Why Aboriginal politics fail

Politicians are quick to propose 'solutions' or spend money, but to solve social and political issues they have to get out to Aboriginal communities and listen to the affected people. At present, most initiatives fail and Aboriginal people are tired of politicians who just keep promising.

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Selected statistics

Number of Aboriginal programmes and activities within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2013-14.
Total funding of these programmes.
Federal and state spending on Aboriginal people in 2015-16.
Number of programmes that target some remote Aboriginal communities.

Why government initiatives fail

After 10 years, and despite closing the gap being a national bipartisan priority, it is clear that Australian governments at all levels are, in key respects, failing Australia’s First Peoples.

— Closing the Gap report 2017

There are many reasons why government projects and initiatives fail.

Blanket solutions don't work

Government programmes often propose one solution that is then applied in many cases. But such blanket solutions rarely work in Aboriginal affairs. What might work in a community in Western Australia's Kimberley region might not succeed in Central Australia.

"We have the bizarre situation where programmes are provided simply because someone thinks they are a good idea," says policy analyst, Sara Hudson. With no evidence of what works and no targeted resources government programmes are nothing but "wishful thinking", Hudson says.

It's not that there is a lack of evidence. Policy makers know very well that evidence is critical for good policies. But, as a report of the independent Productivity Commission in 2020 found, "many admit that in practice they do not rely heavily on evidence, or past experience, when formulating or modifying policies and programs".

Rob McPhee, deputy chief executive of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, also rejects one-size-fits-all programs. "There is a lot of mainstream services that are trying to impose a particular model on the needs of the community," he says. "What we really need to do is work with community to understand what their needs are and then design the services to respond to those needs."

Labor Senator Pat Dodson puts responsibility on governments to develop solutions in conjunction with Aboriginal communities. "Really the onus is on the government to follow through with the co-design processes, involving local and regional leadership to find solutions and to act on those solutions."


Instead of designing blanket solutions, study the unique context of the communities you are targeting and find their strengths.

I see communities on a regular basis where there's frustration with the bureaucracy not listening.

— Pat Dodson, Labor Senator

Despite over 200 years of white intervention, enormous amounts of money plied into white man’s programmes that haven’t worked – Anangu are still being subjected to this same soul destroying regime and their children are paying the price.

— George Kenmore

Story: Why a toothless senior beat a beautiful model

During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 it was vital to inform Aboriginal communities fast and efficiently because Aboriginal people and their many Elders were among the most vulnerable.

Rather than wait for government advice, Aboriginal communities started spreading the news. Goorie woman and author Melissa Lucashenko remembers why this campaign succeeded:

"'Sunshine doesn’t kill the virus,' one Aboriginal health video advised, 'and rain won’t wash it away.' A near-toothless aunty with silver hair was roped in to deliver the message that COVID-19 was really, really serious, you mob. Materials were rapidly produced in multiple Indigenous languages for those with limited or no English. The faces in all these videos had to be blackfellas, and they had to be grassroots faces, because most Aboriginal people have very little reason to trust white authority."

Too many services

In some communities too many service suppliers try to achieve the same thing.

Roebourne in Western Australia has a population of 1,150, but there are around 67 local service providers and over 400 programmes funded by both Commonwealth and state governments. Toomelah in New South Wales, with only 300 people, has 70 service providers. Remote Aboriginal communities of fewer than 1,000 people contend with up to 80 programmes.

Because they were never ended, old programmes have built up over the years, many of which are no longer relevant, while new programmes have been introduced. Too many times new programmes erase previous solutions, organisations, jobs, people and long-term relationships.

"I would like to see adjustments made rather than throw it all out and start from scratch again," says Mick Gooda who co-founded the government's Closing the Gap campaign. "We have had too many day-one's of strategies in Indigenous affairs."

Such oversupply and duplication happens because the Commonwealth government duplicates state government programs in the areas of greatest need (education and community safety). But it looks as if there is no coordination or pooling of resources. No surprise that areas of shared responsibility have caused confusion and created many difficulties.

Tracking progress is almost impossible as you cannot control for the effects of other programmes.


You need to stabilise the environment you operate in first. Ensure solutions stick around for longer. Build on existing solutions and achievements.

There is currently a substantial degree of overlap and duplication between the Commonwealth and States in Indigenous affairs as well as excessively bureaucratic processes and administrative arrangements.

— National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)

Collaborating: A gap too wide?

It is common among Australian politicians (and many experts and professionals) to assume Aboriginal people need to be 'helped' and 'advised' to find solutions for their 'problems'.

The Australian government's Closing the Gap program, adopted after the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, has not been successful in decades, by its own admission. This is mainly because bureaucrats defined the program's targets and not Aboriginal organisations.

"Despite the best intentions, investments in new programs and bipartisan goodwill, Closing the Gap has never really been a partnership with Indigenous people," said prime minister Scott Morrison in 2020. "We perpetuated an ingrained way of thinking passed down over two centuries and more, and it was the belief that we knew better than our Indigenous peoples. We don't. We also thought we understood their problems better than they did. We don't. They live them. We must see the gap we wish to close, not from our viewpoints, but from the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians."

In July 2020 the government finally abandoned its previous program and replaced it with a new set of 16 goals, accountability mechanisms to keep governments on track, a commitment to address structural racism and, importantly, a promise of far greater Aboriginal involvement for implementation and measuring progress.

By perpetuating programs which constantly fail their targets, such as Closing the Gap or the Northern Territory Intervention, the government also perpetuates a view in the population that Aboriginal issues are 'too hard' and destined to fail. The gap might, after all, be on the government's side.

Educate visitors

Much effort goes into training local Aboriginal people and organisations, but visiting outsiders (for example consultants) are often overlooked.

It is important to upskill these professionals. Half of the universities in Australia offer tertiary education to prepare students to work in international development, but there is no equivalent for remote Aboriginal communities, despite often more complex and confronting scenarios.

Instead of creating a brand new solution from scratch and patch it, coordinate with others to achieve collective learning and build long-term working relationships.


Educate visiting professionals and prepare them for big challenges. Use cultural awareness programmes and one-on-one chats with Aboriginal community representatives.

High administration costs

Secondly, every programme has to be administered by a government entity. In the health sector, some funding arrangements are so complex that up to 42 different sources provide funding .

Administration can consume a significant portion of the funds allocated as the following example shows .

"Of $1.3 million allocated to another COAG [Council of Australian Governments] trial in the Far-East Kimberley region of Western Australia, only $327,000 was spent on Aboriginal people and programs over two-and-a-half years.

"The rest of the money was spent on salaries, travel and other related administrative expenses of the Department of Transport and Regional Services, which administers the program."

This equates to 75% of administrative costs.

If you somehow follow the Aboriginal money trail, you'll quickly find that it bypasses the shanty towns, the camp dogs and diabetes row [and ends up with] white consultants and white contractors and white public servants. It ends up in the deep pockets of the Aboriginal industry.

— Ray Martin, broadcaster and journalist

Government wastes money for political reasons

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws show that governments waste thousands of dollars towards the end of a financial year "to reduce the department's surplus" . It's a way departments use to avoid a reduced budget in the next financial year.

The documents exposed the South Australian governments had spent $360,000 on motorbikes for a program that could have been a positive empowerment and suicide prevention program for young Aboriginal men and boys. But the program was scrapped, and the motorbikes never made their way into communities. They were eventually sold off.

The history of Commonwealth policy for Indigenous Australians over the past 40 years is largely a story of good intentions, flawed policies, unrealistic assumptions, poor implementation, unintended consequences and dashed hopes.

— Department of Finance’s Strategic Review of Aboriginal expenditure in 2010

No accountability

"I will honour that commitment [to do things with, and not to, Aboriginal people] not by delivering to Indigenous Australians, but by working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and their communities across Australia..."

These were the prime minister’s words at his first Closing the Gap report to Parliament in early 2016. Yet, a year later, the Australian National Audit Office which reviewed the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, found that across nearly every government-funded program, initiative or portfolio responsibility it continued to deliver imposed, unengaged and often rushed service delivery.

Gracelyn Smallwood, a James Cook University academic who has worked for 45 years in Aboriginal affairs, says there’s still a failure to hold bureaucrats to account for failed multi-million-dollar policies.

And a 2020 report of the Productivity Commission found that there was "currently no government‑wide approach to evaluating policies and programs affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people". Neither was there much Aboriginal consultation for how to evaluate success.

Installing satellite dishes for local television channels in remote communities might look like a good idea, but what if they need maintenance? At $2.50 per kilometre, a technician might charge $2,500 to drive to the community—each way.

Setting ambitious targets for the government's Closing the Gap campaign (which aims to reduce Aboriginal disadvantage) might look good on paper but is pointless if they are not monitored regularly. 10 years after the campaign's launch just one target – to halve the gap in year 12 attainment – was on track.

Aboriginal affairs: Where are the billions spent?

Australian governments pump billions of dollars into Aboriginal policies, health and assistance, trying to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples.

The Australian Productivity Commission (the government's independent research and advisory body) estimated the total direct government expenditure on Aboriginal people to be A$27 billion in 2008‑09, A$33.4 billion in 2015-16 and A$35 billion in 2020.

Despite these huge expenses the government still knows "very little" about whether any of the programs are working, a 2020 report of the Productivity Commission found. In 2011 the Commission said the returns on this investment to be "dismally poor" while the Finance Department thought them to be "disappointing at best and appalling at worst".

Around 2008 the Western Australian government spent $1.2 billion each year on improving the living conditions of Aboriginal people, but the government's approach was "seriously flawed" because funds were allocated to 22 different agencies with no single person or organisation responsible for improving outcomes. There was "an almost complete lack of leadership in the response by government to the disaster of Aboriginal living conditions", a report by WA coroner Alastair Hope found. .

An investigation by online magazine New Matilda in 2015 found that 65% of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) funding for South Australia went to for-profit and commercial sectors and less than 21% to Aboriginal-led not-for-profits.

More than 60% of the IAS funding was directed to ‘Jobs, Land and Economy’, subsidising businesses to employ Aboriginal people. 65% of the these subsidies went to commercial or for-profit operations, 22% to the SA government itself. Aboriginal-led not-for-profits received subsidy funding for a grand total of 6 jobs across the state.

The reality is that evidence about what works and why remains thin.

— Finding of the Productivity Commission

Politics, politics, politics. Policy, policy, policy. Changes, changes, and more changes. What’s next?

— Yalmay Yunupingu, Aboriginal artist and teacher

Case study: "There was all this inefficiency"

NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Victor Dominello, recounts a visit to a small town that he wouldn't identify. He met about 20 of the town's service providers.

''In domestic violence, there were three or four of them doing exactly the same thing, but getting pools of money from different governments and different agencies within governments.

"And guess what? They all had a front office; they were all paying rent. There was all this inefficiency. This was for a population of 2500.

"They only needed one good working unit for domestic violence. The money they saved on the rent could have gone to drug and alcohol services.''

Dominello's answer was to give more power, not less, to local communities. They know what they need, he argues, and they can best see the duplications. Give them more flexibility on spending, he says, but also demand greater accountability.

Aboriginal views of Australian politics

I clearly recollect the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Gough Whitlam, standing before 60 of us Aboriginal people and asking that we tell him what we wanted from his government rather than 'what we think is best for you'. No other Prime Minister had ever made that statement and nobody since, including Kevin Rudd.

— Chicka Dixon, Aboriginal activist and humanitarian

Those words by the late Chicka Dixon give voice to the concerns of many Aboriginal people. They are sick and tired of politicians who seem to be unable to address Aboriginal issues and achieve tangible beneficial outcomes.

Following is an edited extract of Galarrwuy Yunupingu's opinion on politicians and Aboriginal affairs. Galarrwuy is a long-serving former chairman of the Northern Land Council.

A pack of National EmbarrassMints, from 2007.
National EmbarrassMints were handed out during the 2007 federal election campaign, the year then-Prime Minister John Howard was voted out of office. Many Aboriginal people were sick of his notorious refusal to say 'sorry' to the Stolen Generations.

"Every minister I have known—Labor or Liberal—was no different from any other in this sense [of—often unsuccessfully—trying to find answers within their three-year period in office], even though some of them were my friends. They almost always request the same things and repeat the same things, then consult about the same things; then, by the time they finally have to do something, they leave, get moved or are thrown out of office.

"Aborigines too often forget that a politician's full-time responsibility is to themselves and their government. That's their first commitment. Whatever portfolio they receive is just for show. Very few can break the mould and certainly not in Aboriginal affairs.

"Aboriginal affairs ministers get a lot of scrutiny, so they are always busy trying to justify their decisions to the rest of their party members in parliament—to keep their reputations intact in the hope of a better appointment—or ducking for cover, worried sick about their jobs and whether they will be re-elected. That's the real situation.

"Meanwhile, back in the bush, Aborigines have been sitting in their communities for the past 60 to 70 years waiting for service delivery and the deliverer has never arrived. I see this today with housing, health, education and infrastructure. Everything that has been said and promised in the past few years is still hanging in the wind, floating in the distance like a mirage."

Galarrwuy Yunupingu echoes these feelings. In 2008, shortly after the election of Prime Minister John Howard, he voiced his frustration about the lack of progress in Aboriginal politics:

"I am seeing now that too much of the past is for nothing. I have walked the corridors of power; I have negotiated and cajoled and praised and begged prime ministers and ministers, travelled the world and been feted; I have opened the doors to men of power and prestige; I have had a place at the table of the best and the brightest in the Australian nation - and at times success has seemed so close, yet it always slips away. And behind me, in the world of my father, the Yolngu world is always under threat, being swallowed up by whitefellas."

Definition: Pet Aborigines

Sometimes, in critical texts about Australian and Aboriginal politics, you come across "pet Aborigines".

This term is used for Aboriginal people who are employed or consulted by non-Aboriginal institutions or companies, but who are not very aggressive or critical when consulted about issues that affect Aboriginal people. "Pet Aborigines" are telling white politicians and bureaucrats what they want to hear.

They are token black faces of institutions or companies that remain firmly controlled by non-Aboriginal people.

One contemptuous epithet some use for them is “coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside”.

Prof Patrick Dodson, inaugural and long-time chair of the former Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, shares similar views .

"It's not that we haven't had a discussion on matters that concerns us," he says. "We've had plenty of those, we've had marches in the streets, plenty of reports. [But] what we haven't had is a strategic conversation that is facilitated around rules that have got some international application in order to help us all get past the anger and frustration, because we've had all of those reports that have seemed to go nowhere."

Reading or doing?—A politician's challenge

New South Wales politician Victor Dominello who took over the state's Aboriginal affairs portfolio in 2011 gives some insight into how Aboriginal politics look on the other side.

"As soon as I got into the portfolio, I was being absolutely inundated by people saying 'here's a solution, read this book, here's a journal, what about this' and so on," he told an Aboriginal newspaper . "Within a couple of weeks, I thought 'this is crazy, it's going take me years just to read all of this material'. And I think that's part of the problem. Decision makers—people like myself who have to show political leadership—are in their offices reading, reading, reading but not out there and listening to the grassroots."

Under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, introduced by the government in July 2014, a minister had to check a 60-page document before signing off a grant application.

Many know that solutions have to come from Aboriginal people themselves and not bureaucrats.

"People react differently when they travel around Indigenous Australia," says Lauren Ganley . "Some just see problems; others see opportunity; and most have questions. The ones you need to watch are those who have solutions."

Of all politicians former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating set what is considered the "high water mark in political honesty" with his speech in Redfern in 1992, where he bluntly admitted that "we committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice".

There are also voices critical of the Aboriginal attitude. A reader of the Koori Mail Aboriginal newspaper wrote :

"Stop giving up, stop being frustrated. Why don't you strengthen your hearts, get a backbone and gather in council and form an Aboriginal government. One with the courage of its convictions to stand up and say enough is enough."

There is no friendship in politics.

— Ali Cobby Eckermann, Aboriginal poet

It has to be understood by observers of Aboriginal politics in Australia that all governments' primary objectives on the surface is to deal with the bricks and mortar issues while beneath the covers social engineering is going on.

— Michael Ghillar Anderson, Aboriginal leader

Life is getting harder for our people. We are still being stigmatised, demoralised and disempowered even more. The government needs to work with our people and not dictate to us.

— Barbara Shaw, town camp resident in Alice Springs

Homework: Imagine you could decide policy

Imagine you are a politician who has to decide on Aboriginal politics. Carefully read these two views that opine on how to help Aboriginal communities:

View 1

"Administrators [assigned to every community] who could withhold welfare would have real power over their charges to get them to do things such as sending kids to school. That would be the stick; the carrot would be the power to spend and employ on local projects to increase Aboriginal capacity to look after themselves: on repairing houses, keeping the place clean, maintaining the 4WDs properly. All to be done without grant applications.

"We would be upset by such a powerful figure — where is the accountability? — but Aborigines were not upset by it in the past and would not be now. It is quite trad­itional. It is personal and knowable. The accountability would lie in administrators reporting what they were doing and the settlements being inspected."

View 2

"Premises [that Aboriginal people are incapable of running their own affairs] are important because they presuppose an external influence to ‘correct’ what is seen an internal incapability. It has been dangerous suppositions of peoples that get made that they are incapable of successfully managing their own affairs. This premise... is what is causal to the ongoing malaise many are entrapped within. People are trapped in the belief systems of others, that they are incapable and that they are their own problem. These judgments [sic] become powerful because they are held by the majority, by Governments, and the judgements have an avalanche like effect."


  • Write a one-sentence statement, summarising each view.
  • Who do you think is the speaker for each view? What could be their background?
  • Think of actions government could take following View 1. How well would they support Aboriginal self-determination?
  • Which major event affecting Aboriginal communities was influenced by the premise mentioned in View 2?
  • What would the "avalanche effect" look like that is proposed in View 2?


View article sources (33)

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[2] [2a] 'Indigenous Expenditure Report 2017', Australian Government, Productivity Commission, retrieved 11/12/2017
[3] [3a] [3b] [3c] [3d] [3e] [3f] 'When solutions became the problem in Indigenous affairs', SMH 5/2/2016
[4] [4a] 'Close the Gap - Progress & Priorities report 2017', Executive summary, Australian Human Rights Commission, 2017
[5] [5a] 'Call for more accountability', Koori Mail 466 p.11
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[21] 'Give us a chance and success will follow', SMH 6/4/2013
[22] 'Looking back', Koori Mail 454 p.21
[23] 'We need mould-breakers in place of do-nothing Aboriginal affairs ministers', The Australian 25/7/2009
[24] 'Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow', The Monthly, 12/2008, www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2008/december/1268179150/galarrwuy-yunupingu/tradition-truth-tomorrow, retrieved 10/10/2016
[25] 'Dodson in call for 'brave new world'', Koori Mail 490 p.9
[26] [26a] 'Keating speaks out again', Koori Mail 503 p.16
[27] [27a] 'Broken indigenous communities can’t be healed by Canberra bureaucrats', The Australian 12/2/2015
[28] 'Connect, Innovate and Support: the keys to digital inclusion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples', Lauren Ganley, in: Making The Connection - Essays on Indigenous Digital Excellence, Telstra Foundation 2014, p.11
[29] 'Assimilation has taken heavy toll', readers letter, Koori Mail 492 p.23
[30] 'Deadly Voices: An Intervention', Sydney Writers Festival, event 240, 23/5/2010
[31] 'Australia gets bad rap to UN rapporteur over Aborigines', media statement, 17/8/2009
[32] 'Town camps deal', Koori Mail 465 p.7
[33] 'Nicolas Rothwell and Alan Tudge miss the basic human right – self-determination', The Stringer 7/2/2015

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Why Aboriginal politics fail, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/why-aboriginal-politics-fail>, retrieved 25 July 2024

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