The tragedy of Indigenous disadvantage, continued


It might well be Chrenkoff’s First Law of Welfare that all the poverty- and disadvantage-reducing government programs are most successful at reducing poverty and disadvantage amongst middle class bureaucrats and activists. Unlike the universe, government seems to keep expanding indefinitely and bureaucracies, mimicking all living organisms, have as their prime urge to grow and self-replicate. Helping the intended targets becomes almost a secondary concern, as programs become job creation schemes for the caring professionals (and I don’t dispute for a moment that many, if not most, of those so employed are genuinely well-intentioned and motivated by high ideals). Besides, how do you know you’re helping – or how do you know you’re not helping – people when you rarely evaluate the effectiveness of the programs?

The Centre of Independent Studies has just realised its report into Indigenous spending, which amounts to nearly $6 billion a year by federal, state, territory and non-governmental authorities (this is a minimum figure, as the NGO spending has been undercounted). The report has found that less than 10 per cent of a total 1082 Indigenous-based programs have ever been assessed for effectiveness.

This isn’t shocking or particularly surprising anymore. By any range of social and economic indicators, Indigenous Australians lag behind the rest of society, some – particularly those living in remote, economy-less communities – more than others, despite all the government programs and government spending. The $6 billion discussed in the CIS’ “Mapping the Indigenous program and funding maze” is just a tip of the iceberg; these are Indigenous-specific initiatives. Indigenous people also receive some $24 billion a year from general government education, health and welfare spending. This works out to about $50,000 for each Aboriginal man, woman and child in Australia.

I’m not juggling these eye-watering numbers as a bean-counter, which I am not, but to underline the dual – and interwoven – tragedies of continuing Indigenous disadvantage and of continuing government ineffectiveness. Despite the left’s insistence that Australia is a deeply racist and bigoted society, I don’t think most Australians resent an extra $6 billion spent on their fellow Australians; I think they resent that money being spent with so little to show for it as far as “closing the gap”. I’m actually willing to bet that most Australians would be willing to spend not just $6 billion, but $12, or maybe even $18 billion, if they would know that all that money actually did manage to bring Indigenous outcomes up to at least the same level as an Australian average.

Spending money is a start, albeit a poor one (only statists would use expenditure and the number and the size of programs as good metrics of anything). Spending money well is a progress. This is clearly needed, if the CIS study is anything to go by. But in the end, money is only part of the answer, as many Indigenous leaders like Noel Pearson know only too well. The other half of the equation is culture and personal behaviour. Changing that is a lot harder than dropping another few hundred million down a hole and feeling a self-satisfied glow about it.

We are about to have a Royal Commission investigating the treatment of the mostly Indigenous youths in Northern Territory detention. If we want to see fewer black teenagers in restraint chairs and anti-spitting hoods, we should instead have a Royal Commission into why the tens of billions of dollars we spend every year with the best intentions achieve so little, and how to make that money actually work.