What would genuine “evidence-based policy” look like in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

By Alison Vivian and Craig Longman | 09 Oct 14

It is clear that modern Australian governments have failed to enact effective policy in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. Numerous reports and studies (including many by governments) demonstrate that policy development in this area is in need of urgent, dramatic and transformative overhaul. For example, the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2011 (Overview Booklet) from the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision acknowledged that:

Across virtually all the indicators in this report, there are wide gaps in outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians. The report shows that the challenge is not impossible — in a few areas, the gaps are narrowing. However, many indicators show that outcomes are not improving, or are even deteriorating.

Indeed, the Australian Government’s own assessment of its performance in achieving its policy objectives has found that, “past approaches to remedying Indigenous disadvantage have clearly failed and new approaches are needed for the future.”

Notwithstanding this, successive governments have insisted, and continue to insist, that they have rejected ideologically-based policy with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Instead they claim that they are in favour of evidence-based policy, looking to “evidence of what works” and “what is successful in overcoming Indigenous disadvantage”.

How then to evaluate these claims? Is it possible to reconcile these claims of evidence-based policy with the government’s failure to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? Or would policy based on evidence look different to the last decade of government action?

The evidence demonstrates that Indigenous collective control is central to achieving desired outcomes, whether they are non-Indigenous governments’ aspirations to close socioeconomic gaps, or the broader social, cultural and political aspirations of Indigenous people.

Consider for example Australian and North American evidence, which we believe mandates a very different approach for Indigenous policy in Australia. This evidence identifies a vital new direction, one based upon supporting Indigenous[1] political governance through institutions of their own design in order to foster sustained community and economic development and positive social outcomes for Indigenous nations and communities.

What does the evidence say about Indigenous nations and communities that are achieving their goals?

The evidence demonstrates that Indigenous collective control is central to achieving desired outcomes, whether they are non-Indigenous governments’ aspirations to close socioeconomic gaps, or the broader social, cultural and political aspirations of Indigenous people. Reporting on the most comprehensive Indigenous governance research conducted in Australia to date – the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research’s five year Indigenous Community Governance Project (‘ICGP’) – Hunt and Smith concluded that “when Indigenous governance is based on genuine decision-making powers, practical capacity and legitimate leadership at the local level, it provides a critical foundation for ongoing socioeconomic development and resilience”.[2]

These research findings contain clear parallels with those arising from research conducted in North America by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (‘Harvard Project’) and Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona. The North American research, upon whose methodology the ICGP developed its research approach, found that, in general, Native nations progress toward their economic and community development goals if they exercise decision-making control over both their internal affairs and the utilisation of resources (described in Australia as exercising “political jurisdiction”), possess effective and “legitimate” institutions of self-government, set strategic direction, and develop public-spirited leadership. The ICGP also identified the significance of strategic networking into the wider regional and national economy, having prerequisite social infrastructure in place, and relevant training and mentoring opportunities.

Importantly, in addition to predictability, reliability and accountability to internal and external stakeholders, the “legitimacy” of governing institutions has a cultural element because “governance is not culture neutral”. This dependence is exemplified in the Australian and North American research findings to the effect that governance structures and mechanisms should embody Indigenous people’s own values, norms and views about how authority and leadership should be exercised, providing legitimacy with those that they purport to serve (referred to by the Harvard Project as “cultural match”). Therefore, the relevant focus must be on governing arrangements that embody contemporary Indigenous notions of appropriate form and organisation, which may or may not replicate pre-invasion forms. Process and the resulting structure are equally important, leading Smith to highlight the significance of “Indigenous choice” where an Indigenously controlled process of fashioning new governance tools can itself be a source of legitimacy.

Hunt and Smith observe that while “governance capability is at the heart of sustainable Indigenous socioeconomic development”, it is not the sole determinant of positive developmental outcomes. Other influential factors include “investments in infrastructure, communications, health, education” and “geography may define certain structural limitations”. Nonetheless, the ICGP findings strongly suggest that effective governance may be a prerequisite for mobilising other forms of capital – human, business, infrastructure, natural, public institutional, knowledge, social – and that “good governance” provides better conditions for that capital to be developed and sustained.

It should be noted that “Indigenous governance” can be conceptually contentious in Australia, where there is a tendency to narrowly focus on corporate governance principles, management and compliance that emphasises service delivery, community consultation and organisational governance. While good corporate governance is self-evidently relevant, the research demonstrates the importance of Indigenous political governance where Indigenous communities exercise Indigenous jurisdiction (substantive decision-making power and control). Such a conception of governance frames Indigenous communities as collective political actors within the borders of the settler state.

Recommendations for non-Indigenous governments emerging from the evidence

If non-Indigenous government policy were in fact to be based upon evidence, what would it look like? It follows from the above that strengthening the capacity of Indigenous people to exercise genuine decision-making control and to implement those decisions efficiently and effectively is central to, and a precondition of, effective policy (in the sense of policy that delivers positive outcomes for Indigenous nations and communities).

 Indigenous governance capacity is greatly enhanced when Indigenous people create their own rules, policies, guidelines, procedures, codes, and design the local mechanisms to enforce those rules and hold their own leaders accountable

Such policy must recognise that the relevant issues are complicated and conceptually challenging, and do not lend themselves to straightforward or immediate solutions. A “one size fits all” policy approach has been repeatedly demonstrated to be unworkable and unsustainable and likely to produce sub-optimal outcomes. By contrast, the evidence demonstrates that strengthening Indigenous governance capacity relies on governments devolving power and authority, and facilitating Indigenous decision-making and control over core institutions, goals and identity. Flexibility is also fundamental to developing culturally legitimate processes and institutions.

Recommendations emerging from the Australian and North American research in relation to the role of non-Indigenous governments in fostering effective Indigenous governance include that:

  • Policy frameworks and capacity development strategies for building Indigenous governance should foster structures and decision-making processes that reflect Indigenous views of contemporary relationships and culturally legitimate forms of authority, combined with a practical management and service capacity to deliver outcomes. Governments should avoid the temptation to privilege capabilities valued by the mainstream alone;
  • Governments should facilitate and provide sufficient time for Indigenous nations, communities and organisations to undertake their own processes to develop governing institutions of their own design, and avoid the temptation to take over the process. Indigenous governance capacity is greatly enhanced when Indigenous people create their own rules, policies, guidelines, procedures, codes, and design the local mechanisms to enforce those rules and hold their own leaders accountable;
  • Governments should be wary of imposing governance structures, which may diverge significantly from locally preferred models, and which are frequently rejected by Indigenous community members. External intervention has been demonstrated to diminish the legitimacy of organisations and leaders, reduce their effectiveness, and undermine objectives;
  • Building capable governance is a developmental process where change is incremental and requires a long-term commitment. Indigenous people need time to assess how well their governance initiatives are working, and the power to adapt or completely change arrangements when they are found to be insufficient to the task at hand;
  • Contemporary Indigenous governance arrangements need support to evolve to meet internal and external changing conditions and challenges; and
  • Stable and long term policy and funding environments, and good coordination and collaboration between government departments support the effectiveness of Indigenous governing systems.

In addition to the above, policy makers must be alive to the fact that poorly formulated policy will not only be ineffective, it can prove damaging to effective governing structures that may have arisen organically in community, or in some cases, survived and evolved through the continuing process of colonisation. Such structures may already be operating effectively to address the very same concerns to which government policy is directed, but their success can be thwarted by government policy that undermines the governance that gives them their success. In fact, the ICGP identified that many of the factors that determine the sustainability and effectiveness of Indigenous self-governing institutions relate to government policy, service-delivery, funding, and program and legal frameworks.

How does non-Indigenous government policy stack up against this evidence?

The evidence clearly demonstrates that effective government policy requires two things: first, the fostering and development of effective and culturally legitimate Indigenous governing bodies with the capacity to deliver outcomes; and second, a willingness of non-Indigenous governments to devolve decision-making to Aboriginal communities.

Whilst “capacity building” for Indigenous communities has been a mantra adopted by various governments, in practice it has been limited to a focus on a narrow, and culturally determined concept of governance, with “governance training” largely focused on management and compliance issues. Given that Indigenous political or community governance encompasses the more complex “whole of community” environment, such approaches are likely to lack legitimacy and/or not be effective.[3]

Another obstacle is the severe challenge to achieving cultural match and governance legitimacy when power inequalities are so great and Indigenous collectives feel constrained by their little choice as to how they do things. The difficulty for non-Indigenous governments seeking to implement effective social policy is clear. For sustained, long-term positive outcomes, policy should be directed at supporting Indigenous political governance. However, such governance is frequently complex and potentially unseen by non-Indigenous people. Even with the best of intentions, corporate governance as conceptualised and imposed by current governments is likely to prevail. Sadly, in that predominance of the dominant culture’s conception of “governance”, opportunities for great gains in the very areas government policies seek to improve will be lost.

Unquestionably, the most significant Australian Government initiative in recent times in Indigenous affairs (and indicative of successive governments’ underlying approach to policy formation) was the Northern Territory Emergency Response (commonly referred to as the “Northern Territory Intervention” or “Stronger Futures”). We have written elsewhere that the Intervention was demonstrably a policy failure, when assessed according to the evidence outlined above. In particular, it removed and undermined Aboriginal control over decision-making, did not facilitate the development of institutions capable of implementing Indigenous priorities and strategy, and actively undermined governance structures with cultural legitimacy, particularly through the denigration of Aboriginal norms and values.

Worryingly, recent policy announcements of the current federal government may be following a similar direction with the announcement of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. The strategy of further strengthening Indigenous governance for improved program delivery is to be commended. However, like previous government policy, the focus of the strategy appears to be on strengthening Indigenous governance as conceptualised by corporate governance principles. The concept of strengthening the political governance of Indigenous communities as self-governing collectives appears to be absent.

In the relatively early days of the Abbott Coalition Government, it remains to be seen which programs and organisations will be elevated by funding decisions, or upon which criteria such decisions will be made. Nonetheless, an opportunity does exist for non-Indigenous governments to start making truly “evidence-based” policy decisions, if there is the will to seize it.

Dr Alison Vivian is a lawyer and Senior Researcher at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning (Research Unit) at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is also Senior Researcher for the ARC Linkage Project, ‘Indigenous nationhood in the absence of recognition: Self-governance strategies and insights from three Aboriginal communities’.

Craig Longman is a lawyer and Deputy Director of Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning (Research Unit) at UTS.

This paper includes extracts from Alison Vivian, ‘Evidence? What Evidence? Government Policy Development and the Northern Territory Intervention’ (2012) 3(1) Ngiya: Talk the Law 13 and Larissa Behrendt, Stephen Cornell, Miriam Jorgensen, Mark McMillan, Alison Vivian, August 2013, Aboriginal Regional Authorities: A regional approach to governance in South Australia. A submission to the South Australian Government in response to the July 2013 Consultation Paper.


[1] We will use the terms ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people/s’ and ‘Indigenous people/s’ interchangeably throughout the paper and apologise for any offence to those people who prefer the term ‘Aboriginal people/s’.

[2] Janet Hunt and Diane Smith, ‘Understanding and Engaging with Indigenous Governance – Research Evidence and Possibilities for Engaging with Australian Governments’ (2011) 14(2-3) Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues 30, 31.

[3] Ibid 12.