Can new PM turn around the disaster of indigenous affairs policy?

, - November 21, 2015

Noel Pearson, founder and director of strategy at the Cape York Institute with Pat Dodson, chairman of Nyamba Buru Yawuru at an Indigenous Leader’s Roundtable.

On becoming Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull declared “this is the most exciting time to be an Australian”. His optimism lifted my spirits, as I think it did for many Australians. But, I wondered, is it also the most exciting time to be an indigenous Australian?

I admit that I am buoyed by Turnbull’s vigour for national reform­. His approach thus far has been very impressive. While the new Prime Minister is clearly grappling with events on the international stage, he has not shied away from the big, necessary, nationa­l reforms: he is facing them head-on, with tangible pleasure at the task.

Further, Turnbull’s passion for innovation is clearly backed up by the sensible acknowledgment that the big and necessary national reforms­ take political hard work. In this, he has promised to be consultative, to explain, to bring Australians on the necessary intellect­ual journey, to treat voters as the intelligent people they are. My feeling is that Turnbull is up to the policy and political challenge.

But my profound hope is that he will bring the same innovative zeal, vision and grounded tenacity to indigenous affairs. The way all Australian governments treat indigenous affairs portfolios is in need of root-and-branch struc­t­ur­al reform. Indigenous people are too often left out, and left behind, when Australia makes its leaps towards growth, innovation and increased efficiency and prosperity.

Indigenous people must be given a place at the table if the reforms proposed by our Prime Minister are to take root across the more than a third of the nation’s land mass that is subject to indig­enous ownership, and that has been underdeveloped by 50 years of wrongheaded policy.

Our people were left out of the first huge structural reform: the constitutional compact that gave birth to the Australian federation. We were not parties to that act of nation-building, were not includ­ed as equal citizens, nor as equal polities and people deserving of our fair place within the union.

Our people were left out of the vast economic growth Australia experienced. When the nation­ was developing and growing, indigenous people were denied our property rights and citizenship rights. We were not paid equal wages. We were told who to marry. We were told where to live. We were left out of the national competition policy and exempted from standards of economic behaviour and performance.

And by the time we starting getting some property back Australia was miles ahead: we faced trench warfare over red and green tape regulations in our efforts to reap economic benefit from our land. An archipelago of stagnating economic backwaters developed and locked half our population out of the economy. It is here ridiculous work-for-the-dole schemes persist, inculcating poor workplace habits into a third generation of remote indigenous Australians.

The backward policy paradigm combined with red and green tape remains our biggest hurdle. Our economic development initiatives require costly exercises to overcome cynical bureaucracies and cumbersome planning and envir­onmental legislation. This is our lot long after the rest of Australia happily felled trees and developed their prosperity decades before. Our people pay for the nation’s contemporary environmental burden — yet half our people live in excruciating poverty.

And while the nation readies itself under a new Prime Minister who wishes to embrace innovation, reform and move the nation forward into a new era of increased growth and global competitiveness, indigenous people continue to experience the worst health, the worst education outcomes, the worst employment statistics.

Something has been going deeply wrong in indigenous affairs for many decades. Reform of indig­enous policy paradigms has always been put in the “too-hard” basket.

Successive governments have shied away from the necessary structural reform, consti­tutional reforms, and thus ensured that it is far too often just too difficult for indigenous Austral­ians to take their place in our contemporary nation as citizens, but citizens with an ancient link to the country that their ancestors humani­sed long before the last ice age.

Is Turnbull the right leader to shepherd the reforms that would empower our most disadvantaged and allow them to take their place in the nation? Will he include indig­enous people, and indigenous affairs, in his innovative spirit? This is where progress, innovation and reform are most desperately needed. Indigenous people’s lives, languages, cultures and heritage depend on it.

Turnbull’s first challenge in indig­enous affairs reform, and perhaps the nation’s biggest intel­lect­ual and moral challenge, is indig­enous constitutional recognition. Let me be clear on one thing: by recognition I do not mean symbolic words alone. I mean sensible recognition and protection of indig­enous interests, within our working constitutional compact. I mean practical reform to ensure that we are never again discrimin­ated against and treated unequally as we have been in the past. This may mean a racial non-discrimin­ation clause, or an equality-before­-the-law clause, as all the other great liberal democracies have, guaranteeing that we will be treated equally.

Or this may mean a political and procedural guarantee that indige­nous people have a fair voice in the laws and policies parliament and government make about us, as many liberal democracies have, such as New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries.

In tackling this necessary constitutional reform, indigenous people, Turnbull and the nation must grapple with which path to take. Do we opt for a High Court solution, so that discriminatory laws can be challenged and struck down? Or do we opt for a political and procedural solution, to ensure indigenous people get a fair say when political decisions are made about their affairs?

Both would be big and necessary reforms. One would work through High Court litigation, the other would create a platform for indigenous political participation and self-determination. One could be described as constitutionally ambitious, the other as constit­utionally modest. But both would be fundamentally paradigm-shifting for indigenous affairs.

Big reforms are also needed at the legislative and policy level. The bureaucratic mess that ser­vices indigen­ous affairs needs to be sorted out. Innovation must be pursued to ensure government respon­s­es to indigenous need are more efficient and more effective. The duplication needs to be removed.

Indigenous people need to be the drivers of their own empowerment but structures need to be in place to ensure this can happen more efficiently and effectively.

In my view, we are never going to close the gap unless indigenous people are given the appropriate responsibility over our lives and our solutions. We are never going to close the gap unless we find better ways for indigenous people to work with government to develop the right solution. If our people had constitutional, legislative and institutional mechanisms to lead and take authority in our own affairs­, that would be real, much-needed progress.

Indigenous affairs is the policy area in most desperate need of innova­tion. It is the area in most desperate need of reform vigour, new thinking, and hard political work to make the vision of a fairer, more equal, more inclusive Australia a reality.

My hope is that it is also the most exciting time to be an indig­enous Australian. My hope is that Turnbull can lead the big, necessary, structural reforms our people need. Our people have been left behind for far too long. Like many indigenous Australians with their shoulders to the wheel, I am quietly optimistic that Turnbull is the right leader to ensure that this is no longer the case.

Marcia Langton is professor of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne and co-chairwoman of Cape York Partnership.