When Chris Sarra announced his resignation as co-chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous advisory council to concentrate on a new position as the head of Queensland’s Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, he spoke of a shift in engagement.
“The challenge of doing things with people, not to them, means having to assume Indigenous people have a sense of agency and then actively embracing and engaging that capacity at a local level rather than sub-contracting those profoundly important relationships out to those gravy train charlatans.”
And there have been plenty of those.
Previously, Dr Sarra has written scathingly of Noel Pearson’s foray into education.
“Pearson, and in particular his uninformed and naive assumptions in the education-policy space, have set us back at least fifteen years in our pursuit of educational excellence for all Indigenous students. It is heartbreaking to reflect on the many tens of millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on educational ideas that have been proven not to work. A recent review of the education program at the Cape York Academy schools shows it does not even satisfy the basic requirements of the Australian Curriculum standards.”
Sarra describes the Direct Instruction approach used in Pearson’s schools in Aurukun as a “highly scripted education product procured from the United States…that is based on ideas that were inflicted upon Aboriginal people during the mission days of the last century.”
“The teacher reads a prescribed American script and children respond like parrots by repeating what the teacher has just said. It is a form of rote learning without any intellectual substance that might cause children to think and analyse more deeply. Even more bizarre is that children in a remote Aboriginal school learn about Thanksgiving Day and other prominent American symbols and contexts.”
This patronising approach to education is reflected in other policies like welfare-reform programs, alcohol-management programs and income-management programs, all of which have cost many millions of dollars, and seemingly reflect a yearning for the ‘good old days’ of the Aboriginal missions.
Elise Klein, from Australian National University’s centre for Aboriginal economic policy research, was also critical of Noel Pearson’s Empowered Communities report produced by an unelected body comprising some leaders of Indigenous organisations.
“The ‘development’ set out within the report is largely based on the Cape York Institute model of development. However, this model while being granted more than A$124m since 2008, has shown questionable results for Indigenous people… .”
Another self-proclaimed leader and, according to his book, adviser to five Prime Ministers, is the ubiquitous Warren Mundine.
Warren’s CV is really long with an eye-watering array of boards and committees and appointments – the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, the NSW Local Government Aboriginal Network, the National Native Title Council, the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, the Indigenous Advisory Committee of the Australian Law Reform Commission, NAISDA and the Redfern Arts & Film Festival Foundation to name but a few.
Mundine was also appointed as chair of Tony Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council, a group that has been described as “an amorphous body without clout or a clear purpose.”
Having endured listening to him speak on countless panels, I cannot for the life of me understand why, from all the articulate, passionate, profound thinkers amongst our Indigenous community, Mundine would be chosen by politicians to advise them on anything at all.
And then we have Twiggy Forrest who, for some unknown reason, was commissioned by the government to undertake a Review of Indigenous Training and Employment Programmes.
Forrest feels we are wasting money on trying to Close the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage. The solution is simple, apparently.
“We already have massive levers we have not yet used to end the disparity—the power of the market, enforcing truancy laws and changing our attitudes to expect and demand more for first Australians.”
He recommended that the payment of Family Benefits to families, and education funding to states and territories, be contingent on school attendance, with more fines handed out for truancy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Twiggy is a fan of Direct Instruction too. It seems everyone is an expert when it comes to education.
It was also Twiggy’s review that, after extensive consultation with banks and supermarkets, came up with what he called the “Healthy Welfare Card”, now known as the Cashless Welfare Card.
Economic engagement and achievement, whilst important, is only one measure of developmental success. This punitive patriarchal approach doesn’t consider social cohesion, cultural enrichment and preservation. It doesn’t recognise and respect Aboriginal knowledge or instil pride. It doesn’t foster self-determination and community-based solutions.
As Chris Sarra put it, when recognising and addressing our failings, the goal should be “high-expectations relationships that honour the humanity of Aboriginal people, and in so doing acknowledges their strengths, capacity and human right to emancipatory opportunity.”
You don’t lift people up by smacking them down.