'Earlier in the day I had approached Malcolm Turnbull to congratulate him on his ascendency to the Prime Minister ship and, as I described, his clever appointment of Senator Arthur Sinodinos to the role of Cabinet Secretary. As I mentioned to him, at least now we can have something that resembles a functional cabinet as opposed to the crippling centralized way of governing that many of us had become so frustrated by.
'This whole Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs thing' I told him, 'has done more harm than good, and seems to be more about gimmicks, personalities and polls, rather than proper policy process'. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs must be trusted and able to get on with his role, without distractions and confusion about who is responsible for what.
He then said 'Chris what are three things we can do in the Indigenous policy space to make a difference?'
It’s too important and too complex a question to answer at an NRL grand final, and I did have to focus on the game, so I said to the PM, 'I do have an answer for you but I'll get back to you with those three things at some stage soon', to which he responded, 'Please do'.
So here I am offering just three things that we can do in the Indigenous policy space to make a difference.
It occurred to me that the answer to Prime Minister Turnbull’s question was being played out right before us on that epic NRL grand final night. What we watched that night was nothing less than a festival of positive fast thinking about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. On a level playing field we saw the humanity of Indigenous Australians authentically acknowledged, embraced with enthusiasm, and celebrated with passion.
We saw young Indigenous Australians nurtured by hope, which cultivated their strengths and excellence and encouraged them to chase down their dreams, no matter how lofty they seemed. We saw Indigenous leadership working with non-Indigenous leadership together in an elite and honorable, high expectations relationship.
This is the perfect analogy for the Australian society we can develop. There are three things we can do:-
- Acknowledge, embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians;
- Bring us policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair;
- Do things with us, not to us!'
Here's a section from Point 2 above.
'Another way of explaining this is that makers of Indigenous policy, including government anointed ‘so called’ leaders, do not understand the fundamental importance of a strength-based approach to community and individual transformation. Even those who enjoy choreographed visits to Aboriginal communities cannot fully understand the depth of complexity required to be useful, especially if they listen and observe simply to confirm their own way of thinking, rather than listening and observing, to really understand.
Whilst they may be great at spending taxpayers’ money conjuring expensive yet ineffective government programs and quasi-bureaucracies, their unsophisticated, deficit-based elucidations expose them as impotent amidst the profound need for stratified, strength-based approaches to individual and community transformation, and almost completely ignorant amidst the profound need for deep and compassionate understanding of the stratified ontology of Aboriginal people and their communities.
When I worked as school principal in Cherbourg for six and a half years, we fixed attendance with a sophisticated and stratified strength-based approach. 38% of children were not attending school. We didn’t immediately resort to cutting welfare payments of all parents as if 100% of children were disengaged.
We recognized that 62% actually were engaged and if we celebrated and reinforced this great strength both extrinsically and intrinsically, then we were likely to positively influence most of, but probably not all, of the remaining 38%.
By acknowledging and celebrating the strengths on display attendance went to 94%. The remaining 6% had more hard-core needs and so we pursued this as best as we could, in a more low key way. It was an approach simple to understand, yet hard work to execute, but one that was effective and cost less than 1% of the taxpayers money we see spent in some schools today in deficit approaches that assume all students are chronically disengaged.
I was in Warburton in remote Western Australia as recently as last week. The week before I was in Wiluna and the week before that in Ampilatawatja, NT. The conversations there remind me that such frustrations and such despair persists with policy and program approaches that simply conflate single-barreled understandings about Aboriginal people and communities, and offer ineffective, unsophisticated blanket approaches that simply don’t make sense. Not only do they not make sense; they are causing an even greater sense of despair and disengagement from Australian society.
This is an aspect of the stratified ontology of Aboriginal people that your makers of Indigenous policy simply do not understand. As blackfullas you can bring on your policies and programs and bash us and bash us and bash us! We will not change. We will not become the people you want us to be. We will submit in some way but in a way that will see us become passive, simply disengage or readjust because we are so accustomed to you smashing us and our communities. I am sure some of you may have seen this passivity and disengagement, without even knowing you have seen it.
Some of you have been tricked into believing that such passivity is the result of welfare, when in fact it is the result of chronic disengagement from a local and vibrant economy. Welfare and a basic social security structure did not cause chronic disengagement from the economy. A lack of desire to pay equal wages to Aboriginal people in the late 1960s caused chronic disengagement from the economy. A lack of desire to invest substantially into innovative, vibrant and sophisticated localized economies entrenches ongoing chronic disengagement.
But you’ve never been seriously challenged to understand the deep complexities here! You’ve never been challenged because in order to seduce you, it’s better to pretend you’re not culpable in any way for the challenges we face. If I can make it seem like Aboriginal people are entirely to blame here, you’ll describe me as a hero and you’ll throw millions at me and never seriously question the efficacy of my approaches, even if they take us back to the policy approaches of the last century.
You’ve never been challenged because frankly there is great power and money to be had from the entrenched despair of Aboriginal people. Personally I think this reluctance to challenge underestimates your intelligence and your humanity, leaving us all floundering with limited hope of transcending the challenges we face together.
Today I challenge the Prime Minister!
Not to pick a fight with him, but because I respect his interest in a positive future for all of us. I respect his intellectual and emotional capacity to embrace and be honest about the extent to which he is culpable in a high expectations relationship with Aboriginal Australia and I am committed to the same.
And you Prime Minister, and your policy makers have a choice. You can choose the more expensive and ineffective option of continuing to devise policy approaches that continue to demonise us and entrench despair.
You can bring policy approaches to bash us and bash us and bash us…. Or you can bring policy approaches that offer hope, and a sense of pride, and a feeling that we can trust and walk with you into what I would call a stronger smarter, more honourable future, where your emancipation is bound up in mine.'
Well spoken Dr Sarra!