Friday, August 26, 2011

Why so much policy analysis on Australia's Aborigines is meaningless

One of the difficulties in restricting posting here to allow me to catch up on other things is that things happen that I would like to record because they link to themes in my writing.

One advantage, sometimes disadvantage, of writing over an extended period lies in the way that the writing becomes a record not just of my own thoughts, but of developments in areas where I have particular interests. If I let things go without record or comment, it then creates a gap.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of one of Australia's best known current affairs programs, the ABC's Four Corners' program. The ABC has created a special web site to mark the anniversary, including excerpts from past programs.

The first political march I ever organised, I was probably nineteen at the time, was to provide colour for a Four Corners' program. Sadly, that is not one of the included excerpts. As I remember, the clip that included the demo was very short, but it does show me leading the march!

Box Ridge 1961 The new site may not include that excerpt, but it does include a 9 September 1961 excerpt where Bob Raymond and Michael Charlton take Four Corners' cameras to an area that few white Australians have ever seen - Box Ridge Aboriginal reserve near Casino in the Northern Rivers area of Northern NSW, part of the broader New England I write about.

As I write, the Australian media is reporting the latest Productivity Commission Report on Bridging the Gap, the attempt to bring Aboriginal people up to the level of the broader Australian community along a number of selected key indicators. An example of the reporting is here, while you will find the full Productivity Commission report here.

The Four Corners program was of interest to me because of my research into the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples. In my recent paper (not yet on line) on social change in New England 1950-2000, I made changing attitudes and policies towards the Aborigines one of my main themes.

From the perspective of 2011, some of the attitudes expressed in the Four Corners program would make people cringe. It's not quite as clear cut as that.

By 1961, a fundamental change process was well underway. If you cut through the way things were expressed, you will see that:

  • A number of Aboriginal families were living in Casino, while Box Ridge children were going to Casino schools
  • There were statements by European and Aboriginal locals that there was no segregation in Casino itself, no general local racial prejudice, although some people were prejudiced. The limited research that I have done suggests that this was broadly true.
  • The identified problems linked to housing, health and economic opportunity.

Now track forward fifty years. As in 1961, Aboriginal people are being singled out as a group with special problems requiring special treatment. As in 1961, there is a paternalistic element in policy and approach towards Aboriginal people. As in 1961, the key problems identified include health, housing and economic opportunity. If you exclude precise forms of wording, the arguments really haven't changed.

Back in November 2008 in Bridging the gap between indigenous Australia and the broader community - a methodological note I pointed to the problems involved in using statistical averages in setting policy. There I said in part: 

Our indigenous population is presently especially concentrated in regional, rural and and remote areas, along with some of the poorer suburbs in our capital cities.

As I have discussed before, general health services in parts of regional Australia have been in decline for some time. There are indications of a growing gap between health indicators for the whole population in these areas and those living in metro areas.

Within metro areas, the poorer suburbs have also been experiencing problems in health service delivery. Again, and for a variety of reasons, health indicators for the general population in these areas are below the national average.

So what does it actually mean to say that we will close the gap between indigenous health outcomes and the Australian average?

Are we implying that we can achieve better Aboriginal health outcomes than those applying to equivalent groups in the broader community? Alternatively, do we mean that we plan to reduce broader health disparities? Then again, are we proposing that the combination of broader social and economic advancement for our indigenous peoples in combination with physical re-location will get the required results? Or some combination of all the above?

My point is that we need to exercise great care in using statistical averages in setting aspirations and as performance benchmarks.

If you look at the Productivity Commission report, and putting aside the broad question of the significance of the selected indicators, you will see that the condition of Australia's Aboriginal people as measured by the statistics has improved along a number of dimensions, but improvements for the Australian people as a whole has improved as fast, so that the gap hasn't narrowed.

In a way, this illustrates the statistical point I was making. It also illustrates what we can think of as the glass half full problem. There has been improvement (good), but it doesn't meet target (bad). What do you focus on?

Turning now to the significance of the selected indicators, I have no idea what they actually mean. I really don't. When I look at the Aboriginal groups that I know best, I find:

  • A reduction in prejudice and formal barriers to advancement (good)
  • A massive expansion in the number of Aboriginal people with educational qualifications (good)
  • A large growth in the number of middle class Aboriginal people (good)
  • The emergence over the last fifty years of entrenched inter-generational deprivation among some groups of a type not seen before (bad)

I also find that that the growth of entrenched inter-generational deprivation actually reflects changes in the broader Australian community along two main dimensions:

  • Growing social disparity. Australia as a whole has seen a rise in entrenched social deprivation.
  • The relative decline in non-metro Australia.

These two dimensions have affected Aboriginal people in particular:

  • Aboriginal people were poorer and less well educated and hence less able to cope with the fundamental economic restructuring that has taken place in Australia since the 1970s.
  • Aboriginal people were concentrated in just those geographic areas most adversely affected by the process of structural change.

Bluntly, and I include the Productivity Commission report in this broadside, I just don't think that all the statistical analysis and policy reports matter a damn because they ignore the underlying social and geographical distribution among Australia's Aboriginal peoples.   


Denis Wright said...

Your conclusion says it all. If these regional and other differences are not taken into account, then the figures are about as useful as ones used to build a picture of the 'average Australian'.

I have to admit that I am surprised the 4 Corners clip came from Casino. I assumed it came from the middle of nowhere, not one of the richest areas (in terms of productivity) of the country. What an indictment of policy and how slowly it improves. As long as it's based on meaningless analyses that look very pretty on paper, we're all just kidding ourselves.

Jim Belshaw said...

You capture my point very well, Denis. In fairness to Casino, I tried to capture this in the post, application of current forms of thinking distorts. If you look at the detail of what was said, those interviewed in town were all committed to Aboriginal advancement and wanted change.

Denis Wright said...

I take your point, and I've no doubt about the good intentions of the interviewees. It's just that it seems so remote. But then, there's a lot of context missing from a short clip. Many other places would have been the same, and not too far from home now I think about it, from what I've heard from people closely involved. Thanks for the reminder.

Jim Belshaw said...

It's actually very hard, Denis, to deal with a single piece of material when the world view is different and context lacking. I'm not sure that I've put that very well, but it's something we both struggle with as historians.