***This article was updated on 27 July to include comments from the Lowitja Institute***
Federal, state and territory governments are failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and stronger mechanisms are needed to hold them accountable, according to a draft report released this week by the Productivity Commission.
The report suggests that new and emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies – such as the proposed Voice to the Australian Parliament and Government, state and territory representative bodies, a Voice to State Parliaments, Treaty processes, and justice commissions – may help make governments more accountable.
“These initiatives may result in new decision-making and accountability structures that could provide a further catalyst for changes to the way governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” write the Commissioners, Michael Brennan, Romlie Mokak and Natalie Siegel-Brown.
The report, to be finalised after wider consultations conclude on 6 October, examines progress under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, signed in 2020 by all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations.
The Productivity Commission’s first review of the Agreement shows governments are not adequately delivering on this commitment.
“Progress in implementing the Agreement’s Priority Reforms has, for the most part, been weak and reflects a business-as-usual approach to implementing policies and programs that affect the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” says the draft report.
“Current implementation raises questions about whether governments have fully grasped the scale of change required to their systems, operations and ways of working to deliver the unprecedented shift they have committed to.
“It is too easy to find examples of government decisions that contradict commitments in the Agreement, that do not reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s priorities and perspectives and that exacerbate, rather than remedy, disadvantage and discrimination. This is particularly obvious in youth justice systems.
“Without stronger accountability for its implementation across all government organisations, the Agreement risks becoming another broken promise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Despite a range of accountability mechanisms in the Agreement, the Commission says they are not sufficient to influence the type of change envisaged.
“The existing mechanisms lack ‘bite’ – they are not sufficiently independent, do not contain timely and appropriate consequences for failure, obscure the individual responsibilities of each party and are not informed by high-quality evaluation.”
Support for priority reforms
The report says the Commission’s engagement across the country heard there is strong support for the Agreement’s Priority Reforms: formal partnerships and shared decision-making; building the community-controlled sector, transforming government organisations, and shared access to data and information at a regional level.
Although there are pockets of good practice, overall progress against the Priority Reforms has been slow, uncoordinated and piecemeal, the report says, stating that the transformation of government organisations has “barely begun”.
The Commission heard from a number of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) that they are sometimes treated as passive recipients of government funding, and that governments do not recognise that ACCOs are critical partners in delivering government services tailored to the priorities of their communities.
The Commission heard that where services are being shifted from mainstream service providers to ACCOs, governments often rigidly apply generic, pre-existing models of service and program design, instead of allowing ACCOs to design services and measure outcomes in ways that best suit their communities.
“The overwhelming message the Commission heard from ACCOs during engagements for this review was the need for ACCOs to have more control over the design and delivery of services so they can meet community needs and respond to changing priorities.”
Further, in most jurisdictions, it is unclear how much funding is allocated to ACCOs and non-Indigenous, non-government organisations, as most governments (with the exception of the NSW and ACT Governments) have not published their expenditure reviews, and some have not undertaken them.
“But we have heard that funding is continuing to go to NGOs and government service providers when it could be going to ACCOs,” the Commissioners reported.
The Agreement requires governments to identify and call out institutional racism, discrimination and unconscious bias. However, the Commission heard from many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that racism and institutional racism remains a serious and widespread problem, particularly in the criminal justice, child protection and health systems.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations told the Commission that some voices are not being heard and need stronger representation, including people in remote regions, people with disability, those in incarceration and youth detention, children and young people, particularly those in care systems.
Before finalising its report – to be provided to the Joint Council on Closing the Gap by the end of this year – the Commission wants to hear feedback from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations, governments and the broader community.
It will also be conducting a further round of engagements with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, organisations and communities, as well as more targeted engagement with government agencies across jurisdictions.
Urgency for action
Lowitja Institute CEO Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed said the draft review report tells us that governments do not adequately understand the urgency or magnitude of what is required to meet their commitments under the National Agreement.
She highlighted the findings on Priority Reform Three that calls for governments to transform the way they work, ensuring they are accountable, transparent, culturally safe and responsive to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“The Productivity Commission warns that this is putting the achievement of the other Priority Reforms, and ultimately the Closing the Gap targets, at risk,” Adjunct Professor Mohamed said.
Lack of progress on the establishment of independent mechanisms to monitor governments’ efforts on this priority is hindering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ ability to hold governments to account and build trust.
“The Coalition of Peaks made it clear to governments that the socioeconomic targets will only be achieved if governments transform the way they work. What is needed is whole-of-system understanding and effort to embrace every opportunity to embed Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing.”
“That means we can’t have a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach; we need place-based co-design, which is good for everyone,” she said.
The draft report calls for stronger independent performance-monitoring arrangements and formal data-development responsibilities to be established in order to improve transparency and accountability.
Governments are also urged to embed responsibility in central agencies and senior leaders to accelerate transformation towards public sectors that are partnership-focused and culturally safe for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Ever since the National Agreement was signed in 2020, the members of the Coalition of Peaks, including the Lowitja Institute, have strongly advocated that governments need to genuinely commit to implementing the Priority Reforms.
“This draft report underscores the urgency of our calls,” Mohamed said. “The health and wellbeing of our peoples cannot wait any longer.”
Get on with the job
The Coalition of the Peaks said the draft report was a “wakeup call to governments to get on with the job they have all agreed to do”.
“The Coalition of Peaks have been saying for a long time now that governments need to do much more to implement their commitments to the Priority Reforms, that progress has been patchy and not as intended,” said Patricia Turner AM, Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks.
“The work to implement the National Agreement would be strengthened by a constitutionally enshrined Voice, enabling greater independent oversight of governments and a voice to the Commonwealth Parliament on progress. However, governments need to get on with implementing the National Agreement in full now.”
Meanwhile, as the tweets below show, communities around Australia are coming together to hear from campaigners for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament – notwithstanding the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation.
* The headline on this article was updated on 28 July, after publication
See Croakey’s previous articles on The Voice