Beware the people-focused omnibus

Revisiting Whitlam's vision for organising Indigenous affairs

ORGANISING GOVERNMENT CAN be as important as policy. In his 2017 Wentworth Lecture to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson noted that there had been eleven structures of Commonwealth Indigenous affairs administration under twenty-one ministers in the fifty years since the 1967 referendum. This, he argued, was ‘churn’ in the machinery of government, which impacted on ‘the transfer of knowledge and capability from one generation of public servants to the next’.

I count administrative arrangements in Indigenous affairs since 1967 in five organisational eras, each with multiple internal variations. This places my numbering of organisational arrangements both above and below Parkinson’s eleven. But what seems more important than numbers is the diversity of these arrangements, and whether we have yet identified an administrative structure that might endure. As a scholar of government and public administration based at the Australian National University, I argue that Gough Whitlam was on the right track in organising Indigenous affairs during his term as prime minister from late 1972 to 1975 – and that it is useful to revisit his vision.

The title of this essay comes from Whitlam speaking in April 1973 – the dawn of the second era of Commonwealth Indigenous affairs organisation after 1967. The first administrative era had lasted just over five years, and consisted of a small policy office located in the Prime Minister’s department under Harold Holt, then in two different ‘line’ or ‘sector’ departments under John Gorton and Billy McMahon. This Office of Aboriginal Affairs had left unchanged the Commonwealth’s existing administration of Aboriginal Welfare in the Northern Territory and tried to work alongside it, as well as alongside similar organisations in the states. Whitlam’s vision was more assertive and involved greater organisational change.

Addressing a gathering of ‘Australian and state ministers concerned with Aboriginal Affairs’ in April 1973, Whitlam outlined the recent move to a Department of Aboriginal Affairs that included the Commonwealth’s former Northern Territory Welfare Branch, and could possibly include some small Indigenous-specific elements from state administrations. Having referred to the Commonwealth’s new power flowing from the 1967 referendum, and declaring his government’s intention to ‘assume full responsibility for policy’, Whitlam went on to say that it was not his government’s ‘aim to establish an omnibus Department of Aboriginal Affairs’. Rather, the new government would:

…seek to devolve upon a wide range of federal, state and local authorities, as well as upon organisations of Aboriginals themselves, responsibility for carrying out policies decided upon by my government. These authorities would be responsible for Aboriginals in the same matters and in the same way as they now are functionally responsible for the community generally.

Whitlam’s repeated use of ‘same’ may grate a little nowadays. But I have long thought that these words usefully identified an enduring organisational conundrum in Indigenous affairs and resolved it in a thoughtful way.


THE CONUNDRUM IS how to organise policy relating to groups of people within governments that are predominantly organised by function, such as health, education or defence. If governments just rely on functional line departments, policy for a group of people can feel weak or non-existent. If, on the other hand, governments create a strong, people-focused organisation, there is a risk that the functional departments will no longer see those people as their responsibility. Whitlam’s administrative balancing act was to have a Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA), but not an ‘omnibus’ one. Implicitly, he was criticising previous state and Commonwealth territory practices of having strongly focused Aboriginal welfare authorities that let functional government departments avoid involvement in Indigenous issues. Whitlam’s vision for the future in 1973 had two aspects: that responsibility for Indigenous issues would be widespread throughout government, and that organisations of Aboriginal people themselves would also be involved. In pursuit of this second aspect of the vision, the new DAA convened an elected advisory body of Indigenous representatives, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), and encouraged the incorporation and funding of Indigenous community organisations through supplementary Indigenous-specific programs. But there would be much else besides going on within government, both for and with Aboriginal people.

This second era in the post-1967 organisation of Indigenous affairs lasted from late 1972 until 1990. Its variations included the addition of a statutory authority, the Aboriginal Development Commission, in 1980, and reform of the NACC into the National Aboriginal Conference from 1977 to 1985. DAA’s demise in the late 1980s was part of a critique that self--determination policy in Australian Indigenous affairs had not gone far enough. For this, Commonwealth executive power over Indigenous programs and policy needed to be shared between the minister and an elected Indigenous representative body. Thus was created the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the third era of national Commonwealth Indigenous affairs organisation after 1967. As a statutory body of elected Indigenous representatives from 1990 to 2005, ATSIC did indeed share Commonwealth executive power with its minister and public servants.

On Whitlam’s organisational conundrum, both DAA and ATSIC did quite well in my judgment. They balanced the ‘push’ for line functional departments of government to service Aboriginal citizens with the ‘pull’ of the Indigenous affairs portfolio trying to promote and develop its own policy and programs. This was not without tension, but it was generally productive. In health, for example, there was considerable debate during the 1980s over the respective roles of the departments of Health and Aboriginal Affairs, until in 1995 Indigenous health was removed from ATSIC and placed firmly in the Commonwealth Department of Health. This was done with the support of Aboriginal Medical Services, originally nurtured and funded under DAA’s supplementary Indigenous-specific health programs. Once in the Department of Health’s Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, these Indigenous programs helped highlight the inadequacies of Indigenous access to that department’s general programs and kept pressure on the Health department to do more.

Budget-related papers of the early 1990s showed ATSIC to be responsible for about two-thirds of Commonwealth spending on Indigenous-specific programs. After the administrative relocation of Indigenous health in 1995, this fell to around 55 per cent and in time probably to below half. While both DAA and ATSIC had significant Indigenous-specific programs and policy responsibility, functional departments of government were also being pushed to pay attention to Indigenous issues both through general and Indigenous-specific programs.


THE FOURTH POST-1967 era in Indigenous affairs organisation began in 2005 with the abolition of ATSIC. Self-determination policy and its Indigenous representative bodies were together declared a ‘failure’, not only by the ageing Coalition government under John Howard, but also, as importantly, by their former Labor promoters in frustrated, long-term opposition. This fourth organisational era dispersed ATSIC’s Indigenous-specific programs to nine functional ministerial portfolios. Just a small Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination was retained, first in a somewhat incongruous Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, and then in a more conventional social policy grouping of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

This emphasis after 2004 on the role of line functional departments in Indigenous affairs continued under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments from 2007 to 2013. There was a slight re-concentration of Indigenous-specific programs and policy in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, but many other functional portfolios, like Employment, Health, Attorney-General, Environment and Education were also important government players. The more significant move from these Labor governments was the development and funding of a new national Indigenous representative body, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. This revisited, somewhat weakly, the second aspect of Whitlam’s vision, involving Indigenous people and organisations.

This line-departments era in Indigenous affairs administration was often disparaged as ‘mainstreaming’. I resisted that terminology and tried to be more positive about its potential, particularly if combined with the redevelopment of a strong national Indigenous representative body. Over time, in truth, I was disappointed, as line departments reviewed the very distinctive Indigenous-specific programs they had inherited from ATSIC and reformed them into less distinctive versions of their general functional programs. The distinctiveness of Indigenous circumstances was losing out to simple ideas of equality, but even so there was still potential if Indigenous representative bodies could increase their voice and help Indigenous constituencies access line-department resources.

The fourth era of post-1967 Indigenous affairs organisation ended abruptly in 2013 with the election of the Coalition under Tony Abbott. Declaring himself a ‘prime minister for Indigenous affairs’, Abbott pursued an approach of drawing all Indigenous-specific programs and policy into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). Some hoped that this would bring prime ministerial authority to Indigenous policy. I was more sceptical from the outset, thinking that more concentrated Indigenous-specific funding would be vulnerable to reduction and leave Indigenous organisations with less room to manoeuvre. And so it turned out. The new Indigenous Affairs Group within PM&C talked of reducing numbers of Indigenous-specific programs from a hundred and fifty to five. The result was the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, a single four-year program that pitted a vast functional range of Indigenous organisations against each other (and others) in bids for reduced funds. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was singled out for massive funding cuts.

A counter move came from functional line departments that resisted the centralisation of their Indigenous-specific programs in PM&C. Health was again the leader, arguing hard for retention of its Indigenous Health Division. The Attorney-General also argued to keep some native title programs, and Education to keep ABSTUDY policy even if delivery was now with Centrelink under the Department of Human Services.

In 2013, Abbott came close to creating the people-focused omnibus that Whitlam had sought to avoid four decades earlier. This was not particularly difficult, as ideas of returning to a single funding source have flourished in Indigenous affairs in reaction to the involvement of a ‘multiplicity of agencies and programs’ that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. I have long thought the single funding-source idea misguided. Multiplicity within government can be a resource for community actors as much as an inconvenience. It can increase room to manoeuvre and should be understood as normal. Government is a vast, divided enterprise that creates an illusion of unity through language. In practice, government is inevitably a multiplicity and this needs to be embraced. I was glad to see Health retain its Indigenous Health Division and worried when other departments didn’t argue so strongly against the Abbott move.


AFTER THE TRANSITION to Turnbull as Coalition Prime Minister, I began to detect a move away from Abbott’s Indigenous affairs vision of a people-focused omnibus back towards the Whitlam vision of widespread involvement throughout government, plus doing Indigenous affairs ‘with’ Indigenous people. On three occasions in the first half of 2017, I heard officers of the Indigenous Affairs Group state in public forums that ‘only 7 per cent’ of government money flowing to Indigenous Australians came through PM&C. The source of this new departmental mantra was unacknowledged, but one quick Google search made it clear.

The Productivity Commission’s 2014 Indigenous Expenditure Report estimated total government expenditure on Indigenous Australians in 2012–13 at $30.3 billion, with a little over half coming from the states and territories, and a little under half from the Commonwealth. The Productivity Commission also estimated that $24.7 billion of this expenditure came from general programs and $5.6 billion from Indigenous-specific programs and services. About $2 billion per annum of this latter Indigenous-specific expenditure since 2014 has come through the Indigenous Affairs Group within PM&C, equating to roughly 7 per cent of $30 billion.

These officers of the Indigenous Affairs Group within PM&C seemed to be disowning the Abbott vision for Indigenous affairs administration and moving back towards the Whitlam vision. The Indigenous Affairs Group did not want to be seen as a people-focused omnibus within government. It was trying to emphasise that there are far more resources available to Indigenous people from other parts of government, both through Indigenous-specific programs and, more substantially, through general programs.

This is similar to strategies pursued by DAA through the 1970s and 1980s and by ATSIC in the 1990s and early 2000s. They used to talk about their Indigenous-specific programs being ‘supplementary’ to the ‘citizenship services’ that were (or ought to have been) available to Indigenous people through the general programs of functional government departments. And if functional government departments became aware that their general programs were not delivering well to Indigenous people, then they too needed to think about supplementary Indigenous-specific programs. This was all good administrative strategy back in the days of DAA and ATSIC and it was still good strategy for the Indigenous Affairs Group in 2017.

Other events in 2017 led me to sense more strongly that the Turnbull Coalition government might be revisiting the Whitlam vision for organising Indigenous affairs. The Referendum Council’s First Nations Regional Dialogues from February to April, and its National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May, seemed to be re-engaging Indigenous people in a way that gave substance to the idea of doing Indigenous affairs ‘with’ Indigenous people. The resulting Uluru Statement from the Heart was genuinely new in its direction, calling for a First Nations Voice to Parliament to be entrenched in the Constitution and for a Makarrata Commission. The Referendum Council’s Final Report in June continued to state a strong Indigenous perspective. Taken in combination with PM&C’s mantra about more resources being available to Indigenous Australians across many parts of government, this new approach seemed to embrace the twin aspects of the Whitlam vision for organising Indigenous affairs: involvement of Indigenous people and organisations, combined with widespread responsibility across many parts of government. Perhaps Australia was ready to revisit this vision after two decades moving away from it.


MY FIRST VERSION of this article was written for a talk in early October 2017. The tone was hopeful. The Whitlam vision seemed to have renewed relevance and possibilities as a guiding plan. But then came 26 October, when Turnbull, his Attorney-General and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs responded to the Referendum Council’s Report in a way that could only be described as disrespectful. The First Nations Voice to Parliament was dismissed due to ‘all Australian citizens having equal civic rights…to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national Parliament’. This simplistic, individualised version of the equality principle was described as ‘fundamental’ and ‘universal’, a reason why the Voice to Parliament was ‘radical’ and should not be pursued. Hopefulness was gone.

Indigenous affairs in Australia will not progress while such simplistic, individualised notions of equality dominate. Indigenous Australians need to be recognised as enduring political communities with roots in country prior to British colonialism and claims that flow therefrom, as peoples with whom settler Australians must build good inter-group relations. That is what constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is about. Until we settler Australians accept these deep facts, progress in Indigenous affairs will be slight, if not illusory.

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