Last October, the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, commissioned a report from Andrew Forrest, one of Australia’s leading business leaders with an unrivalled record of working for the advancement of indigenous Australians, to prepare a report on how governments and business in Australia could create sustainable employment opportunities, to help end the chronic disadvantage which Australian Aborigines experience.
Like many government inquiries, this one went beyond the narrow terms of reference to examine the causes of indigenous disadvantage, and to make major recommendations for the future.
It found that government policies to address poverty and poor health in indigenous communities had failed, and called for a different approach.
Mr Forrest said: “Preceding governments of all persuasions have been guilty of allocating funding on an ad hoc, imprecise basis, without adhering to an all-of-government long-term strategy to completely end the disparity [of opportunity and outcomes] in Australia.
“This had led to what Noel Pearson calls ‘the welfare industry’, and has now proliferated into multi-billion dollar proportions. It represents a multi-billion-dollar vested interest in continuing the disparity.”
He added prophetically, “No doubt, these will be among the most ferocious critics of this review. It is, however, my belief that the lack of faith in the possibility of parity between our first and all Australians directly propagates the thousands of ineffective programs that have attracted funding.”
Mr Forrest called for a different approach, from better maternal assistance to Aboriginal mothers, compelling school attendance with “a new mutual obligation requirement for parents to ensure that children attend school in return for receiving the Family Tax Benefit”, putting English language literacy and numeracy at the centre of indigenous education, and establishing a new Healthy Welfare Card which could be used to access welfare payments.
Mr Forrest consulted widely with executives in the banking and retail industries, to satisfy himself that a Healthy Welfare Card was feasible.
Starting from the fact that those Aboriginal Australians who had received a full secondary education achieve similar levels of employment to that of other Australians, he made numerous recommendations to help address the existing crisis of chronic unemployment among many indigenous Australians.
He called for 1) all Australians under the age of 19 to be in education, employment or trade training; 2) the elimination of discretionary waivers and exemptions “to remove excuses not to work”; and 3) a change to the youth unemployment benefit, now called “Newstart Allowance” (with “Unemployment Support”), and renaming the Youth Allowance as a Transition-to-Work Allowance.
He recommended tax-free status for indigenous commercial enterprises, government commitment to buy first from indigenous businesses, establishing a 4 per cent quota on indigenous employment in government agencies, and incentives to businesses which employ indigenous Australians.
However sensible these recommendations are, they are apparently too difficult for the Abbott Coalition government, which is more interested in trying to include indigenous recognition in the Constitution.
The Forrest Report, commissioned with urgency after the 2013 election, was delivered to the government almost six months ago.
It is clear that the government was taken aback by the report’s unwelcome criticisms of the failure of past government policies, and by the toughness of its recommendations for the future.
The federal government released the report three months after receiving it. It is fair to say that the government statement released at the time damned it with faint praise.
After commending Mr Forrest “for investing so much of his own time and energy in the preparation of this comprehensive report”, it proposed a six-weeks “consultation period” to allow community and interested stakeholders to provide feedback on the report.
Not surprisingly, the stakeholders have been almost uniformly negative in their appraisal of it, perhaps because it might actually work.
The National Congress of Australia’s indigenous people dismissed the report as “a hodgepodge”, and said it would “disempower people”.
The Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the government wasn’t considering the report’s recommendations regarding welfare payments — clearly meaning that it had dismissed them.
The only slight positive was that the chairman of the federal government’s Indigenous Advisory Council and former ALP president, Warren Mundine, announced that the council would conduct a robust audit of all indigenous affairs spending and programs to determine what is working and what is failing.
However necessary that is, it is only a small part of what is required to address the deep problem of indigenous disadvantage — poor health, low life-expectancy, high unemployment, family violence and assault, poverty, alcoholism and drug dependency.
It is time that Australian governments — of all parties and in all states — look to implement the Forrest recommendations, instead of putting them in the “too hard” basket.