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Australian Current Affairs

Public service chief says little achieved for Aboriginal Australians


Australian AboriginalsFormer head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Peter Shergold has lamented how little he achieved for indigenous Australians in his two decades as a senior public servant.

Dr Shergold’s mea culpa comes in a foreword he wrote for a collection of essays, “In black and white: Australians all at the crossroads,” published last month.

“I look back on those years as a period of failure, judged against the criteria of equal opportunity, economic and social mobility, human rights and civic responsibilities, control and empowerment,” said Dr Shergold, who also served as head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission and secretary of the departments of employment, education and multicultural affairs.

“Most of the public servants I worked alongside did their best. Yet, after two decades, the scale of relative disadvantage suffered by indigenous Australians remained as intractable as ever. I can think of no failure in public policy that has had such profound consequences.”

Dr Shergold, who among other roles is the chairman of the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence, said that since retiring from the public service in 2008 he had reflected on that “failure, personal and systemic”, to overcome indigenous disadvantage.

“At present the vast sums spent on benefits too often entrench the poverty the payments are intended to eradicate,” he said. “Surely it’s far better to spend the money on providing assistance to help people get off benefits?

“People — our fellow citizens — need to be given the chance to take full control of their lives. Finally, it’s absolutely vital that political risk aversion or administrative caution does not stand in the way of public and social innovation. There are occasions when we should ‘just do it’.

“We need to explore our appetite for risk, trial new approaches, learn by doing and carefully evaluate the results.”

One of the book’s editors, Anthony Dillon, a researcher from the University of Western Sydney who describes himself as part-Aboriginal, wrote a chapter challenging the “victim” mentality, which kept indigenous Australians from achieving. “Many have learnt to see themselves as victims simply because they have Aboriginal ancestry,” Dr Dillon said.

“Some choose to see themselves as victims for reasons that I would consider relatively minor or trivial, such as failure to acknowledge country, or one’s Aboriginality being questioned on the grounds of having minimal ancestry.”

Northern Territory Indigenous Minister Alison Anderson argued that classes in Aboriginal communities needed to be taught in English, rather than language, so that the education a child received in the Territory would “be as good as in Sydney or Brisbane”.

She said another change “to make schools normal” would be to stop holding events on school days that take kids away.

“No more sports events that go on for days. To say nothing of funerals for weeks. Some people say these events are traditional, but I have my doubts about that. . .

“We need to educate parents to see that a new approach to education will involve some hard choices. No more excuses for children missing school.”

Source: The Australian – My 20 years of failure to close gap: Peter Shergold
 
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