History should judge the Abbott Government less harshly than it was judged during its tenure. Objectively, its achievements and policy direction have delivered a great deal.
Abbott left a huge legacy in Indigenous Affairs. He was the first Prime Minister to make Indigenous Affairs a top government priority. He was determined to deliver both practically and symbolically, focusing on outcomes in education, jobs and safe communities and championing the recognition of Aboriginal & Torres Strait first nations in the Constitution. He's the only PM ever to live with Indigenous people on their own country and to visit Mabo's grave. Abbott’s leadership, especially his commitment to spend a week in a remote community annually, set the high water mark for PMs.
I’m confident the change in PM won’t stall the momentum on Indigenous policy. Prime Minister Turnbull will maintain the existing policies and the same Ministry team. I believe Turnbull, too, understands the importance of both symbolism and practical change. His achievements reworking the NBN demonstrate he can cut through ideology and bureaucracy to deliver practical outcomes.
When pressed on whether he'd spend a week a year living in remote communities, Turnbull noted:
"It would be hard to match Tony's personal engagement that he's had with Indigenous communities and living and working in Indigenous communities".
That’s true. And it would be a mistake to simply copy everything Abbott did for the sake of it. Abbott’s approach was groundbreaking, not because he lived with Indigenous people on country - anyone can do that - but because he genuinely loved doing it.
Turnbull must develop his own personal stamp. This won’t be hard - because economic development is what's required to close the gap. And this resonates strongly with Turnbull's experience, message and vision.
Economic development is the only way to get people out of poverty. Yet for decades, Indigenous Affairs has been consumed by things that don’t deliver economic development – like welfare, government services and grants. If Indigenous Australians don’t participate in the real economy they’ll remain disadvantaged and impoverished, no matter how much government assistance they receive.
Governments don’t deliver economic development; commerce, private capital and innovation do that. But governments lay down the conditions for economic development to thrive or be stifled.
Turnbull gets this. On taking office he said:
“This will be a thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market. It will be focused on ensuring this in the years ahead, as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that. …
There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their Government recognises the opportunities of the future and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it.”
Whilst governments have been deregulating the economy for decades, Indigenous Australians and their asset base remain over-regulated and constrained. Structural barriers frustrate the development of real economies on Indigenous lands and work against commerce and private ownership. On Indigenous lands private home ownership is not allowed; extra restrictions apply to land use and development; conducting commercial activities requires approvals from extra bodies, some of whom operate monopolies over those activities themselves; and Indigenous people can forfeit their property rights if they move off their lands to find work.
I call it “state-sponsored socialism”. It reflects Indigenous policy of yesterday. A government committed to freedom, the individual and the market can't allow it to continue. And a government wanting Australians to seize the opportunities ahead must ensure Indigenous Australians can too.
To achieve this it must focus on getting kids educated and adults into real jobs; removing barriers to private ownership and commerce; allowing real economies driven by private enterprise and asset ownership to develop on Indigenous lands; and creating an environment that fosters investment and capital-flow into Indigenous communities for infrastructure.
The shift from a welfare-centric to economy-centric Indigenous policy has already begun with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and initiatives for parity in government procurement and employment.
The next horizon is Northern Australian development, fuelled by the $5bn Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility and Free Trade Agreements. Indigenous Australians have rights over 82% of northern Australia and by 2040 will number half its population. If governments and business are serious about developing the North they'll need to engage with Indigenous communities and having job ready Indigenous locals will be vital. The Government must deliver a blueprint for achieving this.
Further challenges and opportunities include unlocking the value of Indigenous owned assets - land, community assets and investment funds built up through royalties and compensation for land loss - to generate commercial development. Reform of Indigenous Business Australia and the Indigenous Land Council will be critical to delivering this.
The new PM is deeply passionate about the economic future of Australians. And I will be working with and holding him to that commitment for Indigenous Australians too.
An edited version of this article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 1 October 2015.
Malcolm Turnbull must deliver on economic development for all Australians
1 October 2015
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine