, but had no wish to highlight the fact. The conclusion was clear: steer a middle course. Water Brough's plans down, change the language, use words like "normalisation" instead of "emergency".
Proceed with caution, rather than court the headlines. A review of the NTER was staged: its chairman, Kimberley leader Peter Yu, produced a report. Macklin took what was helpful and ignored its most critical bite.
She had the space for manoeuvre. A golden glow suffused indigenous affairs for the first phase of Rudd's regime, in the wake of the parliamentary apology to the stolen generation.
Labor was able to devise its own variant of the NTER's broad policy themes.
Where Brough and the initial intervention architects wanted a fast switch to the energies of unshackled private enterprise, Labor opted for closer public-service management. Brough had planned community leases so businesses could set up in the bush and home owners could have title; Labor pushed leasing to ensure safe tenure of commonwealth-funded assets.
With the change of regime, the bureaucrats discerned an opportunity. The top figures in the power departments in Canberra had an unusual relationship with Brough: they admired his energy, harnessed his ideas and feared the disruptive consequences of his more radical designs.
Even if the senior public servants were conservative by temperament, and frustrated by the logjam of Aboriginal institutions, they found they could do business easily with a new government that saw more programs and more surveillance as the way ahead. They oversaw a grand expansion of their manpower in the indigenous field. These shifts in approach helped define Labor's new-style intervention in the Territory, and much in its suite of policies in the wider remote Aboriginal domain, in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia.
The results are striking. Macklin has kept and embraced the single most draconian and contentious policy launched by Brough -- compulsory income management -- which she is widening to encompass all Territory welfare recipients, as a prelude to possible national roll-out. (This key policy will be the subject of a separate article.)
She has accepted in principle the central conservative idea that the CDEP part-work system in remote communities cannot be sustained, and its positions should be replaced with permanent jobs.
But this stand is deeply unpopular with the ALP's support networks in remote Territory communities, where CDEP support funding produces potent patronage fiefdoms, and as a result a compensatory slew of program money has been funneled into remote-area organisations.
The star project of the rebadged intervention is the slow-moving community housing program, SIHIP (or the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program), which has become a by-word, over the past three years, for waste and mismanagement on the part of the Territory government.
SIHIP was in its origins a Coalition plan, but has been tellingly reshaped. Brough and his colleagues intended a vast expenditure on remote housing, after the initial $600 million first tranche. Indeed the housing program was to be uncapped, run into the billions and fund community-based private home construction and ownership schemes.But in the wake of the global financial crisis, and the stimulus expenditure of the budget surplus, the money on offer for remote housing is less generous, and the private housing support model has all but vanished from the mix.
Perhaps the most radical reversal of the Coalition's "emergency" approach to the bush lies in Labour's decision to endorse and work with existing representative structures. The territory's large Aboriginal organisations, and indeed Darwin's Labor government, viewed by the Coalition as key contributors to the crisis gripping the remote north, are restored to influence, and again treated as legitimate players by Canberra.
The accents of the initial intervention, with its medical teams and military detachments, have gone. In their place is a diffuse set of long-term social support programs, with a plethora of care workers being inserted into communities, and a large expansion in the number of managers overseeing the life-world of remote Territory Aboriginal people.
As The Australian's Natasha Robinson disclosed, in a recent report that shed a shaft of sudden light into this well-masked realm, the back-office public servants supporting the NTER now number almost as many as the front-line workers: police, health and community service staff.
Such is the policy mix. Why, then, the haunting silence? Why such discretion, when federal Labor is pursuing a centrist course?
Critics may see the contradictions in its mix of punitive social controls and slow-receding welfarism, but it marks a qualified evolution in crisis management.
Yet when the post-Rudd election came last August, Aboriginal matters were hardly mentioned at all in the campaign. There are no votes, of course, in black issues, as the pundits love to insist.
Still, this was something more. The Labor government, after 2 1/2 years of redesigning the greatest Aboriginal policy shift for a generation, fell quiet.
An ALP indigenous policy was eventually released, almost in secret, in late campaign: it was so pious in its vague boilerplate it went quite ignored.
The problem was in the politics: upscale urban Labor supporters still believe Macklin and her colleagues have not dismantled enough of the NTER. And mainstream voters, if they respond to the plight of the remote communities, want action, as hardline as it comes, and tend to prefer the tough formulas of a man such as Brough.
Why advertise mild policies and call attention to your opponent's stronger set? It was Labor's besetting problem. There was another factor.
The new leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, was a conviction figure on remote indigenous policy, and he was waiting for a grand debate. He knew the field better than any conservative politician since former Aboriginal affairs minister John Herron: he had volunteered on Cape York, and was a frequent visitor to the central desert. His counsellor was Pearson.
But Abbott also chose not to highlight his indigenous priorities in the course of the campaign: it would have spoiled his simple "stop the boats" rhetoric. Had the Coalition won, Abbott would have launched a renewed intervention, focused enough to make the first NTER seem like a phony war.
Education, land tenure, permit access, work and economic systems: all would have been changed utterly. Everyone in Aboriginal affairs management knew this well.
Everyone in the progressive-minded support organisations in remote communities trembled, awaiting the result, and maintained complete radio silence.
The eventual seat breakdown in the ultra-narrow Labor win provided a freight of ironies: Ken Wyatt, a Liberal, won the constituency of Hasluck and thus became the first indigenous member of the legislative assembly; the Minister for Indigenous Health, Warren Snowdon, held his Territory-based seat of Lingiari only after Labor unleashed a bitter personal campaign against a conservative Aboriginal candidate.
But this policy silence from the party holding government -- both in the election weeks and since -- has another aspect, which cuts to the reality of Aboriginal communities in the centre and the north.
Three years on, we can already call the early results of the intervention. The communities remain, by and large, zones of joblessness, ill-health and low educational attainment. The disaster of illiteracy and underachievement continues unfolding, governments have little immediate power to limit the scale of the dysfunction, and little taste for the hard policy initiatives required, or for their defence in public.
Enter spin, and media manipulation on a scale unseen in most areas of Australian life.
The emergency response relied on the media and massive coverage to highlight the condition of indigenous communities and to explain and justify to the public the need for large new long-term funding and support.
Today the requirements of the state are very different. Progress is slow, programs are stuttering, or achieving purely paper targets, the claims of improvement are belied by any serious examination of community or township existence. There are important areas of local advance, in preventive health, in schooling, in some desert and Top End centres, but it is hard to find and highlight them when much of the field is veiled, and the focus of governmental attention has moved on.
Reporters are less frequently seen out in the remote communities of the Top End and centre these days, although the conditions that brought them into the field in the early stages of the intervention remain substantially unchanged. Drugs, sly grog and repetitious, chaotically run training programs continue to form the substratum of bush life.
How could any self-respecting administration acknowledge the contours of such a landscape, when the launch of an emergency intervention demands success, or at the very least a hint of progress?
There are now three ministers responsible for remote indigenous affairs, generating press releases, dropping in on tranquil settlements for brief photo opportunity visits with favoured media in tow, but the official goal underlying all this activity is gradual gap-closing, rather than an emergency campaign.
It is the symbolic issues that are paramount again, in the first days of Labour's second term: the foundation meeting of the new national congress of Australia's first peoples will take place this year; and preparations for a referendum on acknowledging Aboriginal people in the constitution will come to the fore.
Fundamental shifts in intervention policy are still being made, but they are much less emphasised, and are disclosed with little candour.
One of the two key planks of the federal government's remote communities social package, its reworking of CDEP, was delayed without warning or much attention last month. There had been bleak advice to Canberra from the Ngaanyatjarra shire in the western desert and the Murdi Paaki region of western NSW that the existing CDEP program was their economic lifeline: it could not be closed without threatening their viability. A dramatic change of stance followed.
"Increasing employment and participation in remote communities," cooed the header of the resultant media release, sent out late on a sleepy Thursday amid a slew of other chaff. It insisted that the commonwealth still accepts the idea that "real jobs" with standard wages and conditions must be the future for workers in the bush, but existing CDEP programs, which were due to end early this year, will now be extended until April 2012.
In simple terms, the drive to create viable jobs in remote areas has stalled, the agencies responsible for the task have absolutely no capacity to fulfil it and no new blueprint has been found.
Such enduring challenges make up the real world of remote indigenous Australia. It is an easy world to airbrush, and push from the headlines for the sake of media peace.