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How Defence can improve Indigenous relations and enhance social cohesion

By Huon Curtis

Constitutional recognition speaks to the nation’s various human-security issues – not least of which is building resilience and social cohesion at a time of geopolitical competition.  

Defence’s engagement with the Uluru Statement might bring another dimension to how it deals with its workforce challenges. The ambition of Defence to achieve a 5% Indigenous workforce participation target is a positive reminder of the potential of Defence’s mission-directed innovation culture.

“Putting self-determination at the heart of policy is a national security issue”, wrote politicians Pat Dodson and Warren Snowdon in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist at the beginning of 2021. 

This provocative framing of the constitutional amendment question may confuse or infuriate those who think Defence should stick to traditional warfighting issues and avoid mission creep. It may also challenge First Nations Australians for whom the memory of defence involvement in the Northern Territory intervention is still raw. 

Over this term of government, the ALP will mount the case for constitutional recognition as outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney said: “The Uluru Statement is an incredibly generous invitation to the Australian people to walk together with First Nations people.” But what this invitation means to Defence is not entirely clear. 

We’re living through a time of heightened geostrategic competition, with sharp regional concerns about China’s influence in the Pacific and further afield, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine putting acute pressure on global supply chains. 

Numerous scholars have pointed to this era as one of democratic backsliding. High levels of inequality have fuelled support for populist leaders globally proposing quick fixes while exploiting historical animus towards the vulnerable, including migrants, LGBTQI+ communities and Indigenous groups. 

Belarus, North Korea and Venezuela (alongside China) have raised Australia’s human rights record, particularly towards Indigenous Australians. They have done this to shift the human rights debate and muddy the waters of the treatment of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.

In a very broad sense, efforts to buttress the democratic institutions of Australia by implementing the Voice ensure those at the margins of Australia’s economic and political life are represented more fulsomely. The ability to hold governments to account, propose alternatives within political systems and strengthen avenues for deliberative participation are signs of democratic maturity. 

The Voice process is an exercise in building whole-of-nation social cohesion, and this requires genuine efforts on multiple fronts. However, the adage – reflected in the Defence Reconciliation Action Plan – that “reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility” doesn’t precisely translate into a Defence structure that is used to talking about capabilities.

Long-term vision required

Defence’s mission is to defend the national interest and advance Australia’s security and prosperity. Like other portfolios, it has obligations under Closing the Gap to deliver to the whole of nation. 

One aspect of a study I undertook as part of a Defence strategic grant for ASPI was to see Indigenous engagement in relation to the Defence mission-directed innovation strategy.  

Mission-directed innovation looks to enhance capability in organisations by setting a really ambitious objective – a moon shot, like building a nuclear submarine. Investments, training, enhancements and mindset are directed towards this objective. The rationale is that even if the moon shot isn’t reached, substantive uplift has been gained in the process. 

In this vein, the 5% Indigenous participation target Defence aims to reach by 2025 has operated like a kind of moon shot. As an objective, it far exceeds other areas of government and the corporate sector, where recruitment goals usually sit about the Indigenous population level (about 3%). It marks out Defence as an area of government prepared to go above and beyond in all aspects of its business. 

It has encouraged different areas to experiment with recruitment approaches, hiring and development. There is a healthy informal competition between the services to try and beat each other to the 5% goal.  

One area has been increased community relations activity. The Air Force has hired Indigenous Liaison Officers (ILOs) to undertake community liaison roles. Controversially the job description has been left somewhat ambiguous, giving the ILOs reasonable scope to define these roles. 

The Australian Defence Force faces a severe workforce crisis as it struggles to attract and retain skilled personnel. Having a strong value proposition – that Defence represents the nation in its diversity, has equitable processes for pay, performance and promotion, and invests in Indigenous personnel as a resource for its broader strategic thinking – will lower the cost of recruitment and retention.  

The ADF has doubled its number of Indigenous personnel since 2014. It’s unclear if recruits are staying. More public scrutiny of its workforce recruitment efforts – such as the annual Women in the ADF supplement to the Defence Annual Report – might enhance this work. The Voice process may increase oversight of how Defence conducts its relations with Indigenous Australians.

Last year, I was privileged to spend some time on Palm Island, off the coast of Townsville. I say “privileged” because the local community (Bwgcolman and Manberra) is intensely protective of the pockets of autonomy they have built in the face of multiple institutional failures. 

I was told by locals how predatory lenders emerged and locals lost money after compensation payouts were awarded after underpaid wage cases. It happened again after the 2004 Palm Island riots. 

A health worker asked me: “What on earth are you doing on Palm Island? Do you know of all of the chronic health issues, and that the entire island runs on diesel generators?”

He ultimately dismissed me: “Someone comes up from Canberra every two weeks and promises fixes, but they disappear and are never heard of again.”

He was right in many respects. My small project budget meant there was no prospect of me ever returning to the island. 

The health worker’s words reflect a larger problem. There is a lack of consistency in Indigenous policy and projects are defined by the “white saviour” complex, boom and bust budgetary cycles, complacency and disengagement.  

The Voice is meant to bring consistency to public policy questions and offer an opportunity to rectify these issues across government portfolio areas. 

Defence can’t solve all challenges in Indigenous Australia. Nor should it. But it can work towards ensuring that it and other parts of government commit to a long-term vision. 

The Voice offers a vision and participatory model. The part for Defence is to ensure Indigenous participation is built into planning cycles for complex projects that require inputs of land, labour and machine. In this, Defence has considerable policy latitude in how it can contribute to social cohesion to build the next phase of Australian democratic growth. 

Originally published by: The Mandarin on 20 Sep 2022