Indigenous Australians aren’t the issue

Why reinvent the wheel when it comes to Indigenous affairs?

Simon Jovanovic, George Denny-Smith

Politics | Asia, Australia

11 July 2019

Australia’s policymakers must address the cultural and institutional barriers that exist for Indigenous Australians instead of framing them as a problem for society, Simon Jovanovic and George Denny-Smith write.

It’s NAIDOC week and we’re supposed to be celebrating the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Instead, we frame Indigenous Australians as being deficient, while emphasising the need for new policy partnerships between Indigenous peoples and governments.

Let’s examine recent Indigenous policy in Australia to illustrate this.

In March, the Australian federal government announced the new Closing the Gap Partnership Agreement with states, territories, and the National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations.

The announcement commits to working collaboratively – in genuine, formal partnership – with Indigenous people as ‘essential agents of change’ to deliver real outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

During the recent election campaign, the Liberal Party also introduced their plan to support Indigenous Australians with the announcement of a refresh of the Closing the Gap (CTG) targets ‘in partnership with Indigenous Australians for the first time’.

But why is this the first partnership and why are we always seeking to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Indigenous affairs? This is just the most recent example of a new initiative in the relationship between the government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The current Indigenous Advancement Strategy targets improved results for Indigenous Australians by fostering business opportunities and providing the right conditions and incentives for people to participate in the economy and broader society.

Previously, the Indigenous Economic Development Strategy aimed to encourage personal responsibility to increase employment in communities, as well as building new understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

These examples were driven by the CTG framework – a scheme that highlights the statistical differences in health and wellbeing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It has had the greatest influence on Indigenous policy since being introduced in 2008.

Other policies such as the Commonwealth Indigenous Procurement Policy (CIPP) and the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy seek to close economic and employment gaps using targets aimed at achieving a parity of three per cent participation.

These policies target the deficits of employment outcomes amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Known as a ‘deficit discourse’, this policy language can be significantly disempowering. It’s influenced by negative race-based stereotypes that portray Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as being dysfunctional.

The deficit discourse reflects the different philosophies and values between Indigenous peoples and policymakers in Australia. The result is neoliberal Indigenous policy that seeks to integrate people into the mainstream economy through notions of individual responsibility and capacity.

These notions blame Indigenous peoples for the lack of progress, without acknowledging the cultural and institutional barriers that could prevent real change being realised. This interpretation, in turn, can be misused to restrict the rights of Indigenous peoples through interventions and stricter controls over their lives.

Such framing of Indigenous peoples – as a problem – is also evident in numerous policies currently in operation.

The CIPP guidelines are one such example. They are meant to support the Commonwealth Government’s commitment to creating opportunities for Indigenous businesses to grow and employ more Indigenous people.

The policy, however, is based on several assumptions. It implies that Indigenous adults are not able to be employed and that they do not have financial independence. It also infers that they do not have control over their lives, and that they are unable to provide for their families’ future. It generalises and places all Indigenous Australians under a deficit category of people in Australia.

Would we make these assumptions about other groups of people in Australia and place them into the same kind of category? Such examples reinforce and strengthen the role of Australian governments in intervening and controlling the Indigenous business sector.

The CTG priority area of economic development also commits the Australian government to eliminating the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Much like the others, however, it highlights and categorises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth as not being engaged or involved in employment and education. It assumes that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce is a weak and disengaged group of people in the labour market.

This kind of framing also means Indigenous Australians are portrayed through a homogenous, stereotyped representation.

The above examples paint a picture of Indigenous Australians who lack capacity, which legitimises further intervention in their lives. A new approach is required where policy builds on the strengths of Indigenous Australians and changes prevalent policy attitudes.

If Australia is to promote and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture this NAIDOC week, it must encourage policy that acknowledges the historical, political, cultural, and social factors that influence the engagement of Indigenous peoples.

But most importantly, the country must stop labelling Indigenous Australians as the problem in policy discussions.

This article was published in collaboration with Policy Forum.

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