‘Practical reconciliation’, Closing the Gap, and overcoming Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage

My government is steadfast in its commitment to the process of reconciliation between [I]ndigenous Australians and the wider Australian community. We want higher living standards and greater economic independence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We will work with states and territories and with ATSIC to achieve practical outcomes designed to overcome the undoubted social and economic disadvantage of our [I]ndigenous people.

(Howard 1996, 8218)

Neoliberalism has taken many twists and turns in Australia, and arguably the neoliberal age was upon Australia well before the election of the federal Howard Coalition government. Increasingly, the federal government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Hawke followed by Prime Minister Keating, began to adopt neoliberal solutions to address Australia's economic problems, and although mostly an economic project, some social policies changed, such as the abandonment of full employment policies (Karumaratnes & Tisdell 1998).

Neoliberalism as a social and racial project became clearly evident under the leadership of the former federal Howard Coalition government. The federal government, through the intervention of then Prime Minister Jolm Howard, reformed welfare state processes and reframed social policy. While an enduring feature of social policy discourses in Australia under Howard, for example, was the prominence given to the interpreted ‘failure" of social welfarism, particularly its failure in relation to Indigenous Australians, then Prime Minister John Howard asserted in an interview on national television that the: ‘pendulum has swung too far in favour of Aboriginal people' (Howard 1997a cited in Howard-Wagner 2006, 2008, 2018a). Indigenous affairs became a conflictual neoliberal arena in which the then Prime Minister alleged that no one group should have separate ‘rights' (Howard 1997b). Howard wound back the special measures in Australian law and policy aimed at addressing past injustices and granting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples separate Indigenous rights (Howard-Wagner 2008). While the winding back of Indigenous rights in Australian law happened fairly swiftly, changes to Indigenous policy, programmes, and services came more slowly (Howard-Wagner 2008).

In 1996, the focus shifted to ‘practical reconciliation', or those practical and effective measures that address the legacy of profound economic and social disadvantage and close the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to overcome Indigenous disadvantage. The federal government began to restrict its Indigenous policy approach to measures that fell within its ‘practical reconciliation’ approach. It left significant issues of ‘unfinished business in abeyance' (Jonas 2003, 54).

Australia’s Indigenous policy approach now began to align with the global focus on poverty reduction, good governance, and new social service delivery markets in the neoliberal age. Neoliberal conceptions of market competition, good governance, and a new social service delivery market now dominated government development and poverty reduction programs in Australia. While partnership and agreement-making were part of government discourses, the focus was on Shared Responsibility Agreements that delivered essential services in remote localities. Australia’s Indigenous policy agenda of Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage foreshadowed a shift in the liberal project that underpinned Indigenous development as self-determination and autonomy from the 1970s to the 21st century.

This policy lens sees individual Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage as a phenomenon in its own right. The solution is essentially a large-scale anti-poverty program. The solution operates within a redistributive paradigm that prescribes to an ‘atomic individualist ontology’ (Mills 2015, 84), which addresses disadvantage through an individualistic framework of individual rights - the rights to a job, education, and housing - and targets individual agency (Howard-Wagner 2018a, 1339). That is, it offers the individual Indigenous citizen, as the beneficiary of redistribution, the opportunity to become part of the mainstream economy (Howard-Wagner 2018a, 1340). It constructs the individual ‘Indigenous citizen' solely as a player in a free enterprise economy, reducing her/him to a participant in a transactional world. It is a world in which First Nations people have little power - conceiving the individual as a free agent whose primary responsibility is to herselfZhimself - and no-one else significantly impacts on understandings of the philosophy of the communal and conununity in Indigenous practices. It is also an assimilatory policy premised on the notion that Indigenous disadvantage will be eliminated once material inequality is overcome and the conditions that produce socio-economic inequality among individual Indigenous citizens are eliminated (Maciel & Vine 2012, 7). So, like poverty governance in the United States, Indigenous poverty governance in Australia ignores the radically disparate impact of past history of racially differentiated and discriminatory treatment (Howard-Wagner 2017; Mills 2015, 84). It dissociates Indigenous disadvantage from an understanding of past policies of racial ordering, dispossession, and trauma and contemporary forms of racism (Bodkin-Andrews & Carlson 2016, 784; Howard-Wagner 2009, 41).

This individualisation of the system has its effects at several levels, breaking down the relational aspects of the system created locally, promoting individual Indigenous freedom to overcome one's individual disadvantage by increasing skills and independence to participate in society, and reducing what were community-based organisations to individual service providers. This policy approach renders invisible the complex Indigenous disadvantage that First Nations peoples experience. It also ignores how socio-economic disadvantage is improved via cultural contexts, social structures, accentuated relationality, and Indigenous political processes.

It sat alongside a neoliberal policy approach that involved the marketisation of individualised social service delivery, as well as wider reforms to Indigenous policy in the neoliberal age. It is an era marked by austerity, conditionality, and expansive welfare reforms. In Australia, Canada. Aotearoa New Zealand, and the United States, a key marker is the restructuring of welfare and social services achieved through new public management reform and market managerialism.

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