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Serious Whitefella Stuff: mandatory reading on Indigenous policy, funding and implementation

In this two-part post, Yorta Yorta woman and public health researcher Summer May Finlay looks at two analyses of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy and implementation.

In the first, she reviews Serious Whitefella Stuff: When solutions become the problem in Indigenous affairs by Mark Moran. With one important caveat (its focus is on remote communities, not more broadly) she says it has avoided the usual mainstream pitfalls and achieves a task she “thought would be near impossible: explaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy history and its impacts succinctly and briefly without losing too much of the context or depth.”

In the second, first published on IndigenousX and re-posted here with permission, she explores the recently released findings of the Senate Inquiry into the much-criticised Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) tendering process and raises worrying concerns that the lessons are not being learned by the Federal Government.

Both make important reading in the leadup to the 2016-17 Federal Budget and #HealthElection16.

[divide style=”dots” width=”medium”]***

Summer May Finlay writes

How does Indigenous policy signed off in Canberra work—or not—when implemented in remote Aboriginal communities?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy is complex. I am not sure that anyone can say it is anything but. Current policy is almost always built on previous policy or at least previous policy ideology, creating a patchwork effect across the country. Policy is often created as a one size fits all, ignoring the realities in different communities which create a misfit between the policy intent and implementation. Policy affecting us, as in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is further complicated by federation, with Commonwealth and State and Territory polices criss-crossing our lives with a variety of effects.

I am a Yorta Yorta woman whose life has been directly or indirectly impacted by some of these policies. I have also worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and policy at a local, state and national level and I am always learning more about current and past policies and the impacts they have for our Peoples today. Understanding policy development, implementation and their impacts from a variety of perspectives is challenging for anyone, including those of us who work in the space. Explaining them to someone who has less experience or understanding is something I often find extremely challenging. Something I am frequently asked to do when people find out what I do for a living, usually in a pub or at a friend’s BBQ.

Serious Whitefella Stuff: When solutions become the problem in Indigenous affairs by Mark Moran, with chapters by Alyson Wright and Paul Memmott, had me worried. Mainstream commentary on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues is often superficial due a lack of understanding at best or downright bias (otherwise known as racism) at worst. I was worried that this book may contribute to the problems rather than illuminate the issues.

I was pleasantly surprised. The authors have achieved a task I thought would be near impossible; explaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy history and their impacts succinctly and briefly without losing too much of the context or depth. All in a few hundred pages. Serious Whitefella Stuff has avoided the usual mainstream pitfalls and has aimed to be impartial, using history and the authors’ intimate knowledge of the policies and communities to tell the story rather than relying on hysteria, ideology or assumptions.

Tim Costello is spot on, in the blurb on the back, when he says:

“This book reminds us that the dance between policy and practice is an awkward one, and that change is tough to achieve and sustain.”

Before I go on to tell you more about why I liked the book, I feel I need to point out that the title is somewhat misleading. It says “Indigenous affairs” yet the four case studies are in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. On the back cover, it does acknowledge that the policy it refers to is remote policy however it should have also been in the title.

Geography and history have shaped urban, regional and remote communities differently and while there are some similarities, there are also significant differences. Generalisations from this book should be used only with extreme caution for urban and regional communities. This may seem nit-picky but given that the books seeks to address systemic issues, this one cannot be overlooked.

Serious Whitefella Stuff, through four case studies, takes complex and plentiful Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander policy and makes it digestible. It looks through an historical lens and considers the impacts of this patchwork policy approach. One of the strengths of the book is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives have been woven all the way through. It is clear that they have actually talked to a variety of people who delivered the policy on the ground, something which is often not done at all or not done well.

Noel Pearson is the author of the foreword and gives praise to the authors’ ability to explain the complexity of policy development and implementation in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. He says:

Serious Whitefella Stuff provides a rare examination of practice in Australian Indigenous affairs—the complex reality of what happens on the ground when policy and politics intersect with particular people and places. The book is a testament to those working at the frontline in Australia’s Indigenous communities to bring about hard-won change.”

Clearly well researched, the book creates a timeline of policies relating to a single issue in each of the four communities. It shows the cyclic nature of policy and the short memories of politicians and Australian voters, but also the collective memory or Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people and their communities. It does not seek to lay blame on individuals but rather asks the reader to contemplate the systemic failures which have caused so much upheaval in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives. It clearly demonstrates the ideological thread that connects current policy with some of the first policies created specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This book is not about heroes and villains but rather people and our humanity.

With so much upheaval in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy with the recent Indigenous Advancement Strategy debacle and the new Healthy Welfare Card which is based on the flawed Income Management policy, the messages in this book are timely. While no single book is going to light the way for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy it should be mandatory reading for all involved in policy which affects us.

I might also carry a copy with me when I head out with friends so when I am asked to explain all things Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy in remote communities, I can hand them the book and get back to what I was there for.

[divide style=”dots” width=”medium”]

Senate Inquiry calls for major overhaul of failed Indigenous Advancement Strategy

“The committee believes the price paid by the Indigenous communities for implementing the unreasonable timetable was too high.”

The desire to roll out the seemingly ideologically based Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) within a short timeframe appears to have been more important than genuine consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, a comprehensive regional needs analysis and transparency in the design and implementation.

The Senate Inquiry Report into the Indigenous Advancement Strategy tendering processes by the Finance and Public Administration References Committee was released on 17 March 2016. Before this Report came out those of us who have been working in the Aboriginal Community Controlled sector knew that the IAS was chaos so the recommendations came as no surprise. I guess that’s one of the frustrations, had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people been consulted all the way through the design and implementation, the issues raised by the Report would have been less likely to occur.

I was working at the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples during the development phase of the IAS and then at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) during the rollout. I gave evidence with NACCHO CEO Lisa Briggs at the June 2015 public hearing.

As with any government report I always wonder if this is going to be a sanitised version of the evidence given.

It is not.

The Report appears to have genuinely represented the concerns raised and made nine appropriate recommendations.

The Report accepts the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s intention for the IAS concept was to reduce red tape and create greater flexibility. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda supported this view while giving evidence in June 2015 at the public hearing:

“the [IAS has] potential to offer great benefit and flexibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I believed that this approach could provide more scope to develop on-the-ground responses to the issues that confront our communities on a daily basis.”

The then National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples Co-Chair, Kirstie Parker, also supported reducing red tape and increasing flexibility.

“We are also firmly on the record as being supportive of simplified processes and a reduction in red tape around the administration particularly of Indigenous affairs.”

That, however, is where the support for the IAS seems to stop. The Committee noted more issues than strengths and despite its aims, it appears to have achieved the opposite. Its issues are summarised as:

  • Major gaps in service delivery.
  • A lack of consultation.
  • Rushed processes with poor transparency.
  • Cutting the number of funding areas created significant challenges, with many programs not captured by the reduced funding areas.
  • Challenges for smaller organisations without the capacity to develop applications in the time frame, or resources to employ consultants to develop applications.
  • Significant uncertainty for providers, with a very unclear and non-transparent process.

At the public hearing in June 2015, witnesses gave evidence that the IAS development timeframe was too short, did not engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations appropriately, and the regional assessments were substandard. Witnesses also gave evidence that the program was poorly communicated and the implementation lacked accountability and transparency. Many of the submissions also outlined these issues. In summary the PM&C did not have the expertise alone to deliver such an ambitious program.

PM&C disputed these claims, the Report however called “bullshit” on PM&C. It stated:

“The committee is very concerned that this loss of expertise and relationships has led to a disconnect between the people on the ground and their local needs and the decision making process undertaken in Canberra.”

Mr Gooda gave evidence that “[t]o have confidence in the outcomes we have got to have confidence in the process.”

The best way to ensure that the process has few negative and unintended consequences is to consult the people and organisations with expertise in the area; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations as outlined in the recommendations.

The Government has also recognised that it needs to improve its engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In September 2015 PM&C sought a request for tender for a new Panel Participatory Planning, Research and Evaluation Panel. According to the tender the “purpose of the Panel is to strengthen Indigenous community involvement, capacity and engagement in planning, collection, analysis and use of evidence to develop agreed approaches, solutions and outcomes between Indigenous communities, the Commonwealth government and key stakeholders”.

This panel is likely to be one of the ways Recommendation 7 could be implemented.

“The committee recommends that the Government release the revised funding guidelines as a draft for consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their organisations.”

This recommendation will probably be welcomed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people such as Mr. Gooda who has said that;

“As a bloke who has been around a fair bit in this game, I am now seeing a new leadership emerging within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs that is quite happy to sit down and talk through these things.”

Despite the planned Panel, it appears that this recommendation may be ignored in practice. According to the Report, PM&C have already started to revise the guidelines. In March 2016 “PM&C indicated that there is no plan for consultation to occur on a draft version of the revised guidelines, however, there will be a phase-in period between the current guidelines and the revised guidelines.”

And it gets worse, the Report notes that as of March 2016:

“Many organisations are in the same position they were last year of having funding running out on 30 June 2016 and not knowing what the next steps are.”

On releasing the Report, the committee does not seem hopeful and states that “the committee has not been reassured that lessons are being learned.”

The Report raised as many question as it answered on the ability of PM&C to turn the IAS around.

Huge changes to funding like the IAS brings uncertainty. The implementation was very disruptive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and it appears that it may have undermined the ability of the policy to achieve its aims. One of the aims of the IAS was “getting Indigenous Australians into work” yet through the uncertainty of the process numerous witnesses gave evidence that the funding uncertainty has meant that some organisations lost staff.

“the AHMRC reported losing experienced staff due to funding and job uncertainty, as well as noting negative effects on the morale and motivation of continuing staff.”

Another of the aims was “increasing Year 12 attainment and pathways to further training and education (including higher education)” yet the higher education was not included in the consultation process. Professor Mark Rose a member of Australian Universities said “I cannot understand why higher education, which is a strategic tool for closing the gap, was ignored. It confuses me.”

It seems good intentions are not enough; expertise is required. Again just demonstrating how important it is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations are consulted.

Let’s imagine for a minute that there is real intention by the Minister and PM&C to implement all recommendations in full. To implement all nine recommendations put forward by the Committee, undertaking Recommendation 1 is vital.

The committee recommends that future tender rounds are not blanket competitive processes and are underpinned by robust service planning and needs mapping.

As Mr Gooda said “If you fundamentally get wrong the needs of the community everything else is going to be flawed down the other end.”

Each region will have similarities and differences which need to be considered. To understand the needs for each region there needs to be data analysis considering all the social determinates of health, an understanding of the barriers and enablers to service delivery and current services need to be mapped with gaps identified before planning can commence. This regional analysis and mapping must be done with all relevant State and Commonwealth Departments and in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations.

This is a massive job one that needs to be done ASAP. I ask the Minister and PM&C: have they undertaken such a task? If so as part of transparency and accountability this information should be made public. And if not how they can revise the guidelines in preparation for another round?

In summary, the IAS has to be redeveloped almost from scratch and there needs to be a major shift in the way PM&C engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations. So where do I sit on the recommendations in the Report?

Achievable? Maybe. Likely? Doubtful. Optimistic? Hmmmm.

Here is to hoping though because as Tom Calma said in 2011, when he was Social Justice Commissioner, in relation to health inequality its “a very, very personal issue: it’s the duration and the quality of our lives, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives that are at stake.

Minister Scullion and PM&C: this isn’t just about red tape. You are playing with our lives.

Summer May Finlay is currently undertaking a PhD with the University of South Australia, has a Master of Public Health Advanced majoring in social marketing from the University of Wollongong and a Bachelor of Social Science majoring in linguistics from Macquarie University. Summer has worked in policy and research in a number of different areas relating to Aboriginal health and social justice.

 

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