Twiggy gives Palmer a free kick

Poll-driven Canberra simply doesn't have the circuit-breaking capacity of Andrew Forrest's private enterprise. But Clive Palmer will be able to take up Forrest's message of government indigenous welfare failure and run with it.

Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s new report into ending indigenous disadvantage is a document of magisterial ambition, motivated by a sincere desire to improve the lot of ‘first Australians’. 

It is a circuit breaker – an attempt to use business-style thinking to overcome barriers that public-sector circuit breakers in the past have failed to overcome. 

So grand it its ambition, however, that if it were to succeed it would also have changed the processes of Australian government forever. 

That is not a reason for optimism. 

The overwhelming tenor of the report is that business leaders such as Forrest, and the consultants he used to compile the report including global management consultants McKinsey & Company, know how to get things done – and, by implication, the bureaucrats that have tackled this difficult policy area before, do not.

In that belief, Forrest is most likely correct. 

However, he takes this line of thinking one step further – effectively arguing that his unquestionable commitment to indigenous welfare will be enough to convince Canberra policy makers to do things his way, for the first time ever.

Forrest writes: “Executives charged with the critical responsibility of change most often need to feel, but also must feel, that their own skin is in the game. To enact this change, everyone across the system who is accountable for the parts of the reforms of this review needs to be bought into a room with facilitators, with no-one leaving until all solutions are defined with measures and outcomes, and approvals from all the departmental heads. 

“The participants would then come together on a regular basis -- let’s say quarterly -- to review progress and problem-solve what’s not working and is working and how to accelerate progress. This is a very effective approach but to McKinsey’s and my knowledge has never before been done in the Commonwealth government.”

There is a reason for that. In private enterprise, men and women with the vision and guts to get things done can do so, sacking ineffectual staff or promoting the brightest stars along the way. 

Skin in the game means substantial bonuses or rapid promotion to reward success, and the ongoing threat of summary dismissal for failure. Try getting any of those past the Community and Public Sector Union. 

Meanwhile, the government departments being asked to do things Twiggy’s way report ultimately to elected MPs with one eye always on the opinion polls.

The objectives of Forrest’s report, and his obvious frustration at government structures that prevent them being met, are entirely laudable. It’s just that in the world of realpolitik it is the imperfect nature of democracy itself that lets down our most marginalised citizens (and no, that’s not a reason to junk democracy). 

Forrest writes: “The need for a long-term approach and bipartisan support across the political divide was stressed by those attending consultations ... The fundamentals of the former government’s Closing the Gap strategy have bipartisan support and give us solid ground to build on. 

“The Prime Minister has asked for my advice to end the disparity for our first Australians -- not to halve the employment gap. Accordingly, a very different approach is required ...

“The integrated suite of bold changes proposed in this report will not just close this gap but end the disparity in full if we take the approach proposed. If the government cherrypicks a handful of measures, the impact will be minimal ... This is the opportunity to leave partisan politics behind ...”

If only it was. 

Back in April, three Northern Territory MPs – Alison Anderson, Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu and Larisa Lee – joined the Palmer United Party, giving PUP the balance of power in the Top End. 

At the time, Anderson told The Australian: “Both major parties have had the chance to represent Aboriginal people and failed. The way forward for us is to hold the balance of power so we can make our voices heard; Clive can help us do that.”

So that puts Clive in a very powerful position to influence the kind of indigenous policy that Forrest wants to see proceed with maximum speed and efficiency. 

Anderson, who had previously held her seat as both a Labor MP and a Country Liberal MP, told the ABC upon defecting to PUP: “‘If you have a look at my history in politics, I walked out of both governments. I was a minister in both governments. I was never about power. I'm about having the voice for people. We gotta go back to sticking up for the poorest people in the Northern Territory.’

Well that’s what Twiggy wants too. 

That’s what John Howard and Mal Brough wanted when they ordered the controversial NT ‘intervention’ in 2007. 

That’s what Kevin Rudd wanted when he retained the essence of the ‘intervention’, with some adjustments – rebranding it ‘Closing the Gap’. 

And that’s what Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin wanted when they replaced the intervention policies with the new ‘Stronger Futures’ policy in late 2011. 

No-one is doubting the sincerity of these governments’ wish to improve life for indigenous Australians. 

However, all three governments have been criticised for making marginal progress on the kinds of key metrics that Forrest wants to leap ahead with. 

ANU’s Professor Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, asked in 2010 whether the government “should now be asking residents of prescribed communities whether they prefer 2007 pre-intervention ‘abnormality’ to the 2010 version of normalisation?”

By 2012, Altman noted: “There is no clear evidence that formal indigenous employment outcomes are improving either in relative terms, or in some jurisdictions in absolute terms.”

Outside of government, Andrew Forrest, along with other business figures such as James Packer, Kerry Stokes and Lindsay Fox, is finding more success through the ‘Generation One’ project that aims to link employers to would-be indigenous workers. 

It now claims to have 62,000 jobs committed by employers, with 20,000 indigenous workers already finding work through the scheme. 

But this is where things get difficult. 

The biggest industries close to remote indigenous communities are, at present, mining and related mining services – and jobs in those sectors are going to become fewer over time, as this week’s Hastings Deering lay-offs remind us. 

Getting improvement employment metrics is going to get harder. 

Moreover, on the other important metrics – health, education, decreases in violence, substance abuse and so on – Forrest’s call for an end to bipartisan politics overlooks the fact that much of the past seven years of indigenous policy was done with bipartisan support.

Against that historical backdrop, Clive Palmer, an accomplished populist, will want to carve out political territory with the same logic his MPs are using in the NT – the big parties have failed, so time to try Clive’s way. 

Andrew Forrest should be commended for preparing a rational plan on how to give indigenous communities what they want. However, in the fog of political combat it will be a miracle if much of that grand vision survives. 

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