Monday, March 20, 2006

let's agree, or else

Last week’s ‘Background Briefing’ program – we bloggers are beholden to the regular media for almost all our info – alerted me to the details of our federal government’s practical reconciliation push re indigenous communities. The key to the policy is Shared Responsibility Agreements, 120 of which have been signed since their introduction in 2004. The BB program was titled Shared Responsibility: Mutual Agreement, and as a long-term dole bludger I see the connection more clearly than most. As part of Mutual Obligation the Newstart/Jobsearch benefit recipient has to sign a ‘Preparing for Work Agreement’, which I think is an agreement with Centrelink, though it’s facilitated by a job network provider. Of course, once you find work, you’re likely to sign a Workplace Agreement with your employer, so there’s no doubt that society is becoming increasingly agreeable, thanks to the arrangements being put in place by our government.

So imagine my surprise on finding that many are feeling more aggrieved than agreeable about these agreements. Why might this be? Well, rather than tackling the massive issue of workplace agreements, let me focus on the other types, and no doubt connections can be drawn by the reader.

Unfortunately, for various technical reasons, I’m having trouble accessing the internet at present, so I can’t revisit the BB program or the Awaie program that followed up the issue, but one of the points made by Aborigines working with as much goodwill as they could muster under the new guidelines was the simple one that ‘it’s the only game in town’. That’s to say, it seems that, in order to access the government’s ‘discretionary funding’, Aboriginal communities have no option but to comply with these agreements. Which sort of defeats the purpose of the concept (though of course it doesn’t defeat the government’s purpose).

Often they involve ‘communities’ (it’s unclear who is or should be responsible for signing these agreements) agreeing to ensure the kids in the region attend school regularly so that they can access funds for school equipment or community facilities, such as a swimming pool. Other agreements focus on cleanliness, in an attempt to reduce chronic infections blighting communities. Many of these agreements have produced positive results. Yet there seems something crudely behaviorist about the approach. As with the Preparing for Work Agreements, it’s a bit of a numbers game, with the aim being to have good figures (of disease-free kids, of kids at school, of people in jobs) to present to the nation and the world, for minimal financial outlay, at the end of the financial year.

As I’ve pointed out, the government has arranged things so that, for Aboriginal communities (as for workers and the unemployed), these ‘agreements’ are not, realistically, a matter of choice. This government is obsessed with the rhetoric of choice, but the hard fact is that ‘discretionary funding’ means funding at the discretion of the government, which has all the power in the relationship. It’s the same of course with employers, who presumably are the authors of Workplace Agreements. Who, then, decides upon compliance, how is it monitored, and what assistance and support is given in achieving compliance?

Shared Responsibility: Mutual Obligation. The idea of working together, of sharing, of some kind of mutuality of concern and striving, is explicit, and yet the obligation on the part of the government appears to be purely financial, which, considering that the public expectation is that the most disadvantaged will receive support out of taxpayer funds, seems the least to be expected. In the case of mutual obligation, some might argue that the government’s part of this mutual thing might be to provide more than just a ‘discretionary’ subsistence benefit. That is, that they might be obliged to provide training or activities which might be more useful to them and the community than back-breaking dead-end jobs which get them off the unemployment roll.

Another obvious feature of all these agreements is the elimination of collectives. ATSIC is gone, and it seems that other representative bodies, such as Land Councils, have been marginalized, apparently deliberately, by the government. ‘Communities’ ‘agree’ directly with the government, just as employees ‘agree’ directly with employers, without the interference of unions. It’s so much more flexible. Aboriginal workers are being scuttled, their expertise and their skills rejected. Morale is being undermined, whether deliberately or through incompetence is difficult to say. Even the developers of this new way of dealing with indigenous issues are crying foul. It’s all very disagreeable actually. I hope to return to this matter, once I’ve informed myself a bit more.


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