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Labor complacent as Indigenous gap widens

By Jack Waterford - posted Friday, 21 May 2010

“But it doesn't really feel like a Labor budget,” complained one old-timer at what felt like one of the most boring Federal Budgets we have had for years.

There is, however, a complete riposte to that. It is to be found on page 27 of the separate budget paper, authored by Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin. It tells what she and her 4,300-strong department are doing with taxpayers' money to “close the gap” between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. “In the Northern Territory,” it says, “at the end of April 2010 the construction of over 80 new houses was underway, with seven completed”.

Seven houses - that's not bad for three and a half years work and expenditure in the hundreds of millions. At that rate the gap will be closed in about 7,000 years. It's good to see Labor on the job. A paragraph later, Macklin remarks that a recent review of the program had shown that everything was on track. This is a measure of her complacency about the worsening disaster over which she presides.


Macklin and the department frequently redefine what they are pretending to be doing, or use weasel words and vagueness. The Minister adopts anecdotal reassurances to contradict evidence.

This time 10 months ago, for example, a number of newspapers, led by The Australian, were insisting that tens of millions had been squandered on planning to build houses, on talking about building houses, on consulting about building houses and liaising with each other about it. No actual houses, as such, had been built. This was hotly denied by the Minister and the department, who used houses completed under other programs, redefinitions, hopes, expectations, plans, targets, timetables, anecdotes and blah, to insist that all was well.

Delay occasioned by resistance to FOI requests, based on a failure to follow current instructions, made it even harder to find the facts, as did the ultimate production of documents which, if amounting to the department and Minister's sum of knowledge on the matter, might account for her confusion.

At that stage, one might have said that nothing had been finished, but much was on the way. A year later, we learn that “much” is not much.

Macklin remarks that the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program will deliver 750 new houses by 2013. It is supposed to effectively demolish and rebuild another 230 and do extensive refurbishments to 2,500 others. Two construction companies, known as alliances, are then to show the recipients how a clever government agency can organise things. About one in every three people on the gravy train is black, and by my guess, these people would get about 10 per cent of the bonanza provided, via the department's management processes, to the alliance.

From time to time, COAG, or the Federal Government, will talk about the money spent as though the supposed recipients received it personally, and personally wasted it. At last guess, the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program was budgeting about $800,000 per ramshackle and environmentally unsuitable dwelling worth, were it at Forbes in NSW, or Echuca in Victoria, about $100,000.


In fairness the Minister goes on to say that on top of the seven new houses built, and the 73 under way, there have been 180 rebuilds or refurbishments completed with 110 under way. Even with these added, there is no effective progress; the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory, and the number of Aboriginal families, is increasing annually at many times the house-building achievement. The gap is widening.

This may also be so in relation to other closing-the-gap exercises, whether in getting Aboriginal children to school or in improving health profiles. But it is difficult to make a judgment, given that the Minister's approach to making a report to the people is by cutting and pasting material about education and health generally onto old press statements containing hopeful Indigenous-specific statements.

These are generally input-focused with nothing about outputs or outcomes. Perhaps that's because there are problems with statistics - even the Coordinator-General for Remote Indigenous Services is using false statistics - but that, at least, is a problem Macklin seems able to understand. She speaks proudly of allocating another $40 million or so to white folk so as to get better statistics on black folk.

Meanwhile, on the ground, words are being used to close the gaps. Here is some language from a recent poster summoning largely illiterate folk for consultations with the latest flock of white folk sent to save them:

The Yuendumu RSD Local Reference Group will (with the support of Government) guide the development of the Yuendumu Local Implementation Plan (LIP). The Local Implementation Plan is the roadmap to get from where services and infrastructure are now to where they need to be in Yuendumu. Governments and local people need to make this plan together and then stick to it. The Yuendumu RSD Reference Group will guide the development of the Yuendumu Local Implementation Plan.

With things so hunky dory, who needs a specific focus on Labor interests or concerns in a Federal Budget?

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First published in on May 18, 2010.

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About the Author

Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large of the Canberra Times.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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