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The government’s assessment of Indigenous disadvantage ignores how far behind remote communities are compared with cities, and how top-down policy-making reinforces economic disparities. By Mike Seccombe.

Gap not closing on Indigenous disadvantage

Fred Chaney is despairing. He despairs a little more every time he hears a politician pay reverent lip service to the preservation of Australia’s Indigenous culture.

“Whenever I hear people speak of Australia having the world’s oldest living cultures,” he says, “my response is, ‘Then why are we strangling those cultures where they are still most intact, where people are on country, devoted to country, and deserving of support far greater than we’ve provided for them?’ ”

Chaney despairs every time another story about the domestic violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities makes the news, because he sees the way they have been left behind by a succession of governments.

“The dysfunction in Aboriginal communities is very much a product of incompetent and unthinking government interventions made without any attempt to understand the real needs of the communities, including their need for stable administration and a clear statement about their futures,” he says.

“It’s the way they’re treated that leads to the problems that people read about. The situation is dire.”

In particular it’s a function of an increasingly punitive welfare system, he says, although there are many other factors that conspire to make matters worse in many ways, not better, in remote communities.

Chaney’s dark view is rooted in long, long experience. He was minister for Aboriginal affairs for two years ending in 1980, then minister for social security until the fall of the Fraser government. He served 13 years on the National Native Title Tribunal until 2007, and was co-chair of Reconciliation Australia from 2000 to 2005. He is himself an exemplar of a threatened minority culture, a civil man in an increasingly uncivil political world, a former politician who has sought to leverage his experience and contacts for public benefit not personal gain, and a vestige of a time when the Liberal Party included a fair smattering of actual liberals.

Almost 40 years on from Chaney’s time as minister, and 10 years on from the federal commitment to closing the gap of disadvantage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, things have not improved much. Worse, he fears the federal government and the electorate are losing interest in even trying, leaving First Australians “to languish”.

Look at the evidence.

Back in February, as the nation was obsessing over Barnaby Joyce’s private life, Malcolm Turnbull released the most recent Closing the Gap report, detailing the progress – or lack of it – made over 10 years on seven key indicators of Indigenous disadvantage.

As ever, it was grievously disappointing. It showed the nation was “on track” to meet only three of the targets: halving the gap in child mortality rates, getting 95 per cent of kids into early education programs, and halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students attaining a Year 12 education by 2020.

On the other four goals, it was failing. They were: closing the gap in life expectancy “within a generation” and halving the gaps by this year in literacy and numeracy, school attendance and employment.

Turnbull spun the results positively, telling parliament that the three “on tracks” deliver the best result since 2011. He called it “promising”.

But it wasn’t really very promising, and is even less so when you look at some of the statistics underlying the results, as a couple of researchers at the Australian National University have done.

The work by Dr Nicholas Biddle and Francis Markham, of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, shows that among Indigenous people living in remote communities, a number of key indicators are going backwards, fast.

The researchers’ particular focus was employment, which is also the current government’s focus, as evidenced by its oft-repeated mantra that the best form of welfare is a job.

First Biddle and Markham compared census data from 2011 and 2016 and found something remarkable. While Australia’s overall population increased by 8.4 per cent during those five years, the number of people identifying as Indigenous grew more than twice as quickly – by about 19 per cent, or 128,500 people.

This rapid growth, says Markham, could not be explained simply by the slightly higher fertility rates of Indigenous people, or by most Indigenous children having one non-Indigenous parent.

“It’s because there’s a population of people predominantly in urban areas in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland who for the first time in 2016 ticked the box saying they are Indigenous.

“And because these people tend to be slightly better off than the Indigenous population nationally – although still worse off than the non-Indigenous population – their inclusion in the statistics for the first time also has the effect of making things look like they’re getting better than they are.”

When the cohort of newly identified Indigenous people was included, employment rates rose slightly – from 49.7 to 50.4 per cent between 2011 and 2016. But when they were taken out, the employment rate fell from 49.6 per cent in 2011 to 48.7 per cent in 2016.

As the researchers wrote: “Put simply, if we track the same people over the period and exclude those who newly identified as Indigenous in 2016, then the employment gap is not closing – it is growing.”

The same is true for incomes. Again, the average, influenced by those newly identified Indigenous people clustered in the cities and towns of south-eastern Australia, masks a disturbing variation.

Says Markham: “The median disposable weekly equivalised household income adjusted for inflation – which is quite a mouthful, but it’s the best measure – in major cities and towns was $647 per week for Indigenous households, but in very remote areas it was $389.

“Over the past five years median incomes in urban areas increased by $57, but in very remote areas they fell by $12 in real terms.”

And that flows through to poverty rates. Taking a standard measure of poverty – less than 50 per cent of median household income – Biddle and Markham found that at a national level Indigenous poverty was declining, although the rate remains shockingly high compared with the broader community.

It fell about 2.5 per cent over the decade to 2016, to just over 31 per cent.

“But in very remote areas it went up 7.6 per cent over that period, to over 50 per cent,” Markham says.

In short, the gap between urban and remote Indigenous communities is widening faster than the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is closing.

Markham cautions that none of this means the picture is rosy in towns and cities, only that disadvantage is increasingly concentrated in remote areas.

When the Bureau of Statistics released census data on Tuesday ranking Australia’s local government areas by relative privilege, the 10 most disadvantaged areas were all remote Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities.

They were all tiny places, with populations ranging from a couple of hundred to a few thousand.

Given the relative sizes of the urban and remote Indigenous populations, and the growth of the former, Markham suggests the government could meet its target of halving the employment gap just by concentrating on urban areas, “while letting employment in remote areas just stagnate or fall”.

Which raises the question of the sincerity of the federal government’s commitment to remote communities, to those people who find it ever harder to remain on their traditional land.

We all know what the previous prime minister thought. In March 2015, Tony Abbott dismissed ancient traditional bonds to land, community and language as “lifestyle choices” made at the expense of taxpayers.

Abbott was roundly condemned for his simplistic formulation. To Turnbull’s credit, he showed a more nuanced understanding and did not make the same mistake in his presentation on February 12. He promised to “refresh” the Closing the Gap effort later this year with new policies informed by “a more granular and specific local insight” that would “empower” local communities.

Fred Chaney welcomed the sentiments. But in a strong piece for The Mandarin, a website devoted to news and comment on public policy, he and Bill Gray, AM, emphasised the gap between rhetoric and practice.

They wrote that instead of devolving power to the regional and community level, the current government, led by Turnbull’s own department, “is now widely considered to operate the most centralised administration of Indigenous affairs within the past 30 years”.

The irony here is that Australia used to have such an “empowered” and decentralised model. It was called ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Chaney’s co-author, Gray, was its founding chief executive and a former Commonwealth secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

ATSIC had its problems, but is remembered fondly by most in the Indigenous sector. It was abolished by the Howard government in 2005, at the urging, let no one forget, of the Labor Opposition of the day.

A couple of years later, Howard launched the militarised Northern Territory National Emergency Response, otherwise known as “the intervention”.

What Chaney and Gray call the “top-down, command-and-control model” has persisted over five governments since. But it has become much harsher and more punitive under this Coalition regime.

Chaney refers me to Lisa Fowkes, another researcher, for the data on the worst example of it: Indigenous welfare policy.

You can’t call the Community Development Program (CDP) overtly racist, for it is defined geographically rather than racially. It applies in the rural and regional parts of the five mainland states, covering about 75 per cent of the nation. But more than 80 per cent of those in the program are Indigenous and they are subject to treatment not enforced on the broader population.

“If you’re in one of the areas where it applies,” Fowkes says, “you have to work for the dole from day one of unemployment, and continue 46 weeks a year, five days a week, 25 hours a week.

“This is substantially more onerous than the requirements of other jobseekers over the course of the year, for example those in the Jobactive program.”

It is also far more punitive in its practice.

The way it is set up, government payments to the private job providers are linked to attendance. In order for the provider to get paid service fees for a particular jobseeker, that person must either attend their Work for the Dole activity or provide a “valid excuse” for non-attendance, or the provider must recommend that a penalty be imposed.

Given a structure that encourages providers to “breach” people rather than go through the bureaucratic process of establishing a valid excuse, and given the messy lives of many in the program, the scheme has resulted in “breaching” on a massive scale. Fowkes has collated the statistics.

“The number of people covered by CDP is less than 1/20th of the 760,000 covered by Jobactive,” Fowkes says. “Yet in every quarter but one since the CDP started, more penalties have been applied to CDP participants.”

More than 400,000 penalties have been applied to CDP participants from the beginning of the program to the end of September 2017. In just three months to the end of September, 46,258 penalties were applied to CDP participants, while 28,755 of these penalties were applied to their counterparts in Jobactive.

For each “No Show, No Pay” penalty, the jobseeker loses 10 per cent of their fortnightly income support. If they fail to show three times in six months, the Department of Human Services deems them to be deliberately noncompliant and liable for up to eight weeks without any income support.

You think the so-called robo-debt imbroglio was bad? Imagine the circumstances of Indigenous people, many without high levels of education, in many cases with little language skills, trying to negotiate the bureaucracy of this.

Not surprisingly, there is mounting evidence that many have simply given up the struggle.

On the day the CDP started, notes Fowkes, there were 36,642 people in the program. The average reported caseload over 2017 has been 32,670 – a drop of nearly 4000.

It’s a hell of a way to get people off welfare. Without jobs, without income support, they have no real options but to become mendicants within their communities. The reality of this pressure is shown in our justice system.

As the Law Reform Commission reminded us again just this week, Indigenous imprisonment rates are a growing problem. In the past decade Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates increased by 41 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

Apart from income support, the other big spending area is housing. In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments agreed on the $5.4 billion National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing, to run over 10 years.

It has done considerable good, delivering some 11,500 more “liveable” houses over the decade – 4000 new and 7500 refurbished. A recent review done for the prime minister’s department estimated the program would reduce the level of overcrowding from more than 50 per cent at the program’s start to about 37 per cent by the time the program ends in June this year.

But that review also noted a big problem remains. To keep up with population growth and to reduce overcrowding to what it called “acceptable” levels, another 5500 houses will have to be built over the next decade.

But the way forward is far from clear, to put it mildly. The federal minister, Nigel Scullion, has made no formal response to the review he commissioned. Nor has he given any firm indications of the amount the federal government would provide.

Michael Dillon, a former head of local government and housing in the Northern Territory, former senior bureaucrat in Canberra and former chief executive of the Indigenous Land Corporation, fears the worst.

“The indications are they are in the process of abandoning a national approach,” he says. “They’re running this complex argument that the states aren’t pulling their weight.

Essentially, the government is planning to cut the national partnership. They may throw some money around to tide themselves over for the next year or so, but they’ve walked away from the 10-year agreement and they’re certainly not going to put in $500 million a year of Commonwealth money.

“That’s a big issue for remote Australia,” Dillon says. “People don’t make the links but a lot of the dysfunction comes from the fact that people are living in overcrowded housing.”

So what is the government’s vision for a “refreshed” strategy to overcome Indigenous disadvantage? That is far from clear.

Lately they have been spruiking an Indigenous Business Sector Strategy, establishing, to quote a Scullion media release from last month, “Indigenous business hubs anchored to major cities – a one-stop-shop for business advice and support – starting in Western Sydney”.

Although Scullion cites modelling suggesting billions of dollars in economic growth, the amount actually invested by government is relatively tiny. Second, the focus is urban, not remote. Third, it represents the application of free market theory to Indigenous affairs.

Not that there is anything wrong with policies that encourage Indigenous small business; it’s just that indications are that this economic mainstreaming is coming at the expense of languishing remote culture.

The government focuses on trickle-down theories, as if Australia’s most disadvantaged people can entrepreneurialise their way out of poverty. And many, including Fred Chaney, despair.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 31, 2018 as "Diagnosing the gap". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.