Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday Pot Pouri - problems with refugees, individual freedom, indigenous policy, council funding and NSW's collapse

A short pot pouri today, notes on things round the traps.

I knew that I could rely on Neil to watch the SBS documentary, A Well Founded Fear. I did not want to. It was just too much.

The inhumanity that crept into the Australian Government's approach to refugees from the time mandatory detention was introduced under the previous Labor Government has been well documented. As I have argued, it reflected failures in both due process and compassion, failures that became systemic.

I find it interesting that elements of the policy were finally overturned not by Government or opposition, but by individual action in the community. This started with a few and then spread until a broad based coalition emerged sufficient to turn public opinion around from clear majority support for Howard Government policies to majority opposition.

I still do not fully understand why the Howard Government dug itself into such a hole on this issue. Apart from the many cases of individual injustice, the thing that really concerned me about the Government's overall approach lay in the fact that it, and for a period the community, did not seem to care that injustices and process failures had occurred on what we now know to have been a major scale.

To my mind, this eroded one of the fundamentals of Australian democracy, the need for the state to exercise restraint in the exercise of state power affecting individuals and individual liberties. I fear that I am a bit of a broken record on this one, because I have been pointing for some time to the growing tendency of Australian Governments to over-ride individual freedoms, to the growing tendency in the community not just to accept this but even demand it.

In a post on his blog, Engagement not Intervention, Will Owen reviewed a new book by Michael C. Dillon and Neil D. Westbury, Beyond Humbug: transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia (Seaview Press). He said in part:

The authors' central thesis is that it has not been the policies of self-determination that have led to the current crisis but rather the government's withdrawal from a meaningful engagement with remote Australia in that period. It is a failure of political will.

This links to something that I have tried to argue without, I fear, a great deal of success.

By way of background to international readers, there have been two broad schools of thought when it comes to policies trying to address indigenous disadvantage. One we can loosely call the indigenous policy stream, application of a whole host of policies intended to directly address indigenous disadvantage. The second is called mainstreaming, arguing that Aboriginal programs should be merged into programs available to the broader community. Both schools incorporate a range of differing and sometimes overlapping assumptions and elements.

My approach is a little different.

I have argued that policy needs to take into account the diversity in indigenous conditions, that a one size fits all approach won't work. I have also argued that we need to make a clear distinction between indigenous problems and issues as compared to problems and issues that affect indigenous communities, but are in fact subsets of broader problems.

In this context, I have argued that many of the problems of indigenous communities are in fact subsets of broader problems linked to economic and social decline in regional and especially more remote Australia. To this degree, indigenous disadvantage is in part of subset of a broader problem. It appears that  Michael C. Dillon and Neil D. Westbury have come to a somewhat related conclusion, arguing that a focus on problems of remoteness independent of indigenous or non-indigenous not only takes race out of the equation, but also forces a focus on economic rather than sociological issues.

I think that this is relevant at the present time because of the growing volume of evidence pointing to weaknesses and failures in the Howard/Brough intervention in the Northern Territory. Here I am not talking about the usual headline stuff that people tend to talk about, but what appears to be simple on-ground policy failures in definition and delivery.

Just for the record, I have listed the posts I wrote at the time at the end of this post. I must say that I had completely forgotten that my final reaction at the time was to withdraw from the discussion, something that happened again later and for similar reasons.

Looking back, I suppose the thing that I find most depressing is that the reasons for subsequent policy failure in the Intervention appear to be just those that I pointed to at the time. I am not sure that anything has changed.

On a more positive note, and one that actually does address some of the underlying problems if as a by-blow, the Commonwealth Governments decision to make $300 million available to Australia's local councils for immediate capital works makes a great deal of sense.

For a number of reasons, local councils have been starved of capital funding in recent years. In NSW, for example, the decision by the NSW Government to impose arbitrary caps on rate increases for political reasons means that council revenues have been suppressed over a considerable period. This means in turn that all councils have already defined projects, often down to the detailed plan stage, that have been sitting there waiting for funding. 

The requirement that councils spend the money by next September means that the new funding will enter the economy quite quickly. Further, the allocation of minimum amounts to all councils means that smaller councils in country Australia will benefit too. These councils have great needs but can struggle to get any funding. So there is going to be a small but direct benefit in remoter areas.

Finally, I am completely bemused by what appears to be the growing economic, policy and political collapse within NSW. I really have never seen anything like it.

The problems that NSW is experiencing did not just appear, nor are they the sole responsibility of the recent Labor administrations. Rather, they are problems of structure, culture and system that have slowly evolved with time.

I have been writing about various aspects of these problems for a number of years now. The difficulty is that systemic change is required, and it is hard to see this coming about. Perhaps it's time to pull together again some of the issues as I see them.          

Intervention Posts


Neil said...

You should have steeled yourself to watch "A Well Founded Fear", Jim, as it really was quite inspiring, if harrowing.

Jim Belshaw said...

That could well be right, Neil, although I have only very partial control over the TV. No-one else wanted to upset their normal viewing!