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The way forward is in plain sight

Cartoon: Paul Dorin

There is a way forward to tackle indigenous disadvantage after referendum defeat, writes political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN

AMID the bitter blame game following the rout of the government’s Voice referendum, there’s mostly agreement on one point. Australia must address more effectively the appalling disadvantage suffered by many of its indigenous citizens.

Michelle Grattan.

To state the obvious, this is easy to say but has proved nearly impossible up to now. Poverty, intergenerational trauma, remoteness and many other factors combine into intractable vicious circles.

But – while you’d hardly know it from what politicians and commentators have said during the fractious Voice debate – there is a structure in place that could be used in this post-referendum phase.

The 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap, forged between federal and state governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations, provides for shared decision-making through partnerships.

The agreement has so far fallen far short of its potential.

A damning draft Productivity Commission report earlier this year highlighted failures in its implementation, mainly because the bureaucracy wasn’t properly on board. The report asked whether “governments have fully grasped the scale of change required to their systems, operations and ways of working to deliver the unprecedented shift they have committed to”.

The Albanese government has talked minimally about the agreement, presumably because it wanted to emphasise a current lack of voice rather than highlighting what was there already. Or perhaps it just wasn’t keen on something the Morrison government had set up.

Surely now is the time to put more effort into this agreement and to shake up the relevant bureaucratic structures. These include the National Indigenous Australians Agency, located in the Prime Minister’s Department, which has a central role in policy design and implementation and advises the PM and the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney. Critics say it needs reform.

In the days ahead the government needs to engage more intensively with the Coalition of Peaks, which covers more than 80 indigenous bodies. Its lead convenor is longtime indigenous advocate Pat Turner, who has a wealth of experience in the public service. Turner is presently head of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), which Health Minister Mark Butler strongly praised on Sunday.

Regardless of who is to blame for the referendum disaster – Anthony Albanese for going ahead with it, Peter Dutton for refusing to support it, other players, or everybody – the damage is now done. The necessary postmortems will be held, but analysing the politics after the event will do nothing for those people in remote communities and town camps where health is appalling, education inadequate, housing unsuitable, and jobs lacking or limited.

The chance of a constitutional Voice is gone forever. But those voices that do exist can be mobilised better for the indigenous good. That, however, will require new vigour from government, and regrouping from demoralised indigenous leaders who campaigned for “yes”.

Many of these leaders are so bruised and angry they’ll want to opt out. However understandable that may be, they, like the government, have an obligation to look to ways other than a constitutional Voice to help the lives of their people.

The government itself needs more firepower for Closing the Gap – to which Albanese has declared it remains committed. It should beef up its team in the indigenous area.

Burney has found the referendum campaign a massive strain. Patrick Dodson, the “father of reconciliation”, has serious health problems. Assistant Minister Malarndirri McCarthy performed well under an increasing load in the latter days of the campaign, but can’t be expected to carry much more.

One candidate who could bring special knowledge is Gordon Reid, who won the NSW coastal seat of Robertson from the Liberals at the election. Of indigenous heritage, Reid is a former emergency department doctor, a useful qualification when health is one of the biggest “gap” challenges. Another suitable candidate would be Marion Scrymgour, an indigenous woman who is a former deputy chief minister of the NT.

For Albanese, Saturday’s defeat is a huge personal disappointment as well as a political setback, although not necessarily one with serious future electoral consequences. For most voters, the Voice was not a first-order priority, and they will be judging the government on other things come election time.

But the issue has highlighted some of Albanese’s weaknesses. He was overconfident in his own ability to persuade people. We again saw he is not a great campaigner (evident at the election despite his victory). Not that even the best of campaigners could have won this one.

These past few weeks have also suggested Albanese will need to manage his energy better if he is to perform well for the long haul. Obviously he wanted to do all he could in the final days of the campaign. But tearing around the country, when it was clear the vote was lost, was excessive and left him looking exhausted. He would have been wiser in the final week simply to have gone to Uluru and left it at that, especially given the government needed to have more attention than it did on the Israel-Gaza crisis.

Albanese wants the government (and himself personally as prime minister) to be seen as never wasting a minute. But, taken to the extreme, this can be counterproductive for achievement and messaging.

Leaders are stronger and tougher than the rest of us. But they are not superhuman, and they need to pace themselves if they are not to wear out, lose focus, and become frazzled and tetchy. Albanese would have vivid memories of one Labor predecessor who ended up like that.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra. This article is republished from The Conversation.

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Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan

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4 Responses to The way forward is in plain sight

G Hollands says: 16 October 2023 at 10:18 am

Really Michelle! You are going to “blame” Dutton because he didn’t support the Yes case for the Referendum. A pig with lipstick on is still a pig and will be recognised as one – so don’t blame the observers who saw it as a pig!

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David says: 16 October 2023 at 2:11 pm

It is worth noting there is still no explanation why it was claimed a voice to parliament had to be in the constitution to be effective. Especially when it was claimed to be only advisory. Whatever magic the constitutional change was supposed to perform the majority of Australia’s clearly did not fall for the sleight of hand.

Winning a campaign is not about believing you are right, it’s about convincing the majority to believe what you believe. For this there is no place for arrogance and arrogance defines the Yes campaign. Anyone against them was wrong, misinformed, racist and to stupid the understand anything. When you treat the people you need to convince like this you’ve made your challenge even harder. You also need to be seen to be able to answer hard questions. The media really helped the No campaign in this area. No campaigners were constantly asked hard questions and clearly gave responses that resonated with the majority. The ,media were clearly biased towards the Yes campaign and robbed them of the chance to answer hard questions. The questions that needed to be asked to convince a public turning against them. The Yes campaign got it wrong and misread what the public was thinking. Yet, you read the articles after the result and they are still echoing the same line of thinking that made them lose. We are currently a majority Labor nation and the Yes campaign was pushed by Labor and lost badly. Only a fool would place blame on the No campaign for the result. The one thing the No campaign did was ask the simple question of “why?’. The Yes campaign was so arrogant and the media so biased they failed to answer that question for the majority. Does the Yes campaign arrogance go the the extent of blaming the No campaign for asking why?

The analysis of the voting patterns is also interesting. The Yes campaign talks about misinformation yet the voting regions with most exposure to the plight of disadvantaged were clearly No. The areas with the least knowledge of the plight and/or the outcome would have least impact of their immediate lives, the inner cities, voted Yes. This points to the misinformed or those mostly easily persuaded by misinformation, voting Yes. The Yes campaigns habit of crying misinformation only works for those not exposed to the plight. Those exposed don’t want to be accused of falling for supposed misinformation, they want to know what is going to change and why it is going to make a difference. The upshot is the Yes campaign didn’t know how to run a campaign and there’s no evidence to suggest they would do any better at helping the disadvantaged. We may have dodged a bullet.

The Yes campaign should ask itself, if the referendum was held again in a weeks time would the result be better of worse? I suspect they wouldn’t like the answer.

The majority of what just happened was outlined by various people in comments to this media outlet over the last many months. How many Yes supporters took exception to the comments as opposed to trying to understand them and deciding “we have a problem Houston”? You can lead a horse to water……

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David says: 16 October 2023 at 4:00 pm

Another thing that can be consider is that talk of truth telling now takes on a whole new meaning. The Yes campaign has just had a large dose of truth telling. The majority want Australia looking forward where all are treated the same. Many have also come from a past with significant disadvantage and know the future is not changed for the better by walking backwards looking at the past. The steal a quote “You can’t have a better tomorrow if you’re thinking about yesterday.” You may just find the majority believes a major hurdle to closing the gap is the insistence on looking to the past. The truth is some of us may have arrived here earlier but to close the gap they want everything the later arrivals have. Quid pro quo. No-one owes anyone anything for the past. The future is in front of us.

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johnny says: 20 October 2023 at 9:36 pm

If the indigenous rights groups keep playing the victim and looking back at the past, they are never going to move forward.

If refugees can come here to Australia with nothing from much worse places than remote indigenous communities and turn their lives around to become productive members of Australian society with less support, why can’t those that have been here for thousands of years?

It appears that indigenous victimhood is now its own industry full of rorts, like the NDIS has become, and the money never gets to those that really need it.

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