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The end of ideology in Indigenous affairs

By Chris Evans - posted Monday, 27 March 2006

Both major political parties have pursued their ideological convictions in Indigenous policy to the detriment of Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous people have been subjected to a succession of ideologically driven experiments. The Howard Government’s practical reconciliation and quiet revolution are the latest chapters.

Arguments over Australia’s history have not helped one Aboriginal child beat trachoma or prevented one Aboriginal adult from dying before their time. Both Labor and the Coalition must be held to account and ideology removed as the driver of Indigenous public policy.


Labor in government pursued an agenda that focused on rights, reconciliation and self-determination. We invested a great deal of energy and political capital into this agenda: we are proud of our achievements and despondent at their undermining by the Howard Government.

But Labor has been too complacent about our record, and self-satisfied with claims to moral superiority. We put too much faith in the capacity of the rights agenda, self-determination and reconciliation to overcome Indigenous disadvantage.

Conservatives have used our failure to successfully tackle disadvantage to trash the real achievements of the Hawke-Keating period, and are now emboldened to resurrect failed ideological approaches.

The core of the Coalition’s approach is a belief that Indigenous people should be subsumed into the broader mainstream. Their ideology requires a fierce denial of past injustice. They reject self-determination, assertions of Indigenous cultural difference and any healing or symbolic measures.

Practical reconciliation was the Liberals’ ideological reaction against Labor’s rights agenda, which they replaced with policies that would “normalise” Indigenous outcomes so Aboriginal people could live like the rest of Australia.

Practical reconciliation was impractical - lacking clear goals, strategies and evaluation mechanisms, and looking to ideology as a guide, not evidence. Judged on results in areas such as health, education and employment, it has failed miserably.


Recently the government has reorganised the administrative arrangements and repackaged its policy as the “quiet revolution in Indigenous Affairs”: in part to distance itself from the failure of practical reconciliation.

The quiet revolution is a continuation and expansion of ideological policy. Indigenous service delivery is subsumed into mainstream departments and programs with Indigenous difference and special needs ignored. Urban dwellers - about three quarters of the Indigenous population - will have greatly reduced access to Indigenous specific programs or services.

Senator Vanstone labelled remote communities unviable “cultural museums”, reflecting the government’s desire to encourage remote people into urban areas. Rhetoric about Indigenous home ownership disguises the failure to provide adequate housing.

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This is an edited version of Senator Chris Evans’ speech to the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, 10 March 2006.

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Senator Chris Evans is a Senator for Western Australia.

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