Originally published in Tracker Magazine, June 2011 edition.
It provides it with an enduring political weapon against the Labor government it has just deposed, should it choose to use it.
It does so in a policy area once considered hostile territory for a state Coalition government.
It must, however, be seen to do better.
Just as importantly, it must be clearly seen to be doing so.
Premier Barry O’Farrell and new Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Victor Dominello, issued a media statement to coincide with the public release of the Auditor-General’s findings which promised to do so…from the top.
Both had been provided with advance copies of the audit and its findings so the statement would have been carefully crafted.
It carried the predictable and justifiable, headline: Audit Report shows Labor failed Aboriginal Communities.
The report, they said, “reflects a very serious policy failure by the former Labor Government.”
“The Auditor-General’s report chiefly acknowledges the former Labor Government’s failure to be accountable, as well as the fact that TWT ‘…has not delivered the improvement in overall outcomes for Aboriginal people that were intended..’ ”
“My Government is determined for there to be improvement in the lives of Aboriginal communities and therefore we will be taking the Auditor-General’s findings and recommendations extremely seriously, “Mr O’Farrell said.
“The complete lack of accountability and transparency combined with total absence of political leadership at the top of Government raises significant concerns about the former Labor Government’s approach to Aboriginal Affairs,” he added
“Sadly there have been significant human and financial costs as a result of Labor’s policy failure.
“My Government will talk openly and honestly with Aboriginal people about the challenges that we jointly face and how to ensure that the mistakes of the previous government are not repeated. “
Minister Dominello “condemned” Labor for allowing a program to run for almost a decade without effectively monitoring its results.
TWT, he said, had been “politically abandoned.”
“It’s the politicians who are to blame—not Aboriginal communities or those earnest public officials on the ground,” he added.
He reminded us Aboriginal people came to consider Two Ways Together as Two Ways Apart and acknowledged the complexities of closing the gap in Aboriginal disadvantage.
“…It is clear,” he added, “we must build real and effective linkages between State Government and Aboriginal communities, put locally driven solutions for economic and cultural empowerment front and centre and involve independent and non-Government voices.
“In the coming period, the new Government—including Premier O’Farrell, my Ministerial colleagues, the senior management of Aboriginal Affairs and other public sector managers-will frame a new direction for Aboriginal Affairs policy in NSW in concert with Aboriginal communities and stakeholders.
“One thing will be absolutely certain: political leadership and Ministerial accountability will be the cornerstone of our direction. Unlike Labor, we will stand up and welcome full scrutiny for delivering results.”
Time will tell.
The O’Farrell government came to power without a policy on Aboriginal Affairs.
It has a new boy Minister in the portfolio and a swollen backbench with little knowledge of the complexities of Aboriginal Affairs.
The Government’s Aboriginal Affairs agenda is essentially a blank canvas.
However, the Premier’s pledge to talk “openly and honestly,” with Aboriginal people on how to better deliver services and build capacity has been welcomed by NSWALC—which has set out its agenda for the Government in its election policy document, Our Land, Our Rights.
The findings of the audit would come as no surprise “to those who have been working in Aboriginal Affairs over the past eight years,” NSWALC Chairwoman Bev Manton said.
“But its public release should trigger a complete rethink on how the O’Farrell Government will now work with peak Aboriginal organisations and communities to build capacity and improve outcomes in the social, economic, cultural and emotional well being of Aboriginal people in New South Wales,” she added.
“The Auditor General’s Report outlines serious policy failures by the previous Labor Government, as Premier O’Farrell and Aboriginal Affairs
Minister Dominello have already pointed out, and a failure to reach its targets to close the gaps in key outcomes for our people.
“However the main recommendations of the Auditor-General’s report are not supported by its findings, particularly in regard to how the State
Government and its agencies should continue to directly engage with our communities.
“NSWALC looks forward to discussing the report in detail with the O’Farrell government and fellow members of the Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations.”
Despite the promise of self determination, Ms Manton said, Aboriginal representative organisations, such as NSWALC, were never given a true partnership opportunity to affect any outcomes within the Two Ways Together Plan.
“The fact that we were afforded no opportunity to respond to the Auditor General’s report before its public release, despite being interviewed during the audit, is a telling illustration of the continuing disconnect between the ongoing lip service paid to the notion of self determination and the lack of it in practice.”
In addition to Premier O’Farrell and Minister Dominello, advance copies of the report were given to the Department of Premier and Cabinet and Aboriginal Affairs NSW.
Their written responses to the audit findings are contained in the Auditor-General’s public report.
The new Director General of Premier and Cabinet, Chris Eccles told the Auditor General by letter the audit and its findings raised “significant concerns” about the effectiveness of Two Ways Together.
“The NSW Government intends to improve accountability and transparency in Aboriginal Affairs,” he added.
“The Auditor-General’s recommendations to assess the effectiveness of Government programs, services, and agency head performance, against clearly defined indicators are welcomed.
“A strong evidence base would enable each agency to effectively assess which programs should be continued or whether government efforts should be redirected,
And the Department of Premier and Cabinet together with agencies will consider these recommendations more fully.”
The Auditor General’s recommendation that the Government consider appointing an independent adviser or a group of advisors on Aboriginal issues would be “seriously considered.”
“The NSW Government intends to approach Aboriginal Affairs on the basis that Aboriginal people deserve opportunities to shape their own future; make more local decisions; be full participants in the economic prosperity of this State; and feel safe and secure in their communities, neighbourhoods and homes,” he said.
He then gave the same pledge as his Premier.
The Government, he said, plans to talk “openly and honestly,” with Aboriginal people in coming months about the challenges we “jointly face and how we can best create opportunities for Aboriginal people to shape their own lives and make meaningful choices.”
The response from Aboriginal Affairs NSW (AANSW) was lodged with a covering letter from the Acting Director General of Education and Communities, Ms Pam Christie, who is also Acting Director of TAFE NSW.
The response bears no name.
It contains no apology.
The closest it comes to accepting, and shouldering, responsibility can be found in the third paragraph.
It lauds the audit and its findings as “a valuable analysis of the limited successes and substantial shortfalls of Two Ways Together, as well as a suggested approach for a new way forward.”
The bulk of the response smacks of spin and denial when it is not seeking to boost the credentials of AANSW’s Community Partnership Program, which received cool and superficial endorsement from the audit.(see Back Seat)
Minister Dominello took up the findings in State Parliament on May 27 in response to a Dorothy Dixer.
He told Parliament the Auditor-General’s Report showed “incarceration rates have significantly worsened, in that, despite making up only four per cent of adolescents in New South Wales , Aboriginal young people account for half the population in custody.”
Amid constant interjection from the Labor Opposition, he continued:
“Literacy and numeracy rates remain poor.
“In 2008 under the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests in year 9, approximately 20 per cent of Aboriginal young people did not meet the minimum standard in literacy and numeracy, compared with approximately five per cent of non Aboriginal young people.
“Aboriginal unemployment rates have grown.
“In 2008 the unemployment rate for Aboriginal people was four times higher than for all NSW residents, at 21 per cent.
“That paints a tragic picture of the lives of many Aboriginal people in New South Wales…..”
Opposition Leader John Robertson later issued a media statement to complain Minister Dominello had used his first Ministerial answer to a question to launch “an appalling political attack on the former Government’s efforts to reduce Aboriginal disadvantage.”
“In less than five minutes, Victor Dominello has trashed years of bi-partisanship on the issue of Aboriginal Affairs,” he said.
Mr Robertson said Mr Dominello’s address to the Parliament was “offensive, disrespectful, and represents a major shift in the new Government’s approach to issues surrounding Aboriginal disadvantage.”
This was followed up by a question without notice from the Labor Member for Canterbury, Linda Burney, who asked Minister Dominello why, given the Auditor General had recommended the expansion of the Community Partnership Program, had the Minister “denounced” it as a “failed program.”
Would he commit, she asked, to its continuation.
(Ms Burney was Director-General of DAA when TWT was originally conceived and launched)
Amid constant interjection the Minister said Labor believed it “owns this space. It does not.”
He said the Auditor-General’s report was damning and the Liberal Government was determined to make “serious headway into the problems and challenges facing the Aboriginal community.”
Suffice to say the AANSW response, and that of the Labor Opposition, demonstrates why there is a need for a new open and honest approach in Aboriginal Affairs and why the Audit Office, the Government and others, ought to take a closer look at the findings and recommendations.
There has been no public comment from the former Director General of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (AANSW) Ms Jody Broun, who is now co-chair of the National Peoples Congress.
She was Director General of DAA (AANSW) from 2003 until 2010. In her biography for the National Peoples Congress she lists Two Ways Together as one her achievements in that job.
One final observation.
This must have been a particularly difficult audit to tackle.
Those who conducted it had to wade through the constant tinkering under the bonnet, the aimless shifting targets and direction, drifting timelines, the absence of evaluation…..and the all too frequent oil changes.
There was one constant.
Aboriginal people and their peak representative bodies were, in real terms, backseat passengers.