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Black is the new black

By Peter Shmigel - posted Tuesday, 26 November 2013

As an Aboriginal colleague says: black is becoming the new black of Australian politics.

If recent events are an indicator, indigenous affairs are moving into the mainstream of our political life. And while this holds renewed promise for the advancement of indigenous Australia, it is also not without risks to that goal.

It's only by switching off "auto pilot" policy-making – and working with new and pragmatic indigenous leadership - can indigenous and non-indigenous Australia arrive at a better location.


To recap developments of last week alone:

  • The current Prime Minister, building on his profound commitment to indigenous advancement, used the first Parliamentary Sitting Day of his administration to express support for a future indigenous Prime Minister;
  • The high-achieving Australian and proud indigenous woman Nova Peris took her seat for the ALP in the Senate, only one generation after her mother was removed from her traditional land and placed in a mission;
  • The former President of the ALP, and now indigenous adviser to the Coalition Government, Warren Mundine, was scheduled to speak to Liberal Party organs;
  • Noel Pearson, Australia's greatest living social reformer, and someone wrongly associated by some commentators with conservative politics, addressed the Left-leaning Gough Whitlam Institute, and
  • On announcing his resignation, the former Prime Minister cited the Stolen Generation apology as among his greatest accomplishments.

Not long ago, but one of the above events would have been symbolic and remarkable. This past week, they competed for column inches in our media.

In politics and policy reform, momentum matters. Latching on to a trend, be it a trend in public opinion, trend in the respective Party Room, or trend in the evidence, is always much easier than trying to pop latches.

So, the prospect in the upcoming period of meaningful reform of indigenous employment and education policy is high – as foretold by the comprehensive and laudable suite of election commitments made by the Coalition.

Thankfully, the shared view – both among key Coalition Government figures and many quarters of the highly diverse indigenous community – appears to be that conventional policy and programs aren't working and need changing.


This is no wonder when, on the one hand, there are plentiful examples like the western NSW town with some 50 indigenous providers for less than 600 people.

On the other hand, research by Crosby|Textor (and no doubt others) shows strong community support for indigenous advancement, particularly because many Australians see this land's indigenous heritage as central to our unique identity in the world.

With the wind perhaps at our backs, the main risk to real reform is now one of failing to run out the main sail. Undue risk management is the risk itself. Here's how.

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About the Author

Pete Shmigel is a consultant with Crosby|Textor, an international research and strategic communications firm. He was formerly Chief of Staff to three serving NSW Cabinet Ministers, including the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, as well as CEO of industry associations in the sustainability sector.

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