Over the past 25 years, Australia has conducted Royal Commission investigations into Aboriginal deaths in custody: the Bringing Them Home Report and Reconciliation: Australia’s Challenge: the final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.
Collectively, the reports have provided over 400 recommendations toward the redress of appalling conditions that Australia’s First Peoples have been subjected to at the hands of the Australian Government over many decades gone, from Aboriginal Protection policies through to Stolen Wages and beyond. In a time when “reconciliation” has become more of a buzzword than a term describing meaningful action, the 400 recommendations that these significant reports provided still to this day have only been given partial support for short periods of time, or, have been completely ignored.
As an ANU Indigenous Reconciliation PhD Scholar I always take time to reflect on the important words spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. As a young person, I realise my role is primarily to get in behind and do the grunt work while I have the energy and ability to do so. As such, the Redfern Statement meant more to me and 50 or more organisations calling for the change. To me, it represents a plea for everyone to step back and truly look at what the government is continuing to do wrong in its paternalistic approach to Indigenous advancement in this country.
Nothing about us, without us is a phrase that represents our rightful call as Indigenous peoples to control our own destinies and to be given decision-making power over things that affect us at all levels of government and leadership. Young Indigenous people need to be included in things that affect them, such as university councils, especially academic councils, which speak on issues such as the inclusion of Indigenous content in university curricula.
Reconciliation will only happen when each person takes the time to redress the embarrassing lack of Indigenous inclusion that is invisible in the face of white privilege which still dominates many departments of government, universities, schools and workplaces that affect almost all working and studying Indigenous Australians today.One way the Statement asks for redress is that future government funding decisions be made within a new department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, one staffed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public servants. This doesn’t seem too radical. However, as with universities, many of these positions are held by non-Indigenous bureaucrats and intellectuals who make hundreds of thousands of dollars controlling the lives of Indigenous Australians, with no real track record of success.
I believe new Indigenous voices, including the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ANU Indigenous Alumni, are also required to bring about this change. Clearing out the dead wood needs a fire of energy and cleansing to bring new life.
Non-Indigenous controlled initiatives that continue to be rolled out by the Australian Government with no real plan or theory of change designed by Indigenous people are the legacy of Australian Indigenous Affairs. The department is currently controlled under the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, with funding funneled through a tender process within the Indigenous Advancement Scheme (IAS).
Commonly referred to as the “lottery”, the IAS has been criticized since its inception by Indigenous leaders and community organisations Australia-wide. The seemingly meaningless allocation of funds, including to non-Indigenous organisations, baffled most if not all who watched as significant funds were suddenly withdrawn from important community programs, and millions of dollars quickly reallocated to projects that many people had never heard of.
I attended the IAS community meeting in Cairns with over 50 other local representatives, to hear what the government had to say. There were tears from local Traditional Owners, community members and representatives of important organisations working on the ground making real change in peoples lives. Some of these had to close due to not receiving funding. I felt ashamed to be sitting in the meeting as a representative of an organization I had just joined, with a non-Indigenous CEO, which received millions of dollars through the scheme, over 1 million allocated alone toward the small but ambitious project I had been employed to implement.
The injustice of the process burned as I questioned why our organization was deemed more important, when others were just as worthy. I knew part of the reason was due to the work of the highly paid non-Indigenous policy experts who had put together the tender, knowing what to write and who to write for.
This is the effect of non-Indigenous people controlling Indigenous affairs. One of the bodies significantly affected by the lottery, ironically, was Australia’s only national Indigenous representative body, the National Congress for Australia’s First Peoples, which I have been a delegate and member of since its conception. $15 million budget was cut from Congress in 2014, and many positions and important work having to be cut to accommodate such a huge hit.
In short, the Statement calls for reforms across the whole spectrum: health, justice, family violence, disability, education, housing, early childhood, including the restoration of $534 million dollars cut in the 2014 budget from Indigenous affairs.
Nigel Scullion however, disagreed that funding had been cut to such an extent. He was quick to note that “additional funds have been put into the Indigenous Affairs budget including $48 million to support land tenure measures through the Developing Northern Australia White Paper and $14.6 million for “constitutional recognition” neither of which are significantly meaningful for the Close the Gap priorities the Australian Government continues to speak about.
The reason the gap is not closed, is due to the lack of Indigenous voices in leadership and in the implementation of meaningful initiatives which are seldom given appropriate time to create real change. Unfortunately, while Indigenous Affairs continues to be controlled by non-Indigenous people with no real commitment to community control, engagement and leadership, real change will continue to be slow, stifled and problematic.
Paternalistic governance of Indigenous Affairs continues to slow the progress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all areas from education through to land management. Bureaucratic processes and policy churn that define the history of Indigenous Affairs in this country are being called out by a collective of powerful, able and motivated Indigenous peoples and organisations who agree that real change must start from the top.
Let us hope that the Redfern Statement is not simply added to the endless pile of recommendations given by Indigenous leaders over the past 25 years.