Stan Grant wrote a great post mortem on Tony Abbott as Prime Minister (The Guardian, 15.9.15). Stan concluded:
“We remain today as Indigenous people, at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator. We have the worst health, housing, education, employment; we die younger and we die still of diseases that no longer kill our fellow Australians. In a country as successful, as rich and tolerant and accepting as ours I can only ask why? All of the words, the ideals, the leadership, still we fall short. I know it is complicated, that the web of our past entangles us still. Yet I also know, deep down I know, that if we wanted to cure it, we would cure it, just like we cured polio. The great Scottish poet Robbie Burns said: “if I could write all the songs, I would not care who wrote the laws”. Politicians write the laws and the laws are inadequate.
The song: that is ours and only we a people – beyond prime ministers – can complete it.”
These are telling words but I diverge from Stan on one issue: Aboriginal people deserve, nay must demand, better from Canberra. This is because the majority of our people are still employed through, or are dependent on, public funding.
When there is a hiccup or a mistake made in Canberra our people die or suffer. Our communities deteriorate, our quality of life declines even further and things fall apart. This is why many of us view the Abbott period very harshly.
This is also why I have decided to stand for pre-selection for the Labor Party for the seat of Gilmore in my homeland the Shoalhaven and Nowra region of NSW. For every day of my life beginning at Wreck BayMission, Canberra has dominated my existence in a way that most non-Aboriginal people cannot understand. I want to make sure that my grand children do not have to endure the incompetence, paternalism and lack of opportunities and freedom that my generation have had to endure.
When I was 9 years old my parents gained the right to have economic citizenship to have a bank account, to own a house and to operate freely in the Australian economy and society, until that time we were dominated by the mission environment. But even after 1967 Canberra still continued to dominate our lives. With the support and tutoring of elders like Aunty Iris Mc Cleod, step by step, we developed some mighty assets. We fought and won the protest against the nuclear facility being constructed at Jervis Bay. We won the right to self determination on the Wreck Bay Mission. We won the right to manage the Bouderee National Park. We created housing cooperatives. We created schools. We created health services and employment agencies. We created land councils. We built on the traditional businesses that we had always run.
When Tony Abbott, Alan Tudge and Nigel Scullion promised to make Indigenous affairs a major priority of government, it could have been the start of a new era. It could have been the start of an era of innovating upon the foundations and organisations we had created since 1967. It could have been the much hoped for era when we freed ourselves from the shackles of bureaucracy. Could have been, should have been, as Stan Grant laments.\
Abbott et al got off to a bad start. They not only did not acknowledge the rightful representative body of Aboriginal Australia – the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples – they crippled it by taking a razor to its promised foundation funding. They crippled it before it could even get on its feet. Many of us could see how short sighted this decision was. But even after this, many Aboriginal leaders grudgingly continued to work with Abbott, Tudge and Scullion and their favoured Aboriginal leaders namely Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine. For there was some substance to their view that there needed to be changes to the way the Federal government – the principal funder of Aboriginal affairs – was organised. There was some substance to their stated view that we needed to de-bureacratise Aboriginal government funding from Canberra.
I suspected that when the Federal government rationalised 150 areas of Federal government Aboriginal activity into five areas it was the beginning of a razor gang strategy we had seen many times before. Under the guise of higher priorities the government was in fact rationalising staff, funding and resources. But again because every Aboriginal leader knows that there is room to cut some funding, especially in the silos of Canberra, in order to get more resources on the ground, we kept our mind open. Similarly we kept our minds open about the Indigenous Advisory Group set up to advise the Prime Minister and also about initiatives such as the Empowered Communities initiative led by Noel Pearson and others. We kept our minds open about changing the constitution to acknowledge, for the first time, Aboriginal ownership and occupancy of our lands. We forgave the Prime Minister when he broke his promise to spend his first week of office in an Aboriginal community and when he hid away from real consultations in his escorted tour of north east Arnhem land nearly a year later.
But the clouds were ominous and with each broken promise the distrust of the Aboriginal community for the man who said he would be the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs was growing. As in many other areas of the Abbott Government there was far too much rhetoric and not enough substance, there were too many gatekeepers and not enough listening, there were apparently the in-crowd of Aboriginal leaders and then there was the rest.
Just how bad the government was became apparent with the so-called Indigenous Advancement Strategy. This was a scandalous example of centralised Canberra bureaucratic mismanagement of the kind that has plagued Aboriginal affairs for many years from the man who said he would clean things up in Aboriginal affairs. We thought we had seen it all but I don’t think anything matches the incompetence and misdirection of the IAS process. You don’t have to take my word for it. The Australian, one of Tony Abbott’s banner supporters, has exposed the colossal ineptitude of what was supposed to be a fund that invested in Aboriginal innovation. Most of the funds went to non-Indigenous organisations, government departments and qangos (quasi autonomous non government organisations). At the same time all over Australia in community after community the cutting edge grass roots Aboriginal organisations and programs endured either funding cuts or complete demolition. It was disgraceful. It was very damaging and it will take many years to repair the problems that have been created by dismantling critical local networks of people, resources and organisations.
We Aboriginal people are very resilient. We have had to be. We live to fight another day. But enough is enough. Even Abbott’s key Aboriginal supporters could only hang their heads. Noel Pearson gave the IAS process 2 out of 10. Warren Mundine must be ruing the day he got involved with the Abbott government. We will hear more about just how much a mess the IAS has been once the Senate Inquiry into the whole process reports on 28 November. I personally look forward to seeing the results of that inquiry because once and for all Canberra must learn from its mistakes.
The question is: what now can be done with the new Prime Minister? There are some important things Malcolm Turnbull can do almost immediately. The first is to recognise the National Congress of First Australians. Turnbull should not only meet with the Executive of the National Congress he should restore the promised foundation funding of $15 million over three years. Through Congress Turnbull can open up his doors to listen to the problems of grass roots communities but more than this he can work to establish the proper channels for debating constitutional change within the Aboriginal community. Even Tony Abbott was forced to do this in the end. He had to consult with the organisation he had started by crippling. Congress is not perfect we have a lot of work to do to make our organisation more accountable, democratic and appropriate to the many Aborginal nations across the country, but we cannot do any of this with two hands tied behind our backs starved of funding. It is ironical that funding to host the constitutional discussions across the country almost matches that originally promised to establish Congress as a long term, independent, representative body for Aboriginal peoples. Again how short sighted?
The second thing that the new Prime Minister can do is to recognise areas of success. Twiggy Forrest’s VTEC program has been one such area. Again it is not perfect but it has delivered value for money in the select areas it has been allowed to occur. When compared to so many other areas of Federal government Aboriginal expenditure under Abbott, Tudge and Scullion it has been a beacon. The organisation I am involved with Habitat Personnel has delivered hundreds of Indigenous jobs over the past two years for a comparatively tight amount of expenditure. This contrasts with the $1.6 billion spent on the Remote Jobs and Communities Program which has only 2500 six month job outcomes over the past two years. The governments currently planned reformation of the RJCP, as the CDP or Community Development Program will create even more catastrophic wastage of money and more tiers of administration and centralisation. In contrast the VTEC program places a very high priority on placing long term unemployed people into actual existing jobs of at minimum six months duration and organisations are only rewarded on these real job outcomes. Performance and funding by results is what is needed if we are going to make progress. This is not an easy concept to thrust on government bureaucracies accustomed to being paid for the sake of it, but it is necessary medicine. We expected this to be a central part of what Abbott would do but it has been more an after thought than a priority.
Aboriginal affairs is not a partisan play thing. People on all sides of the parliament should be committed to working together to close the gaps between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians in health, economic prosperity, life expectancy and quality of life. There is much to be done in Canberra. There is much to be done to educate parliamentarians about the practicalities of grass roots communities. I have spent my life in the interstices of community. I have literally come up, in Noel Pearson’s words, from the mission. That is why I know from the grass roots that what happens in Canberra is important not just for Aboriginal people but for all of us. It’s why I want to become the first NSW Labor Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives. People who have come from the community are what is needed in Canberra. The lesson of the Abbott government is that there is too much public relations, too many gate keepers, too many lawyers and too much spin. We need to get back to basics. My experiences in Aboriginal affairs ironically make me someone who is able to help people from all walks of life. I find it ironical that increasingly non-Aboriginal people seek my counsel about how to get things done, how to get things working, who to work with, whether in the courts, the health system, the education system or in government in general. Aboriginal people have had to become experts in local, State and Federal government matters. We have had to be because our universe has for so long been dominated by the fortunes and fluctuations of government cycles. Tony Abbott is the latest leader we farewell.
Again you can see why I want to get into parliament. I want to bring my Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peer group with me to Canberra. These are people who can smell government ineptitude from a mile off. I want to see my community have a person in the most important representative forum for our affairs. But I also want to stand shoulder to shoulder with my non-Aboriginal peers to get things done in government for the common good. After all our people have endured at the hands of government administrations I believe there is no one more qualified than I to look critically at the Commonwealth bureaucracy and administration and to get results in all its activities.
Our goal should be incremental, gradual change for the common good. The lesson of Aboriginal affairs is that at the core of good change is grass roots understanding and competency. That is why I call on Malcolm Turnbull to now recognise the Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and to use the VTEC model as a model for creating more employment for Aboriginal Australians. Governments of all persuasions can build on these foundations. We must find the areas of success and good purpose and build upon them in all areas of government and in our economic, social and cultural life. ■
[The views in this article are my personal opinions and do not reflect the views of the National Congress, the organisation of which I am CEO, Habitat Personnel or the NSW Aboriginal Labor Network of which I am Secretary.]