AUDITOR-GENERAL’S REPORTS – Report No. 10 of 2007-08

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (6.14 p.m.)—This report is the Auditor-General’s Performance audit: Whole of government Indigenous service delivery arrangements, which was handed over to the parliament in mid-October last year, just before the election. It is an important and thorough document and I will not have time to go through the full details here.

Given the debate last year and some of the debate that has occurred this year regarding the situation faced by many Indigenous Australians, particularly in more remote areas and communities, it is important to look at the adequacy of government service delivery arrangements to Indigenous Australians and to those communities. One of the pluses in the approach by the former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mr Brough, in regard to Indigenous affairs was that he did communicate a sense of urgency and enhanced focus on problems faced by many Indigenous communities and people. Having called for a greater priority to be given to Indigenous issues I welcomed that focus even though I did not always agree with the particular approaches he gave. That has meant an ongoing focus and a heightened degree of political debate around issues affecting Indigenous Australians, particularly those in remote communities and in the Northern Territory.

One of the less positive aspects in the approach that the former minister, Mr Brough, the former government and the former Prime Minister took, along with increasing the urgency about it, was politicising the debate in a much more ideologically divisive way than had occurred before and I think that is unfortunate. We are still seeing the legacy of that at the moment. That is not to say that people cannot have different views or different policy positions. I think it is important to have that contest of ideas. The real problem that we saw and continue to see to some extent was that anybody who had a different view about the approach being proposed in regard to the Northern Territory was accused of not caring about children or of being willing to support or enable the continuation of exploitation of children by paedophiles. That accusation then eliminated the prospect of having rational political and public debate when you were either forced to agree with what had been put forward or, if you disagreed, you were immediately told you were supporting paedophiles or you did not care, or other ideological point-scoring opportunities emerged that we saw far too much of last year and we are still seeing to some extent.

Particularly important in those debates is to try to move away from an antagonistic and divisive approach, and that is advice for all of us from all perspectives. I am not seeking to solely blame only the previous government or minister for taking that approach. I think all sides could try to pull it back down to an evidence base. We also have to look at what works on the ground. One thing that is particularly galling is when there is a lot of chest puffing, lecturing and criticism from the government level about other people’s failures, or failures in Indigenous communities or attacking various individuals or particular organisations.

We see it in examples like this audit report. As with all audit reports they are about as non-ideological as you could get and identifying that we are failing on the basics of service delivery. That is where we need to keep reminding ourselves that whatever approach people are putting forward in regard to providing assistance to Indigenous Australians—who have as much right as every other Australian to get services to meet their needs—if we cannot even work and perform adequately on delivering those services then we frankly have not got much right to go around lecturing other people on their failings.

If there is one job of government that people can expect it is that, whatever services they decide to deliver and whatever service it is that taxpayers are funding, those services are delivered adequately, competently and effectively. I appreciate that is not always easy in remote areas let alone in remote Indigenous communities. But as this audit report shows we are still falling far short of what is adequate in regard to Indigenous service delivery arrangements and the so-called whole-of-government arrangements that were in place previously.

My plea is for all of us not to forget our own responsibilities and as part of the system of government overall for us to keep an eye on the adequacy of service delivery on the ground. We can have our philosophical debates and our different views about what services should be delivered and the legal framework around that, but let us not take our eye off the less exciting issues that are not likely to get on the front pages or where not so many political points to be scored but in some ways far more important issues of how adequately those services are being delivered.

This report indicates failures to date and identifies areas for improvement such as the implementation overall of the Indigenous affairs arrangements and the role of the lead agencies including improvement in the whole-of-government governance and accountability arrangements; improvement in collaborative efforts to support effective service delivery including the development of joint funding arrangements; and improvement in ensuring programs respond flexibly to Indigenous need. We hear a lot of lecturing and a lot of pontificating in this place and in the media about inadequate governance and accountability arrangements amongst Indigenous organisations. I am not disputing there are grounds for criticism there. But it makes it a lot harder for any of us to credibly call for improvements in governance arrangements with Indigenous organisations and communities when we are still falling short of the mark ourselves in regard to governance and accountability arrangements according to the Auditor-General.

I also particularly want to emphasise the point the Auditor-General highlights about the need for improvement in the way programs respond flexibly to Indigenous need. This is a crucial area not specifically just in the Northern Territory or in these whole of government arrangements but anywhere where we are working with Indigenous Australians and providing government services to them to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility to respond to the different needs in different areas.

As all of us here who have had any experience in Indigenous communities know—and particularly, to use the example again of the territory or, in my own state of Queensland, communities on Cape York as well as elsewhere in Queensland—there is incredible diversity in those communities. Even on the cape in Queensland between the west coast, the east coast, the top end and the southern end each community is different. The broad brush of their needs may be the same but the nature of them—the focal points within those needs—can be quite different. The capacity within different communities to work with service delivery agencies is often quite different and can fluctuate over time. Unless we have enough flexibility within the programs that governments are funding and delivering we are going to continue to fall short. We need to have enough self-awareness to recognise our own failings or the failings of government agencies and to keep the blowtorch on those a lot more than we do.

I think it is all too easy to blame the obvious problems that exist in many Indigenous communities solely on dysfunction within the communities themselves and not look at the dysfunction that exists within some government departments or on the lack of cooperation between different government departments. This sort of office report clearly shows that we are falling well short of what is adequate.

Indigenous Australians deserve competent, efficient and adequate services that are the same as for everybody else, particularly at a time when they are being used as a political football by all sides of politics. To some extent I think they have even more reason to expect that the least we can do is to ensure that our own house is in order. This report clearly shows that we have got some way to go.

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