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Wednesday, 23 June 2004
Page: 31422

Mr SNOWDON (11:54 AM) —I am very pleased to speak, albeit briefly, on this report, Many ways forward: report of the inquiry into capacity building and service delivery in Indigenous communities. In doing so, at the outset I want to thank those people on the committee—I will not thank all of them—who agreed to support the majority of the recommendations in the report. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of the chair, the member for Grey, Mr Barry Wakelin, and the deputy chair, Ms Kelly Hoare. Between them, they carried the workload of this report throughout the period of the deliberations of the committee with a great deal of aplomb and good judgment, and they did so without rancour. They arrived together at a document which, in my view, is a good representation of the broad cross-section of views which existed on the committee.

I say that because—and I will come to it in a moment—I have previously been chairman of this committee at a time when we produced two reports, one of which was referred to in this report. The two committee reports that I oversaw the production of were entitled A chance for the future: training in skills for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community management and development and Our future, our selves: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community control, management and resources. From my reading of the history of this committee prior to and subsequent to my chairing of the committee and up until now, I know that great care has been taken to ensure bipartisan support for committee recommendations. Often that has taken a great deal of discussion. It has meant compromise. It has meant that people with entrenched positions have been required to change their positions and to accept, in the spirit of bipartisanship, that to produce a single document that has unanimous support is the best possible outcome we could achieve. I have to say that in my experience of the committee up until this report was produced that has been the case.

I make that observation simply to make reference to a minority report, encapsulated in this document, by the member for Solomon. Once you have read it, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will see that it is not a very detailed or well thought out piece. In fact, it barely reaches 2½ pages and is more a comment on the member for Solomon than it is on this report or the findings of this committee. That is as much as I want to say about that, apart from making this observation: the government, as is always the case on these committees, has the numbers. It is a pity that the member for Solomon was unable to see his way clear to support the recommendations of this report and instead put in his minority comments and dissenting statement, which in my view, was a waste of time.

In terms of this report, the recommendations go to a broad range of matters but they do point to government taking a greater and more forthright position in relation to the coordination of government services to Indigenous communities across Australia, wherever they might be. They also point to the need for Indigenous Australians to be given a strong voice in a partnership with government in the provision of these services. The committee traversed many parts of Australia and spoke to many individuals and organisations about their views in relation to capacity building and the need to address the range of issues which confronted their individual communities. I am sure that the other community members would share my view that the circumstances which exist across Australia differ from place to place, and that really what we have to do is concentrate our minds on how to deliver outcomes in particular places, understanding the particular circumstances that exist in those places. That is not often the case.

I think this is a major issue for us. We have seen government agencies go out into the field—this has historically been the case; it is not just a comment on the current government—and purport to represent the best public policy outcomes and to have the broadest knowledge in the arena. In fact they rarely understand the unique circumstances of the communities they are engaged with. One of the issues which was raised constantly in the course of this committee's deliberations was the view that government agencies and their officers needed to have their capacity enhanced so that they could truly represent a government's objectives in a way which demonstrated they understood the unique circumstances of each of the regions and communities they engage with. That to me is a very important thing.

I was engaged with an area that is well known to the member for Grey in the late 1970s, when I was working for the Australian National University with Dr H.C. `Nugget' Coombs and Dr Maria Brandl. I was given the task of working with a community in the north-east of South Australia, which meant going there to stay for some time. So, what I was required to do was spend some time around the communities of Ernabella, Amata, Kalka and Pipalyatjara, places which are well known to the member for Grey, and finally get accepted into a place where I could commence this work. I then engaged in a language course, because it seemed to me that to be able to be effective in this community I needed to actually understand their first language. The first language of these people was primarily Pitjantjatjara, and there were some Ngaanyatjarra people. For them to communicate with me and for me to communicate with them, I had to assume that I needed to acquire some knowledge and some skill in their languages. As it turned out, that was the best thing I could have ever done.

What we discover now is that in many of these remote communities across Australia, English is still a second, third or fourth language. Many of the inhabitants of these communities do not have literacy in English, let alone their own languages, so to effectively communicate you need to sit down and learn the language—but not only learn the language; you need to appreciate the cultural nuances, practices and traditions of those communities to allow yourself to be properly understood and to fit into the paradigm that exists in those locations. That to me is a challenge, and a challenge on which I think governments across Australia have failed miserably. What we need to do, in my view, is spend far more time working out how to communicate effectively with Indigenous Australians, wherever they might be, and to understand the differences that might exist between locations.

One of the perennial issues which have been seen, not for the first time, in this inquiry is the need for more efficient and more effective coordination between Commonwealth and state agencies. This report makes some comment on the renowned COAG trials. The Council of Australian Governments have trials happening in various parts of Australia. There is one in the Pitjantjatjara lands that I referred to earlier, in the member for Grey's electorate, and one in Wadeye, in my own electorate of Lingiari. The Wadeye trial has received much publicity.

I hope I am not speaking out of turn here, but I suspect that all of the members of the committee believe that we do not have any way of really assessing the outcomes that are being achieved by these COAG trials. A lot of words have been said and a lot of words have been written but there has been no way of auditing or assessing the effectiveness of these trials in terms of getting more efficient and better outcomes in these communities. That, we believe, is a challenge which we need to confront, and we need to confront that challenge squarely, not impose our vision, our view, of what should be the most effective way of communicating with these Indigenous communities without having reference to the requirements we are placing upon ourselves.

In any partnership arrangement there ought to be a set of criteria upon which governments can make judgments about their own success. In my view, what this requires in this area, in partnership with the leadership of these Indigenous communities, is an agreed set of criteria or outcomes which governments are supposed to achieve. I believe that that will require more than just a commitment to a set of words. It will require a commitment to ensuring that the allocation of resources is effectively targeted and, most importantly, that the allocated resources are substantial enough to do the job. We know in the case of Wadeye—and the committee understands this—that housing is a particular issue. There is a massive shortage of housing in Wadeye. This is not going to be overcome by people talking about it. The only way the housing shortage in Wadeye will be overcome is by a very constructive and innovative use of government resources, and it will require substantial additional government resources to those currently being made available. This is only one example, but there are many others.

One of the issues with capacity building, which is made very clear in this report, is the fact that you cannot assume that people have the ability to be able to make decisions if they do not have a fundamental grasp of the tools of education—if they are unable to read a set of books. I certainly do not claim to be able to read a set of accounts. I have an understanding of them broadly, but I would not claim to be able to read them properly. Yet we expect many of these Indigenous communities to be able to manage their accounts, their books, in a way in which we ask our accountants to do on our behalf. I know that if I go to an accountant I seek an explanation of what is happening with the resources I am supposed to be using. We are asking Indigenous communities to manage people who have standards of education and understanding which are far beyond those to whom they are responsible. In many cases across Australia, this has led to a position where the rip-off merchants, the crooks and the spivs go into Aboriginal communities and rip them off blind, and what happens as an outcome of that is that the Aboriginal communities are penalised.

We need to understand that capacity building requires us to give these Indigenous communities, wherever they might be, the opportunity and ability to be able to control those people who work for them. That might require a lot more outside mentoring, monitoring and auditing than is currently the case. There ought to be a process by which—and this is referred to in this report—we can say to communities that we will assist with the initial screening of candidates, and there will be lists kept so we know that the people who are employed in these communities have the capacity to do the work they are required to do but will do so in a responsible manner, without having the fear that is currently the case in many places of them ripping communities off. That is not to say there are not very good people working in these communities—there are. But the fact is that we need to provide far better educational opportunities for Indigenous communities to give them the capacity to be able to monitor, moderate and control people who work for them and on their behalf.

Again, I want to thank the chairman, the other members of the committee and the committee secretariat for the way they participated in these discussions. It is a very eclectic group on this committee, and the members have very divergent views, but under the able chairmanship of the member for Grey they have come together in a way in which I think has produced a very valuable report. And, bar my references to the member for Solomon, who I think has been irresponsible, I thank the member for Grey for the leadership he showed and my colleague the deputy for the way she assisted him.