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Essentials for Social Justice: Reform

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Essentials for Social Justice: Reform

Tom Calma

Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner and

National Race Discrimination

Australian Human Rights Commission.

20 February 2008


Essentials for Social Justice

Between December 2007 and April 2008 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, will deliver a series of key speeches setting out an agenda for change in Indigenous affairs.

Essentials for Social Justice: Sorry

I begin by paying my respects to the Jagera and Turrubual peoples, the
traditional owners of the land where we gather today. I pay my respects to your
elders, to the ancestors and to those who have come before us. And thank
you, for your generous welcome to country for all of us.

Can I thank Monique Bond for the invitation to address the Queensland branch
of ANTAR tonight. ANTAR has played a vital role in building community support
for Indigenous issues and reconciliation, so it is always a pleasure to be able
to support your efforts.

Importantly, you have also played a vital role in celebrating and help build
upon the successes in Indigenous communities. This provides hope and recognition
for our people and communities. We need this. Our peoples live in often
difficult circumstances and face largely negative perceptions of them in the
mainstream media. Passionate friends like you are a valuable thing.

This speech is the second in a series of six that I will be delivering
nationally over the coming months outlining an agenda for change across all
areas of Indigenous affairs. I have termed this series of speeches Essentials
for Social Justice

The first speech in this series was delivered in December last year and
outlined an agenda for addressing the needs of the stolen generations and the
delivery of a national apology.

Speeches in the coming months will address the Northern Territory
intervention and child abuse issues; the importance of land and culture in
creating economic development; as well as speeches outlining a positive vision
for our communities such as by closing the gap in life expectancy and health
status, and creating an equal life chance for Indigenous children.

Today’s speech is simply titled: Reform.

There are a range of issues that I want to explore tonight about the ability
of governments to effectively deliver services to Indigenous people and
communities, and ultimately, their ability to contribute to improved outcomes in
the life circumstances of Indigenous peoples.

For I believe that we have reached a crossroads in Indigenous policy and
service delivery.

Issues of Indigenous disadvantage and dysfunction are before our eyes more
frequently and more prominently than ever before.

Barely a day goes by without another chilling and heartbreaking story of
abuse, violence or neglect; or of demonstrations of the impact of entrenched
poverty and despair among our communities. This creates a momentum for change
and for action.

Governments of all persuasions and at all levels have expressed a determined
commitment to address these issues, particularly as they relate to family
violence and child abuse, and to contribute to a better future for Indigenous

And yet the means by which they seek to achieve this have had, at best,
limited success.

The capacity of government to deliver on its commitments is the proverbial
‘elephant in the room’.

Ultimately, I believe that the true legacy of the previous federal government
for Indigenous affairs lies not in the NT intervention experiment, as
significant as that is, but in the system for administering Indigenous affairs
that it created in the ashes of ATSIC.

That system is simply not working and has serious shortcomings that will
limit the ability to implement any new agenda.

That is the lesson of successive Social Justice Reports to the federal
Parliament, and that is the lesson of the Australian National Audit
Office’s audit of the whole of government arrangements for delivering
services to Indigenous people.

There are two key issues at stake here. The first is the ability of the
federal government to work on a whole of government basis, where the life
circumstances of Indigenous people are not divided into smaller bureaucratic
responsibilities that inevitably do not fit together or cover the whole.

And the second is the capacity of this system to respond to the circumstances
of Indigenous people wherever they live – be it in an urban or a rural or
remote setting. If you explored the current policy settings, you could be
forgiven for mistakably believing that the majority of Indigenous people live in
remote, discrete communities given the substantial emphasis on this by
government and the lack of detailed effort on equally important tasks such as
unlocking mainstream accessibility of programs for Indigenous peoples.

Already the new government has made some bold announcements for reforming
Indigenous affairs. It has announced:

  • - the establishment of a Working Group on Indigenous Reform at the level of
    the Council of Australian Governments;
  • - the establishment of a Joint Policy Commission with the involvement of the
    Opposition to look at solutions for the housing situation faced by Indigenous
    peoples; and
  • - explicit commitments to close the gap in life expectancy, maternal and
    child health, and literacy and numeracy.

These announcements do not deal explicitly with the problems of the
federal model for service delivery that I have outlined. If modifying this
existing system is not treated as an urgent priority for reform, then it will
stymie any constructive efforts to advance Indigenous issues.

But before we discuss some specifics of what needs to change, let us consider
how we got to where we are today.

Continual stories of failure and despair have left a deep scar across
Indigenous communities. They breed hopelessness and despair. And among the
broader Australian society they also breed intolerance and anger, usually
directed towards Indigenous peoples.

Back when Mick Dodson was Social Justice Commissioner in the early 1990s he
referred to what he called the ‘industrial deafness’ of the
Australian community. By this he meant the phenomena whereby the Australian
community had become so accustomed to stories of Indigenous disadvantage that
they had become immune to it, and came to expect it.

Over the past decade, the community and government have come to believe that
this situation is intractable, too difficult to shift and for some people, the
fault of Indigenous peoples themselves.

And at some point, as a nation we stopped believing that equality of
opportunity for Indigenous peoples was a realistic goal. And so we stopped
trying to achieve it.

In my view, this lack of aspiration is reflected in the way the previous
federal government placed emphasis on the ‘record levels of
expenditure’ annually on Indigenous issues.

There are many things that could be said about this approach – the
creative accounting involved, and the queries about whether the money ever hit
the ground, yet alone benefited Indigenous communities. The general lack of
scrutiny of the “record expenditure” by the mainstream media, except
the SMH, also beggars belief.

But to me the main issue is, since when did the size of the input become more
important than the intended outcomes?

What exactly was the point of the record expenditure?

I can guarantee you that if you keep on the current path, there will be
record levels of expenditure every year for the next decade. This is because
there is a sharply growing Indigenous population. More people living in poverty
and requiring additional services.

As best as I can ascertain it, the point of highlighting the record level of
expenditure was a gentle hope that things would improve incrementally over

And on some measures they have – albeit slightly. But on others they
have not. And very little of it is by design.

So while I firmly believe that these stories of disadvantage and dysfunction
should be told, I also believe that they should not be told just for the sake
of it

They should be told to hold governments accountable for their actions; to
build support and determination among the broader community to create positive
change; and to challenge Indigenous people and communities to face the demons in
our own backyards.

These stories should be told in order to fuel change, and to kick start

But what type of action?

This is the crossroads that we now face.

I want to place before you some quotes. Each is worth reflecting on. In a
different way, each relates to the challenges that lie before us.

First, let me quote to you the recently retired Secretary of the Department
of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold. Recently he said:

Sometimes when people say it must be tough being head of PM&C, or it must
have been tough when you were working in DEWR during the waterfront dispute, I
disagree. I always think that if you’ve done three and a half years trying
to administer aboriginal affairs, you can take anything – it is a
genuinely difficult area. You know that people’s lives depend upon it ...
It’s a very emotionally fraught

In his final interviews as Secretary of PM & C he also expressed his
regret at the slow progress on Indigenous issues, describing it as an area that
is ‘intractable’. In his valedictory lecture he stated:

Often I despair at the abject failure of well-intentioned policies to make a
substantive difference to the appalling conditions in which too many indigenous
Australians live.[2]

Next, let me quote to you former Minister Mal Brough on introducing the NT
intervention legislation to Parliament. He stated:

When confronted with a failed society where basic standards of law and order
and behaviour have broken down and where women and children are unsafe, how
should we respond? Do we respond with more of what we have done in the past? Or
do we radically change direction with an intervention strategy matched to the
magnitude of the problem?[3]

Third, let me quote to you from the apology speech by Prime Minister Rudd
last Wednesday. He stated:

The truth is: a business as usual approach towards Indigenous Australians is
not working. Most old approaches are not working. We need a new

So what can we take from these quotes?

Well first, for some time there has been a growing despair and a growing
sense of urgency for governments to get it right when it comes to Indigenous
affairs. This is particularly in relation to dealing with the hardest and most
damaging issues in our communities - child abuse and family violence.

Second, this has become a clear clarion call for change – a
determination to do things differently. As Mal Brough puts it, ‘do we
respond with more of what we have done in the past?’ And as Prime Minister
Rudd puts it: ‘a business as usual approach towards Indigenous Australians
is not working. We need a new beginning’.

When you combine this sense of despair, the growing sense of urgency with a
determination to do things differently, you can see how something as radical, as
intensive and as divisive as the NT intervention emerges as the basis for new
policy approaches.

Regardless of your views on the appropriateness of the approach adopted in
the Northern Territory, it has blown out of the water once and for all the status quo in Indigenous policy making.

This status quo is the fallacy that if governments continue on
their existing path, eventually the substantial issues facing our Indigenous
communities will be resolved. It is the fallacy that governments have been doing
everything within their power and resources to address the gross disparities
experienced by Indigenous peoples across all areas of life.

And it is the fallacy that government efforts are sufficiently targeted to
achieve their desired outcomes – namely, addressing these life disparities
experienced by Indigenous peoples. This fallacy has been perpetuated by
successive governments at the federal and the state and territory level. Its
most regular manifestation is the usual government trick of seeking to address
one area of need by taking resources from another area of the indigenous budget
– shuffling resources rather than adding to the quantum available.

Through their actions in introducing the NT intervention, the former
government admitted three key things.

First, that governments were not providing Indigenous peoples with basic
services that other Australians take for granted – policing and law and
order; health and education services; and adequate infrastructure to name but
three areas.

Second, it admitted to the fact that the scale of investment in our
Indigenous communities to date has not been sufficient to enable real change
– sustainable, long term gains that can turn communities and peoples lives

And third, it admitted that the change needed is not going to be achieved
quickly and will require long term investments.

So what do we learn from these admissions? Down what path do they lead us?

It has to be said that these admissions reveal how simplistic it is to draw a
line under all past efforts as failed and to strive for newness. In many ways,
past approaches didn’t work because they never had a chance to work.

Indigenous affairs have been treated as if they are immune from good policy
development. Lofty aspirations, repeated often, without a snowball’s
chance in hell of ever being realised because of the stubborn refusal (or
possibly even the convenient blind eye being turned) to the fact that there is a
clear lack of capacity to deliver -both in human terms and in terms of the
financial inputs.

The NT intervention is, therefore, emblematic of the challenges that we face
more broadly in Indigenous policy.

The NT intervention represents the appeal and seductive charm of embracing
new approaches and breaking from the past. But it also represents the danger of
such change without looking back over your shoulder and considering where you
have been, what has worked, and what has been the source of the problems faced
to date.

Ultimately, the commitment of the previous government to make a real
difference cannot be questioned. But in the context of tonight’s
discussion, I think that the previous government got it wrong on two fronts.

First, they didn’t seek to learn from their past, and even from their
very recent efforts. The NT intervention bares little resemblance to the
so-called ‘bold experiment’ of the post-ATSIC new arrangements
– such as the COAG trials, SRAs and whole of government coordination.

These were largely implemented from 2004, so they were hardly the distant
past. There are lessons from these arrangements that will affect the workability
of the NT intervention and go to the capacity of government to deliver.

And second, they didn’t appreciate the importance of undertaking action
in partnership with Indigenous communities. In fact, since the abolition of
ATSIC they had moved further and further away from the systemic involvement of
Indigenous peoples in policy making processes. In the intervention, this is
reflected in processes that are prescriptive and compulsory in nature rather
than applied voluntarily and in partnership; or put different, that treat
Indigenous peoples as passive recipients of policy rather than active agents for
change; and it is reflected in processes that are enormously, and I would say
excessively, costly. And all from a government committed to cutting the
‘red tape’ of bureaucracy for Indigenous service delivery!

And this leads me to the essential components for reform.

To me, the essential challenges for Indigenous policy reform are as

First, there is a pressing need to ensure the full participation of
Indigenous peoples in policy making processes.

This is essential and it is currently lacking.

There is currently a disconnect between policy making at the national level
and its implementation at the local and regional level, with a consequence that
there are insufficient provisions that enable Indigenous participation in the
policy process.

Much of the failure of service delivery to Indigenous people and communities,
and the lack of sustainable outcomes, is a direct result of the failure to
engage appropriately with Indigenous people and of the failure to support and
build the capacity of indigenous communities. It is the result of a failure to
develop priorities and programs in full participation with Indigenous

Put simply, governments risk failure if they develop and implement policies
about indigenous issues without engaging with the intended recipients of those
services. Bureaucrats and governments can have the best intentions in the world,
but if their ideas have not been subject to the “reality test” of
the life experience of the local Indigenous peoples who are intended to benefit
from this, then government efforts will fail.

More importantly, if bureaucrats or governments believe that their ideas are
more important or more relevant than those of local indigenous peoples, or that
they can replicate policies that have worked in different contexts – such
as functional or urbanised communities, or communities which have the necessary
infrastructure and support mechanisms in place, then again, they will fail.

These are fairly basic points. But they are of such fundamental importance.
And so often they are overlooked.

There is also a challenge to build into policy a longer term vision for the
well-being of Indigenous communities. Policy development and program
implementation can benefit from understanding community development principles.
Creating change in communities is a long term process that will ultimately only
be achieved by empowering and supporting communities, often small step at a
time, so that they are capable of taking control of their circumstances. This
takes time and consistency of effort.

This need for participation exists at the local, regional and national
levels. Processes are needed to ensure Indigenous input in a systemic manner at
the regional level, and linked up to the state and national levels.

With the recent demise of the National Indigenous Council, the need at the
national level is particularly pressing. The NIC was not intended to be a
representative organisation, and it did not adopt a consultative approach to its
work during its existence.

But now that it is gone there is no systemic structure in place for
Indigenous input into government decision making.

Ultimately, there is a need for a new national representative body to ensure
such input and engagement.

To this end, my Office has recently commissioned research to assist in the
conversation with Indigenous peoples as to the core aspects of such a
representative body. Our research will answer the following three questions:

  • (1) What lessons can be learnt from mechanisms for representing Aboriginal
    and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the national level that have previously
  • (2) What options are there for ensuring that a national Indigenous
    representative body is sustainable? and
  • (3) What lessons can be
    learned from mechanisms for representing Indigenous peoples that have been
    established in other countries?

This information should provide a solid basis for informed debate among
Indigenous peoples as to the different aspects of models for representation that
is most suitable to meet their needs.

This will take time. And so in the interim, there remains a challenge to
ensure Indigenous voices can be heard in the policy arena.

To this end, I have proposed to government that they convene a series of
meetings of Indigenous peak bodies. This would include land councils,
affiliations of health organisations, Aboriginal child care agencies,
educational bodies and other peaks operating at the state, territory or national

Most of such organisations are elected by Indigenous peoples and they are
representative of their sectors.

Such a process would provide an interim approach to ensure that Indigenous
peoples are at the table as vital decisions about their lives are made by the
government. Such a voice should not be denied for the year or more that it is
estimated that it will take for a representative body to be functional.

Second, ambitious targets should be set.

Indigenous policy should not be allowed to simply drift along without
ambition and without targets. It is not good enough to rely on ‘record
levels of expenditure’ as the measure of progress.

It is time to be bold and to be honest. The lack of goals for achievement in
Indigenous affairs, with targets and benchmarks to measure progress over time,
is actually a failure of accountability and transparent policy.

In his apology speech, the Prime Minister acknowledged this. He stated:

Our challenge for the future is now to... embrace a new partnership between
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians...

A new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy
failure. A new beginning, a new partnership, on closing the gap with sufficient
flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the
hundreds of remote and regional Indigenous communities across the country but
instead allows flexible, tailored, local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed
national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership. And a
new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings
across the nation.[5]

For two years now, I have been leading a coalition of organisations in an
effort to embed targets and benchmarks into Indigenous health policy in order to
meet the goal of achieving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality
within a generation.

This has become known by many as the ‘close the gap’ campaign,
and it uses a human rights based approach to health programming to cut through
the malaise that currently exists in Indigenous health policy. In terms of human
rights implementation, it is cutting edge stuff.

It is most heartening that the new government has begun to take up the
challenges that we have put forth through the close the gap campaign. In his
apology speech, Prime Minister Rudd accepted the need for targets and goals when
he said:

unless we as a parliament set a destination for the nation, we have no clear
point to guide our policy, our programs or our purpose; no centralised
organising principle...

None of this will be easy. Most of it will be hard—very hard. But none
of it, none of it, is impossible, and all of it is achievable with clear goals,
clear thinking, and by placing an absolute premium on respect, cooperation and
mutual responsibility as the guiding principles of this new partnership on
closing the gap.[6]

This is a critical element for policy reform at the federal level.

Third, and related to this, such targets and goals should receive
bipartisan support and form the basis of inter-governmental cooperation.

We need long term commitments to make real progress in Indigenous

This requires stability and determined action. And it requires longer term
funding, especially for community initiatives so that they no longer are beset
from the perennial problems of pilot funding or short term funding

Bipartisan support is essential to support this. Achieving improvements in
Indigenous disadvantage should sit above party politics.

The recently established Joint Commission on Indigenous Policy provides the
vehicle for this to occur. In my view, this could be enhanced by ensuring that
this Commission is supported by the input of the best and brightest from across
society – with business leaders, academics, community workers and others
invited to contribute to its work – to ensure that its work is evidence
based and informed.

These targets and commitments should also be applied across governments. The
newly announced COAG Working Group on Indigenous Reform provides the platform
for this to occur.

Ultimately, it should lead to consolidated agreements between the states and
Commonwealth for Indigenous affairs, be built into funding agreements for
housing, health, education and other services, with compliance and
accountability mechanisms affecting the distribution of Special and General
Purpose Payments by the Commonwealth.

Much can be achieved if the federal government ensures that the targets
agreed are matched with teeth for accountability and implementation.

Fourth, once goals and targets have been set, government processes must be
reformed and re-engineered to ensure that they are capable of meeting these

Target setting is not a rhetorical exercise. Once a target is set in good
faith, it requires a realistic assessment of the inputs and approaches necessary
to achieve it, and then action to match resources to the level of need.

There has rarely been a time when Indigenous services have been funded to the
level of need. This is a primary reason relating to the failure to achieve
substantial improvements over the past decade.

Recently, the Australian National Audit Office assessed the whole of
government arrangements for Indigenous affairs. It found a fundamental problem
in how government programs for service delivery matched with the
government’s ambitions. These ambitions were reflected in three priority
areas for action as agreed through COAG, and as reflected in the Overcoming
Indigenous Disadvantage reporting framework.

The ANAO noted that whole of government delivery of services requires
departments to work together to develop budgeting and reporting arrangements
that meet both the accountability obligations of individual departments and also
contribute to the collective achievement of, and accountability for, whole of
government outcomes.

They concluded that none of the agencies audited identified their
contributions to meeting the priorities as set by COAG and their Ministers, and
none of them had developed whole of government measures of accountability. Few
even identified within their internal systems what the key priorities for action
were. So:

While departments individually identify their activities in Indigenous
affairs in their accountability documentation, there is little in the way of
performance information at the aggregate level to assess and inform progress in
terms of the... identified priority areas for action in whole of government
Indigenous service delivery.[7]

In many ways, this is symptomatic of the lack of a targeted plan of action by
the federal government to date. And it is symptomatic of a troubled system for
whole of government service delivery.

Through successive Social Justice Reports I have provided a running
commentary on the potential benefits and the concerns about this whole of
government system. Contrary to many, I still see much potential in this system.
Particularly, I see potential in community brokers and local level agreement
making processes, coordinated on a regional level through the Indigenous
Coordination Centres.

But the system as it stands is not working. This is in part due to the
absence of any systemic approach to engagement with Indigenous peoples, but it
has also been the result of the tight control at the central level of activities
that occur regionally.

There needs to be a continued focus on local level agreement making to build
the capacity of Indigenous communities, as well as that of the government. A
community partnership or community development model is not too big a leap from
the existing structure and should be explored further.

And fifth, Indigenous policy making should be based on a commitment to
human rights

Fundamental to good policy development is that all legislation, policies and
programs developed and implemented by governments should be consistent with
international human rights standards.

At present, domestic Indigenous policy making processes treat human rights as
a prescriptive framework that is focused on what you can’t do and
on a compliance mentality. The limited efforts to engage with human
rights principles are at the most crude and basic level, such as crafting
measures so that they can avoid accusations of racial discriminatory

Clearly this is an essential component of the human rights system. But it is
much more than this. It also encourages the adoption of proactive measures to
create an enabling framework for active participation and engagement of all
citizens, and particularly for those who are disadvantaged or powerless.

The human rights framework promotes a focus on ensuring that different
segments of the population are able to participate fully. This requires a focus
on gender equality; the rights of children and a focus on the best interests of
the child; as well as providing recognition and protection for cultural

Human rights provide an enabling framework that promotes active engagement of
Indigenous peoples through partnerships, shared decision making and ultimately
shared responsibility for outcomes.

Importantly, human rights also provide a framework to assist in targeting
government activity to areas of greatest need. One of the fundamental goals of
human rights is the provision of equality before the law and non-discriminatory
treatment for all. Where such discrimination exists, such as the entrenched
discrimination against Indigenous peoples that is reflected in
disproportionately high rates of disadvantage, there are obligations on the
national government to ensure that actions by government to address these
inequalities are sufficiently targeted, are progressively reducing the
inequality gap and are doing so as quickly as possible and utilising the maximum
of available resources.

If I return briefly to the NT intervention, it reveals the dangers of not
adopting a human rights based approach.

Measures that violate the human rights of the intended beneficiaries are more
likely to work in ways that undermine the overall well-being of these
communities in both the short and longer term.

For example, the Government has clearly stated that the NT intervention seeks
to address a breakdown in law and order in Aboriginal communities. And yet it
potentially involves introducing measures that undermine the rule of law and
that do not guarantee Aboriginal citizens equal treatment to other Australians.

If this is the case, then it places a fundamental contradiction at the heart
of the NT intervention measures. This will inhibit the building of
relationships, partnerships and trust between the Government and Indigenous
communities. It would also undermine the credibility of the measures, and
ultimately, threaten the sustainability and long term impact of the measures.

Human rights obligations are not merely technical matters that sit distant
from the day to day realities of life for Indigenous children and their
families. The ability of children, their families and their communities to enjoy
their human rights has a profound impact on the environment in which they live,
grow and develop.

It fundamentally impacts upon their hopes and aspirations, in empowering or
disempowering them, and in supporting or restricting different life paths and
ultimately the choices that people make about their futures.

Put simply, all measures to address family violence and child abuse should
themselves respect human rights. It would be outrageous to suggest that it is
not possible to achieve this.

So to conclude, the new government may not yet have fully realised it, but
they have been left with a system for delivering on the government’s
commitments to Indigenous affairs and reconciliation that is severely limited in
its capacity; that has developed and mutated out of an urgent desire to do
better, but which has ignored the evidence in adopting change; and which has
become disconnected from the very people it is meant to service.

This creates serious challenges for the government. Reform is necessary to
ensure appropriate standards of accountability are upheld; that a clear,
consistent vision is applied; and that the capacity exists to deliver.

Unless this is addressed within a learning framework, with an eye to detail
and basic standards of good policy practice being applied, the government may
find that it becomes frustrated at the lack of achievement and the intractable
nature of the existing disparities in life circumstances experienced by many
Indigenous peoples.

The first step on this road is mutual respect and a partnership.

Please remember, from self respect comes dignity, and from dignity comes

Thank you.

Note: This is the second in a series of six speeches outlining
an agenda for change in Indigenous Affairs. The “Essentials for Social
series will be presented between December 2007 and April
2008, and will be available online at:



[3] The Hon Mal Brough,
2nd Reading Speech – Northern Territory Emergency Response
Bill 2007
, Hansard, 7 August 2007,




[7] See further: