Contextualising the Australian policy of overcoming Indigenous disadvantage

In the 21st century, the Australian state has largely sought to erase those limited Indigenous domains of autonomous power that were (re)constructed to accommodate post-settler-colonial relations (Howard-Wagner 2006, 2015, 2018a). Howard's guiding principles of‘accountability’, ‘improving outcomes in key areas’, ‘practical reconciliation’, and ‘promoting economic independence’ (Gardiner-Garden 1999, 23) became the driving force for changes in Indigenous affairs and federal policies, programmes, and practices and funding of services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Howard-Wagner 2018a). Political discourses have discursively constructed decolonising institutions of Indigenous autonomy as ‘failed experiments’ (Howard-Wagner, 2008, 2010a, 2010b). Carefully calculated tactics such as audits, competitive tendering, and outcome-based performance indicators worked to problématisé the management of incorporated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, Aboriginal legal services, and ATSIC, which were subject to widespread political accusations of Aboriginal nepotism, corruption, and poor governance arrangements (Howard-Wagner

2006). Significant reforms to the structure and delivery of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services were foreshadowed. Australia did not see a decentralisation or a minimisation of government, but a highly interventionist approach to Indigenous affairs through reforms to the provision of services and programmes to Indigenous communities. Federal Indigenous laws, institutions, and programs (such as Native Title legislation, the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Reconciliation, and Indigenous service delivery in education, housing. and health) were heavily scrutinised and restructured in the first two terms of the Howard government (1996-2001) (Howard-Wagner 2006). Urban First Nations peoples were perniciously constructed as living in a culture of poverty, a logic that imputes First Nations people as not only welfare-dependent but also pathologises poverty. Consecutive Prime Ministers have also continuously differentiated between the authenticities of remote First Nations peoples compared to urban First Nations peoples - suggesting urban First Nations peoples lack culture (Abbott 2015). The organisations that First Nations peoples created in the era of self-determination have been problematised as ‘gravy trains', ‘inefficient’, ‘lacking accountability', and ‘receiving generous government funding' (Pyne 2003a, 2003b; Pyne cited in Shaw 2003).

While a key group of local Kooris started First Nations organisations in the city of Newcastle, and they and their families are associated with First Nations organisations locally, they have (contra, Vanstone 2004) historically been a model of accountability, transparency, and equity (Smith 2008, 206). Nor have select local Koori families employed by these organisations been the only ones to have access to the Indigenous social infrastructure, programs, and services they provide. Despite their dependency on government funding and its coercive effects in other contexts, community-based First Nations organisations in Newcastle maintained their creativeness and innovation from the 1970s through to the early 21st cenmry.

The Australian government’s rapid-fire criticisms of welfare dependency and the failed experiments of self-determination produced a lasting rhetoric that has been equated with neoliberal policy language that has smoothed the way for the imposition of a particular set of reforms to legislation and policy in relation to Indigenous corporations. Indigenous disadvantage, Indigenous service delivery, and Indigenous political representation.

Political discourses served the purpose of justifying punitive and paternalistic policies designed to shape the behaviour of First Nations peoples and the organisations that they had created, coercing them to conform to a particular way of doing business and providing programs and services aimed at overcoming dependency. Government policy and practices endeavoured to contain and remap the distinct role that First Nations organisations play in society, hindering their capacity to engage in community development and reducing them to an Indigenous service delivery function in a new social service market in this era. Indigenous organisations, which formerly operated like community cooperatives and had a far more societal function in relation to community development and self-determination, were to now operate in a competitive social service market.

competing with mainstream not-for-profits, and each other, for funding - a market that is nonetheless false and does not attribute a true economic, social, or public value to the social service that is provided. What endures from the era of Indigenous community development in cities is local institutions in the form of First Nations organisations (Moran 2016).

This resulted in a significant shift in the way governments did business with First Nations organisations (Howard-Wagner 2018b). One year earlier, the Australian government had tried to mainstream Aboriginal legal services, which had been created in the early 1970s, putting this service out to tender among corporate law firms. One month later, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was abolished. Four months later, the Australian federal government of the day introduced the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Bill 2005 into federal Parliament. The bill was to replace the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976 (Cwth). The new mainstreaming and the new Indigenous Corporations Act were designed to fix alleged problems of accountability and governance within incorporated First Nations organisations (Vanstone 2004). That is, reforms were touted as necessary in terms of addressing the ’deficits’ in First Nations organisations, which were constructed in political discourses as weak governance zones (Clothier 2006, 1) and as lacking accountability (Howard-Wagner 2006). Around this time too, the Commonwealth Development Employment Program (CDEP) was abolished in urban areas, which had aimed to provide work and on-the-job training, and develop the culture and economies of Indigenous communities’ (Hudson 2015, vii). First Nations organisations were progressively affected too by the further marketisation of a newly defined social service sector. Aboriginal organisations were no longer to be subsidised by the state. They were no longer to be given special treatment. This placed many existing urban First Nations organisations in funding competition with secular and religious non-govermnent organisations. They were also subject to a whole new set of regulatory arrangements that dictated the way this newly defined social service sector did business with the government. As Sanders notes, the new mainstreaming at a government department level has seen very different Indigenous-specific programs inherited from ATSIC turned into much more standardised versions of general government programs (Sanders 2014). This new mainstreaming has also entailed the standardisation of Indigenous-specific programs into one-size-fits-all programs and the standardisation of Indigenous sendee delivery, so much so that specialised First Nations organisations become redundant and what becomes important is value for money. This is where mainstreaming meets a market rationality. The new mainstreaming differs in that it is not about mainstream services operating alongside Aboriginal services, as a form of complementary service delivery, which was the case in the ATSIC years. But the new mainstreaming is an apparatus or a technology of neoliberal governance. Further reforms were to come in the state of NSW, diminishing the capacity of many First Nations organisations. This would ultimately be followed by a new federal Indigenous affairs funding scheme in 2014 known as the Indigenous Advancement Strategy

(IAS), which would see 65 per cent of federal funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service delivery go to large, mainstream, not-for-profit organisations and the commercial sector, and only 21 per cent go to community-based First Nations organisations. While in principle the IAS enables First Nations organisations to apply for grants for community need-based programs, it has proven problematic not only in this context but nationally. These further reforms saw some urban community-based First Nations organisations around Australia go into administration. Others stopped operating (e.g. the Hunter Aboriginal Children's Service) and their services were mainstreamed (e.g. the Aboriginal Medical Centre in Western Sydney). Others started to change the way they did business in order to diminish the new stranglehold governments had on them and to reclaim their autonomy and independence and capacity to continue on with their social and cultural development agendas.

Mainstreaming can be understood in the context of its rationale, which contends that overcoming individual Indigenous disadvantage through social and health service delivery could be easily met by mainstream not-for-profits or the corporate sector. It is the idea that you can create effective, efficient, and betterquality social sendee delivery through competitive contracts (Howard-Wagner 2016, 2018a; Howlett, Kekez, & Poocharoen 2017). It is an example of what Mitchell Dean describes as governments creating markets where markets did not formerly exist (Dean 2004, 161).

While not unique to First Nations organisations or not-for-profit organisations in Australia (Howard-Wagner 2006; Sullivan 2009, 2015), the insidious racial-ised effects and how this new regime undermines the rights of First Nations peoples is disturbing (Howard-Wagner 2006, 2009, 2017). This era has ‘resulted in a hostile policy environment that left community development isolated and financially unsupported' in not only Australia but also Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada, and the United States (Aimers & Walker 2016, 3). The solutions themselves, particularly with endeavours to change the way government social- and health-sendee provider organisations did business in this market, were legalistic and bureaucratic, forcing incorporated First Nations organisations to perform more like, and compete with, white western not-for-profit organisations. Arguably, one of the aims has been to assimilate First Nations organisations into the mainstream.

It is unsurprising, as this era has been recorded internationally as one in which there is an obvious policy devaluing community and not-for-profit organisations generally. Scholars have widely illustrated the negative civil society effects of marketisation of social services and the new contractualism (Salamon 1999, 2014; Williams, Cloke, & Thomas 2012). These include, but are not limited to, undermining the role that non-for-profit organisations play in civil society, discouraging advocacy, devaluing democratic citizenship and democratic ideals such as fairness and justice, eliminating distinct specialised services, diminishing social capital, and disempowering citizens (Eikenberry &

Kluver 2004). So, despite social services being decentralised and delivered by community and not-for-profit organisations, they have become merely a social service delivery sector, and there is little to no participation of this sector, citizens, and communities in the design of social sendees (Howlett, Kekez, & Poocharoen 2017).

The consequent sociological effect is that its modalities have reduced the function of First Nations organisations to social- and health-sendee delivery organisations. First Nations organisations, which formerly operated like community cooperatives and had a far more societal function in relation to community development and self-determination, now operate in a competitive social service market, competing with mainstream not-for-profits, and each other, for funding - a market that is nonetheless false and does not attribute a true economic, social, or public value to the social and/or health sendee that is provided.

 
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