The hidden karma of Aboriginal affairs policy …

An article by Amos Aikman in The Weekend Australian is especially noteworthy from a Territory governance perspective:

A policy designed to reward indigenous business owners with easier access to government contracts is instead exposing taxpayers to fraud and corruption, including serious misconduct by public officials, whistleblowers warn.

In a letter to the head of the Prime Minister’s department, a group of concerned public servants say the indigenous procurement policy is enriching a few “already privileged and wealthy” indigenous businesspeople, allowing large corporations to escape competitive tendering through “sham joint ventures” and allowing departmental staff to commit “a form of corruption” by handing lucrative work to close friends. …

“Using your position as a commonwealth official to promote the business interests of close friends is corrupt. It does not change that your friends are indigenous,” the letter states. “This is corruption dressed up as indigenous engagement. It is hard to avoid the ­conclusion that years spent ­socialising with … are paying ­lucrative business dividends.”

The whistleblowers say the IPP encourages “cosy arrangements” to flourish in an environment with “insufficient controls … to prevent mismanagement of public ­resources”.

The story reminds me of my own experiences in providing legal advice to a variety of Territory Aboriginal communities and associations over a period of almost 20 years until I came to CDU as an academic.  It sometimes seemed as if white employees and Aboriginal traditional owners were taking it in turns to raid the public funding biscuit tin. Standards of integrity, governance and accountability were woefully inadequate and prudent management standards were poorly understood at best.

It appears to have been similar concerns which led the Martin/Henderson Territory Labor government to implement its notorious “super shires” Aboriginal local government amalgamation scheme in 2007-8. Sixty small Aboriginal community local council corporations had their assets confiscated and transferred to just eight new “super shire” or regional councils and were then abolished by Ministerial fiat.  Although then Local Government Minister Elliot McAdam gave various rationales for the scheme, it appears that the dominant concern was very significant waste, mismanagement and even corruption in quite a few of the Aboriginal community local council bodies.

It was an entirely legitimate concern for a Territory government to have, but both the solution itself and the manner of its implementation were drastically ill-conceived and eventually led to the demise of the Henderson government in 2012 when Aboriginal people deserted it en masse and voted for the Country Liberals, in many cases for the first time ever.

It was a classic example of authoritarian top-down imposition of radical policy change with little or no consultation with either the affected local communities or the federal government. Had they consulted local communities it would not have taken very long to discover that removing Aboriginal people’s rights to manage their own communities would result in white-hot anger although initially it only caused mass confusion, allowing new Labor Chief Minister Paul Henderson to limp across the line and win the 2008 election. As Ruth Elvin writes:

There was a great deal of confusion about the nature of the reforms as expressed at meetings and in conversation with community members, particularly as the reforms took place at the same time as the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER, also sometimes referred to as ‘the Intervention’), which was announced on 21 June 2007. Much of the time at local government transition meetings and community chief executive officer (CEO) meetings was taken up with questions about the impact of the NTER, particularly on housing, income and CDEP. It was only by March 2008 that residents of local communities were beginning to ask ‘This local government: is it good? What is it?’

Had the Territory Labor government consulted the then Howard federal government they may perhaps have discovered that there was a better solution for endemic Aboriginal community waste, mismanagement and corruption, one that would not have involved wholesale removal of Aboriginal people’s rights to manage their own communities.  But then again maybe not.

On the one hand, at the same time as the Martin Territory government was enacting its super shires legislation (it came into force on 4 September 2007) the Howard federal government was introducing its “new broom” regulatory authority for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations now called the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC). Its avowed aim was to radically modernise the regulation and oversight of Aboriginal corporations and reduce waste, mismanagement and corruption by updating governance standards, educating board members about their governance obligations, and implementing early intervention strategies well before a corporation’s maladministration reached crisis levels. ORIC appears to have been extremely successful in achieving those aims.

Had the Territory government adequately consulted the federal government about the ORIC reforms it might have realised that requiring all Aboriginal community local council bodies to bring themselves under the Federal regime and submit to ORIC prudential supervision would have been a much better policy solution than their wholesale abolition.

But then again, it is likely that the Howard federal government and Minister Mal Brough would not have been helpful or informative even if Clare Martin or Elliot McAdam had tried to consult them. Because at the same time as Martin and McAdam were introducing super shires and the federal government was implementing its ORIC reforms (the ORIC reforms came into force on 1 July 2007), Howard and Brough were also secretly plotting their NT Emergency Response under the pretext of addressing a crisis of child sexual abuse in remote Territory Aboriginal communities revealed by the Little Children Are Sacred report. In the eyes of many, the Emergency Response was mostly just a calculated political wedge designed in a desperate bid to salvage the political fortunes of Prime Minister John Howard against a much more popular federal Labor leader in Kevin Rudd.

The Emergency Response was even more authoritarian and anti-democratic than the Martin government’s super shires scheme. It involved sending in the troops to enforce a federal takeover of 50% of the Territory’s landmass against the wishes of both the Territory Labor government and its Aboriginal population.  The Emergency Response was announced on 21 June 2007. Howard and Brough no doubt calculated that the Rudd Labor Opposition would feel compelled to reject this outrageous intervention and the Coalition would then march into the 2007 federal election masquerading as the champions of abused children in Aboriginal communities by contrast with a Labor Party under the sway of left-wing apologists for perverts. But Kevin Rudd didn’t fall for it. He happily embraced the Emergency Response and eventually adopted it as his own. The rest is history.

In contrast to Rudd, Clare Martin didn’t happily accept the Emergency Response at all.  She vehemently opposed it. After all, her government was in the process of adopting the well-considered recommendations of the Little Children Are Sacred report, which would almost certainly have worked had they ever been implemented because, unlike Howard’s Emergency Response, they were the result of careful consultation with affected communities. According to Clare Martin at last month’s NT Governance Summit, she urgently rang John Howard in an attempt to arrange a meeting to sort out the apparent misunderstanding. Howard refused to meet her.

In pragmatic political terms Rudd’s unprincipled embrace of the Howard Intervention proved very successful, at least in the short run. Rudd defeated Howard at the federal election held on 24 November 2007. Both Howard and Brough lost their seats in Parliament. It is said that Rudd phoned Clare Martin the next day and told her he expected her to resign as Chief Minister for the greater good of the ALP, and be replaced by her opportunist colleague Paul Henderson who was just as willing as Rudd to eat Howard’s policy sh*t sandwich and implement the Emergency Response.

Martin quit as demanded, Henderson replaced her and managed to win the 2008 Territory election by the skin of his teeth, but then lost the 2012 election as a direct result of his public stewardship of both the super shires scheme and the Emergency Response. Some would say it was belated political karma.

Further reflection – Of course that karma observation flows from an implicit value judgement that the policy responses of John Howard and Mal Brough, and to a lesser extent Clare Martin, Kevin Rudd and Paul Henderson, were driven by cynical political calculation. A more charitable and probably more accurate evaluation is that a significant contributor to those policy responses was a genuinely horrified if misguided reaction to the horrendous levels of family and community violence and gross dysfunction revealed first by Tony Jones and Lateline and then graphically confirmed by the Little Children Are Sacred report. It was undeniably true that the appalling situation is in large part a consequence of the “rivers of grog”, illicit drugs, gambling and endemic unemployment so powerfully described in Little Children Are Sacred.  That was never really a secret to anyone who bothered to look, but Rex Wild and Pat Anderson did everyone a favour by confronting the politicians with the harsh reality in such a stark manner that they could no longer afford to keep ignoring it.

The mistake the politicians made (although Clare Martin was an honourable exception) was to conclude that this very long-standing “emergency” demanded that the white politicians and bureaucrats urgently devise and impose their own “expert” punitive, paternalistic policy solutions on those recalcitrant, irresponsible black fellas who wouldn’t even protect their own children from the thugs and paedophiles in their midst. It was a sort of Bill Leak-style racist assumption writ large and imposed as government policy, and it was grossly offensive and utterly unfair to Aboriginal Territorians. Most Aboriginal people are far more acutely aware of the problems in their own communities than any white politician or bureaucrat. They live with the consequences every day and battle against them as best they can with the inadequate resources they have available. What they needed (and still need) was mutually respectful, cooperative, well resourced, community-based, “human centred” policy responses. Decades of research and practical experience show that those are the only sorts of programs that work. What they got instead, with the Emergency Response and to a slightly lesser extent the super shires scheme, was a military invasion of their communities which imposed ill-considered paternalistic solutions on Aboriginal people who were apparently conceived by the politicians as naughty children who had to be forced to do the right thing and whose own views and lived experience were unworthy of consideration.

It is hardly surprising that the Emergency Response did not work, nor that its rebadged and only slightly less paternalistic successor Closing the Gap has been only marginally more successful. Aboriginal affairs policy remains blighted by the New Paternalism ushered in by the Howard Intervention. Nothing much will change until the underlying arrogant assumptions and attitudes are revised.

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