No school, no pool. Dirty faces, no petrol.
This is the new currency of indigenous affairs.
Under so-called shared responsibility agreements, remote
Aboriginal communities could miss out on future project funding if
they fail to meet performance targets set with the government.
The changes, flagged in recent weeks, represent the widest
ranging reforms to indigenous welfare distribution since the
introduction of welfare payments in the 1970s.
Gone are the days of the Keating-era rights agenda and a push to
say sorry to the stolen generations, in its place the Howard
government mantra of practical reconciliation.
Also up for discussion this year will be the controversial
proposal to allow Aboriginal families to privately own communal
The plan, based on a similar scheme on Norfolk Island, would
allow private ownership for indigenous families and prevent outside
takeovers of traditional land.
Member of the government's new National Indigenous Council and
ALP vice-president Warren Mundine believes the move will help
Aboriginal communities achieve economic success through property
ownership for individuals and families.
Prime Minister John Howard has said he will consider any
proposal, but it has attracted criticism from other quarters.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Studies chair Mick Dodson said Mr Mundine had no comprehension of
what land meant to Aboriginal people or how it should be held.
"This could be very, very dangerous for Aboriginal people," he
"The problem isn't with the land ownership, the problem is with
the lack of imagination and creative thinking on behalf of
financial institutions and governments."
All of this is a far cry from just two months ago, when there
was widespread concern amongst Aboriginal leaders that indigenous
affairs had fallen off the political agenda.
With both major parties agreeing to disband the elected
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) indigenous
issues never hit the front pages during the federal election
Taking ATSIC's place is the new National Indigenous Council
(NIC), an advisory body whose members were hand-picked by the
federal government, while relevant funding had been siphoned off to
Critics have argued that the NIC will be little more than a
rubber stamp to government directives, with the inherent risk of
isolation if its policies are deemed too radical.
As such, the coming year will provide the first real test for
the NIC, on both land ownership and shared responsibility.
Although individual welfare payments have been declared off
limits, Prime Minister John Howard has hinted that he wants an end
to passive welfare for Aboriginal communities.
Under the draft shared responsibility agreement with the Mulan
community in Western Australia, the federal government would
contribute $172,260 to provide and install fuel bowsers in the
In return, the Mulan community must agree to ensure children
shower every day and wash their faces twice a day, and to maintain
proper standards of waste disposal.
Families and individuals must make sure children get to school
on time and keep their homes and yards rubbish-free.
Health Minister Tony Abbott predicted there would be hundreds of
thousands of agreements similar to Mulan's in the future whereby
remote Aboriginal communities received incentives to improve
hygiene and education.
Some civil libertarians have blasted the Mulan plan as
paternalistic, while Labor has described the terms of that
particular agreement as unbalanced and one-sided.
The communities themselves seem unperturbed, at a public level
at least, and everyone agrees that chronic problems in health and
education - as well as alcoholism, youth suicide and domestic
violence - need to be addressed.
Indeed, shared responsibility has drawn friends in high places
amongst indigenous leaders.
Former ATSIC chair Lowitja O'Donoghue has given in-principle
support to performance-based welfare, saying the ongoing crises in
indigenous communities required radical reform measures.
Patrick Dodson has also re-entered the fray after many years in
the political wilderness, while Noel Pearson - a longtime opponent
of empty welfare handouts - has also been more vocal in recent
times, particularly on the subject of education.
Mr Dodson said that the concept of mutual obligation was
actually part and parcel of Aboriginal culture, embedded in
centuries-old lore and rituals.
Interestingly, all three are believed to have turned down an
invitation from the government to join the NIC, as did former AFL
star Michael Long.
Mr Long then decided to walk from Melbourne to Canberra to
illustrate his point that too many Aboriginal people were dying and
it was time for something to be done.
The woman who accepted the role of NIC chair, Perth magistrate
Sue Gordon, said shared responsibility agreements were not
paternalistic if initiated by the communities themselves.
"I don't view anything which Aboriginal people themselves set up
as being paternalistic because it's not being imposed," Ms Gordon
said at the end of the NIC's inaugural meeting in Canberra earlier
"Rather it's Aboriginal people saying this is what I want to do
with the shared responsibility."
What remains unclear is what will happen to indigenous
communities who don't measure up, with future project funding in
doubt for remote communities if they fail to meet performance
targets set with the government.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone said it was highly
unlikely the government would remove the bowser if the health
situation in Mulan did not improve, but that it might not form
another agreement with the community if that was the case.
She has also pointed to the `No School - No Pool' policy in some
parts of the Northern Territory, whereby indigenous children can't
swim at the local pool unless they first go to class.
Run by both the federal and Northern Territory governments, the
program has by all accounts been a success.
Governments must also address the issue of deaths in police
custody if it wants to win the confidence of Aboriginal people.
The recent death of 36-year-old Palm Island resident Cameron
Doomadgee sparked a riot which resulted in the firebombing of the
local police station, court house and police barracks.
The locals still aren't happy and some leaders have predicted
the anger could spread elsewhere unless something is done.