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Introduction

This is my first six monthly report under s15 of the Coordinator-General for Remote Indigenous Services Act 2009. It coincides with the first anniversary of the signing of the COAG National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery and a number of related agreements which aim to improve services to remote Indigenous communities and close the gap in Indigenous life outcomes.

The National Apology to the Stolen Generations, the agreement of COAG to $4.6 billion in additional long term funding for Indigenous people, and the commitment to a new way of working, all represent an important turning point in our history. This fresh start has inspired some hope and belief that addressing the complex challenges of overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, including delivering services to remote communities and arresting the dysfunction that has become accepted and commonplace is possible.

I am convinced that, with strong commitment from all involved, the new approach under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery can and will work. While progress is being made, my report notes that further adjustments to our collective approach to the priority communities are required to ensure the new investments are built on solid foundations and have a sustainable impact.

The approach outlined under the Remote Service Delivery partnership has, in my view, some notable strengths. The place based focus allows for a whole of community approach to addressing entrenched disadvantage. The decision to start in 29 priority communities provides the scope for innovative approaches to be trialled and for ‘what works' to be replicated in other locations.

Increasing the ongoing government presence in remote communities has enormous potential to facilitate change. Most importantly, the Remote Service Delivery Partnership and local planning with its emphasis on community development, provides a real opportunity for governments to truly work in partnership with communities to build on their strengths and address local issues.

A substantial amount of my first four months has been taken up with visits to all 29 priority communities. In all my visits, I have stressed the importance of community driven solutions to achieve the best results. I have emphasised the need for both government and community leadership. My visits have also provided the opportunity to see the issues and challenges from a community perspective. I have gained an insight into the outstanding work of many individuals and organisations to improve the life chances of Indigenous people.

Structure of this report

The first section of this report provides community specific information. I have included summary information on the basic services available in each of the communities, as well as a one page brief on each of the 29 communities. These briefs focus on the issues and challenges observed during my visits, and I will be reporting on progress with these and emerging issues in future reports. They are necessarily subjective assessments, but hopefully capture the core ambitions of those I have met with.

The next section reports on progress against closing the gap in the 29 communities. It provides an initial catalogue and assessment of progress and key challenges at a local level. Wherever possible, I have identified some of the many positive things that are happening in these communities which I hope the Remote Service Delivery partnership process will build on. This section also includes an assessment of progress under COAG National Partnership Agreements which are contributing to the development of
the 29 communities.

While progress is being made, the expectations created by the Apology and the November 2008 COAG reform are very high.

One year after COAG's commitment to critical new investments in education, health and housing, there is some evidence of the substantial benefits flowing through to individual communities, but people are impatient for more. In areas where the agreed implementation lead times are longer, Commonwealth, State and Territory departments advise that significant planning is occurring in preparation for the roll out of investments. However, in some cases, agencies are unable to show how much and where these new resources will flow. Given their obvious need and the clear commitment of governments, the 29 priority communities should be the first priority for roll out of additional services and funding under the National Partnerships.

Because leadership from Indigenous community members and organisations and from all levels of government is a necessary precondition for closing the gap, the next section analyses some of the key governance and enabling issues that need to be addressed as a priority.

The report concludes with general information on the establishment of my Office, providing detail on our governance and working arrangements, liaison with communities, government agencies, local governments, community organisations and service providers. I am pleased to note that I have not had cause to use the powers available under the legislation (Appendix 2), as I have had excellent cooperation from all parties in the provision of information.

In compiling this first report I have provided Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies a number of opportunities to respond to the content and issues raised.

I am conscious that there are a number of forums, processes and reviews which this report may also inform. For this reason I have included a number of recommendations in the report.

Future reports

This first report provides only a first examination of priority communities and the implementation of the various COAG agreements which have a bearing on these communities.

With some notable exceptions, it focuses more on the Commonwealth's role than that of the States and the Northern Territory and it necessarily concentrates on the initial inputs to the remote service delivery approach, rather than the outcomes.

Strong and effective leadership and good governance are a precondition for the effective roll out of the remote service delivery approach. It is clear from my early visits that around half of the 29 priority communities face governance challenges. For this reason I have focused in this report on the issue and I will be monitoring the level of support provided to assist communities to strengthen governance in the short term.

The balance of my focus will shift over the coming months as COAG National Partnership Implementation Plans are agreed with States and Territories and Local Implementation Planning and baseline mapping progress.

Local Implementation Planning should be well advanced by the time of my next report. It will be central to achieving progress in the priority communities. Developing documents which reflect the community's priorities and set out detailed strategies will be a challenge in those communities without strong governance. I have raised the need for governance development support with the Regional Operations Centres. Baseline mapping of the priority communities is due for completion in March 2010. It will be critical that this data is provided in a form that is meaningful to stakeholders.

I will also seek to draw out further the common themes that emerge from my visits and interactions with all levels of government. I intend to focus on assessing results on the ground, acting on delays in implementation and communicating good news where I find it. I will also be monitoring and following through with commitments made during community visits.

The critical role of the Single Government Interface should be well established by the time of my next report. I will be actively monitoring the adherence of government agencies to the requirement to coordinate their activities through the Single Government Interface, including the requirement that visits to communities are planned and coordinated with the relevant Regional Operations Centre.

I intend to concentrate on building a strong relationship with the network of State and Territory Coordinators General and respective Boards of Management. These networks are vital to the success of the remote service delivery strategy and to resolving blockages and delays where they occur. I will also seek to maintain strong links with Australian Government agencies.

I also propose to work with State and Territory Coordinators General to develop information sharing protocols to trial in the 29 communities.

Assessing progress

The remote service delivery approach has involved the selection of a set of 29 initial priority communities to test new ways of working. Closing the Gap will require governments to nominate additional communities for attention, once the first tranche of 29 can be said to be thriving.

While some will argue that it is unfair that some remote communities have not received early concentrated government attention, there is no doubt they will benefit from the lessons learned from what is a first stage of a new remote service delivery approach.

I believe a critical part of my role, in conjunction with State and Territory Coordinators General, is to assist governments in judging the point at which we can say a priority community is thriving. This should not mean that services or assistance are withdrawn at this point – most critically government presence through the single interface and the Government Business Managers must be a long term support, if we are to maintain the gains we are seeking.

However, as communities can be judged to be thriving, there is a clear case for new ones to be gazetted and for the intensive process of priority setting, planning and delivery to begin.

COAG has already identified the principles to determine new remote service delivery communities (Schedules A and B to the National Partnership). These include a willingness for the community to actively participate in reform, supported by strong leadership, the availability of labour market opportunities and the capacity of the community and existing local service providers to support increased service effort. It should be possible to support a short list of aspiring communities to undertake preliminary planning ahead of gazettal.

On the basis of my initial visits, I believe that as many as a third of the 29 communities might be judged to be thriving within eighteen months. There may also be up to a third which will need sustained attention for up to four years to be in a similar position.

I intend to work with State and Territory Coordinators General and lead agencies over the next three months to develop a basic methodology for making such an assessment. In my view, a community could be said to be thriving if it is achieving benchmark levels of functioning across the agreed seven building blocks. Of these, basic governance is critical.

The task of assessing communities against the building blocks will be assisted by the completion of baseline mapping, and agencies at all levels of government having the capacity to detail their investments within the priority locations.

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