Bill Shorten's critique of the government's indigenous policy is disappointing and misguided.
Last week, in The Australian, he criticised the government for its budget savings of 4.5 per cent in indigenous specific programs. "A brutal and heartless cut", the Opposition Leader wrote, that was putting "hard-won progress in recent years in jeopardy".
The attack was disappointing because indigenous affairs is traditionally an area that has been removed from such sharp partisan attacks. More serious for practical policy is the assumption that underpins Shorten's approach: that more money is the answer to indigenous disadvantage. If this were the case, we would have closed the gap years ago.
During the past decade, funding on indigenous affairs has increased by 80 per cent in real terms. Average government expenditure is $44,000 per indigenous person, according to the Productivity Commission, but it is likely to be twice this figure in remote areas.
In practice, this funding represents a proliferation of programs in indigenous communities that is now bordering on the ridiculous.
Last year an Auditor-General's report found that a typical indigenous community is serviced by one government program for every five members. Wilcannia in western NSW, for example, has 102 funded activities from 18 state and federal agencies, with a further 17 activities proposed. The indigenous population is 474.
There is a whirlwind of activity and government service providers driving or flying in and out of communities, but the social and economic indicators stay the same year after year.
The government is amalgamating the plethora of programs to have a sharper focus at a local level. This started by shifting the indigenous-specific programs from eight government departments into one department - the Prime Minister's. Then, in the budget, we reduced 150 programs into five broad, flexible ones.
Finally, we will devolve decision making so that initiatives can be tailored at the local level and there can be greater indigenous empowerment. Naturally, savings can be made in making these amalgamations.
Shorten was particularly concerned about operational funding of 38 childcare centres. But he failed to mention that Labor, which built the centres, did not provide for ongoing funding, believing that the federal role was to provide for capital, not ongoing costs. As well as simplifying programs, we are sharply focusing our efforts on school attendance and indigenous employment.
Our approach is based on the principle that getting people educated and working is often the best way of assisting. Our indigenous truancy officers have achieved significant improvements in attendance across most of the remote schools where they are operating.
In employment, our focus is on getting as many people into real jobs, including by offering incentives for mobility as required.
This is not to say that services are not important. Significant social problems remain in societies with high school attendance and employment. But where children are at school and adults at work, social dysfunction tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
Hard work and reciprocity has been part of indigenous life for 50,000 years. It is only in the past 40 years with the advent of the welfare culture that it has been lost as a foundation for communities.
If Shorten and Labor are serious, they should think about the revelation in the Finance Department's review of indigenous expenditure (provided to the Labor government in 2010) that $3.5 billion of government expenditure annually has achieved "dismally poor returns", and ask themselves why they advocate a continuation of the same kind of policies.
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