Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stolen Wages outcome illuminates deeper issues

In politics they say no matter how hard you try, you will never please all of the people all of the time. Arguably, that axiom applies to no portfolio quite as much as it does to that of Indigenous Affairs. The truth is that at times that Minister's job is just plain impossible.

As a political issue, the problems are so messy and complex they aren’t easy to even define, let alone fix. Everybody seems to be an expert and despite the fact that the State Government spends around $2 billion each year on trying to help WA’s 76,000 aboriginal people, more than half of those experts think the solution is more money for programs and infrastructure.

Many people with European heritage claim to understand the issues, but the best I can honestly do is offer a pretty simplistic observation. Evidently the pain of watching their ancient culture being eroded away is very personal and very raw for many of today’s aboriginal Australians. I’m really not sure how I would feel in the same situation, but I guess I would teeter somewhere between confusion and anger. If I had to live with emotions like those bubbling away inside, I’m sure I would struggle to excel at anything and ultimately probably not live very long.

Sadly, that is the stark reality for most aboriginal Australians. Very few of our country’s highest achievers have aboriginal heritage and the average life expectancy of an indigenous Australian is still around 19 years less than that of their non-indigenous countrymen. Aboriginal people are grossly over-represented in our prisons, the educational outcomes for indigenous kids are markedly lower than their peers and a number live with alcohol and other drug addictions in devastating poverty.

As only a 5th generation Australian I’m far from an expert on indigenous culture or history. However, one thing I do know is that as government spending increases in any particular portfolio, the return on each dollar reduces drastically. Bearing that in mind, I am therefore of the firm belief that the answer to the challenges facing today’s aboriginal people isn’t more money. The pain of such enormous social and economic dysfunction is far too personal to be quashed with something as relatively meaningless as cash.

So when aboriginal leaders yesterday criticised the Barnett Government’s offer of up to $2,000 recompense to those who had their wages withheld (or stolen if you prefer) by pre-1972 governments, they missed yet another opportunity to be truly heard from the heart.

In response to the media release titled Government to act on ‘Stolen Wages’, Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Dennis Egginton was quoted on

"This is a slap in the face and a cruel and heartless offer which offends the very notion of recompense… This State’s economic power was built upon the backs of hard working proud Indigenous men and women who had their hard earned wages withheld. To now offer these people such a paltry amount diminishes the contributions that our people have made."

[Desperate sigh]

Dennis, please let me offer some advice. The amount of cash provided shouldn't be the most insulting part of this debacle. Even if it is for some of your clients, it’s definitely not the best public line to lead with. By taking that angle, you irritate the many proud indigenous people who work hard every day to sooth the pain of the past and lead their peers toward a brighter future. They must be insulted by the over-simplification and embarrassed by the bitter stereotype your comments strengthen.

Importantly, adding to that stereotype also provides extremely unhelpful ammunition to the red-necked, racist zealots among us. You might naively retort that they don’t matter to your cause, but believe me, they really do. Some of these people are filled with irrational hatred and passionately support government decisions like this one which could only be described as foolish at best or mean-spirited at worst. If you choose to talk more about this publicly, please heed the advice and steer clear of words that paint a picture of a short-term cash grab by aboriginal people.

In the true spirit of reconciliation, I offer the following in the hope that it might prove useful when you next talk to a reporter.

For me, yesterday’s media statement by Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier put an ugly full stop at the end of an embarrassing piece of government narrative. Based on the public comments by other indigenous leaders since, the full stop might in fact be so ugly that it has been mistaken for a comma with litigation to come.
At a practical level, the language of the government’s decision is troubling:

“An ex gratia reparation payment of up to $2,000 will be made to those Aboriginal people still living and able to evidence a withholding of entitlements; were born before 1958; and who were residents of a WA Government Native Welfare Settlement. All applicants will need to complete a statutory declaration and have six months to lodge their application with the Department of Indigenous Affairs.”
We’ve already acknowledged that the current life expectancy of an Australian aboriginal man is currently only about 57 years. As per the statement above, the ex-gratia payment is only available to those who were born before 1958 and still alive… do I really need to do the maths? I’m glad these lucky people only have six months to lodge an application because anyone hoping to go through the process and spend the “up to” $2,000 might not have much time to do so.

But the choice of language in the government's policy isn't the most troubling issue.

For background, the Barnett Government inherited this quandary from the previous Labor team when they took office in 2008. In December 2006, almost two years before that election, the Carpenter Government’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs Michelle Roberts received recommendations from a Federal Senate inquiry to re-pay stolen wages.  Even though Minister Roberts told Parliament that her Government was considering its response a number of times, in the end they took no public action.

In fairness to all, the 20 or so months prior to an election are very busy and not a good time to rock the boat. But even though the politics of doing so would have been difficult, it's fair to assume indigenous people would be better off today if the Minister had been more courageous and pushed for a decision at that time. “Mea culpa” – a statement made by Minister Hames on this issue in 2010 - may also be an appropriate comment from Ms Roberts.

But that was more than three years ago.

Given that the Barnett Government asked questions about the issue when it was in opposition, it has effectively had more than five years to formulate a policy position on this. Why did it take so long? The truly distressing part of the answer for truly conservative voters is that the delay was not caused by any ideologically-driven debate happening behind the scenes - it is just another symptom of deep relationship tensions within Cabinet.

The truth is that this Government’s first Minister for Indigenous Affairs, current Deputy Premier Kim Hames, was smart enough to realise that this issue was a hot potato and would burn whoever was holding it when a decision was finally made. Interestingly, Minister Hames recently mooted the possibility of not contesting the next election. Perhaps thinking that he might soon semi-retire and pick up a few of his former clients as a consultant on aboriginal heritage, he decided he had too much to lose by holding on to the Indigenous Affairs portfolio. So in rare Machiavellian style, he ‘sold’ the portfolio to Minister Collier who still thinks that move was his idea and a vote of confidence from his uncommunicative Premier.

Alas, the basic but highly effective political strategy of trying to get a subordinate or less intelligent colleague to put their face on your bad news was at play. This isn't speculation - it became very obvious during the first few weeks of Peter Collier’s reign as Minister. I recall that while he was on a short period of annual leave out of the State, our office received the message loud and clear that the Deputy Premier wanted the Stolen Wages submission brought to Cabinet ASAP, and very generously offered to sign it in Minister Collier’s absence.

Knowing that Minister Collier hadn’t even been given the opportunity to read the background of the issue, I insisted that it wait for his return in seven or so days. To his credit, the new Minister has been trying to get the Premier to authorise the progression of a Cabinet submission ever since. However due to the combination of Minister Hames’ politically expedient obfuscation and Minister Collier’s lack of ability to personally influence the Premier, it has taken the threat of this saga being raised during the imminent election campaign for this Government to deliver an outcome.

Minister Hames isn’t the only one cynically maximising his political advantage of associating himself with good news stories that involve indigenous people.  As of today, the Government has published 23 media statements referring to aboriginal people in the last year that do not contain the words “Peter Collier” anywhere - not even the heading.

Take a good long moment to think about that.

Summing up, I propose the main problems facing Western Australian aboriginal people today do not include a lack of inadequate resourcing. The efficiency of the money already spent needs to be evaluated urgently with the view of cutting ineffective or redundant programs and redirecting that money to those that are proving themselves.

However, the willingness of our political leaders to delay symbolically important decisions like Stolen Wages and their apparent eagerness to publish a media statement any time money is thrown at a new scheme, points to a deeply troubling lack of understanding and perhaps even respect for the big issues.


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