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Cooper, David --- "Shared Responsibility Agreements: Whitewashing Indigenous Service Delivery" [2005] IndigLawB 61; (2005) 6(15) Indigenous Law Bulletin 6

Shared Responsibility Agreements: Whitewashing Indigenous Service Delivery

by Dr David Cooper

Almost ten years in power has confirmed the Howard Government as one of ideology over policy and spin over substance. This is nowhere more apparent than in the Indigenous affairs portfolio and the policy of shared responsibility agreements (‘SRA’s), the centrepiece of the Government’s ‘mainstreaming’ of Indigenous affairs.

Just over one year ago, the first publicly announced SRA - with the remote community of Mulan - introduced the concept of Indigenous communities having to agree to behavioural change contracts in order to access government funding, including funding for basic citizenship services and entitlements. In the Mulan case this was a petrol bowser and health checks from the Government in return for hygiene measures including face washing and emptying rubbish bins. Initial concern over the Mulan agreement centred on its racially discriminatory and demeaning nature, reminiscent of the paternalistic approaches of the past.

One year on, these concerns have been augmented by growing evidence of the inherent unworkability of SRAs which the Government continues to try to paper over with heroic commentary about a ‘new conversation’ with Indigenous Australia and a ‘quiet revolution’ in Indigenous affairs.

Tackling disadvantage

While portrayed by the Government as the centrepiece of its ‘new arrangements’, SRAs account for only about one per cent of Federal Indigenous expenditure ($30 million in the 2005-06 Budget). How can fiddling with one per cent of Indigenous funding make any real impact, particularly on Indigenous disadvantage?

Closer inspection of the numbers raises only further concerns. After just over a year, a total of 121 SRAs have been signed with 86 Indigenous communities. Impressive you may think. That is, until you realise that at that rate it will take well over a decade to sign at least one agreement with each of the nearly 1300 Indigenous communities in Australia. Moreover, the average amount of each SRA is only a tiny fraction of each community’s annual budget and overall needs. SRA funding is a mere drop in an ocean of Indigenous need.

As presently formulated, SRAs cannot possibly make a significant impact on Indigenous disadvantage. However, by focusing public debate on SRAs, the Government evades scrutiny over the other 99 per cent of Indigenous funding and diverts attention from its own failure to make an impact on Indigenous disadvantage after nearly a decade of its much vaunted ‘practical reconciliation’ policies.

Listening to the locals

Scrutiny of another of the Government’s primary public justifications for SRAs – listening to local communities – reveals other significant concerns about the Government’s motives.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Vanstone explained the need to listen directly to local communities and families so that ‘our funding hits the mark’. According to the Minister:

We can only do this by listening directly to local communities and families. We cannot rely on the intermediaries to do the job for us.[1]

Elsewhere she gives an indication of who she means by ‘intermediaries’:

Aboriginal people do not require ATSIC, or consultants or people with clipboards to speak on their behalf.

ATSIC, (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission), the Minister maintained,

was a Western construct which allowed governments to satisfy themselves that they were consulting Indigenous people and meeting their needs.[2]

Previously, Indigenous communities and a range of Indigenous service organisations interfaced with ATSIC Regional Councils, providing a largely Indigenous-controlled consultation and governance structure for setting local and regional priorities. This structure provided significant Indigenous participation in and control of policy development and service delivery, notwithstanding that most Indigenous services were delivered not by ATSIC, but by mainstream agencies. This role has been taken over by a new ‘Western construct’ – the unelected, bureaucrat-driven Indigenous Coordination Centres (‘ICC’s) which are the Government’s mainstream agency one-stop-shops. It seems the clipboard has a secure future in Indigenous affairs after all.

The switch from ATSIC to ICCs has resulted in a significant reduction in Indigenous participation and control in policy and service delivery as well as the loss of precious expertise and experience gained over many years. Indigenous participation in the Australian Public Service has declined significantly for the past three years, escalating a 10-year downward trend under the Howard Government.[3]

We are witnessing the whitewashing of Indigenous service delivery. With ATSIC and its Regional Councils gone, the SRA framework of direct engagement between communities and the new bureaucrat-driven ICCs acts to neutralise or minimise ‘interference’ from Indigenous organisations and other troublesome ‘intermediaries’. This structure also allows the Government to claim to be listening directly to the very constituency the Government accused ATSIC of failing to represent – local Indigenous communities.

Leaving aside the wisdom of sidelining those most skilled and experienced in dealing with Indigenous communities, the question begs: why does the Government’s commitment to ‘listen to local communities’ extend only to the one per cent of funding allocated to SRAs, but not the other 99 per cent? Doesn’t this suggest that ‘listening to the locals’ is merely an excuse for sidelining the ‘intermediaries’? And why were Indigenous people locked out of the decision-making process which developed the ‘new arrangements’?

Real motivations

The primary motivation and foundation for the government’s ‘new arrangements’ was the abolishing of ATSIC and with it independent Indigenous representation and aspirations for self-determination. John Howard has long opposed the Indigenous rights agenda and the development of a range of Indigenous-controlled organisations which he sees as promoting ‘separatism’ and values in conflict with the mainstream. Abolishing ATSIC also removed a vocal critic of government performance and a body

able to maintain a focus on the rights agenda in a period where Federal Government policy has been one of ‘practical reconciliation’.[4]

The Government’s public trial and execution of ATSIC involved misinformation about the extent of its responsibilities and unsubstantiated allegations of failure, waste, inefficiency, corruption and ignoring the needs and wishes of grass roots communities. Significantly, the government provided no evidence of ATSIC’s failures, nor any evidence as to why its abolishment was necessary in order to improve the performance of mainstream departments and agencies which have always provided the majority of service delivery to Indigenous communities. In fact it ignored strong evidence and recommendations to the contrary contained in numerous reports as well as the government’s own review of ATSIC.[5]

Such was the force of the attack that ATSIC’s loss of credibility was almost absolute and its many successes and achievements have been overlooked and thrown out with the bathwater. Nothing was spared, at least publicly.

There are additional advantages in dealing directly with communities for the Government’s ‘below-the-waterline’ agenda. Communities are relatively powerless and vulnerable and unable to challenge the Government as ATSIC did. They are so starved of services, infrastructure and expertise that they are easy to interest or pressure to agree to SRAs and are unlikely to complain or resist for fear of repercussion.

This power mismatch is particularly concerning with respect to process issues. A recent research paper on SRAs by Ruth McCausland notes the

complex issues raised by governments saying they are signing SRAs with ‘communities’ without clear representative structures or processes.

In addition, SRA funding must be provided to incorporated bodies, questioning the veracity of the government’s claim to be signing agreements with ‘communities, families or clans’.[6]

McCausland’s paper raises significant questions about whether the Government’s approach

is genuinely about improving the health and welfare of Indigenous people through community-driven negotiations that respond to local priorities, or about imposing a top-down framework to prove an ideological point.[7]

A further advantage to the government is that the community level provides a micro scale that is distanced from ‘headline indicators’ and national statistics, yet significant enough to provide public relations mileage out of the success of relatively minor projects. It is much easier to achieve and get credit for a positive outcome in a single community as against the huge task of achieving the same level of outcome on a national scale.

Perhaps the best sense of why SRAs have been portrayed as the centrepiece of Government policy can be gained from the upbeat but detail-lacking fact sheets on SRAs already completed. They represent a media drip-feed of positive examples of the government addressing ‘real’ needs of communities without distracting information on the status and lack of progress on addressing problems on a national scale.

Bad policy

Behind the dubious motives and glossy fact sheets is little in the way of policy substance. By their very nature, these agreements are ad hoc, lacking proper evidence-based research and other essential elements to enable scarce resources to be matched to need. The government fails to provide

relevant detail of the actual agreements, including any specific objectives, performance indicators, benchmarks, any existing baseline data or community identified priorities, or dispute resolution, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.[8]

The negotiation of single SRAs raises significant workability issues, not least that many SRAs would be required to address the multiple and complex challenges for individual communities. Apply this across the nearly 1300 Indigenous communities across the country and it is apparent that tens of thousands of SRAs would be required. This would create an administrative and planning headache of enormous proportions.

Even at this early stage such problems are apparent. The Chair of NSW’s Murdi Paaki Regional Council, Sam Jeffries, recently commented on the excessive time being spent negotiating separate, individual SRAs: ‘[SRAs] have become the centrepiece, rather than actually doing something about the issues’.[9] And of course this doesn’t take account of the many (in fact, majority of) communities that are missing out entirely on the opportunity for funding under SRAs because of the lack of capacity to roll out the agreements any faster. Such communities are unfairly disadvantaged.

Of those able to access such funding, the fact that SRAs are not legally enforceable places all of the power with the Government and very little in the hands of communities. The Government can drag its heels or renege on funding if it chooses. For example, Murdi Paaki has not received any of the 200 air conditioners promised by the Government in an SRA signed two and a half years ago.[10] Meanwhile, one year on the Mulan community still hasn’t seen its famous petrol bowser.

No sanctions are available to communities who feel let down by the Government. There is no mechanism to independently scrutinise whether the Government is meeting its responsibilities and compel it to act. As a result, the frustrations experienced by Murdi Paaki and the community of Mulan are bound to be repeated all over Australia.

What is most offensive about SRAs to Indigenous people is that they are racially discriminatory and patronising. They make funding conditional on behavioural change and other commitments which are not required from non-Indigenous communities.

SRAs also reinforce negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people. By implying a need for measures by the Government to force Indigenous communities and families to act responsibly, they conceal Indigenous initiative and success in taking responsibility for community problems. Instead, the Government claims the credit. For example, when the Mulan SRA became public, the Government neglected to mention that the community had already cut trachoma rates from 80 to 16 per cent as a result of its own initiative. It had been running the face washing program for 18 months. This detail was conveniently overlooked by the Federal Education, Science and Training Minister, Brendan Nelson, who proclaimed:

Six months after the government enduring accusations of paternalism, the results [in Mulan] are mind blowing. Trachoma which afflicted 70% of children is now undetectable. Fred Hollows would be impressed.[11]

However, it isn’t all going the government’s way. Having developed policy through ideology rather than evidence, the Government is now stuck with the result. Over time the failures of the Government’s approach will become more and more apparent. Indigenous disadvantage continues to languish, as report after report reveals.[12] Flaws in the ‘new arrangements’ will require ever larger lies to conceal.

A year down the track, Minister Vanstone’s program of SRAs has shown itself incapable of making significant impact on Indigenous disadvantage. Instead SRAs are merely window-dressing designed to hide the Government’s woeful record in Indigenous affairs and its unwillingness to put in the resources needed to turn this situation around.

Regardless of whether over time the ‘new arrangements’ deliver improved outcomes in tackling Indigenous disadvantage, the Government has already achieved its primary objectives of abolishing ATSIC and stifling prospects for Indigenous self-determination.

Dr David Cooper is the National Director of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (‘ANTaR’).

[1] Senator Amanda Vanstone, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, ‘Opening Address’ (Speech delivered at the opening of the Bennelong Conference, Sydney, 4 September 2004) 4 at <> at 13 December 2005.

[2] Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone, ‘Helping Aborigines to Help Themselves’, The Canberra Times (Canberra), 23 August 2005, 15.

[3] Commonwealth, Australian Public Service, ‘State of the Service Report 2004-05’, 197, <> at 13 December 2005.

[4] Larissa Behrendt, ‘The Abolition of ATSIC – Implications for Democracy’, Democratic Audit of Australia, <> at 13 December 2005.

[5] Report of the Review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ‘In the Hands of the Regions: A New ATSIC’, (2003),> at 13 December 2005; Commonwealth, Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, ‘After ATSIC: Life in the Mainstream?’, (2005), <> at 13 December 2005; Commonwealth Grants Commission, ‘Report on Indigenous Funding, 2001’ (2001) <> at 13 December 2005.

[6] Ruth McCausland, ‘Shared Responsibility Agreements: Progress to Date’, (2005), <> at 13 December 2005.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘“Mutual” MIA in Govt’s MO’, National Indigenous Times (Canberra), 10 November 2005, 8.

[10] Ibid

[11] Brendan Nelson, ’Agreements Proving Effective’ (Press Release, 13 April 2005), < & ID=325> at 13 December 2005. Another article rejected accusations that the agreement was patronising, commenting: ‘About 45 children in the remote settlement of Mulan ... are obliged to shower and wash their faces twice daily under an agreement with the Federal Government. In return, the Government is paying for a fuel bowser and storage tanks worth $172,000. ... [T]rachoma symptoms have been eliminated in the community since face-washing has become part of the daily routine.’ Alan Mascarenhas, ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 May 2005, 7.

[12] Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report: Key Indicators 2005’ (2005).

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