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Policy approaches to addressing Aboriginal social inclusion in South Australia.


In truth, we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia--the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be--truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.

--Paul Keating, speech at the Australian launch of the International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples, Red fern Park, NSW, 1992

It is a sad fact that over twenty years after Keating's 'Redfern Park speech' Australia is still struggling to address the socio-economic disadvantage of the Indigenous population. Aboriginal disadvantage presents one of the most serious and pressing social justice challenges for Australian governments --one that requires a sustained and focused policy response at both national and state level.

This article considers some of the state and federal policies that have been adopted over the last decade with the purpose of improving the disadvantage of South Australia's Indigenous population, which numbered just over 37,000, or 2.3 per cent of the South Australian population, in 2011 (ABS 2013). (1) In South Australia, as in the rest of Australia, Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged population group in the state and are at 'significantly higher risk of poorer wellbeing and social exclusion compared with non-Aboriginal South Australians' (Glover et al. 2010: 33). In particular this article examines the social inclusion policies that were implemented from 2002 under the auspices of the SA Social Inclusion initiative and the SA Strategic Plan and the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage and Closing the Gap initiatives at national level. It discusses the concept of social inclusion that has underpinned these policies and considers whether this approach has been an appropriate one for addressing the disadvantage of Aboriginal South Australians. A number of concerns are raised, including the top-down nature of many of the initiatives, the lack of effective involvement of Aboriginal viewpoints in formulating the strategies, and the emphasis on 'mainstream' targets of social inclusion at the expense of more culturally nuanced objectives. State and federal social inclusion strategies were overlapping with multiple layers of indicators, which did not clarify links between specific policy initiatives and outcomes.

The structure of the article is as follows: it begins with a discussion of the origin of the concepts of social exclusion and inclusion and addresses the adoption of these terms in the Australian context. The next section examines Aboriginal policy developments related to the South Australian Social Inclusion Initiative and the State Strategic Plan during the Rann Labor government from 2002-11. This is followed by discussion of the SA initiatives in the context of federal Indigenous policy developments over the same time period. An assessment of the appropriateness of social inclusion frameworks for addressing Indigenous disadvantage is developed in the next section. Finally, a conclusion summarises the main points of the critique.

Social exclusion and social inclusion: the context of policy frameworks

In the last decade both SA and Australian governments used rhetoric of 'social inclusion' to frame social policy directions, including those intended to improve the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. While the theoretical derivation of this policy is less than clear, it owes a good deal to the 'social exclusion' approach, which became popular in the UK and Europe in the 1990s. Social exclusion is itself a contested term with little precision in its definition, which focuses on the multi-dimensional aspects of social disadvantage that, for some, create barriers to participation in the mainstream life of society (see Marston & Dee in this volume). Under the Blair Labour government in the UK the social exclusion agenda translated into 'targeted early intervention, investments in education, welfare-to-work policies, mutual obligation and joined-up government' (CSSA 2010: 14).

The origin of the concept of social exclusion is often attributed to French academics such as Lenoir in the 1970s, although it has also been suggested that the concept has some links with the American 'War on Poverty' literature of the 1960s and the associated notion of an underclass (CSSA 2010: 9). Hunter and Jordan suggest that social exclusion gained currency as an approach because of perceived limitations of income poverty measurements as a tool to explain complex disadvantage (Hunter & Jordan 2010: 244). The rhetoric of social exclusion became popular in Britain in the 1990s when Prime Minister Tony Blair established a Social Exclusion Unit, which operated until 2009 (Fawcett et al. 2010: 163). However, as Levitas points out, the Blair government's theorisation of the term was vague and did not explain causal processes or define linkages with outcomes (cited in CSSA 2010: 10). The social exclusion policies adopted by the Blair government assumed that social exclusion was associated with multiple linked problems or disadvantages, entrenched disadvantage, intergenerational social exclusion, and geographic and ethnic concentrations of disadvantage (CSSA 2010: 10).

While it appears that the essence of social exclusion analysis is the recognition of multi-dimensional disadvantage and the barriers this creates for social participation, there are concerns that in the formulation of policies designed to overcome social exclusion, governments can lose sight of the complex sources of disadvantage, instead emphasising a particular cause and effect. In this way social exclusion rhetoric can be used to justify political agendas. It has been claimed that in the UK the social exclusion policy framework focused narrowly on exclusion from employment, hence individualising exclusion and discounting 'its embeddedness in social and economic practices' (Grover, cited in Fawcett et al. 2010: 163). Hunter and Jordan identify similar tendencies in social exclusion indicators developed by the European Union (EU), arguing that they 'reduce the complex notion of social exclusion to relatively standard indicators of participation in the market economy' (2010: 246).

The progression from the idea of social exclusion to the related notion of social inclusion which has been preferred in Australian government policy making--is not easy to document nor are the distinctions between the two concepts precise (Saunders, in this issue, discusses this point at greater length). Hunter argues that in practice, public debate recognises little difference between concepts of social exclusion and social inclusion, although the latter was intended to move away from a deficits perspective to emphasise a more positive approach to achieving social participation (Hunter 2009: 52). This issue is covered more fully in Marston (this issue).

The social inclusion perspective resonates with the 'capabilities' approach adopted in development theory by Sen (2000) and Nussbaum (2000), which also recognises the importance of participation in the community and suggests that poverty 'has less to do with the absence of income than with people's lack of capacity to be who they want to be' (Smyth 2006: 139). In this conceptualisation, poverty is a result of capability deprivation. Importantly, Sen does not see social exclusion as the sole source of capabilities deprivation--it can also be a result of 'unfavourable terms of inclusion and adverse participation' (2000: 28). This is a significant point to be considered when assessing the impact of social inclusion policies on members of cultural minorities where the processes of inclusion may themselves become a threat to the minorities' distinct cultural preferences and hence a source of disadvantage. As Saunders writes: '[although the need to take part (or be included) is absolute and applies to all communities, its achievement may require resources, opportunities and motivations that differ according to the standard of living and customs applying in specific societies' (2002: 171). This, it could be argued, is equally relevant to distinct cultural or racial groups within societies for whom the application of social inclusion programs predicated on mainstream characteristics could, at worst, amount to a de facto policy of assimilation and become a source of disadvantage.

SA Social Inclusion Initiative

In the past SA has been seen as a 'pace-setter' in its approach to many social policies, especially in the Dunstan ALP era. Don Dunstan was SA's Attorney General in the Walsh government of 1965-7 and Premier from 1967-8 and 1970-79. He initiated an extensive program of social reforms in a wide range of areas, including electoral arrangements, community welfare, and industrial relations. Under his leadership SA introduced the first Equal Opportunity unit in Australia, the first race discrimination legislation (the Prohibition of Discrimination Act 1966) and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (Mills 1981: 115-119). He was a passionate supporter of Aboriginal rights, appointing the first Aboriginal State Governor, Sir Douglas Nicholls, and championed policies of Aboriginal self-determination and land rights long before they were accepted by other Australian governments (Summers 1981: 127)

The Rann ALP government elected in 2002 wanted to emphasise economic responsibility, but at the same time re-establish SA's focus on social justice (Newman et al. 2007: 8; Spoehr &c Wilson, this issue). The main focus of the discussion in this paper is the period from 2002 to 2011 when Mike Rann was Premier. Premier Rann established the Social Inclusion Initiative within days of forming government and described it as a mechanism to continue Dunstan's philosophy (Rann in Cappo 2009: 3). Neither the Premier, nor Monsignor David Cappo--a senior member of the Catholic Church in SA--whom he appointed as chair of the Social Inclusion Board (SIB), appeared to have a precise theoretical notion of the concept of 'social inclusion'. Monsignor Cappo wrote in one of his reports: 'What is social inclusion? Many definitions abound. I have never focused on any one definition in particular' (Cappo 2009: 5). Rather, he preferred to use 'keywords and concepts' to define social inclusion. These were specified as

providing people with the fundamentals of a decent life; opportunities to engage in the economic and social life of the community with dignity; increasing their capabilities and functioning; connecting people to the networks of local community; supporting health, housing, education, skills training, employment and caring responsibilities (Cappo 2009: 5).

The independent Social Inclusion Board reported directly to the Premier and was responsible for addressing what were known as 'references'--issues referred to it by the Premier. This close relationship between the Premier and the SIB became a crucial feature of the Social Inclusion Initiative. Key aspects of the Social Inclusion Initiative approach were described as 'joined-up' implementation of programs, using innovative approaches, developing partnerships with stakeholders, and focusing on outcomes (Newman et al. 2007: 12).

The SIB and the policy unit in the Premier's department that supported it were not responsible for implementation, but rather were tasked with identifying appropriate directions to be taken by State government agencies in implementing policies and then monitoring outcomes. The independence of the SIB from the bureaucracy was seen as an important factor in its capacity to bring about change through a 'joined-up government approach', overcoming fragmentation in service delivery and promoting agency cooperation to address 'complex, multidimensional and inter-linked needs' (Cappo 2009: 9). It was expected that social inclusion strategies should tackle multiple disadvantages through co-ordinated 'joined up' approaches, linking government with business and non-profits though partnerships: an emphasis on 'the interconnectedness of problems, their causes and their solutions' (TDPAC 2008: 23).

In 2004, the SA government established the State Strategic Plan, intended to provide specific targets for what then Premier Rann defined as his government's 'twin pillars of social inclusion and economic development' (Newman et al. 2007: 10). The Strategic Plan became the blueprint for government policy initiatives, and many of the objectives of the Social Inclusion Initiative were integrated into the State Strategic Plan.

In 2006, after the re-election of the Rann government, Monsignor Cappo was appointed Commissioner for Social Inclusion, with responsibility for monitoring the implementation of the government's social inclusion agenda. Monsignor Cappo resigned his position in 2011 with the replacement of Premier Rann by new ALP leader Jay Weatherill, and the SIB was dismantled (Owens 2011). The Social Inclusion Unit was transferred from the Department of the Premier and Cabinet to the Department of Communities and Social Inclusion.

Social Inclusion Initiative and Aboriginal people

The SIB's agenda was determined by the references directed to it by the Premier. There were relatively few specific references concerning Aboriginal people. However, an Aboriginal focus was achieved across a wide range of program areas through the evaluation and monitoring processes that the SIB built into its activities. Regular reports against nominated outcomes were required from State government agencies. One of the nominated reporting requirements was outcomes for Aboriginal people (Newman et al. 2007: 30). As a result, many initiatives that were not exclusively concerned with Aboriginal people were evaluated in terms of their impact on the Aboriginal population.

As an example, one of the SIB's early references was the reduction of homelessness (SIB 2003: 6). This was not seen as a specifically Aboriginal issue, but the 2003 report by the SIB, Everybody's Responsibility: Reducing Homelessness in South Australia, found Aboriginal people were 'alarmingly over-represented in the homeless population' (ix). The 2001 Census showed the rate of primary homelessness in the Aboriginal population to be 58.9 per 10,000 compared with 6.1 per 10,000 in the general population (SIB 2003: 11). Given this analysis, the SIB response had to address Aboriginal homelessness as part of its strategy. One recommendation of the SIB report was that the SA government should develop a policy on homelessness that included 'specific actions targeting the needs of Aboriginal people' (SIB 2003: ix).

In 2003 the SA government endorsed the SIB's recommendations and funded an action plan to assist homeless people. Several of the initiatives targeted 'rough sleepers' and other long-term homeless people. According to the Commissioner for Social Inclusion, this resulted in a dramatic 30 per cent decrease in rough sleeping in Adelaide between 2001 and 2008 (Cappo 2008: 4). Spoehr and Wilson, in this issue, comment at greater length on the SIB's homelessness initiative.

Another 'reference' directed to the SIB by the Premier was to increase school retention rates for young people at risk. Aboriginal students were identified as one of the largest groups of early school leavers and were prioritised, together with young people in regional areas and those under the guardianship of the Minister (Newman et al. 2007: 22). This led to a State government-funded initiative in 2004 for a package of school retention measures intended to improve educational outcomes, many of which were accessed by Aboriginal students. In 2010 it was reported that along with a general improvement in SA's school retention rate, the number of Aboriginal students finishing school had increased by over 13 per cent against the 2001 rate (Cappo 2010: 2).

In 2007 the Premier asked the Commissioner for Social Inclusion to investigate serious repeat youth offending. This resulted in the report To Break the Cycle, which provided a large number of recommendations to engage young repeat offenders in more positive pathways to social re-engagement through education and recreational programs, and to improve administrative processes to ensure better integration of community service programs and other aspects of rehabilitation programs (Cappo 2007). The report stressed that while Aboriginal youth offenders were significantly over represented in this group, they were not the majority (Cappo 2007: 6). Tater, concerns were raised that the government had not responded to this report (see below).

In each of the cases described above, the 'reference' directed to the SIB by the Premier was not centred on Aboriginal social inclusion specifically, but on aspects of social disadvantage that affected a diverse group of people: the 'homeless' and 'early school leavers', 're-offenders', etc. The high incidence of Aboriginal people falling into these categories meant that programs were developed for Aboriginal people, but Aboriginal disadvantage as a whole was not the central focus, nor was Aboriginal social inclusion considered holistically. However, in reporting to the SIB on each reference, one of the outcomes to be accounted for was what had been achieved for Aboriginal people (Newman 2007: 30)

In 2005, a new reference was identified that framed Aboriginal disadvantage in a broad context: the SIB was asked to address the important issue of improving Aboriginal health and wellbeing. The 'flagship' of this initiative was the establishment of the South Australian Aboriginal Sports Training Academy (SAASTA), which provides secondary and vocational education programs with a sports focus--the aim is to 'improve the health and wellbeing outcomes of participants and provide pathways for further education and employment' (GOSA 2009: 9). This initiative has had some modest success: between 2006 and 2008 11 SAASTA students completed the South Australian Certificate of Education (GOSA 2009: 9), but by 2013 50 SACE completions were expected for the year (DECD 2013). Despite the improved educational outcomes it is questionable whether such a narrowly sports-based initiative is an effective way to address the health and wellbeing needs of the total Aboriginal population of SA.

Additional projects designed to improve Aboriginal health and wellbeing included the establishment of a Spirit Festival showcasing Aboriginal culture; a partnership with the National Alcohol Education Rehabilitation Foundation to provide early intervention and intensive case management of substance abuse amongst young Aboriginal people; and the Aboriginal Power Cup--a partnership with the Port Adelaide Football club to improve leadership and development opportunities for young Aboriginal people (GOSA 2009: 9). These initiatives are positive steps, but limited in scope and accessibility, especially for the remote Aboriginal population. The social inclusion programs developed in response to the Aboriginal health and wellbeing reference seem quite inadequate in the context of the broad and systemic nature of Aboriginal disadvantage in South Australia and hardly of a scale to bring about significant improvement to the Aboriginal population as a whole.

SA Strategic Plan

The impact of the Social Inclusion Initiative in shaping Aboriginal policy can only be fully understood by examining the development of the SA Strategic plan (SASP), which is the blueprint for state policy across the board. With the approval of the Premier the SIB had significant input into the identification of the targets adopted in the SASP, which addressed social policy (Newman 2007: 27). By integrating its targets into the SASP it created added momentum and accountability across the whole of government. The original SASP was announced in 2004 and set out a list of 79 targets grouped under six objectives. Two of these were targets for improving Aboriginal wellbeing: first, to reduce the gap between Aboriginal and mainstream populations in relation to health, life expectancy, employment, school retention rates, and imprisonment; secondly, to increase the percentage of the Aboriginal population in the South Australian public sector from 1.2 per cent to 2.0 per cent within five years (GOSA 2004: 8).

Assessing progress

In 2006 the first progress report on the SASP was released and overall progress towards these two targets was described by the Audit committee as 'lagging', with 'negative movement' in relation to the Aboriginal health and wellbeing target (GOSA 2006: 78-80). The report recommended the inclusion of more specific Aboriginal targets in the next version of the SA Strategic Plan. In 2007 the government released a revised and updated strategic plan with an increased number of Aboriginal targets. They included targets for addressing Aboriginal unemployment, improving life expectancy, resolving native title claims, including Aboriginal studies in school curricula, Aboriginal leadership, Aboriginal wellbeing, housing, education, and improving rates of Aboriginal employment in the public sector (GOSA 2007).

The 2008 SASP Progress Report found modest improvements in unemployment, life expectancy, Aboriginal Lands, housing, and Aboriginal employees in the public sector targets, but rated outcomes in understanding of Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal leadership and Aboriginal education (early years) targets 'unclear'--largely due to paucity of data for measuring a new target (GOSA 2008: 96). The incidence of Aboriginal imprisonment rose significantly from 1,624 per 100,000 population in 2004 to 2,335 per 100,000 population in 2007 (GOSA 2008: 98) and by 2009 it had reached 2,597 per 100,000 (GOSA 2010: 102). This mirrors a corresponding rise in rates of Indigenous incarceration across the country, documented by Weatherburn (2014). In SA this trend may be explained by government policies to get 'tough on crime' exemplified by the inelegant slogan of SA Treasurer Kevin Foley to 'rack 'em, pack 'em and stack 'em' in prison (Haines 2010: 50). This does not suggest any fine-tuning of a 'joined-up government' approach to policy as indicated in the Social Inclusion Initiative.

The 2008 report identified the lack of an agreed index of Aboriginal wellbeing as a difficulty, and as a result pronounced progress against the outcome for the Aboriginal wellbeing target (T6.1) to be 'unclear' (GOSA 2008: 96) (Saunders, in this issue, discusses aggregation procedures for deriving indexes of exclusion/ inclusion). In 2010 progress towards the improvement of Aboriginal wellbeing was assessed against a new set of 21 indicators grouped under headings of early childhood, schooling, economic participation, health, healthy homes, governance and leadership, reconciliation, culture and traditional lands. These were developed by the government in consultation with an Aboriginal advisory council (GOSA 2010: 100-102), although the role played by this body has not been specified. Some of the listed indicators were existing targets already included in the SASP.

In the 2010 Progress Report performance against the target of improvement of Aboriginal wellbeing was assessed as 'positive' on the basis that there was 'positive movement in the majority of the indicators listed' (GOSA 2010: 100). This conclusion was drawn from aggregating across a highly diverse set of 'wellbeing' indicators, so that little or negative progress on one indicator such as low birth weight of babies was offset against an area of improvement such as the number of park management plans signed off.

This provides a good insight into the difficulties associated with this approach to policy assessment. The measurement of 'progress' over time against a broad outcome such as 'wellbeing' is contestable and fraught with problems and can easily become unreliable, inconsistent and, at worst, manipulated, where the methodology for assessing change is not fixed or where the chosen indicators are not adequate to capture the appropriate dimensions of the desired outcome. It raises difficult questions about the relative importance of diverse indicators such as healthy life expectancy, imprisonment rates, labour participation rates and the number of schools with Aboriginal studies in the curriculum and the significance of each indicator's contribution to the achievement of overall improved Aboriginal wellbeing. It also suggests there is a big question raised by the social inclusion methodology--are the indicators used to assess progress adequate markers of progress towards the desired outcomes and do they capture a valid notion of Aboriginal wellbeing which is distinct from that applied to the rest of the Australian community?

In the 2010 Progress Report it was recommended that 'future targets in the area of Aboriginal wellbeing should be made more specific and expressed in terms of Closing the Gap, for consistency with the targets in the National Indigenous Reform Agreement that has been reached by the Council of Australian Governments' (GOSA 2010: 100). This was not put in place and the recommendation was repeated in the 2012 report (GOSA 2012: 24), suggesting that for a significant period there were overlapping and inconsistent targets for achieving improvements in SA Aboriginal disadvantage between State and national agencies.

The national policy framework

While the Social Inclusion Initiative and the SASP were being rolled out in South Australia from 2002, there was also significant policy reform in Indigenous Affairs at the national level. In many ways this overlaid and, in some program areas, shaped South Australian activities where SA signed up to national agreements, for example in housing. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) became an important driver of strategic directions in Aboriginal policy at state and national level. In 2004 COAG adopted a National Framework of Principles for Government Service Delivery to Indigenous Australians, committing national, state and territory governments to a set of principles that included sharing responsibility, harnessing the mainstream, streamlining service delivery, improving transparency and accountability, and focusing on priority areas. It required services and programs to be reworked to deliver 'practical support' to Indigenous communities. The National Framework also required commitment to Indigenous participation and capacity building (COAG 2004).

COAG was also responsible for the development of several reporting processes, requesting the Productivity Commission's Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision (SCRGSP) to produce a regular Indigenous compendium as a companion report to its usual Report on Government Service Provision. In 2003 the SCRGSP was asked to develop a biennial report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, which measured progress against a number of key indicators. This framework was very similar to the approach adopted in the SA Social Inclusion Initiative and Strategic Plan, and indeed many of the targets and indicators overlapped or were similar. In part the impetus for these developments was the national Coalition government's adoption of policies of 'practical reconciliation' under Prime Minister John Howard, but it was also seen as a way of improving government accountability for improved Indigenous outcomes (Robbins 2009: 137-138). In 2005 the South Australian Government and the Australian government agreed on a bilateral Overarching Agreement on Indigenous Affairs for South Australia, identifying agreed priority issues: safer, stronger communities; housing and infrastructure; education and early intervention; health; homelessness; economic development; land, environment and culture; and service delivery (Robbins 2009: 136). This provided a basis for more specific agreements at program level negotiated between state and commonwealth agencies.

A COAG meeting in December 2007 identified Indigenous Affairs policy reform as a priority issue and a Working Group on Indigenous Reform was established. The Closing the Gap policy, which ensued in 2008, aimed to achieve improved outcomes in Indigenous socio-economic indicators through the adoption of a set of targets with timelines attached. These included closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy within a generation, targets for improvements in Indigenous child mortality rates, access to early childhood education, key primary and secondary education outcomes, and enhanced Indigenous employment outcomes (COAG 2012). South Australia signed the National Indigenous Reform Agreement 2012, committing to participate in the Closing the Gap partnership in a whole of government approach, together with an entire raft of other agreements and partnerships on related matters.

A multiplicity of policy-frameworks

As can be seen in the preceding account, the introduction of the SA Social Inclusion Initiative coincided with an extraordinary period of Indigenous Affairs policy development across the nation that saw new goals put in place for the reduction of Indigenous disadvantage, together with a commitment to improved cooperation and partnerships between governments and between agencies responsible for service provision. The level of activity during this period--at least in terms of the identification of goals, targets, key indicators and the frameworks for service delivery--was intense and the involvement of CO AG and the Australian government in setting major policy directions in Indigenous Affairs makes it difficult to assess the impact of any changes that may have emanated specifically from the SA Social Inclusion Initiative.

This points to a weakness of the social inclusion methodology which, at least in the Australian context, appears to take the form of setting targets and measuring progress against indicators. Where there are overlapping policy actors and frameworks in place in a particular program area, it is not clear whether measured outcomes reflect particular strategies or activities associated with a target, or whether they are affected by broader measures implemented by some other agency or government. It could be argued that this is a problem encountered in many program evaluation methodologies; however, the lack of a clear link between government activity and subsequent outcomes must be seen as a major difficulty in assessing the achievements of the SA Social Inclusion Initiative in relation to its specified Aboriginal targets.

SA Social Inclusion Initiative in perspective

In South Australia, while the formal Social Inclusion Board was disbanded in 2011, its legacy is still visible in the Aboriginal targets listed in the SA Strategic Plan. The Aboriginal wellbeing target is assessed by the 21 indicators discussed previously. The questionable process of conflating disparate factors such as life expectancy and child mortality with other measures--such as the number of Aboriginal people undertaking Aboriginal heritage site recording training--to arrive at an integrated measure of Aboriginal wellbeing, has not been addressed. Perhaps the most crucial indicator, 'Healthy life expectancy' is rated 'unclear' in terms of progress, because data is not available and because the way this is measured has changed between the 2007 and 2011 Strategic Plans (GOSA 2012: 26). Despite this, the 2012 Progress Report (2012: 25) rates the crucial target of improving the 'overall wellbeing of Aboriginal South Australians' as 'positive movement' on the basis that some indicators have improved whilst others have deteriorated or remained unchanged. Achievability of the overall target is rated 'within reach', but the Audit Committee revealed that it arrived at this assessment with 'some caution' because 'negative movement or no movement has occurred in relation to some indicators in significant areas'--these include under five years mortality rates and imprisonment rates, which have worsened, and Aboriginal labour force participation and pre-school attendance, which remain essentially the same (GOSA 2012: 24).

It is important to recognise that some improvements against targets have occurred during the Social Inclusion era--particularly in vocational education and training and completion of South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) outcomes for Aboriginal students. Per capita expenditure on South Australian Aboriginal health programs is higher than the national average: $6,743 compared to $4,758 (AIHW 2013: x). However, neither at SA nor at national level does the extent of government activity to address disadvantage appear to be sufficient to bring about a fundamental shift in Aboriginal circumstances.

One important difference between the SA Social Inclusion strategy and the national Closing the Gap strategy is that in South Australia both the Social Inclusion strategy and the SA Strategic plan were designed for the whole SA population--they did not have a specific focus on Aboriginal disadvantage or Aboriginal objectives. Targets for Aboriginal wellbeing and other objectives intended to improve Aboriginal disadvantage were integrated into a single plan for the entire state. The SASP website declares that 'Aboriginal wellbeing is now deeply embedded in the Plan with over ten per cent of targets being Aboriginal specific' (GOSA 2014). It makes the point that in many cases reporting on non-Indigenous targets includes an account of Aboriginal indicators. But there are also a significant number that do not and in this sense the plan assumes that Indigenous social inclusion can be subsumed within the general strategies designed to improve disadvantage in the wider population. Arguably, the full dimensions of Indigenous disadvantage are so severe that it is unlikely that it can be addressed without a strategic plan that places Aboriginal needs and perspectives at the centre of its concern.

A specific Aboriginal Strategic Plan was promised by the State government in 2006 (ALPT 2009) as an important element of the SA government's Doing it Right policy, which promised to 'work hand-in hand with Aboriginal communities, agreeing upon realistic and measurable outcomes, benchmarks and targets and monitoring the effectiveness of all Government programs and services towards achieving those outcomes and targets' (cited ALPT 2012). The Aboriginal Strategic Plan was intended to be a comprehensive and cooperative initiative with the Commonwealth government, supplementing the SA Strategic Plan. Despite assurances to the independent monitoring body Anangu Lands Paper Tracker that the Aboriginal Strategic Plan had been endorsed and was being used to coordinate government activity, it was never released, and in 2012 it was announced that it was superseded by the Overarching Bilateral Indigenous Plan between SA and the Commonwealth, discussed above (ALPT 2012: 4).

This raises the important question of Aboriginal participation in the SA government's formulation of policies and programs, especially in the setting of targets for approaches such as the Social Inclusion Initiative. In 2008 the SA government announced two initiatives: the South Australian Aboriginal Advisory Council (SAAAC) and a Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement. The SAAAC is appointed by the premier from a pool of people nominated by the Aboriginal community and its role is to advise the government on policy matters. (Robbins 2009: 144). The Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement's role is to act as an advocate on Aboriginal issues.

While these mechanisms are important vehicles for Aboriginal participation in the decision-making processes of the State, there is little evidence that they have been able to take a strong role. It is worth mentioning that the first Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement, Klynton Wanganeen, resigned in 2011 citing lack of interest on the part of the government, especially in respect of the troubled governance and social issues on the remote APY lands (Owens 2011). His successor, Khatija Thomas, appears to be suffering from the same difficulties. In March 2012 she released a press statement critical of the government's lack of response to the Social Inclusion Commissioner's report on Aboriginal re-offending, To Break the Cycle. In the five years since the 2007 report was delivered the juvenile reoffending rate rose dramatically, yet the government provided no response (Thomas 2012). This does not suggest a vigorous commitment to improving Aboriginal wellbeing (Spoehr & Wilson, in this issue examine more recent shifts in South Australian social policy in greater depth).

Social inclusion--an appropriate framework for addressing Indigenous disadvantage?

Many of the inherent assumptions in the social inclusion paradigm need to be carefully scrutinised as they may not be appropriate for translating the specific needs of Aboriginal people into improved outcomes. For a start, the usual techniques for identifying poverty and multiple disadvantages may be inappropriate for identifying Aboriginal disadvantage. This point is made by Hunter and Jordan (2010: 244), who explain that Aboriginal households are often unlike the typical family structure of mainstream Australia in that they may consist of large networks of extended and classificatory kin. Their demographic profile and population distribution patterns are quite different. They suggest that Indigenous 'circumstances are sometimes so different to those of other Australians that standard metrics for measuring poverty may be of little use' (2010: 244).

This relates to some of the issues mentioned by Sen in his discussion of the capabilities approach. If the SA and national social inclusion strategies adopt simplistic measures of Aboriginal disadvantage and inequality that are blind to differences that arise out of culturally determined preferences, attempts to improve Aboriginal social inclusion may result in what Sen describes as 'unfavourable terms of inclusion and adverse participation' (2000: 28). This is not to argue that the gap in socio-economic indicators should be accepted as a consequence of Aboriginal cultural difference, but that better ways need to be found to address the disadvantages that are compatible with Aboriginal culture.

An example of this concern can be found in Altman's assessment of the Closing the Gap initiative. He emphasises that it only addresses socio-economic inequality and is 'deeply flawed both conceptually and empirically [...] because it looks for mainstream solutions to deeply entrenched non-mainstream problems' (2009: 1). What is missing, in his view, is any recognition of diversity and difference in Indigenous aspirations. In other words, Indigenous people may wish to live different lives to those of mainstream Australia and hold different beliefs about desirable outcomes and goals. From this perspective there is little difference between the Closing the Gap approach and the old policies of assimilation that assumed Indigenous people would be absorbed into the white Australian culture. Altman instead argues for a different approach that balances equality, difference and compensation for the legacy of historical neglect and mistreatment (2009: 14).

Similarly, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reports have been criticised for 'failing to adequately take into account Indigenous perspectives on wellbeing' (Jordan et al. 2010: 339). The negative approach of focusing on gaps in these frameworks is seen as deficient because it 'implicitly downplay[s] the significance of unique Indigenous priorities and world views' (Taylor cited in Jordan et al. 2010:339).

Hunter and Jordan raise concerns about the social inclusion approach's normative implications. In particular they question its capacity to address adequately issues of Indigenous culture. 'What are (Aboriginal] people to be included in and who decides?' they ask. They suggest that conceptual slippage is a risk--'from arguing that Indigenous Australians should have the same "standards of living" as non-Indigenous Australians to arguing that Indigenous Australians "should be more like the mainstream'" (2009: 20). An even stronger concern is voiced by Jordan and colleagues discussing the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage approach:
   ... the selection of indicators in the framework can be used to
   justify policies and programs that seek to improve socio-economic
   outcomes but actually erode individual autonomy or cultural
   continuity. Such policies may, in practice, undermine Indigenous
   wellbeing--ostensibly the goal they set out to achieve' (2010:

Such views are contested, notably by Howard government Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone, who made the comment that 'people who accept different standards for Aboriginal Australians [...] are consigning them to live in cultural museums' (ABC Radio 2005). The distinction between these two viewpoints raises fundamental questions about the assumptions underpinning the social inclusion agenda in Australia--in particular how the notion of 'inclusion' is conceptualised. Kowal views these alternative perspectives as a 'reflection of the internal contradictions of liberal multiculturalism' (2008: 346)--a conflict between principles of eliminating inequality and maintaining difference that shapes government policy on Indigenous issues in fundamental ways.

Summing up: Aboriginal South Australians and the SA Social Inclusion Initiative

The profound dimensions of Aboriginal disadvantage in South Australia as elsewhere in Australia constitute an urgent matter of social justice that requires a strong policy strategy. The Rann government's Social Inclusion Initiative from 2002-11 was intended to bring a new focus to bear on social policy initiatives in the state, including Aboriginal policy. It adopted an approach that identified targets and key indicators to monitor progress against objectives.

The first point to make is that the proliferation of policies and programs designed to improve Indigenous social indicators in the decade from 2002 was remarkable. Significant activity took place at federal, state and local level and included cross-sectoral agreements and partnerships that, although frequently designed to improve coordination of programs, did not appear to eliminate overlap or achieve integrated policy approaches. As a result, it is hard to disaggregate the impact of the SA Social Inclusion Initiative, the SASP and the evolving cooperative framework of the national reform agenda in Indigenous Affairs policy, which includes the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reporting process and the Closing the Gap strategy. Each of these policy frameworks overlapped in significant ways and shared many common approaches in policy design and objectives.

Both the SA Social Inclusion Initiative and the SASP failed to recognise the unique position of Indigenous people in Australian society and bundled Indigenous objectives into an integrated state strategy which addressed a range of other policy targets, rather than treating the special circumstances of Indigenous social exclusion in its own context in an Aboriginal Strategic Plan. Improved Aboriginal outcomes were in many cases subsumed within other strategies applied across the whole SA population. The promise of a dedicated Aboriginal Strategic Plan did not eventuate despite government promises over a considerable period of time (ALPT 2009).

Neither the SA Social Inclusion Initiative nor the SASP showed strong sensitivity to Aboriginal cultural perspectives in the design of targets and strategies. The SIB's response to the Aboriginal wellbeing 'reference' directed to it by the Premier was to recommend a strategy based on sport, recreation and the arts (GOSA 2009: 9). The initiatives that were implemented appear to be limited and too narrow in scope to achieve this important objective. Importantly, this response indicates little awareness of the structural causes of Aboriginal inequality and does not clearly build in indicators of Aboriginal economic or cultural maintenance. The SASP attempted to capture some aspects of Aboriginal diversity in some of its later iterations, as discussed above. However, the indicators that were most closely linked to Aboriginal cultural perspectives, such as the number of Land Management Agreements negotiated, were grouped together with 21 diverse indicators under the single target of Aboriginal wellbeing, diminishing its impact. This bundling of a range of indicators into a generic target of improving Aboriginal health and wellbeing is contentious as it provides few useful insights. It also glosses over important questions about the cultural context of notions of 'progress' and the potential for development of a notion of wellbeing that is recognised and accepted by Aboriginal people.

One of the most important aspects of the validity of the Social Inclusion Initiative is the extent to which Aboriginal people participated in the process, especially in setting targets and designing responses. The Social Inclusion Initiative was, in the main, a top-down approach that relied on the strong link between Premier and Social Inclusion Commissioner (Wilson et al. 2013). While there is acknowledgement of the involvement of the representative body SAAAC in setting targets, the SASP provides very little transparency on the activities of this body and it has not become a high-profile forum for Aboriginal priorities in the state. As previously mentioned, the two incumbents of the position of Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement have made public statements about their lack of resources and the failure of the government to engage with them (Thomas 2012; Owens 2011b).

In conclusion, the SA Social Inclusion initiative and the SASP together raised the profile of Aboriginal disadvantage in the state and established some objectives for closing the gap. Initiatives were developed which have been linked to modest improvements in socio-economic indicators, although in some areas no progress or negative change has taken place. In the main, however, the Social Inclusion Initiative has not provided a strong mechanism for Aboriginal involvement in setting priorities, and despite the development of a few culturally relevant indicators of wellbeing, the process has largely taken a statistical 'deficit' approach, which ignores or undervalues the diversity of Aboriginal aspirations. In the past South Australia has been at the forefront of social justice reform in Australia. It is to be hoped that the next decade will see more robust engagement with Aboriginal communities emerge that allows more substantial and appropriate form of Indigenous social inclusion to be developed, based on Aboriginal people's own choices. This, perhaps, would better meet Paul Keating's vision for Australia as a first-rate social democracy.


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(1) In this article the terras Indigenous, Aboriginal and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander will be used interchangeably unless specifically indicated. SA government documents commonly use the term Aboriginal, presumably to reflect the relatively small numbers of Torres Strait Islanders resident in this state (in 2011 ABS estimated 1,253 Torres Strait Islanders lived in SA with a further 672 people of both Torres Strait islander and Aboriginal descent: the Aboriginal population was estimated to be 35,483) (ABS 2013).
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Author:Robbins, Jane
Publication:Australian Journal of Social Issues
Date:Aug 5, 2015
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