Like many, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap speech. Hearing one of our ancient languages being spoken for the first time in Parliament was an important moment. I was also heartened to hear the Prime Minister declare that it is time “do things with us, not to us”.
That is something Indigenous leaders have been asking for a long time. However, the slogan is evidently easier for the government to say than to do. My scepticism stems from a lifetime of such promises from governments and public servants. Each time the government declares it will work with us, the old habits remain. Despite good intentions, we end up having things done to us.
The same is true in the way the government has approached our Empowered Communities proposals. Michael Gordon’s article, Closing the gap and learning the language, in The Age, on Saturday, February 13, indicates what is perhaps a new land-speed record for a slogan morphing into an empty promise.
If I am reading Gordon’s article correctly, it is based on a conversation between him and the Prime Minister. On that basis, I read it as capturing the thinking of the Prime Minister. My attention was drawn to two paragraphs:
“Turnbull has responded to the blueprint to empower communities produced by Cape York leader Noel Pearson and several others including Sean Gordon, who represents Indigenous communities on the Central Coast of New South Wales.
“The PM has embraced the idea of partnership and agreed to fund the empowerment model in eight sites and potentially others, but held back on embracing the institutional reforms proposed in the blueprint until progress is assessed in three years. This has disappointed Pearson and Gordon, but it is a start.”
Gordon got one thing right. We are disappointed, to say the least. As for the statement “but it is a start”, I have to say, that’s certainly not my opinion and it is diametrically opposed to Noel Pearson’s view.
As the Prime Minister knows, the Empowered Communities reforms propose institutional mechanisms to make the promise to “do things with us” a practical reality.
Empowered Communities proposes a structural rebalancing of the relationship between Indigenous communities and governments. The Prime Minister has declared his understanding of this but his government has only partially accepted our reform proposals.
The Empowered Communities model is designed, at its core, as a two-way street. In simple terms, it is about communities sweeping their side of the street by building processes that will result in cohesive proposals able to be plugged in to the “power board” – the interface between them and the government.
The other side of the street is the government’s responsibility. Our model calls for that side of the street to also be swept. The institutional reforms that the government has rejected are the other side of the two-way street. As usual, it has declined to take up its side of the bargain.
Without an “umpire” institution tasked with holding both parties to account and ensuring that the empowerment tests, which sit at the heart of the reforms, are being met, we will end up with a street with one clean side and the other a potholed mess.
This feels a lot like having things done to us. This is not a case of me complaining that we haven’t got all we want. It would be foolish to expect that partial implementation of the reforms will be effective in achieving the aims of the whole.
The idea that we must wait for three years of trials to judge the efficacy of the reforms, when one half of the reforms are missing, doesn’t make sense. When these three years are evaluated and there is failure: will it be because the policy was wrong or was it because of the absence of the institutional reforms? How can you evaluate the efficacy of a policy when you have not implemented it properly?
Where else would such an approach be acceptable? Sadly, only in Indigenous affairs. That is why we never close the gap. Because we never do what needs to be done to achieve success. We opt for incrementalism. “It is a start.” It is always a start of the new Groundhog Day cycle, rather than the necessary paradigm shift.
Would we have gone forward with the grand competition reforms of the past without the institutions of the Competition Council, the ACCC and the Productivity Commission? Of course we wouldn’t. There are countless examples: great reforms require new institutions that act as a cop on the beat to keep governments accountable as well as private players.
Governments and public servants will not, by their nature, cede control to deliver empowerment to Indigenous communities. They might try, they might want to, but they will be incapable of doing so without an independent umpire helping them make the transition.
The Prime Minister knows that the Empowered Communities reforms will be a long road for our communities.
It’s all about giving the Indigenous communities who opt in, responsibility for their futures. The institutional reforms we have proposed are centred on an eminent and impartial institution ensuring that this happens.
I worry that the “do things with us” slogan already rings hollow when we have our Prime Minister ruling out the institutional reforms we propose, despite them being consistent with every other reform process undertaken by postwar governments. And despite him being a prime minister who says he is passionate about innovation. Our essential innovation has been rejected by a government that, as usual, thinks it knows better.
You can bet your bottom dollar that if the partially implemented reforms fail, having been reduced to one arm in the battle, it will be Indigenous communities who carry the blame.
Sean Gordon is chairman, Empowered Communities Leadership Group, chairman, Barang Regional Alliance Central Coast and chief executive, Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council.