Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Indigenous Affairs.

Senator Amanda Vanstone

Address to National Press Club
Wednesday 23rd February 2005

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people - the traditional owners of this land.

The National Press Club has a long history of encouraging debate and healthy discourse.

It's perhaps unusual then to start with a proposition with which, I believe, most Australians agree.

In fact, it's a proposition with which, in all probability ALL, in this room, rather than most, would agree.

The proposition is this: When you ask the question, is the reality of life for first Australians today, especially in remote areas, as good as it can be, the answer has to be no.

We all want better outcomes for first Australians. It can be better; we can do much better than this.

We want first Australians to be able to share equally in the rich opportunities Australia offers.

The brutal reality is that for all the dollars spent - over decades - and for all the goodwill, we are a long way from seeing all first Australians enjoy the opportunities the rest of us take for granted.

No one wants to leave things as they are; all of us want change. The status quo is not an option. We want dramatic change and we're not going to get it by making minor change. If we do what we've always done, we'll get what we've always got.

Happily, I can say a quiet revolution in Indigenous affairs is already underway.

The Australian Government is a key player in that revolution.

Make no mistake. We are not alone.

For the most part, state and territory governments are heading in the same direction.

On more occasions and in more places than you might expect, the Australian Government and a state or territory government are walking hand-in-hand.

At last, it seems that party politics and state and federal rivalries are in the backseat.

In the front seat, the driver is a common desire for dramatic improvements in the opportunities for Indigenous Australians.

That's not to say that on occasions, we won't go our separate ways. And it's not to say there won't be difficulties or obstacles.

But it is to say that in 20 years in Parliament, nine of them in government across four portfolios, I've never seen as much goodwill and preparedness to work together as is happening now.

There are two key aspects to this change.

One is genuinely giving Indigenous Australians a voice.

The second is realising that the way we work, the way we organise ourselves as governments, has been a large part of the problem.

The Voice:

Indigenous Australians, as individuals, in their families and communities can only be said to have a real voice when governments actually listen directly to them.

Over the last forty years intermediaries in various guises have been created to speak on behalf of Indigenous communities.

ATSIC was the last of these creations. A non-Indigenous construct designed to satisfy the rest of us that Indigenous Australians had a voice. The problem was that's not the voice Indigenous Australians were choosing to use. 80 per cent of those entitled to vote didn't think it was worth it. That's not surprising. It wasn't an Indigenous construct.

These intermediaries include consultants, lobbyists, service providers and assorted others of goodwill, including bodies and individuals claiming to speak for Indigenous Australians.

It's been very convenient for successive governments to talk to these groups. Talking to the vast and diverse range of communities with different cultures, in different places with different opportunities and with different aspirations is a much, much harder task.

So despite all this goodwill and all this talking, most Indigenous Australians haven't really had a chance to have their say.

They haven't been shown the respect of being given the opportunity to identify their problems, to have a hand in shaping the solutions nor making a contribution to the outcome. In other words - to chart their own way forward.

In hindsight I can see how this has happened. In some instances we have assumed the bodies we speak to have the authority to speak on behalf of the community.

That's not an assumption we can make.

Really the only people who can authorise others to speak on their behalf are the individual, the family unit or the community.

Non-Indigenous bureaucratic structures have been forced upon different traditional organisational structures.

For example, when we talk to the housing service in a community, we need to understand that it may be controlled by one family group that doesn't necessarily speak with or for the others in the community.

Equally whoever runs it speaks with the self interest that all service providers bring in discussions with governments. That problem is not particular to Indigenous Australia.

Large portions of communities weren't being heard; they weren't getting a chance to have their say.

When no one listens to your view, when no one sees that you could contribute anything of value, it's the equivalent of being told that you are of no value, either within or outside that community.

That debilitating and degrading message has been reinforced day-after-day, year-after-year, decade-after-decade, in hundreds, if not thousands, of communities around Australia. We're changing that. We are listening directly to communities. We are asking them not only what they want, but also, what they can contribute. But it won't change overnight. It will take some time to turn around the practices that have been in place for decades.

A one size fits all approach will not work. Different and more natural approaches reflecting local circumstances must be allowed to emerge.

First Australians are made up of many different clans, with different languages and cultures. Some have been dealing with non-Indigenous culture for centuries. Some were trading with Macassans well before the Europeans arrived on these shores.

On the one hand some of the Pintupi people of the Western Deserts had first contact just over 20 years ago. For some people in the Spinifex country, south of Warburton and west of Maralinga, first contact was even more recent. There's tremendous diversity across remote Australia.

Let me give you just one example of what we're doing. The community of Wadeye - west of Darwin - has had to cope with serious problems. It is one of our Council of Australia Governments Indigenous Coordination trial sites.

Before the missionaries came in the 1930s, people with authority from the various clans in the area would meet on occasions to consider and make decisions about important issues for their people. They called this the 'Thamarrurr'.

The missionaries formed new European authority structures when they arrived and the 'Thamarrurr' went underground. But it never disappeared altogether. In fact, about five years ago, when it was crystal clear that non-indigenous structures were not working, the Thamarrurr re-emerged and asserted itself.

At last the people with real authority in the community were taking their rightful place.

In the COAG trial we dealt directly with the 'Thamarrurr' so each of the clans has been able to have its say. As a result of us listening to the Thamarrurr and responding, life is now improving for the people of Wadeye.

The Thamarrurr, Territory and Australian governments agreed education was a priority and just last week there was a massive increase in the number of children attending school. So much so that more desks had to be put on the barge from Darwin.

What works in Wadeye of course will not work everywhere else.

The guiding principle across all this diversity is to show people the respect and dignity they deserve, listen to them, respond to their ideas, acknowledge the contribution they can make and treat them as equal partners.


However, not only do we have to change who we listen to and the way we listen, but we also have to change the way in which we respond.

Imagine for a moment you were living in a small, remote community.

Over a couple of months you'd see a succession of bureaucrats from different departments, different governments and different places fly in to your community.

They'd talk to the service associated with their department, they'd talk to the administrators, probably white administrators and maybe the council.

For most in the community, the most they get from the passing parade is a smile, a wave and if they're really lucky, g'day how are you?

They know - and we know - that these bureaucrats in the past haven't been talking to each other. The plain facts are that governments haven't asked them to. Because governments divide bureaucracies into boxes, we therefore divide up who will deal with the problems and aspirations of these communities. The result is different people being sent out at different times, to talk about different parts of a community's problems and different parts of their aspirations.

So to the people in these communities, we must look like a weird mob. All these visits, no coordination and after decades, not much change.

One all too familiar example of the incapacity of respective governments to organise themselves can be found on Cape York, in the community of Lockhart River.

This small community, with the compliments of various governments, has 51 funding agreements covering 17 agencies.

In all probability that means 51 sets of guidelines, 51 applications, 51 agreements and 51 acquittals.

Because we haven't organised ourselves within and between governments we have allowed massive, self-serving, bureaucratic structures to bear down on small, vulnerable sections of the Australian community.

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson: “We can do better, much better.”

I'm pleased to say the Australian and Queensland Governments have agreed to work together to reduce this to one agreement.

But we want to do more than that. Not just with Queensland, but with other state and territory governments. We want to do more than make simple agreements. We want those agreements to reflect communities' direct needs and aspirations. It's not just a case of reducing 51 pieces of paper to one piece of paper. We also have to make that agreement reflect a real partnership between the community and governments.

In a real partnership everyone's view is heard and everyone's contribution is valued.

This is a big change.

Bureaucrats will no longer fly in, in a seemingly ad-hoc way, to flog their own programs and their guidelines. They'll no longer try and squeeze community aspirations into pre-determined pigeon holes. That's the old way and it doesn't work.

Under the new arrangements, we are turning all that around.

We have accepted that we have to change, we have to help find solutions to meet community aspirations.

If the guidelines don't fit we have to change the guidelines. It shouldn't be up to communities to change their aspirations to fit our guidelines. It has to be the other way around.

Let me illustrate.

In the past, the last set of bureaucrats to visit a community might be those associated with housing. The community, at this point, might be particularly disillusioned, because their immediate priority is they need a sealed road to reduce dust causing respiratory and other problems. The housing bureaucrats, because of our requirements for accountability, transparency and an audit trail would require the money to be spent on housing or housing consultants. These requirements will not allow them to spend the money on the road.

Under the new coordinated arrangements communities will deal with the Australian Government as a whole. It's our job to make our money and our policy skills address their needs. We have to understand that their priority is the road - and the road needs to be sealed.

They won't be left to shop around either themselves or through intermediaries, amongst departments, cobbling together bits and pieces of solutions that fit bits and pieces of rigid guidelines.

Under the new arrangements it's the job of governments to do the shopping around and the cobbling together in order to meet communities' priorities and needs. The road would be sealed.


The Government's commitment to coordinating its inputs into Indigenous communities is already underway.

Coordination is now an everyday event.

Through a network of Indigenous Coordination Centres, public servants from the key departments are now out in the field, closer to the communities. These are the front line public servants charged with the responsibility of making individual agreements with individual communities.

The key departments in each area work together as a team.

It's a new way of doing business.

There's a real chance that some state and territory governments will co-locate some of their people in the same centres. This would further reduce overlap and improve coordination.

Our job is to present a single face of government - a one stop shop for policy planning - to Indigenous communities.

These ICC's will work very much like our embassies do overseas.

They represent the Australian Government, even though not every department is represented in the embassy.

Equally if there's a problem they can't resolve they have dedicated contacts in the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination in Canberra.

That means there are senior officers in OIPC whose job it is to shop around amongst departments at the national level to broker solutions.

The solution may mean bringing departments together, it may mean getting some guidelines changed or it may mean consulting a number of Ministerial offices.

We want to do everything we can to turn good ideas into reality.


Back here in Canberra, the mainstream agencies are not only charged with, but fully engaged in providing better outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

The coordination that's happening in the ICC's in the communities is being mirrored back here in Canberra.

It's not the old mainstreaming where separate departments may have fallen into a silo mentality. Through the Secretaries' Group, which meets monthly, some of our best public servants are turning their minds to the issue.

This is unprecedented.

Equally the Ministers with key responsibility in the relevant areas come together regularly in the form of the Ministerial Taskforce. We've agreed a set of priorities and we are all working to the same end. Government initiatives will now reflect not the priorities of individual ministers or portfolios, but the agreed priorities across the whole of government.

These priorities of early intervention, safer communities and economic development were not arrived at in isolation. Through the COAG trials and experience in a wide variety of communities, these are the priorities that have emerged.

As you know, we've established the National Indigenous Council. It's not a representative body. It's a body made up of Indigenous Australians selected for their particular expertise. They don't owe anything to any particular region or interest group. The NIC is already making a valuable contribution. It has helped to sharpen the Ministerial Taskforce's priorities.

When the ICC's are talking to individual communities about what they want, it's these priorities that form the basis of our side of the conversation.

I've focused today on the importance of showing individual communities respect, and of coordinating Australian, in fact, government efforts.

I've tried to convey how these two simple concepts being put into practice require dramatic change across all governments and at all levels of government. That is the quiet revolution that is already underway.

There are however some other major policy areas that are long overdue for reform.

We can no longer let a culture of blame and victim-hood prevent us from making the radical changes that need to be made. I hope we can address them in the same spirit of goodwill that generally pervades Indigenous affairs today.

Let me briefly just touch on what some of these might be.

We do need to ask ourselves why, when Indigenous Australia theoretically controls such a large proportion of the Australian land mass, they are themselves so poor. Being land-rich, but dirt-poor, isn't good enough. We have to find ways to change that.

I've spoken today primarily of Indigenous Australians in remote communities - the most disadvantaged Australians. However, it's important to recognise that most Indigenous Australians live in cities and towns. I hope it's sooner rather later, that State and Territory governments address why it is that their mainstream services don't cater adequately to first Australians. We cannot continue to avoid the issue by setting up parallel and separate services funded through programs that should be directed to remote communities.

Where specialist Indigenous services are required, they must be the best possible services we can offer. This raises another contentious issue. The history of these services is that they've been provided through Indigenous organisations. Some do a tremendous job but there has been waste, there has been corruption and that means service provision hasn't been what it should be. If we continue to regard these organisations as untouchable and unaccountable we are failing our Indigenous citizens yet again. The proposition I'm putting is simple. If you're funded to deliver a service, you should deliver it. If you don't, we'll get someone else to do it.

I've already talked of the respect we need to show to individuals and communities in our partnerships. There are two other values critical to this quiet revolution.

One is honesty. We need to be honest with communities about what we're prepared to do and what we believe is reasonable for them to do. In some communities it isn't reasonable to pretend that, in the near future, there will be a real job for everyone. We need to be honest enough to say that. It's only with that honesty that communities can decide which way they want to go, which choices they want to give their children.

The second value is understanding. We do need to understand the richness, diversity and strength of Indigenous culture. We need to understand that when Indigenous Australians take on aspects of our culture they are not necessarily discarding their own. They are in fact, walking in two worlds.

Sometimes it amazes me how many people expect Indigenous Australians to understand and take on our culture, when so few of us even bother to begin to understand theirs.

Last, but not least, first Australians are sick of coming last. We can all play a part in changing that. From the media's perspective there are two things you can do. First, you can recognise that as an Indigenous Australian you'd be sick to death of always reading, seeing or hearing negative stories about your people. There are great Indigenous stories out there, about individual people and about communities. If more of them got a run Indigenous Australia would get a better chance of feeling positive about the future and the rest of us would have a better understanding of Indigenous culture.

Secondly, you could write articles in this area, at least, to inform rather than to sell papers. If there's any area that should be quarantined from info-tainment, Indigenous Affairs is it.

The Government can't make that happen. Peer pressure can. Each of you have a role to play. In your own way, you too can be part of the quiet revolution.