Hapless closing the gap going round and round

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COMMENT by BOB BEADMAN

I despair that the Australian Public Service has been hollowed out so severely that it may no longer have the capability to tackle flawed policy issues, that there are now so many policy issues needing fundamental reform.

Governments around Australia have moved away from the grand British Westminster system of permanent heads of departments and permanent officers to one of contract employees instead.

Abandoning professional apolitical public servants dedicated to serving the government of the day, in preference to contract employees (card carriers in some cases) who always now live with the implied threat of contract renewal being declined when developing their advice to ministers. Guess whether the advice provided under such threats will continue to be as frank and fearless?

Parallel to the politicisation of the public services around the country, has been the exponential growth of the numbers employed in ministerial offices. I am at a complete loss as to why ministers would prefer to obtain advice from tame sources beyond scrutiny. Where are the checks and balances?

Much of the work that used to be done by public servants is now outsourced to a few favoured consultancy firms. Billions are changing hands, again mainly beyond scrutiny, often under the veil of “commercial-in-confidence’”.

Regular, scathing Auditor General reports, often about billions being rorted on an industrial scale (e.g. sports grants), are simply ignored.

Some of this money could be put to much better use in the Northern Territory on the massive infrastructure deficit dump passed onto the new NT Government in 1978. The Opposition appears terrified of being wedged, and the tabloid media, worried about being excluded from the next media conference or trip, don’t dig too deep.

Renowned national journalists, with half a century of political reporting behind them, are lamenting the slippage in standards and integrity in our governments.

Here are some examples of policy issues in need of fundamental reform.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic Australia had in the order of 800,000 people in receipt of unemployment benefits (or whatever the current fancy title is), and around the same number of overseas workers (permit holders and backpackers).

As international travel closed down, and people went home, we were in trouble. The unemployed refused to take on the work. Were their benefits stopped?

During Covid lockdown, unemployment benefits were doubled for the newly unemployed. Many refused to return to work when restrictions were lifted. Were the benefits too generous?

There is a gross undercount of the numbers unemployed. You need to be “looking” for work to be counted. Or if you have worked one hour in a week you are considered employed.

A decade ago when closely examining employment numbers in Territory growth towns I expected the numbers in receipt on unemployment benefits to be roughly equal to the numbers considered unemployed. Wrong!

The numbers are manipulated so drastically that in community after community only about 10% of people receiving unemployment benefits were appearing in other counts as unemployed. This is a huge deception.

While ever the true magnitude of unemployment is hidden in this way, the pressures will not mount for correction.

We’re served up a recursive loop. The country can’t afford this.

We were told that the economy was in ruins when a change of government inherited a $9 billion deficit in 1996. Now it is about $160 billion (varies from one report to the next), and everyone acts as if that is normal. How the world is changed! Depends on one’s spectacles obviously.

About twenty five years ago a statistician in the Office of Aboriginal Development drew attention to the depressing inter-connection between almost every social performance measure.

Education really decides employment, which in turn impacts on offending and incarceration, contributes to the sort of housing. Overcrowding contributes to health outcomes. Parents as role models impacts directly on school attendance and attainment levels (which determines employment status) and around we go again.

There is no clear cut answer as to the best point to break the loop.

The Welfare Trap is alive and well.

Through the late 60s, and until about 1974, all able-bodied people in remote communities had to “work” (Training Allowance). They were paid wages that were below award rates which was considered fair at the time, because having just moved into the workforce their work output was not yet up to average.

Because they had “jobs” they were ineligible for welfare benefits.

And then a new government dramatically changed direction. The Training Allowance Scheme stopped, people were paid welfare benefits instead, and scratched their heads wondering why Government would prefer to pay them to sit down than to work.

Hence “sit-down money”. All work stopped – grass cutting, garbage collection, road maintenance etc. Elders pleaded with the Government to pay benefits in a lump sum to the council so essential work could be managed. Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) was born.

As previously claimed, a “job” is the accepted route to a better life right around the world. But not here, it seems. We have Fly-in, Fly-out (FIFO) workers in mines alongside remote communities where the people remain unemployed. ‘

“Lack of skills” is said to be the problem, yet the mines have operated for decades. There has been plenty of time to train generations of Indigenous peoples in every aspect of the mines operations. (Or indeed all of the other essential jobs like in the school, the health clinic or the council.)

The universal problem is that unemployment benefits, or supporting mothers benefits, are invariably far greater than the entry point for most jobs. A perverse disincentive to taking up jobs! Even so, a significant number of politicians regularly argue for a significant lift in those rates.

What follows is lifted from a report in the NT news on 20 December 2021 of an interview with Chansey Paech, Northern Territory Minister for Remote Housing and Town Camps at the time.

He said he makes no apologies for blocking tenders from being awarded to non-Indigenous contractors, even when it slows down progress.

“The only way we are going to see a change in remote housing in the future is for there to be capacity building and we need to transition and give priority to Aboriginal businesses and organisations to enable them to have the opportunity and to take that step forward to do repairs and maintenance.

“In bringing out those pipelines of work, where it could be a five year contract to deliver 80 houses, gives those Aboriginal organisations the ability to now bring on apprentices so that we can have people learning trades so they can stay in those organisations to do that kind of work over the long term”.

These words have a very familiar ring about them, going back to the reconstruction work in north-eastern Arnhem land (Galiwin’ku in particular) following cyclones Lam and Nathan in February and March 2015.

They are wonderful words. Hopefully at the end of this process announced by the Minister communities will have “advanced” to where they were before the Federal Intervention (Northern Territory Emergency Response) in June 2008. Closing the Gap?

Up until then communities owned their own housing, let the contracts for new house construction in a way that maximised local employment and training for their own work gang, used that gang on repairs and maintenance work, arranged tenancies according to their own priority waiting list, collected rent etc.

The Intervention resulted in a huge increase in funds being made available, leading to decisions in Canberra that the scale of construction was beyond the capability of the community housing associations, so they were made redundant overnight.

With few exceptions, the former employees have sat under trees and watched outsiders ever since. No employment, no training, no apprenticeships, and no sweat equity, or skin in the game, or pride of work. (You will find dramatically reduced vandalism when local labour is involved.)

Despite the desperate need, there has been very significant under-expenditure year after year. The Northern Territory Auditor General has been highly critical of the Northern Territory Government’s (mis)management of these programs.

Unfortunately, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1977 (the Land Rights Act), along with the low employment take-up, and consequently low household incomes, means a low level of home ownership in these communities.

The Land Rights Act has also impeded business migration, and the creation of new businesses, as an unintended consequence of ensuring land title is secure (after the North American experience – this is a complex subject).

There has been a lot of media attention in 2021 about the very poor state of community housing, and the levels of overcrowding. Some of the coverage was about the almost total neglect of period maintenance on electricity safety that resulted in a scathing report by the Coroner about the death of an eleven year old boy by electrocution.

Lack of maintenance, unresponsiveness to maintenance requests, regular flooding, constant leaks, raw sewerage spillage etc. A shocking tale.

Are kids going to bounce up and go to school? What for? The Government has kept their parents for life.

The cruel truth is that right around the world people from similar socio-economic ranks are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Governments have a terrible dilemma.

On the one hand householders and businesses are screaming for sterner action against habitual breaking and entering. On the other hand our jails are overflowing and our Indigenous incarceration rates are a national and international embarrassment.

And then there is the ongoing saga of the Don Dale Detention Centre, immortalised by the ABC’s Four Corners Program in an epic stitch up, and the children.

IMAGES from top: Aboriginal workers in Central Australia; Girl studying (Australian HR Institute); Aboriginal troops in camp at Elliott, 1945 (Tourism NT).

[ED – Mr Beadman wrote this comment before the May 2022 election. He joined the Australian Public Service as a base grade clerk nearly 60 years ago. He has been been a permanent public servant, contract employee, or statutory officer in the APS or NTPS, or close observer ever since.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Great article by Bob Beadman. Are the current Indigenous leaders sufficiently capable in areas such as education, economics, and business and do they understand their importance for closing the gap?
    If so, why aren’t there on-going discussions and debate on these issues? Or, are they just “make believe” leaders that don’t understand the importance of education?

  2. @ Bob Beadman: Excellent article Bob, and good question Don Fuller.
    A prime example of how “independent” advice is anything but, was the Peter Yu report (a year after the Intervention) which according to journalist Paul Toohey had been heavily redacted under a rumoured threat of withholding of fees. The Wilson report on Education was likewise much slanted to tell the Government what they wanted to hear.
    Outside contractors and yes, the public service per se are the elephant in the room. Thriving local economies on remote communities are not in their vested interests.
    Concurrent with the developments Bob outlines is a disempowerment of local leadership.
    I’ll just give one example.
    A public servant (or was it a consultant?) came to “engage” with Yuendumu community regarding the $18m set aside for Yuendumu under the SIHIP housing programme, in exchange for a 40 year leases with an option to extend to 80 years on the majority of residential blocks.
    One local suggested that that $18m could be used to re-establish a local housing association (complete with local employment, training and ownership).
    Talk about a lead balloon! No, the suggestion was completely ignored and the end result was the Governments (NT and Federal) had their way thus turning Yuendumu residents into tenants on their own land.
    Yes Don, there are quite a few locals that fully understand the issues, they just aren’t listened to so after a while they shrug their shoulders and disengage.

  3. Thanks Frank. Good comments.
    I guess it wasn’t the local remote leadership I was referring to and I should have made this plain.
    Rather, it was the well-off urban dwellers who are attempting to take over over major areas of policy making, claiming some Indigenous heritage.
    These interests help dominate questionable presentations such as welcome to country “ceremonies”, with little cultural integrity in terms of dance and who should be involved and body painting, for example.
    In my view, this acts to disadvantage deserving Aboriginal people living within remote communities, because it is seen as “gamin stuff” – by many non-Indigenous people.
    Many of those attempting to dominate policy advice to government have major financial and employment conflicts of interest.
    The last thing many of these would want is to actually live within a remote Aboriginal community – or even visit one – for an extended period to gain some real understanding.
    We see the results of this in the examples you mention.

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