Remote control: The Monthly

Remote control: The Monthly

I’ve been to many remote places in Australia, but this is entirely new to me. I don’t know the desert. From the air, the vastness of the rolling dunes, green after the summer rain, is beguiling, as is the mild weather when we land. But I’ve been to enough places in the north of the country to know that come October this land is harder than any place I know. I’m travelling to the Pilbara with a former Western Australian state parliamentarian, Tom Stephens, whom I invited onto the board of an organisation that supports schools with tackling literacy. Stephens was a member for electorates in the Pilbara and the Kimberley and has been travelling to remote communities for the past 30 years.

The Martu leader at Jigalong, Brian Samson, picks us up from the charter and takes us to the school. Outside the gates, we are met as if royalty. Student leaders, the principal, Shane Wilson, and members of staff are there, replete with a welcome banner. We are as excited as they are. For the next three hours, we are taken on a tour of the school, visiting every classroom. After seven weeks of the Direct Instruction approach to teaching, the Jigalong School is moving. It reminds me of three schools in Cape York that started using Direct Instruction five years ago. It is doing as well as, if not better than, we were in our first term. What strikes me about the school is the quality of its leadership and the commitment of its teachers. Armed with an instructional program that works, the teachers and students are turning a virtuous circle. Students experiencing learning success means that teachers experience teaching success.

Samson is like me. Although I am from the coast and he is from the desert, he and I could well be brothers. We share a fierce hope for these children. He brought a crew of Martu leaders and educators to Cape York last year to visit our schools, and told me the first priority of Martu’s native title organisation, the Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation, is to ensure Martu children get a good education. There are more than half a dozen state and independent schools in the Pilbara region and on Martu land, which Martu children attend, more or less. Attendance levels are an obvious challenge.

Samson’s aim was to bring this eclectic bunch of schools into an alliance. Each school would adopt the Direct Instruction program. Kids who travelled between communities and shifted schools could pick up in their new school where they had left off in their old.

I look at Samson, see his weariness and the obvious ravages of a whitefella diet of flour and sugar on his giant body. He could well think the same of me. The Martu have been embroiled in various controversies concerning mining and environmental protection. I know what Samson has been going through. Leadership in our world is full of strife and controversy.


The big question in indigenous affairs after these past ten years is this: “Are things better since the demise of ATSIC?” I think in aggregate the show has gone backwards. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission collapsed in 2005 in a conflagration of vicious internal rivalries. By that time, a maelstrom of media allegations about corruption and wastage had emerged, driven by John Howard from his very first press conference as prime minister in March 1996. Today the name “ATSIC” conjures up all that is bad and hopeless about indigenous affairs and indigenous people. But is this the truth?

If ATSIC failed, there were three parties to the failure. First, there was the indigenous leadership. Second, there was the bureaucracy that supported the commission: the Australian Public Service. Third, there was the growing private industry, largely comprised of consultants, some indigenous but mostly not, who generated most of the strategies, plans and design of programs that failed. There were three culprits, but only one was singled out for contumelious outrage.

Indigenous organisations and their leaders bore the brunt of allegations of corruption and wastage. They were the Aboriginal Industry. The public service and the private consultants escaped scot-free. Thus began a concerted scorched-earth policy on the part of the federal government to erase indigenous organisations from the landscape. The chief means for forcing the demise of the network of community and regional organisations across the country was to cease their operational funding. Instead, organisations were increasingly required to fund operations out of service-delivery grants. These programs in turn were subject to market forces. Indigenous organisations were unable to compete with larger organisations from the mainstream that soon entered the indigenous sphere. These large organisations had the benefit of scale, and the smaller indigenous ones died out.

It was as if the government had developed a great allergy towards putting money into the hands of indigenous peoples and their organisations. Of course, there were exceptions, but this was the rule. It was the rule of the past ten years.

The post-ATSIC story is one of ever-increasing passivity. Indigenous people are not even presiding over their own deathbed. Instead there is an army of white people with palliative responsibilities.

The truth is that ATSIC was not a complete failure. There were many positive features. Many indigenous leaders from communities around the country share my assessment that at the regional level, with the regional councils, many good things had taken place in the 15 years it operated. That was certainly the case in Cape York with the Peninsula Regional Council. In our region, the agenda constructed during the ATSIC days underpinned the decisions taken over the past 20 years, including on social and economic reform.

I was involved in the struggle to protect the 1992 Mabo High Court decision on native title from extinguishment at the hands of state governments and a hostile Hewson-led Coalition. We would never have succeeded if the Lowitja O’Donoghue–led ATSIC had not coordinated its defence. Under O’Donoghue, ATSIC achieved a great deal. But even she was dismayed by the internecine conflicts and power struggles of the national organisation by the time it came to its bitter end.


The Productivity Commission reported that Australia expended $30.3 billion on behalf of indigenous Australians in 2012–13. This is unbelievable. The figure represents not the funding that goes directly to indigenous Australians but the total quantum that indigenous Australians justify as part of allocations to Commonwealth agencies and state and territory governments. So-called “indigenous specific” funding is $5.6 billion per annum. These numbers tell us several things. First, they tell us that even the funding that does go directly to indigenous affairs is not producing the outcomes that would be expected of it. The sheer lack of social and economic productivity from this investment is plain to see. Second, the extent to which governments and their agencies receive funding that is nominally allocated because of indigenous numbers is now transparent. The federation has been nominally allocating up to $30.3 billion per year in the name of indigenous Australians and has been profoundly short-changing them. Third, the growth in indigenous expenditures has accelerated – occasioned by the growth of the real Aboriginal Industry. This Aboriginal Industry is largely not comprised of blackfellas, but a vast parasitic industry of government and private-sector players. Indigenous budgetary allocations now support not only indigenous organisations of varying quality and effectiveness but also an even larger non-government sector. Consultants and service providers, ranging from Work for the Dole programs and employment programs to child welfare protection organisations, have now colonised the entire indigenous landscape. Even community development activities like mowing lawns and painting rocks have been outsourced to these organisations, both not-for-profit and for-profit.

The burgeoning of this industry has largely taken place under the radar, and without critique. Because the majority of this industry is not indigenous, there is no controversy. There are no allegations of misuse and waste of money. There are no lurid media stories about misappropriation of funds. Bureaucracies who supervise the tendering of these programs are in cahoots with this industry. Many of the players are former public servants who have strong links with the political parties in office. When child protection organisations offer safe houses and foster-care homes for children, they can charge up to $5000 per week per child. This is a lucrative industry. Basic questions like this one are rarely asked: should a commercial operator be given a five-year contract through a national tender process to supervise a Work for the Dole program in a remote Aboriginal community, if it results in an outcome no better than when the local community organisation operated the program?

The organisations embedded in this industry have their own lobbyists in Canberra. Since the demise of ATSIC, I know of no indigenous organisation that haunts the corridors of the parliament in as organised a way as this industry. Proponents are closely allied with MPs and therefore have leverage. They have former colleagues who are still in the bureaucracy who treat them favourably, notwithstanding the fig leaves of probity and competitive procurement. The bureaucracy itself equates success with the successful functioning of the industry, whereby the industry players make good profits and things are not as messy and controversial as in the old days.

This industry is the beneficiary of racial prejudice. Where blackfellas and money are concerned, the controversy is of great media interest. Indeed, the default assumption is that of corruption or mismanagement or misappropriation. The default position when it comes to whitefellas is the opposite: they are just running a business, and the fact that the outcomes may be no better than before is beside the point.

It is hard to see how this industry will be unwound. Indigenous people are employees of these organisations, the educated ones as consultants. They will therefore naturally defend this state of affairs. That there may be flashes of success and promise in various quarters also makes this overall critique difficult to accept. You can always point to good things happening, like you could in the old days. It is just that the overall impact of the new regime is no better than it was in ATSIC’s day. I therefore well understand why some black Australians might occasionally look back with some nostalgia.


During the Howard years, indigenous affairs was largely in a state of torpor. The main initiatives of the government had been negative, the first phase dominated by the debate about the High Court’s 1996 Wik decision and John Howard’s “Ten Point Plan” amendments to the Native Title Act – a protracted and bitter controversy. Howard’s approach to reconciliation in this early phase culminated in what he himself considered the low point in his prime ministership, when he berated the crowd at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention after sections of it turned their backs on him.

Right up until the demise of ATSIC, indigenous affairs was largely an arena for conflict and controversy. The ministerial contributions of John Herron, Philip Ruddock and then Amanda Vanstone were largely exercises in political management. It was not until Mal Brough was appointed minister for indigenous affairs in 2006 that the real action started. Brough threw himself into the portfolio with the mindset of a former military man, making it clear he was going to shake things up.

By the following year, the final year of the Howard government, Brough was constructing a radical reform agenda for his portfolio. In the meantime, Clare Martin’s Northern Territory government had commissioned Rex Wild QC and indigenous health administrator Pat Anderson to review the state of child safety in remote communities of the Territory. The resulting report, Little Children Are Sacred, described “rivers of grog” and suggested that neglect and abuse of children were rife in many communities. Upon receiving the report, the Martin government sat on it and did nothing. To be fair to them, its recommendations did not lay out an easily graspable plan for action. The issues were so complex and the scale of the challenge so large it was difficult to translate the general prescription of “empowerment” into a concrete agenda. The Martin government’s failure to respond to the Little Children Are Sacredreport gave Brough the opening to prosecute his agenda.

In Cape York, we had been developing a reform agenda called the Cape York Welfare Reform Trial. Our proposal, duly laid out in the Hand Out to Hand Up report (tabled in June 2007), was the product of two years of consultation with four communities in Cape York whose leaders decided to participate in the trial. The resources allocated to the consultation process and the time spent on it were unprecedented. We had thought long and hard about the need for communities and their leaders to opt in to the proposed reforms, rather than being forced into them. A centrepiece of the proposed reforms included making welfare payments conditional upon school attendance, child protection, meeting housing tenancy obligations and abiding by local laws. It was proposed that a Family Responsibilities Commission be established under Queensland law, which would give authority to local Aboriginal elders to decide what should happen in the event that community members breached these welfare conditions. The aim was to support individuals to uphold their responsibilities to children and families by counselling them to attend support services; as a final resort, the local commissioners could place restrictions upon the income support they received. These restrictions could apply to part of their welfare, or for certain periods of time, and restrictions could be removed if the relevant individuals remedied their breach.

The Cape York Welfare Reform proposal did not apply to all community members. Rather it targeted only those community members who were failing to fulfil their responsibilities to their family. The principle was to intervene only when there was a consistent abrogation of responsibility.

With the 2007 federal election on the horizon, Brough launched the Northern Territory intervention. It borrowed some features of the proposed Cape York Welfare Reform, particularly the concept of income management. However, unlike the Cape York proposals, Brough’s Northern Territory proposals were put forward on the basis that they would apply to all welfare recipients, regardless of whether they were irresponsible or not. Its details were not clear to me until they were announced. Clearly it was Brough’s and Howard’s intention to produce some shock and awe with their announcement, akin to the asylum-seeker intervention when the Tampa came over the horizon in 2001.

On 5 July 2007, I wrote to Brough about his proposed approach with the NT intervention:

My primary concern with the Welfare Reform Policy proposed is that it makes no distinction between those individuals who are behaving responsibly and those individuals who are behaving irresponsibly. The policy states that all adults who have been on welfare for more than two years will automatically have 50% of their payments managed for them. This will impact nearly every adult in the communities targeted.

I explained that there were two practical problems. First, it would punish everyone, irrespective of their behaviour. “Consequently,” I added, “the measure will have limited, if any, impact on rebuilding social norms as it does not provide any signals as to what behaviour is unacceptable for motivation to curb that behaviour.” Second, it would build resentment among even the responsible adults towards the government’s intervention.

I also quoted to him a recent editorial from the Australian newspaper:

It is crucial to distinguish between good and bad parenting, rewarding the former with responsibility for handling their welfare entitlements, and withholding funds from the latter until they demonstrate they are able to look after their children. Not only is it insulting to suggest to good Aboriginal parents that they are unable to manage their funds, it denies them the opportunity to be positive role models for others. The whole point of the intervention is not to increase the role of the nanny state, but to encourage people to take responsibility for their children.

Brough responded to my letter, saying that he would persist with “blanket coverage” of welfare quarantining:

The approach that we are proposing to take in relation to welfare quarantining in the emergency area is quite different to the motivation behind the reform of welfare generally in Cape York. Providing blanket coverage tied to duration on welfare is not prompted by a desire to penalise or reward individuals, rather it is to reduce dramatically the amount of cash available in these communities for gambling and alcohol for a limited period until the situation is stabilised.

Brough’s insistence against the advice that I attempted to provide would become fatal for the entire initiative. It gave fuel to the anti-intervention campaign that started immediately and has raged to this day. It was a wrong principle that came to colour the entire enterprise, and by his insistence Brough ended up discrediting the concept of income management. Even though the Cape York Welfare Reform pilot proceeded the way we had designed it, people both within and outside these communities equated the Cape York trial with the intervention – to our program’s great detriment. It made our reform challenge in Cape York all the more difficult and undermined the cause of reform. The anti-interventionists were mostly wrong in their arguments, but they were able to discredit genuine reform principles because Brough had given them ammunition to do so. The intervention fizzled out, and with it any momentum for change.


“The social situation of many Aborigines will change with rapidity over the next decade. Many will die wealthy, in possession of money or other assets for which their traditional law provides no disposal-procedure. There will be conflicts of interest between Aborigines which may be insoluble unless their own doctrine of what I have termed rights, duties, liabilities and immunities can be developed. The ‘Aboriginal problem’ thus goes beyond the ‘retention of their traditional lifestyle’: there is a problem of development as well as one of preservation.”

Professor WEH Stanner, ‘Aboriginal Law and Its Possible Recognition’, 1977

Indigenous Australians now live in a world dominated by liberal capitalism. There is nowhere to escape it. No society today, however traditional, is unaffected by it. There is no longer any splendid isolation of traditional societies from liberal capitalism’s gravitational pull and inexorable pressures. Even in the remotest places where its only presence is provisioning by the welfare state, redistributive welfare is obviously part of the same paradigm.

How peoples prosper or fail in the face of the seductive charms and liabilities of this new condition is now a question that indigenous Australians share with all societies and peoples around the planet. It may be trite to say, but it must be said, that indigenous peoples in contemporary times have material needs.

Indigenous peoples are, after all, human, and subject to similar rules for advancement and pauperisation as other humans, and are driven by the same basic motivations. Of course, our culture and traditions are not without influence here, and the ingrained and long-held influence of our inherited culture cannot be ignored or wished away. But the imperatives of liberal capitalism are so unavoidable and powerful because they are culture blind at their essence. Whether you are European, Chinese, Indian, African, Pacific Islander or Australian Aboriginal, they are equally ruthless. The allocation of winning and losing positions in this pyramid of advantage and disadvantage, happiness and suffering, justice and injustice, is now subject to forces and phenomena beyond the ken of traditional societies. There are now currents at play and forces to contend with that have no precedent in our traditional past.

If we don’t understand these rules, we won’t even hold our present position; indeed there is evidence that our societies can crumble. I am primarily motivated by a conviction that, in Cape York, the Hope Vale of today is socially and culturally weaker than the Hope Vale of my father’s day. While materially there has been a revolution largely driven by the redistribution effects of the Australian welfare state, there has been a corresponding breakdown, and many important things have been fractured and weakened in these past decades.

We are no longer talking about splendidly isolated tribes. Opportunities for sustenance in our traditional economy are limited and can only ever be a partial and increasingly marginal part of it. We are dealing with the aftermath of a devastating and complicated history, and there is no framework for understanding our current condition and future policy.


Think about it. Just before Australia entered into one of the greatest mining booms in history, which lasted the best part of two decades, the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision recognised the land rights of Aboriginal people. The legislative protection of native title under Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Native Title Act in 1993 and its subsequent expansion three years later in the Wik decision should have meant that traditional owners across the continent were now in a prime position to partake in the economic development of Australia. Never before in the history of Australia were its indigenous peoples better placed.

It didn’t happen. Australians all over benefited from the mining boom. There seemed to be no end to the dividends and growth. The confluence of the rise of China and India and the advanced state of Australia’s resource industry gave rise to an extraordinary period. It put the nation in a commanding position when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. But did the traditional owners whose rights were recognised in the Mabo decision truly share in this boom? The answer is no.

How could this have happened? Under Mabo and Wik, native title potentially existed over large swathes of the continent, particularly in the regions where resource-extractive industries were located. Native title laws gave traditional owners rights to negotiate access to land and resources. But the Ten Point Plan amendments to the Native Title Act, introduced by the Howard government in 1998 with the urging of the mining industry, had severely weakened the rights of native title holders. Once Senator Brian Harradine sold out the Wik people in the final hours of that bitter debate, the leverage of native title holders was severely compromised. The mining industry had dealt themselves out of the 1993 negotiations around the Native Title Act by taking an extreme oppositional stance, refusing to acknowledge that the High Court’s decision had fundamentally altered the assumptions upon which resource industries had operated unfettered for the previous century. Even the pastoralists, led by the former head of the National Farmers’ Federation, Rick Farley, had been more sensible and constructive in their approach to these negotiations.

With the election of the Howard government and the advent of the Ten Point Plan, the mining industry was more seriously organised to target native title leverage. The weakening of key provisions of the Native Title Actcompromised the ability of traditional owners to extract fair outcomes from their negotiations with miners and diminished their capacity to participate in the burgeoning boom. That is why on the ledger of what was generated out of the boom and what indigenous people gained out of the boom there is simply no comparison. Miners 1000 points, native title holders 10.

Individual groups with strong leverage did manage to extract successful deals. Indeed, in the latter half of the boom, canny indigenous entrepreneurs and organised communities began carving out more of a share in mining and mining-related opportunities. Particularly in Western Australia. So when Professor Marcia Langton points out the emergence of a middle class from mining-related employment and business, it is the result of these individuals and groups getting organised despite the diminution of native title rights occasioned by the 1998 amendments.

Today there’s much to be optimistic about in relation to the entrepreneurs and businesses that have emerged these past ten years. Many companies have been constructive in supporting this emergence. But the aggregate story is one of an enormous swindle perpetrated against Aboriginal Australians. Our people simply did not take a fair share of this boom, and our position as a whole did not measurably improve notwithstanding the fact that this extraordinary economic development happened on our doorsteps. Too many communities were unable to participate in the advantages and the opportunities. The fact that various groups extracted royalty revenues in their negotiations with companies did not of itself improve the social and economic strength of these groups. The best results have come where indigenous communities and entrepreneurs have established businesses that have employed their own people. The dilemmas of the so-called resource curse also emerged in this period. Some communities grappling with the social impact of royalty revenues and the disputations around these royalties must often pause to wonder about life before resource conflict.

Now a new incarnation of terra nullius has emerged: the assumption that while the indigenes have symbolic title, and these homelands may in name belong to their traditional owners, they are foremost the conservation heritage of the nation, and of the planet. Decisions about the future of these lands are no longer the prerogative of their putative owners.

While more than 20% of the continent is held under various forms of Aboriginal title, a vast and ever-increasing proportion of these lands is being locked away under conservation agreements, covenants and regimes. Lands yet to be restored to traditional owners through unresolved claims are already subject to conservation caveats and limitations. Indeed, like development interests, conservation interests are asserted prior to the settlement of land claims in order to make them a condition of such settlements. If tribes do not agree to these conservation arrangements, they don’t get settlement of their claims.

Therefore not only do traditional owners have to concede the lands already lost to their possession under the 200-year reign of the old terra nullius, but they also have to make concessions in respect of any remnant lands. They get the leftover land, but subject to the limitations that mean giving away Aboriginal land is a cost-free, electorally convenient exercise. Aboriginal land is a cheap giveaway for electioneering political parties.

Conservation as it is conceived today means locking Aboriginal people out of development. This is how Aboriginal groups now end up surrendering their lands and closing off future opportunities for their people. The chief difficulty for Aboriginal people is we have not understood how the concept of “land (and natural resource) management” has come to take over “land rights”.

And what about the much-vaunted future carbon-trading economy? When Aboriginal lands are locked up pre-emptively through prohibitions on vegetation clearing and other means, Aboriginal landowners have been stripped of the one asset they might have to trade in that market.

More than 98% of Cape York retains its native vegetation. It is probably the region’s largest economic resource. Its greatest value could possibly lie in its long-term preservation, but this value is being destroyed.

Contrast the traditional owner in Cape York with the white pastoralist in Central Queensland. The lands in Cape York have hardly been cleared. Meanwhile, the pastoral properties in the mulga country were cleared by ball and chain sometime over the previous century. The pastoralist enjoyed the returns from the old, dirty economy of the past. Those who had no foothold in the past have no foothold in the future.


Following Brough’s announcement of the NT intervention, I urged a meeting with Galarrwuy Yunupingu, which I attended in his homeland. I witnessed Yunupingu at his best. In situations like this, I have encountered few people with more compelling power and presence then Yunupingu. I allude to this meeting only to recount Yunupingu’s rehearsal to Brough of his history of dealings with prime ministers and ministers of indigenous affairs during the course of his public life as an Aboriginal leader. He started with John Gorton and followed through with Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke. He gave an account of his dealings with each, and with all of Brough’s predecessors. It was a long, sometimes hopeful but ultimately depressing, history of personal interaction and experience.

It made me think about my own accumulating collection of prime ministers, premiers and ministers. Since 1993, when as a 28-year-old I was part of a delegation led by Mick Dodson and Lowitja O’Donoghue in negotiations with Paul Keating, my time in public life has seen another four prime ministers and a score of ministers of indigenous affairs. The present prime minister is the third with whom I have had close dealings. How did this aid me and my cause? I seem to have accumulated my own collection of prime ministers. What is the chance that I will come to look back on this history with Yunupingu’s chagrin?

In theory, Tony Abbott represents the best opportunity to bring together the great dialectic of the indigenous rights secured by Paul Keating and the responsibility agenda that John Howard understood. This dialectic could synthesise in a full agenda of empowerment and recognition. Will this theory turn out in practice? This will be answered over the coming weeks, months and possibly years, but I am all too conscious that if the destiny of Aboriginal leadership is for people like Yunupingu, Pat Dodson, Charlie Perkins, Marcia Langton and Lowitja O’Donoghue to look back on a collection of prime ministers, then this one must be the last in my collection.


In 2005, the Cape York Institute, of which I was the director, gathered together a group of economists to consider the viability of remote communities. Economists from the Commonwealth and Queensland treasury departments and consultants from leading corporate partners joined our policy staff to devise a method by which the social and economic viability of remote communities might be assessed. We were joined by the development economist Professor Helen Hughes, then a fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. The project examined four communities in Cape York Peninsula: Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge. These communities were diverse in terms of size, their proximity to urban centres, and the relative challenges they faced in accessing government services and developing local economies. The project produced a framework for thinking about whether or not a community or town is viable. Viability was not just confined to economic indicators; importantly, it encompassed indicators of social wellbeing.

The assessment framework was then applied to these four communities and


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