Professor Kerry O. Cox, ECU Indigenous Employment Coordinator Josephine Kennedy and the Honourable Dr Fred Chaney AO
Addressing Australia's Disconnections
The Honourable Dr Fred Chaney AO
Thursday, 25 September 2008, 4pm
ECU Joondalup Campus
The Hon. Dr Frederick (Fred) Chaney AO has been Chair of Reconciliation Australia Ltd from 2000 - 2005 and continues as a Director. He is also the Chair of Desert Knowledge Australia (since 2006).
Formerly a lawyer, Fred served as a Liberal Senator for WA (1974-90) and a Member of the House of Representatives (1990-93). He held various Ministerial appointments in the Fraser government, including Aboriginal Affairs. After leaving Parliament in 1993 he undertook research into Aboriginal Affairs policy and administration as a Research Fellow at the University of WA.
He was Chancellor of Murdoch University for eight years until early 2003 and retired as a deputy president of the National Native Title Tribunal in April 2007. He is also a founder member of The Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation which works with Aboriginal students to ensure they finish school and go on to work or further education.
Vice Chancellor, thank you for the introduction. But I must say, since I walked in and looked round the audience, I realised that addressing Australia's disconnections is a bit difficult, because there are a lot of people in this room with whom I have had connections and I acknowledge fellow students from nearly fifty years ago. I wont identify them for fear of embarrassment. But, fellow students of fifty years ago. Athol Barrett is here. He has just told me he is 80 and he laboured in the Liberal party as an honest journeyman and friend for many years. And Sam Walsh, I am touched that you should come because you hear me talk far too often and to have given the lecture last year and then turn up to the next one is beyond the call of duty. I help Sam give away some of his company's money, that is the intimate connection that we share. But I would also acknowledge that for the last 12 years, his company, Rio Tinto, has supported education work with which I'm associated, with Aboriginal people around Western Australia, but principally around the Pilbara. It is such connections which do, of course, enable us to deal with many of the issues that face our country. And I see one of my honorary nephews over there, a good friend who calls me his Uncle in the Aboriginal way - Jim Morrison, it is very kind of you to come out here too to hear me. There may even be a real niece of mine here somewhere which is again beyond the call of duty.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I too acknowledge the Noongar people and their traditional ownership. I'd really like to linger on that just a little bit, particularly here in Perth, on my home turf, because I know that within Perth there is still people who bridle at that acknowledgment and feel that it is just a bit of political correctness or whatever. But of course it isn't. It is actually just a matter of fact as the Noongars proved before a judge in the Federal Court against, it seems to be, all the odds. The Noongar people could show that after all this period of settlement, after all that has happened, and after all that has been done, they could prove that they still have a rule making society connecting them to this country, and that that was clear enough that it could be traced back to the pre-settlement society that they enjoyed is, I think, an extraordinary illustration of the strength of the human spirit. And so I acknowledge the Noongar as the owners of Perth, as they proved before a single judge in the Federal Court. I am sorry they had to go through such hoops to do it and I'm sorry that it is still under appeal and that the matter has not been settled. It is another example of our far too often relative churlishnessin dealing with these issues.
I do also draw your attention to the fact that in Alice Springs, where I do a lot of work, and in Darwin, where I visit but do less, in each case the recognition of traditional ownership has been a wonderful plus. The organisation I chair, Desert Knowledge Australia operates, or occupies, country under an Agreement with the traditional owners, under an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. They are our landlords, and they are engaged with us in our work. In Darwin, the last time I heard the Larrakia people speak, they talked of the tourism ventures they are doing, the housing developments and so on, all of which are enabled by the legal recognition of traditional ownership. And so I exult in that.
I am honoured too, to give this Edith Cowan lecture. I went to the Reserve Bank of Australia website to remind myself about her life. It is nice to think that this University's namesake is the only individual the history of whom is set out on the Reserve Bank website. That is, of course, because her face appears on the $50 note. I looked very carefully at her on a $50 note and thought I could collect art like that, so now I'm trying to amass an enormous collection of $50 notes, in the interests of Edith Cowan!!
But why was she put on the $50 note? It is really because she was the antithesis of disconnection. She was, of course, a pioneer in women's rights; she was the first woman, I think, to grace an Australian Parliament, something that she had helped to make legally possible. But when you actually look at the extraordinary range of her engagements, you realise that she was a standout member of civil society. She was on the North Fremantle Education Board; she served on the Women's Service Guild; she was part of the National Council of Women and helped to set it up; she was on the Ministering Children's League; she was in the Children's Protection Society; she served in the Children's Courts; she worked for the Red Cross; she sat on the Anglican Social Questions Committee; she sat on the Anglican Synod; and she was a contributing member of the Western Australian Historical Society. In a lecture addressing Australia's disconnections, as I said, her life was the antithesis of what I am talking about.
She was in fact a change agent. She was someone who joined up with a whole lot of other people in a lot of different contexts to change the things that she thought needed changing. She was very heavily engaged in social and political reform, and she did that at a time when Australia was seen as a pioneer in these areas of reform. We were seen as world leaders in both social and political reform. I think that its worth stopping and thinking about that, particularly at the Edith Cowan University which bears her name, and during the course of this lecture, because I don't think that Australia is now seen in those terms. I think that we do need to rediscover the extraordinary courage and energy and the capacity to join with others that Edith Cowan showed, to change the things that need changing and to ensure that we are equipped for tomorrow rather than harking back to yesterday.
I have recently been reading the "Audacity of Hope" which is one of the autobiographical works of Barack Obama. He talked about the widespread cynicism that he found about politics when he started to engage. He found cynicism about the very notion of public life. He said that, whilst he understood that, he said that there was another tradition in politics based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another. He goes on to express the opinion that if enough people believe in that, and act on that proposition, then we can get something meaningful done. And that's what Edith Cowan did and that's what I think we need to do in the areas that I would like to address.
I would like to encourage the joiners of today, and I hope there are some here tonight, to address two problems where I see a continuing failure to connect Australians as we should be connected; and that is in the idea of reconciliation between Indigenous Australians and non- Indigenous Australians, and the casting adrift of remote Australia. We respond only to its crises, instead of governing as if it was part of us. I think that is the common link between those two areas of concern - remote Australia and reconciliation. Although of course for the great majority of Aboriginal people, remoteness is not the point as the great majority of Aboriginal people live in Perth, and Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and so on. But the fact of the matter is that both reconciliation and non metropolitan Australia suffer from disconnection.
I can speak quite briefly I think about reconciliation. It means a lot of different things to different people. But fundamentally reconciliation is two streams which we need to consider. The two streams are relationships (and by relationships, I mean at every level) and the second is the circumstance of too many Aboriginal people which are totally unacceptable.
Relationships have to be thought about at many levels – there is the big national issue which the Government talks about a bit, and the Opposition talks about a bit, and ex WA Governor John Sanderson talks about, the issue of the relationship between the whole of Australia and its Indigenous nations. And at the same time, you have to think about the relationships in the classroom at school, the workplace, in the street and in the community. I think in all of those areas, we are underperforming. Aboriginal people still don’t know what ex Prime Minister John Howard really meant when he said Aboriginal people have a special place in Australia. We know that one of the special places is the recognition of Native Title, but what is the special place of Indigenous Australians? That is something that we have yet to sort out and deal with.
Then there is the issue of circumstances. Would anyone in this room deny that we have inadequately addressed the issues of education, of health, housing and employment? I don’t think that there is any sense anywhere in Australia that we have managed to address those issues effectively, efficiently and in the way that we might have wished. And yet we know so much from success and failure so far, we actually should know how to do those things. Certainly in education which is the central concern of this institution. There is so much knowledge now about what is required to admit Aboriginal people to the joys and privileges and much needed quality of good education – because good education is what is at the heart of the full enjoyment of what this country has to offer. I’ve often personalised this because I come from a family where both my parents taught – my Dad went on to do lots of different things – to fight in the War, to be a Lord Mayor, to be a Minister in the Government; but quintessentially I grew up in a family of two school teachers, and there were seven children. The lesson was so simple: we will leave you nothing but a good education. That good education has enabled all of us to have complete engagement with everything that this country has to offer. And too many Aboriginal people are denied that. And yet, there is so much evidence about what is required to enable them to acquire the education to which they are entitled.
I don’t want to speak in detail on that tonight, but what I want to say about reconciliation is that, it can’t be seen just as a matter of the emotions (although emotions are important, I think my own emotions drive my own engagement in this area). But on the issues of both settling the relationships and improving the circumstances of Indigenous people, there are many things to be done. After the great bridge walks at the end of the statutory life of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, they set up a little nine person non-Government organisation, Reconciliation Australia, to carry forward the notion of reconciliation across Australia, a large task for a small NGO. But we listened to what Aboriginal people said in the elation of 2000, (and I suspect that many people here walked across bridges too), and what Aboriginal people said to us at that time was,"This is wonderful, but when will things be different?"
Similarly Aboriginal people reacted with tremendous joy to the apology, the most magnificent single act, in my view, of the new government. The jury is out on whether will it be a good government or a bad government - we won’t know for a while. But one thing that Prime Minister Rudd did brilliantly well, was to craft an apology which meant something, and to support it in a speech that meant something. And I watched the response of so many Aboriginal people at that time and it was a wonderful occasion because it meant so much to them. But when will things be different?
Now in raising both these topics with you, I really want to leave you in both the areas I want to leave you with the idea that these are not matters just for academic contemplation, these are matters for action. What Reconciliation Australia would say to you is this: every part of Australian society has a role to play. Every part. We believe that by formalising your role in a Reconciliation Action Plan, we will be able to move this forward in both relationships and circumstances.
This is something which we’ve been working on now for some years and already there have been major responses. It's pretty amazing to wake up in the morning and turn on the ABC and to hear Ralph Norris, the head of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which is the largest bank in Australia, talking about the Bank’s Reconciliation Action Plan; about its obligations to Indigenous people; and its obligation to have a relationship as well as a service delivery task with Indigenous Australians; to hear him talk about employing Indigenous Australians and what the bank is doing. It is fantastic to sit down with Ahmed Fahour, the Australian manager of the National Bank, and to find that we are having a discussion, not about whether the National Bank should be employing Aboriginal people because they accept they should, but whether they’ve got the internal company culture to retain those employees. This is not new ground for people like Sam Walsh – Sam Walsh’s company has been involved in this for a decade. Sam Walsh's company actually led the charge in 1995 to swing the mining industry round to work with Indigenous people instead of working against them. And I will forever be grateful for the role that Leon Davis, the then Chief Executive, played in that time – a revolution in attitudes. The major mining companies are another sector of Australian society which has put its shoulder to the wheel and not just talked about reconciliation, but acted.
The critical thing about Reconciliation Action Plans is that they are not unilateral declarations of good intentions by well meaning people like you or me. A true Reconciliation Action Plan is something that is worked out with Indigenous stakeholders. It is about building relationships. It is about finding out what it is, in dialogue, that your contribution can be. I think Curtin University is the only University so far in Western Australia to have formalised a Reconciliation Action Plan. But I hope that this University and other Universities will follow that example. This University of course has a very proud tradition in education and in health, in working on Indigenous issues. I think it could further enrich its capacity to contribute to reconciliation, to contributing to both relationships and improved circumstances, by going through that process.
There is just one more thing I want to say about reconciliation. I regard myself as a patriotic Australian. This is a fantastic country. Again, I refer to my family. We enjoy the life that I think is typical of what is good about Australia. I particularly dislike about talking about reconciliation (and about Indigenous Affairs in front of foreign audiences) is that it sounds as though you are talking about a crook country. So I just want to say that I think this is a very successful, wonderful country which just happens to do this thing worst. This is the thing that we have least been able to do well. All of us would wish that it became one of the really fine and shining parts of Australia rather than something that embarrasses us in the international community and indeed, amongst each other.
Now, can I turn to the other matters which I wanted to deal with.
We not only separate our Indigenous people from our own lives and from our concerns and accept vast differences, but a further truth is that we also place geographic limits as well on the extension of the common good, because it doesn’t run in remote Australia. There is a failure to have structures for the government of remote Australia which truly treat it as being part of the country, and do that by servicing it and governing it effectively. This results in having a failed state within the Australian nation itself.
I have spent a lot of time in remote Australia, unfortunately usually as a visitor, one of the dreaded fly-in fly-out people who are regarded with scorn by those who are permanent residents. There is a sense of near abandonment of remote Australia in the people who live there. (26:08) The sense is, and I think it is an accurate perception, that the metropolitan based and focused governments – Commonwealth, State and Territory - don’t understand and don’t deal effectively with the issues that affect remote Australia.
Now what are we talking about? I want to put up a few slides – in the context of an effort by Desert Knowledge Australia to bring together thinking about these issues. Later on I’ll explain how I think they can be carried forward. I’m just going to very quickly show you a few maps.
This first one shows you the area for which I have some working responsibility through Desert Knowledge Australia and you’ll see that it’s 70% of Australia and it’s got 2.5% of the population.
The next map shows remote Australia and records that it is 85% of the country and 4.5% of the population.
That’s where the people of Australia live and you can see that in remote Australia the population is sparse, it’s patchy, and I think you’d all understand that it’s pretty mobile, and in particular, non-Aboriginal people are mobile. They come, they go. Very few people are permanent residents. There is of course a high concentration of Indigenous communities and without them, as John Sanderson put it, we would genuinely have a terra nullius. Take the Aboriginal people out of remote Australia and except where there are mines, you wouldn’t have very much left. The next map simply touches on what our vision is of how remote Australia might be, which is a place which is actively networked, and not the subject of tonight’s discussion, but we are working on those networks in tourism, in bush foods, in mining services and in sustainable housing. But all of that is just to put into your mind that those of us who hug the coastal fringe are a very long way from those remote areas.
Last week, in Melbourne and Alice Springs, Desert Knowledge Australia launched the REMOTE FOCUS campaign. We are a statutory corporation in the Northern Territory and I’m not sure that the Northern Territory Government thinks it is a good idea that we should be criticising the structures of government. But we’re not criticising governments, we are saying that the structure of government, whether it is Labor or Liberal, or National Party, or State, or Federal, it is simply inadequate to the task. We believe that we have got to re-examine the structural inadequacies of how we govern away from great Metropolitan centres.
I want to put the case to you that remote Australia is an important part of the country and a very great asset. Why? Again quite quickly, economically it is where the wealth is produced, the tradable wealth. It is not where the greatest part of our Gross Domestic Product is produced, but what we can sell overseas comes in great bulk from remote Australia. Environmentally of course it is the great bulk of our land mass by definition, and it is of immense importance to us both in terms of water in the north, in terms of the sustainability of species, in terms of a whole lot of environmental issues. It is potentially very important in land management with respect to the greenhouse, because the fires which ravage that area, if managed properly, can lead to very considerable greenhouse gas abatement. Culturally, it is terribly important to the country. The mythology of the Australian is linked much more to the mythology of the outback than to the mythology of Perth. In terms of culture, Aboriginal culture is one of the extraordinary things that we have as a country to offer the world. Aboriginal Art is the only art movement which is internationally acknowledged. Strategically, if you think about those maps of Australia and you think about where the centre of world power is now, moving to China, to India, to our quarter of a billion people or more, just to our north-west coast, you suddenly realise that remote Australia is close to where the action is. Again if I can use the words of John Sanderson, do we really want those countries to be looking down on a new terra nullius? The 28 people we brought together in part in April assert that the governance of remote Australia is in fact an area of crisis. You can look at that again within all of these areas.
Culturally – you get people influential people saying we should close the cultural ghettos, we should get people out of remote Australia and put them somewhere else. The intervention in the Northern Territory is a reminder that the normal functioning of government was not occurring, that you had to take emergency measures not very different from the emergency measures we took in the Solomon Islands. There is a loss of cultures and languages going on – we see that as something of a crisis. There are dysfunctional communities, there are labour shortages, and again the miners in the Pilbara engage in fly-in fly-out because there really is not a framework for development in the Pilbara which enables you to have a substantial stable local population providing your labour needs.
It is clear that there are quite inadequate facilities, and if you go to a place like the Pilbara, you’ll find the same sort of complaints as you will find in remote Indigenous communities about the standard of facilities. Whether you are looking at health or education, it doesn’t matter what area of service provision you are looking at, it is quite clear there are serious inadequacies. Much of this area actually meets the criteria which are internationally accepted, for being classified as a failed State. The criteria are violence, poverty, inability to deliver services in a comprehensive way, and a sense amongst those who are governed that government is not appropriate to them.
They are the four elements which are identified internationally as the hallmarks of a failed State, and we would say that, in this fantastic, rich, prosperous and successful country, that is what we have descended to in remote Australia.
I want to make clear that we acknowledge the good faith of governments, we acknowledge the good faith of public servants and politicians who from time to time give these areas their attention. But is it only from time to time. And the nature of the attention is in itself a demonstration that the normal processes of government do not work. Why did you need, in 1992, the governments of Australia to come together and say we are not effective in administering communities through these areas so we’re going to have a new statement of commitment of State and Federal governments that we are going to coordinate our services, we will fully deliver services, to all Australians and then find the same commitments being made in 1994. And then to find in the last 4 years, the Federal government saying we need to have Council of Australian Governments trials across selected regions because we know government is not working effectively. And a series of trials which involve heads of Commonwealth departments, which involve state and Commonwealth collaboration, which involve bringing heads of Commonwealth departments to remote areas to assume responsibility for ensuring that government departments will deliver to these areas – to what effect? Those trials have not worked. The person who led those trials, the person who was one of the key architects of them, Professor Peter Shergold, is one of the signatories to our prospectus, the remote FOCUS prospectus.
He, who I think, more than any other public servant, has tried to address the issue of making the existing system of government work in remote Australia. He has joined with us in saying that it is not working.
Now why isn’t it working? I don’t know if you have spent much time in remote Australia, but I can assure you that from the perspective of anyone who lives there, your dealings with government are incoherent. It doesn’t matter whether it is a black community or a white community, or as is so often the case, a mixed community, the fact of the matter is that the government is intermittent in its attention, its policies are crafted for areas other than you, they are meant to be applied equally across Australia but they are essentially delivered by remote control by fly-in fly-out operatives and there are constant changes of both personnel and policy.
At Reconciliation Australia, we have participated in research on the governance of Indigenous communities. we have been following the example of the Harvard Project in the United States, and working on the issue that success in Indigenous communities certainly involves careful attention to having successful Indigenous governance.
But what the research shows up very clearly is that a big problem for those communities is that government itself does not function effectively. It is beautifully captured by way of anecdote, when a thoughtful public servant like Dr Ken Henry, the head of Commonwealth Treasury, the person who has been entrusted with the whole review of our taxation system and much more, visits a small Aboriginal community, sees a huge pile of cartons in the corner of the office, he says, “What’s that?” and is told that they are the forms that relate to the large number of programs that we receive funds under – and we have to acquit all of those, and there is a vast administrative burden so most of our time is taken up meeting the administrative requirements of all of these programs. That is the simple reality.
Let me give you two other quick anecdotal examples. You don’t read much in the newspaper about the Ngaanyatjarra lands – the constellation of communities around Warburton. You don’t read much about it in the paper – perhaps occasionally that someone has died of thirst, that there has been somebody who has broken down in a vehicle, they haven’t been rescued in time and they have died of thirst. Why don’t you read about it? Well you don’t read about it because it works pretty well. You’ve got an operating polity in the Narinjara lands which works.
Two months ago, I got a phone call from the Ngaanyatjarra lands, “We’ve got a bit of a problem”, “What’s your problem?”, “Well our administrative funding has completely disappeared. We’ve been granted funds to do a whole lot of programs, but the basic funding for this organisation has simply disappeared.” I pursued that all the way up to the Minister’s office, and was told that everything was OK. The public servants, I was told, assure us that it’s OK. Well, it wasn’t OK. The funds had simply been lost in the transfer of responsibilities between departments. An organisation that has been operating successfully for 20 years, trouble-free motoring, suddenly found itself in a position where it could not pay its staff. Now that is simply, again, typical of how government actually delivers in these areas.
I will give you one other desert example. I’m on a board of a representative body under the Native Title Act, which again has had trouble-free motoring for 10 years. Unlike other representative bodies, it has delivered Native Title outcomes, year by year, on a steady schedule. This year the funding available, because of the way the Commonwealth bureaucracy works, would enable it to keep its staff on, as long as they didn’t do any work. In other words, there is simply an inadequate provision to enable the normal field work which is essential to carry its program forward to happen. And to follow that back up to the level of the relevant Minister’s office, to be told that, ‘I don’t think there is much we can do about this”. Now this is not the result of malice. This is because public service is structured in a certain way to guarantee equality of delivery across the Australian people; money is appropriated by Parliament, it can only be spent according to the appropriation, public servants are responsible back to headquarters to deliver in accordance with the Parliamentary appropriation and so on. The system works reasonably well in the city, but it does not work at all in remote Australia.
In remote Australia, people have no real control over the decisions which are made which affect their lives. There is no clearer way to encourage irresponsibility in a community than by depriving it of the capacity to affect the decisions which turn affect it. On the financial side, we have extraordinarily efficient elements of the Australian system, long-lived elements like the Commonwealth Grants Commission, which look carefully at the way that money should be distributed in this country to guarantee a capacity to deliver an equality of social outcomes across states. States like Western Australia, Territories like the Northern territory, get substantial allocations of funds on the basis of the disadvantage they suffer from remoteness and a high proportion of Aboriginal people. Those funds are provided to the States and to the Northern Territory and there is no requirement that it be spent to deal with the problems of remoteness or Aboriginality. As a result, you will find a flourishing town in Darwin, with splendid facilities, and not much at all in Yuendumu.
So, what I think it is important to understand is that there are some real structural issues here. This is not about the malice of public servants or politicians, but simply the tyranny of distance and a lack of understanding. We have to find new ways to organise government, whether it is in the Pilbara, or Alice Springs or Yuendumu, or Western Queensland, or Western New South Wales or Northern South Australia.
We at Remote Focus, we at Desert Australia, don’t believe that we’ve got all the answers, but we do know that the answers lie in looking as fiscal federalism, whatever that might bring about, and looking at how do you get a proper control in regional areas over the decisions which determine whether those regional areas can function well or not. The fact that the industries in the Pilbara have to establish informal structures with government to try to make things work in the Pilbara is another proof that the status quo is simply not adequate at the task.
We want a substantial national dialogue on this. We want, within the next 12 months, to ensure that the voices of remote Australia are clearly heard across this country. We want to make sure that the rest of the country engages with this problem. We want, within 12 months, to have real propositions about how government can be structured to work in remote Australia. I am one of the many Australians who has worked on bits and pieces of the problem. My own focus has principally been in the field on Indigenous affairs. But over the years I’ve been involved with isolated students; I’ve been involved with the social security issues in remote Australia; I’ve been involved with environmental and other issues in remote Australia; and I know that the well meaning efforts of me and other people have been ineffective and far less productive than we would have hoped. There has to be a better way.
Now I’ve got to finish by quickly saying that there are two models that I think give us a clue about the way ahead. One is the capacity of mining companies to actually work on local problems in a way which produces results. I think that in the Pilbara, there is no doubt that the major companies in the Pilbara have been much more successful in dealing with issues of education and employment than the government has been able to be. Now why would that be? That would be because there is within the industry a capacity to make decisions locally, and to use and find resources locally. I think that the model of ensuring that there is local control of both resources and decision making has been demonstrated to work in that context.
I would hope that, those of you who are joiners, those of you who would wish to emulate Edith Cowan, will go to the website and look at this, and tell us whether you agree that there is a crisis in remote Australia. Tell us whether you think that just doing more of the same will make a difference or whether it is time we made more fundamental changes to government structure in remote Australia. Clearly, I’m convinced it is the latter and I hope that people like this audience will be able to come forward with useful suggestions about how that restructuring can ensure we treat remote Australia as a genuine and valued part of this country.