Indigenous people feel the frustrations of a lack of progress more than anyone. Now is the time for us have our say on what isn’t working and on how services should operate so they deliver real outcomes. We hold the key to what needs to be done and how to do it.
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce
Twelve weeks ago Tony Abbott announced at the Garma Festival that he would establish a Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council. On the same day I delivered a speech outlining a new strategy for Indigenous affairs.
My Garma speech stirred up a lot of emotion and discussion. Good. We need to talk about this more and talk courageously and openly.
In my speech I said that Indigenous policy over 40 years has not translated to a closing of the gap. Where progress is being made it’s happening at a marathon pace and in some areas we are going backwards. I also said we’d go another 40 years with very little change unless we have a new strategy built from real data and experience. The Council’s job is to review that data and experience and help build this new strategy. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be central to that rebuilding.
There’s been a great deal of speculation and some fear and misunderstanding about the Council. This is understandable. Even though we all know the current approach has not moved quickly enough, sometimes it’s a case of “better the devil you know” than the one you don’t. Change is frightening but not as frightening as continuing the way we are going, with appalling statistics for Indigenous people in health, unemployment, suicide, incarceration, literacy and numeracy and poverty.
I recently appeared on ABC’s Q&A where I spoke about the NSW community of Toomelah. I’ve been involved in two inquiries that looked at this town, the first in 1988 after the Toomelah race riots and the second when I chaired the NSW Government Breaking Disadvantage review this year. Looking at Toomelah over a 25 year period two things stand out. Firstly, the community is still living in poverty and in many respects it has gotten worse. Secondly, there are nearly double the number of programs there than 25 years ago. Now there are over 70 programs or around 1 for every 3 Aboriginal people living there.
A lot of money is being spent and a lot of people are very busy but not much has improved in health, education, employment or lifting people out of poverty. I described the situation as like Aboriginal people being in the eye of the cyclone. Around them is a storm of activity but it’s not making an impact in the eye of the storm.
In the end, it’s not about the volume of services or who provides them or how many people are involved or how much activity is occurring on a day to day basis.
The most important factor is the outcomes programs and services achieve for Indigenous people. How is the program contributing in a measureable and tangible way to closing the gap, to people getting and maintaining a real job, to kids attending school, to literacy and numeracy, to a decline in criminal activity and incarceration, to health improvements.
If the outcomes are not there the next question is “Why?”. And it’s not good enough to answer that the program needs more funding. There’s always a deeper reason.
I’ve seen programs struggling to deliver because they are thwarted by other problems which the program isn’t funded to fix (but almost certainly some other program is). I’ve seen examples where the conditions on funding have led to an inefficient structure or ineffective delivery model. I’ve seen programs where staff are sidelined interacting with bureaucrats or writing reports or sending in compliance data which reduces the time they have to actually perform services. I’ve also seen programs that are not allocating their funding in the most effective way or that are duplicating another program’s activities.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about. The Australian Employment Covenant looked at why well-funded programs were not improving Indigenous employment. They found that there was a lot of training for training’s sake without a real job at the end. There were also many interconnected factors that all contributed to long term unemployment – such as illiteracy, accommodation and legal problems, poor health, alcohol/substance abuse, family & social problems and humbugging. Programs existed to deal with each of those issues but were not coordinated and in some cases worked against each other.
By constructing a training and employment program that is linked to a guaranteed job and case-manages people across all of these issues using existing programs, AEC designed an employment model that actually works. The problem wasn’t funding. It was poor design and integration of services.
In coming up with the solution AEC spoke to Indigenous people and employers across Australia. The eventual program was designed around what they were telling them was happening on the ground.
The Council will be asking these kinds of questions across the board – what are the outcomes and, if they are not there, why. It will take a fresh look at how things operate, with no idea off the table and no change out of the question.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel the frustrations of a lack of progress more than anyone. Now is the time for us have our say on what isn’t working and on how programs and services should operate so they deliver real outcomes. Just like the AEC example, I believe we hold the key to what needs to be done and how to do it.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine is Chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council
An edited version of this article appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 6 November 2013.