Two years ago I wrote here about how the annual Closing the Gap statements provide insights into the Indigenous policy approaches favoured by Prime Ministers. I noted that it would be interesting to see whether Malcolm Turnbull delivered on the commitments in his first Closing the Gap speech which promised a more inclusive approach, or does the gap between words and reality remain as large as ever?
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which gave the Commonwealth powers in relation to Indigenous people. Again, Malcolm Turnbull delivered the ninth Closing the Gap report to the Australian Parliament. Through that address, he restated his strong recognition of the need to empower Australia’s first peoples:
“The national interest requires a re-commitment to the relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But there can be no relationship without partnership. And there can be no partnership without participation … I firmly believe that people must be involved in the process in order to be engaged in the outcomes. It has to be a shared endeavour.”
This year, again, in the tenth anniversary of the Closing the Gap strategy, the Prime Minister talked up an inclusive approach, talking about “doing [policy] with” Indigenous people rather than “doing to” them. Over the years, the Prime Minister has been consistently on message, yet nothing has changed. The gap in most areas remains as large as ever, with little progress evident in improving the Closing the Gap outcomes.
Many critics of Indigenous policy suggest that these kinds of commitments are symbolic and that governments are not committed to the reforms required. This position was certainly supported by the way that, just a few months after committing to a new relationship with Indigenous people in 2017, the Prime Minister rejected the recommendations from the Indigenous Constitutional Convention – the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ – which called for Indigenous people to have a voice in the decisions that affect them.
I think there is more to the story than political dissembling. Rather than just focusing at the political level, what goes on at the administrative level deserves more attention. Despite commitments at the highest level to work in partnership, governments struggle to implement new approaches. Interesting insights into this failure come from looking at the day-to-day operational judgements of policy actors involved in reform efforts in remote Indigenous Australia. These highlight the fact that, despite repeated commitments to change the way they work, policy practitioners often find themselves unable to make the transition to the ways of working that evidence tells us are needed. Instead, time and again we see policy actors reverting to standard consultation practices late in the process, maintaining a tight rein on resources and decisions, and focusing on upward accountability – in contrast to the devolution required in a partnership approach.
Instead of policy actors cynically playing lip service to a partnership approach, they are struggling with the pull of the way things have always been done. This is because the existing deficit based policy regime constrains the ways that policy actors can engage with the inevitable tensions between old and new ways of working. Indeed, the managerial norms that permeate the public sector work to push policy actors away from downward accountability and from placing value on local lived experience and knowledge – which are both required in a partnership approach. One of the policy actors I interviewed during my research summed it up well:
So I think all of the stuff about engagement and new ways of working was profoundly dishonest and profoundly deluded – optimistic, really optimistic – but deluded…I think the gravitational pull of the way business has always been done, and the gravitational pull from the government at the time to do things quickly – deliver, deliver, deliver – even with the best will … made it impossible to really do business in a different manner.
At a deeper level though, the policy discourse which emphasises deficit at every turn pushes policy actors away from the type of engagement needed for such approaches to work. After all, why should a competent policy practitioner invest valuable time and effort in engaging with stakeholders who they are told at every turn are deficient? Again, as one of the policy actors I interviewed put it:
And … fundamentally I don’t think we believe in Aboriginal people in this country … I think it’s a really fundamental issue that means that we really don’t think they can fix that problem … Maybe not everybody [in the public sector] but [many]… fundamentally don’t believe they have capacity… That’s the conclusion I’ve come to … that’s the most significant of the barriers.
The deficit focus that has driven Australian Indigenous policy for many years is fundamentally incompatible with the kind of approach the Prime Minister keeps promoting. Until the basic premises underpinning the way policy actors work are changed, such commitments will continue to be empty promises. Not only will we fail to close the gap on Indigenous outcomes, but we will also fail to close the yawning gap between words and actions.