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Speech by The Hon Mal Brough MP

Blueprint for Action in Indigenous Affairs

Location: Canberra

National Institute of Governance – Indigenous Affairs Governance Series

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Let me pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered.

I thank the National Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra for organising this series on Indigenous governance. Good governance is fundamentally important to any successful society and governance is at the heart of the issues facing Indigenous Australians.

Australia by any measure is a proud, strong and supportive nation. The quality of life in this country is the envy of most others. We have comprehensive welfare, health and education systems designed to make sure that all Australians have the opportunity to benefit from an open and successful economy based on free enterprise.

Most Australians enjoy the quality of life that they do because of the structure of the economy and the institutions that support us and protect us. We have choices, opportunities and responsibilities in life that are not dreamt of in many other countries.

But we know that not every Australian is able to share the opportunities, choices and responsibilities that most of us do. We still have some way to travel before we live up to our unique national aspiration of a fair go for all.

As Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, my role is to take up the challenge on behalf of those Australians that do not benefit from what this country has to offer.

Sadly, too many Indigenous Australians are not leading independent lives. They are not sharing the opportunities and choices. The standard of health and low life expectancy are unacceptable. Too many are trapped in an intergenerational cycle of dependency, a welfare trap that needs to broken.

Since being appointed Minister I have travelled to Indigenous communities like Docker River, Mimili, La Perouse, Balgo, Mornington Island and many others.

Many families in these communities have been crying out for help. It is therefore with a sense of urgency that I have been promoting and introducing fundamental reforms.

These reforms have a very simple aim – Indigenous Australians being able to lead independent lives and benefit from the economy in the same way as other citizens. Our vision is one of a nation demanding the same standards, same opportunities and same expectations for all its citizens.

Today I intend to outline the government’s direction for Indigenous affairs and talk you through the principles that underscore this approach – respecting culture; setting high standards and expectations; focusing on individuals and families; improving access to services and opportunities based on need and doing all of this via effective partnerships.

Our focus will be on what works in delivering results for local people. This will be our blueprint for action in Indigenous affairs.

Principles

This blueprint is based on a set of principles.

Respecting Culture

The first principle I want to discuss today is that we are about choice and participation in Australian life and respecting culture.

Indigenous culture is unique and has helped shape who we are as a nation. It is a rich and diverse culture. But, culture is a living breathing evolving thing and change is inevitable in all cultures.

The ‘nay sayers’ would use pejorative terms like, ‘assimilation’ to muddy the waters. Indeed the media quoted Pat Dodson on the weekend using that term to describe our policies. Assimilation is a word that people object to – and rightly so. It suggests some deliberate plan to do away with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. It also suggests that Indigenous people who embrace aspects of the economy are somehow betraying or being forced to turn away from culture.

Indigenous culture does not need to stand in the way of progress. But culture is not something that governments can mandate, it is a matter for Indigenous people themselves. Indigenous culture will continue to change and adapt as all cultures do.

I have more confidence in the strength and endurance of Indigenous culture than the nay sayers – but even so, culture ought not excuse leaving people in a life of despair.

The 2nd principle goes to Standards and Expectations

We must have high expectations for Indigenous people and high expectations of Indigenous people. Sadly, children in some of these communities learn to limit their ambitions and reduce their expectations of themselves.

Let’s not kid ourselves, often there are two standards and that is reflected in service delivery.

There are so many statistics and examples I could speak of here

In the past, governments have been complicit in accepting lower standards for Indigenous Australians across a range of areas.

For example only around 20% of Indigenous children achieve years 3 and 5 reading bench marks. The sad thing is, in some remote communities Indigenous children today are less literate than their grandparents. Such is the extent of the problem that we have allowed to occur over the past 30 to 40 years.

Governments have accepted – indeed turned a blind eye to high levels of school truancy in Indigenous communities. For example, in May 2006 in Wadeye of the 358 student enrolled only 163 attended and an additional 260 eligible students were not even enrolled. According to the 2001 Census, in South Australia, 14% of Indigenous students were not enrolled and in Queensland it was 16.2%, West Australia 19% and Northern Territory a whopping 27.6%. These statistics are unacceptable.

This is not unique to remote communities. In La Perouse – just 30 minutes from the State Education Department in Sydney senior women told me that they were appalled because many of the local children don’t go to school. One explanation provided to me was that La Perouse was an isolated community. Education authorities can not accept this for Indigenous children.

Similarly, law and order is not applied in the same way as it is in the rest of Australia. We do not protect Australian citizens in the way we do others. I was told by the Northern Territory Government that the 2000 strong community of Galiwinku had no permanent police presence because there were no problems in that community. Aside from the basic fact that there is insufficient presence to even know whether that’s the case, this is not the criteria that would be used for the deployment of police in other parts of Australia. Fortunately, the Northern Territory Government has now declared Galiwinku a priority for a police station.

This situation is not restricted to Galiwinku or just the Northern Territory. The provision of law and order should apply equally across the nation.

Like law and order, an essential feature of a functioning society is good governance. But again expectations and standards have been set too low. You often hear the excuse when an Indigenous community organisation is underperforming “they are a good organisation compared to other Indigenous organisations”.

The Queensland Auditor General recently delivered a comprehensive audit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island councils. He noted that “the accountability standards usually demanded by government for other programmes have not been achieved.”

That is simply not good enough. We must not accept this situation.

Housing is yet another area where standards and expectations have been compromised. Let me give you some facts:

  • We have invested around $2 billion in Indigenous housing over the last 10 years without an appreciable increase in the number of houses.
  • 21 000 houses have been gifted to 600 Indigenous Community Housing organisations where they are often poorly managed and falling into disrepair.
  • A quarter of all repairs are caused through poor construction. Clearly, the same standards do not apply.
  • Even in Alice Springs we have accepted a lower standard for Aboriginal housing programmes, compared to normal suburbs in that town. This must stop.
  • In remote communities, land tenure limitations prevent people exercising any option other than to wait for government to build them a house.

I could go on and on. The fact is that wherever you look the standards are different and the expectations have been lower. This has been to the great detriment of Indigenous Australians and has got to change.

Focusing on people and families

For too long governments of all persuasions have focused on the collective Aboriginal community at the expense of considering the needs and aspirations of the individuals and families that make up those same communities. This is a mistake that this new direction will not repeat.

While acknowledging the important role that community organisations play, when properly governed, it is imperative that we pay respect to the individual and their right to choose their own pathway. Virtually every other Australian makes the important choices in life for themselves. Where they will live, what school their children will attend, what employment to take up. These are the decisions taken by individuals not community groups. Our focus will be on providing the direct assistance to those people to make decisions for them and their families.

The next principle is ensuring access to services and opportunities based on need

The needs of the Indigenous community are not all the same. It is indisputable that access and opportunities is much greater in urban areas than in remote areas. However, it is also indisputable that service delivery for Indigenous Australians in urban areas needs to improve.

The majority of Indigenous Australians live in cities and towns, where good services, education and employment are available. Too often, Indigenous Australians for a variety of reasons do not access these services and feel unable to take advantage of employment and other opportunities.

Setting up parallel services in these places, often with lower standards and expectations, has not produced the results that organisations like ATSIC sought to deliver. Indeed sometimes these parallel services have alienated people from the broader community and from opportunities.

Our approach will be to facilitate access to all services, rather than establish alternatives. Mainstream providers will no longer be allowed to shirk their responsibilities to the first Australians. This means that they will have to step up to the mark. They will have to adapt their services to suit Indigenous Australians in the same way that they have done for other groups in Australian society.

However, in remote Australia the situation is quite different. In these places many basic services do not exist at all and there is no real economy to speak of. The collective ownership system that governments have built, have meant that communities do not operate in the same way as other Australian towns. They are often neither traditional structures nor like other Australian communities. And we wonder why they often don’t work. Tragically some communities are unsafe to live in.

A long term effort is required from all governments. In the end, State and local governments should be providing services in these remote Australian towns in the same way as they do in other places.

Partnerships

The government is using the term partnership to signal the beginning of a redefinition of relationships. It is about moving to a point where responsibilities between governments, Indigenous people and other Australians are better aligned to normal Australian life.

We are working through COAG and through bilateral discussions with the states and territories to better define those responsibilities. We need to move beyond the fact that because a community is largely Indigenous that state and local governments relinquish their responsibilities for providing municipal and other basic services. There is no moral nor constitutional basis for that view. Making the transition will be difficult but there is a lot of goodwill and a commitment to make the change.

A Top down approach will not work. Indigenous people need to be more than just silent recipients of government programmes. They need to be empowered to take control of their lives and we must work in partnership with them. Our shared responsibility approach based on mutual obligation is the beginning of that new relationship at the local level.

There is a role for the broader Australian community as well. Separateness and isolation has not served Indigenous Australians well. The process of reconciliation is meant to build bonds between people. This means more than simple empathy, it means turning goodwill into action. As Australians we need to ask ourselves ‘what we can contribute personally to assist our fellow citizens.’

Blueprint for Action

Today I’m outlining to you the Australian Government’s Blueprint for Action in Indigenous Affairs.

It draws on the principles I’ve just been through and the vision of the National Indigenous Council. It identifies three priority areas for special attention. They are:

  • Early childhood intervention;
  • Safer communities; and
  • Building wealth, employment and an entrepreneurial culture

The blueprint will link government action to geographic location in urban, remote and regional Australia.

Urban areas

In urban areas where most Indigenous Australians live, the aim is to improve the functioning of mainstream services for Indigenous Australians and improve access to jobs in the mainstream economy.

Simply put, I expect all Federal government departments and anyone else delivering on behalf of the government to ensure equitable access for every Australian for those services.

This will involve the restructuring of employment assistance programmes to lead to real jobs. Other Indigenous specific programmes will continue to focus on assisting Indigenous people to make the full use of mainstream services.

Mainstreaming is not assimilation. I don’t want Indigenous people to be invisible in these services, I want those services to cater appropriately for the needs of Indigenous people – so they get the same opportunities as others.

A wonderful example of mainstream services catering for all Australians is the example of the Narrabundah public school right here in the ACT. Their commitment is resulting in better outcomes for the children that attend and strong engagement by parents. More than half the students are Indigenous.

Remote areas

The circumstances in remote communities couldn’t be more different. In remote communities the focus will be on dramatically improving services and creating the environment for economies to flourish. We will be working with other governments to improve standards of service and to open these communities to the broader Australian community and the market economy.

We will need to remove barriers to economic opportunity. But we are not proposing to use government programmes to create artificial economies. It doesn’t work. We are talking about creating an environment for the sort of employment and business opportunities that exist in other Australian towns.

And we need to be honest. Even with the best results possible there will not be opportunities in these places for all. The current growing drift to the cities and major towns is unfolding and needs to be better managed so that people who are ill-prepared do not end up in the long grass. Young Indigenous people in communities need to be better prepared through education as they choose to move in their search for new opportunities.

We will be working through our Indigenous Coordination Centres to develop and provide customised responses to local needs. We are beginning to identify ‘priority communities’ for intensive intervention strategies coordinated by my department.

The whole of government approach will feature shared responsibility as a prerequisite for substantial increases in government investment. Land tenure changes will be progressively introduced, subject to the agreement of traditional owners, to allow for home ownership and the normal economic activity you would expect in other Australian towns.

In places like Wadeye, Cape York and Groote Eylandt this is just beginning to happen.

We want to get to the point where people living in these remote communities are not solely dependant on community or public housing. They should be able to buy their own homes. Those who don’t should make a fairer contribution in rent.

There will be a strong emphasis on school attendance and achievement. With an education people in these communities will be much more mobile and will be able to choose to relocate to towns and cities that have better employment prospects.

In my view the drift should not be from poverty in a remote location to poverty in the “long grass” at Darwin, or in the Todd River at Alice Springs. Where drift occurs it should be to a new opportunity and with appropriate support.

But, some people won’t be equipped to take up opportunities elsewhere. It is not sensible to take somebody who is not adequately equipped due to age, health or lack of education and dump them in cities or large regional towns. This is the folly of those who ask me for a homeland policy as if there is a one size fits all option or that you are either for or against homelands.

The investment and effort will focus on remote Aboriginal communities or towns that have access to education and health services. This will include many small settlements. However, if people choose to move beyond the reach of education and health services noting that they are free to do so, the government’s investment package will not follow them. Let me be specific – if a person wants to move to a homeland that precludes regular school attendance, for example, I wouldn’t support it. If a person wants to move away from health services, so be it – but don’t ask the taxpayer to pay for a house to facilitate that choice.

Regional areas

The final piece of our blueprint addresses the needs of regional and rural areas. These towns can have characteristics similar to either urban or remote communities in terms of size location and services. Therefore our strategies in regional areas will be a blend of those for urban and remote locations.

In Alice Springs we are implementing a strategy with the Northern Territory and local governments to bring town camps up to normal suburban standards and to provide purpose built accommodation for visitors to town. We have begun discussions with some towns in the North West of Western Australia.

We are putting a greater emphasis on the provision of boarding school accommodation in regional areas. For example, funding has been provided to build a boarding school in Kununurra, Western Australia and discussions are underway with the Indigenous Land Corporation to develop boarding schools at Weipa in Queensland and Borroloola in the Northern Territory.

A Time for Action

Our blueprint is about building an economically sustainable future for Indigenous Australians. It is based on principles that acknowledge cultural difference, focusing on access to all services where they exist and aims to ensure that standards are identical for all Australians. It is based on a partnership with other governments, local Indigenous people the private sector and others.

In addition to our ongoing massive investment in basic services like health, much has occurred in the last twelve months based specifically on the principles I have outlined:

  • The Northern Territory Land Rights Act has been amended.
  • The home ownership package on Indigenous land program has been funded.
  • The Summit on Violence and Abuse in Indigenous Communities committed an additional $260 million to deliver safer communities.
  • We have passed legislation and increased expenditure to improve governance for Indigenous organisations.
  • CDEP is being overhauled so that it does not continue to be a dead end for people where there are jobs available.
  • Communities have been identified for specific and large scale interventions.
  • COAG has agreed that all states and territories will provide data on school attendance and this will be fed into a national truancy unit established by the Australian government; and
  • In keeping with our focus on partnerships;
    • We have funded a new venture, ‘outback stores’ in cooperation with Woolworths and Coles;
    • National Seniors Association has signed up to a volunteer programme for its members to work with Aboriginal people as a demonstration of practical reconciliation at its best;
    • The AFL and NRL are also working with the government using sport to motivate young Indigenous Australians; and
    • Business leaders are lining up to join the cause

This is only the beginning. Much more needs to be done. Early next year I hope to announce new directions for Indigenous housing and economic development.

Summary

I believe that it is important that the nation understands the principles that underpin the governments direction and understand the goals that we have set.

As with other Australians we must celebrate difference and at the same time ensure that Indigenous Australians are treated equally and are able to enjoy what this country has to offer.

Those majority of Australians that voted yes in the 1967 referendum to Indigenous Australians being treated like others and having the same opportunities must be disappointed. Now is the time to reinvigorate our efforts to realise that worthy objective set 40 years ago.

The much misunderstood concept of collective self determination and separateness meant to help Indigenous Australians lead independent lives has in fact for many achieved the opposite. Local people have been disempowered. ATSIC was not the answer despite the good intentions of those that worked within it. Now it has gone, we can move on.

Our objective must be independent and successful lives for our Indigenous Australian citizens. Getting all Indigenous children to school must be our first step.

Second rate standards and second rate services can no longer be accepted for our first Australians.