When Julia Gillard proclaimed her Government’s renewed focus on COAG reform earlier this year, many Australians hoped that improving the living conditions of Indigenous Australians would be near the top of the list. Alas, they were to be disappointed.
It was only after the states and territories argued that closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage needed to be a top priority that the PM belatedly added these reforms to her list of key reform “themes”.
Another concern is the abolition of the COAG Ministerial Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, following the reduction in ministerial council numbers from 40 to 23.
Indigenous reform is being relegated to the status of a working group, the fourth tier of the COAG Ministerial Council system and, according to officials from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FAHCSIA) during recent Senate Estimates hearings, these working groups are designed to terminate once their work is deemed to be complete.
The upshot of this is that there will be no Indigenous-specific Ministerial Council, despite Indigenous Reform being in the top five COAG reforms.
Whilst there has never been a lack of goodwill or money directed at Indigenous reform - a recent Productivity Commission report showed governments spent $40,228 per head of population on Indigenous people in 2008-09 compared to $18,351 on non-Indigenous Australians - there has been a lack of serious oversight, leading to waste and maladministration.
The Coalition is not advocating bureaucracy for the sake of it. Small government is a core liberal philosophy. However, when many Indigenous Australians continue to suffer the disturbing level of disadvantage they do, we wholeheartedly support a strong body of oversight to ensure this money is put to work effectively and if this requires more manpower to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, then so be it.
We need meaningful data and interim or annual goals to be set in order to achieve the goals set out under Closing the Gap. If these are not met, at least the Government will have the capacity to modify reform initiatives to ensure targets are met. We can’t afford to wait until 2020 to determine whether or not we are achieving results.
It begs the question, with so many failures in areas like housing, employment, health and social security, why does the Government think watering down ministerial oversight of Indigenous reform will deliver better results? The abolition of the Indigenous Ministerial Council will mean there is one less avenue to ensure these reforms are on track.
Take housing for example. In a recent Estimates hearing, officials from FAHCSIA tried to explain how increasing the number of two bedroom units instead of larger houses under the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) would better address overcrowding in remote Indigenous communities, even though the actual number of houses to be built remains the same.
This of course was the same program where $45 million was spent on community consultation, where some people chose colour schemes for houses that weren’t even guaranteed to be built for them.
Another failure of oversight was the Government’s management of the Home Ownership on Indigenous Land (HOIL) program, where 15 loans worth $2.7 million were initiated, while $10 million had been spent on administration costs.
These examples show that if anything, the Ministerial Council on Indigenous Reform needs to be strengthened, not diluted.
The lack of coordination and waste in the area of Indigenous affairs was one of the fundamental reasons the former Howard government launched the Northern Territory intervention into remote Indigenous communities in 2007 and attempted to bring Indigenous reform priorities under the one umbrella through the COAG ministerial council system.
We need to go back, revisit the structure of the Indigenous Reform Council and identify where the money is being spent, who is keeping the costs under control and why satisfactory results aren’t being achieved.
However, the Government, in its usual manner, dismisses the whole argument as one about administrative arrangements alone.
But the Government fails to realise the obvious point that without effective oversight, in the past outcomes have been sub-standard and we are concerned to ensure that does not happen again. You only have to look at the pink batts and school halls debacles to see that.
This is symptomatic of a government that simply will not consider any alternative view. Whether it be broadband, a carbon tax, or indeed, Indigenous reform, anyone disputing its position is immediately dismissed out of hand.
Until the Government gets serious about oversight of Indigenous reform, it will find it very difficult to deliver any meaningful change and the last-minute addition of Closing the Gap on Indigenous Disadvantage to Julia Gillard’s key COAG themes will remain a priority in name only.