A National Survey of Indigenous Australians: Options and Implications.

A National Survey of Indigenous Australians: Options and Implications. – book reviews

John Bern

These three monographs, produced in 1991 and 1992, are the first three publications of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), established under Jon Altman’s directorship at the Australian National University. They focus on the state of current research and prospects for further research in the area of what can broadly be called the economic and welfare status of indigenous peoples in Australia. They are agenda setting, in that they demonstrate the Centre’s primary concerns with employment and general standard of living issues, with extensive data collection, and also with grass roots acceptance of policy initiatives by indigenous people. The aim and coverage of the Centre is national and much of the work represented in the monographs reflects that broad coverage. Where the focus is more specific there is a bias toward rural and remote communities (note particularly the work of Altman, Arthur, Smith and Taylor), but nonetheless, there is still some engagement with the distinct problems of indigenous people in urban contexts.

Specifically, these first three monographs are directed at revealing the serious deficiencies in the research record concerning the economic and social characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The target audience is the Government policy community, particularly ATSIC. The impetus for these three documents, and indeed for the Centre itself, is the renewed interest in research by Aboriginal policy makers, which itself stems from the establishment of ATSIC and, more pressingly, from the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

These monographs can usefully be discussed in the context of their contribution to the development of CAEPR’s agenda. What this agenda is is itself an interesting question. Certainly in the second and third monographs there is a clear questioning of the terms in which policy issues are stated, and the adoption of a critical stance toward the enunciated policy directions of Government. These critiques challenge the rhetorical broad brush stroke approach to equity and justice. They do so because of the lack of precision of the policies involved. More significantly, the main thrust of the critiques stems from a concern with the practicality of policy implementation and the ability to attain the specified goals of policies. The social consequences of policies are dealt with in the context of their impact at the grass roots and the possibility of their producing measurable changes in the life chances of recipients. Local responsibility for and local acceptance of programs is seen, by most of the contributors to Volumes Two and Three, as a primary requirement for successful policy implementation. The concluding, editorial, chapters by Altman demonstrate clearly that this is one of the main thrusts of the Centre.

Volume 1 is an annotated bibliography of policy-related research into Aborigines in the economy published between 1985 and 1990. This sets out clearly the inadequacy of available data and research analyses in this area. There is an excellent introduction on the limitations of the study, the lacunae in research and the structural difficulties in producing such a bibliography. Given these limitations, the coverage is nevertheless useful. There is, however, a certain blandness in the presentation of the published items amounting to a coyness about the broader political context of the material annotated.

The failure to point to the areas of difference, indeed contestation, among the contributions annotated here, means that an opportunity is missed to make the monograph a useful guide to the issues of debate as well as to the range of research effort. One such area of contestation which has had quite significant political implications is highlighted in essays published by Mowbray (in 1986), Wolfe (in 1989) and Turner (in 1986). These essays discuss local governance in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, in the context of Northern Territory Government proposals for institutionalising a particular form of Community Government. Their analyses and conclusions differ sharply. If these differences had been at least noted in the annotations, the reader would be better placed to understand some of the context in which the work was produced. This absence results in an apolitical rendering of the central policy and economic discourse.

Volume 2 contains the proceedings of a workshop, held under the auspices of the The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. The workshop focused on issues related to the attainment of employment equity by Aboriginal people in the near future. The participants saw it as a review of the progress of the Commonwealth Government’s Aboriginal Employment Development Program (AEDP), which was instituted following recommendations of the Miller Report in 1985. The conclusions of the workshop, which focused on three questions, were ‘could do better’. The questions, as set out by Altman, were: Is AEDP conceptually sound? Are the programs delivered effectively and efficiently? Are the targets realistic? It is considered too early to arrive at answers to the second question. For the other two questions the answers lie primarily in cautions about the conventional wisdoms of labour economics.

The introduction provides a good critique of the tendency to read statistical equality as equity, as well as pointing to the virtual impossibility (and undesirability) of achieving statistical equality anyway. As with the first monograph, this one provides another example of the submergence of an essentially political issue in the discourse of economics. Most of the authors show a keen awareness of Aboriginal disadvantage. However, such disadvantage is treated as soluble (or not, as the case may be) within a framework of Government’s culturally sensitive labour market policy initiatives. In defence of Altman and Sanders, who spell out the issues in their first keynote paper, it should be noted that the work they are producing is directed at the policy-makers and those, principally Government Departments, who implement the policies and fund the research.

Altman, in his conclusion to this monograph, points to three papers as being the most significant for the assessment of the attainment of equity. They are those of Tesfaghiorghis and Gray (on the demographic structure), Taylor (on labour migration), and Gregory (on the relation between economic status and equality). These are singled out because they demonstrate the inappropriateness of conventional wisdom concerning labour force participation, the rapidly changing demography of the Aboriginal population and the danger of seeing any absolute improvement in the economic condition of Aboriginal people as indicating improvement relative to the rest of the population. Each indirectly raises important political questions about the nature of Aboriginal participation and challenges the primarily assimilationist emphasis on workforce participation as an indicator of the achievement of equity.

Volume 3 contains the proceedings of a second workshop, also held under the auspices of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. The workshop developed out of the first and focused on whether there was a need to develop a fuller and more reliable statistical data base relating to the conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The focus of the workshop was on questions of equity and efficiency of service delivery, the problems of data collection, and the pros and cons of such widescale and intrusive research. Most of the papers deal with the question of which methodology is best (!) for the collection of data specifically relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – which method is both reliable and culturally sensitive. The survey and case study methods are contrasted, with the predictable conclusion in Altman’s summary that both are valuable and necessary.

The need for more and better-quality data, particularly of a statistical kind, is argued in terms of better equity and efficiency outcomes. The value of any such exercise, argues Altman, is only as good as its acceptance by the people at whom it is directed. Perhaps there is a little slippage here. Are the recipients of this advice seen to be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or the service providers?

Not all the papers support the national survey strategy. This is particularly true of Taylor’s paper on population mobility and the essays by Smith and Arthur. The focus in these papers, and in that of Altman, is more on cultural appropriateness of research and policy, and the social, cultural and locational diversity of the indigenous populations. However, only Bill Jonas’s paper directly addresses the political issues concerning indigenous people’s views of the efficacy of such research. Jonas stresses that all policy-oriented research is embedded in political contexts, the most important of which is that the subordination and dependence of indigenous peoples has silenced their voice. The participants of this workshop have the welfare of indigenous people as their goal, but to be effective researchers – let alone advocates – they need to acknowledge and accommodate present day indigenous political agendas. Jonas spells out the framework of these agendas as the necessity for negotiation, the importance of reconciliation and the calls for sovereignty. Altman and Sanders, and Smith, in particular, have Jonas’s concerns as sub-texts in their papers, but as yet these concerns do not adequately inform this area of policy research, let alone the policies themselves.

These three monographs are important contributions to discussions about policy research requirements and the pitfalls of implementation. They could have been more, but perhaps that would have required a different, politically focused, agenda. As the volumes stand, the political implications are submerged in the preoccupation with the discourse of policy and economic amelioration. The best one can say here, is that the political import of much of the material is played down, although not removed.

John Bern University of Wollongong

COPYRIGHT 1995 Australian Anthropological Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group