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«Coombs’ Bastard Child: The Troubled Life of CDEP 2012 Nugget Coombs Memorial Lecture Wednesday 3 October 2012 Mal Nairn Auditorium, Casuarina ...»

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Coombs’ Bastard Child: The Troubled Life of CDEP

2012 Nugget Coombs Memorial Lecture

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Mal Nairn Auditorium,

Casuarina Campus

Charles Darwin University

By Dr Will Sanders

Deputy Director and Senior Fellow

Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research

Research School of Social Sciences

College of Arts and Social Sciences

Australian National University


In the mid 1970s HC Coombs was a major promoter of the idea behind the

CDEP scheme: that rather than pay lots of Aboriginal people in remote areas unemployment benefits it would be more constructive for them to be employed part-time by local Indigenous organisations to undertake socially useful tasks.

From this simple idea was born one of the most significant and, in time, one of the largest Indigenous-specific programs Australia has seen, the Community Development Employment Projects scheme. The birth was not easy and neither has been the subsequent life of what I have called, with great licence, Coombs’ bastard child.

This lecture will trace the troubled but exciting life of Coombs’ problem child.

-a difficult and contested birth

-initial failure to thrive in the face of budgetary issues,

-growth and popularity in remote areas in the early 1980s,

-expansion to more densely settled areas during a flourishing adolescence,

-the troubles of big city, adult life in the 1990s leading to consolidation

-a rapidly changing organisational environment in the new millennium, leading finally to,

-the shrinking away of a lingering old age.

This is a story fit for Shakespeare; a seven ages of CDEP.

This history of CDEP shows us the moral structure of Indigenous affairs policy.

Geography, generations and organisations are as important in this as the basic economics which Coombs identified back in the mid 1970s. The latter part of this lecture will particularly expand on organisations and generations: changing administering agencies and the passing of nearly 40 years have both greatly shaped the troubled life of CDEP.

Bio Will Sanders is currently Deputy Director and Senior Fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. He originally became a staff member of the ANU in 1981, as a Research Assistant at the North Australia Research Unit in Darwin. In the mid-1980s he completed a PhD on the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the social security system, which provoked his interest in the CDEP scheme. As a postdoctoral fellow in the ANU’s Urban Research Program in the late 1980s Will developed his interest in Indigenous housing policy. After a year teaching undergraduates in the ANU’s Department of Political Science, Will joined CAEPR in 1993. While continuing to work on Indigenous housing and income support issues, Will has also now worked on Indigenous involvement in local government and elections, national Indigenous affairs policy and intergovernmental relations.

Visiting and focusing his work on the Northern Territory from a base in Canberra for over thirty years, Will is now somewhat qualified to talk about different geographies and generations in Australian Indigenous affairs. His loyalty to the ANU makes him somewhat less qualified to talk about different organisational perspectives, although he has also been an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Charles Darwin University since 2009 and was from 2003 a contributing researcher to the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre based in Alice Springs.

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare: As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII Introduction For humans, there is a certain biological inevitably to the playing of many parts on the stage of life. But for government programs, the idea of having a life which moves through ages is a metaphor which we should not just accept as inevitable. Is it possible for a government program to live forever? This question, particularly as it applies to Indigenous-specific government programs in Australia, will be returned to in the last section of this lecture/ paper. But to begin, I simply observe that the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme has indeed had a life course, replete with seven ages, over the last thirty five years.

This lecture tells the story of CDEP’s life emphasising that organisations, geography and generations have all been important in determining CDEP’s changing fortunes. Organisations and geography get most of the attention in the next five sections, with generations only being turned to in the final section. But first let us focus on the man in whose name this memorial lecture is given, HC (Nugget) Coombs who can be justifiably identified as the father of CDEP.

Coombs and the Council for Aboriginal Affairs Nugget Coombs was a very experienced and senior public administrator by the time he became involved in Indigenous affairs, when appointed Chairman of the new Council for Aboriginal Affairs by Prime Minister Harold Holt in November 1967. Coombs had already been Governor of Australia’s central bank since 1949 and for six years before that Director General of Post-War Reconstruction. Indeed it was from this 1940s experience that Coombs drew his inspiration when asked in 1967 by Holt to give advice on what the Commonwealth should do in the wake of the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in the May 1967 constitutional alteration referendum relating to Aborigines. 1 Coombs believed that the Commonwealth’s challenge in Indigenous affairs in 1967 had ‘similarities to the situation which had confronted the Curtin government in 1942 in relation to plans for post-war reconstruction’ (Coombs 1978: 2).

As Coombs saw it, the reason for this request for advice was his ‘wide experience of administration’ rather than any ‘special knowledge’ he had of ‘Aboriginal matters’ (Coombs 1978: 2). Coombs recommended that the Commonwealth should ‘appoint a small Council for Aboriginal Affairs supported by an office with a strong research basis’ which would advise on both the ‘policies to be adopted and the administrative and executive means by which

they were to be carried out’. These recommendations, he added, were:

based on a belief that policy in relation to Aborigines would involve almost all government departments and agencies, and that it was undesirable that administrative responsibility should be taken from them and entrusted to a single agency providing for all aspects of the needs of one group of Australians (Coombs 1978: 2).

Coombs argued that the establishment of such an agency by the Commonwealth


ensure that Aborigines would continue to be treated as separate, and moreover as second class citizens in respect of the services and facilities provided to the community generally and that those involved in the agency would develop a dangerously dominant and paternalistic relationship with them (Coombs 1978: 2).

As evidence of this foreshadowed weakness of the single agency approach, Coombs cited the existing Aboriginal affairs administrations in the Northern Territory and Queensland, in both of which, he suggested, ‘the tendency for separatism and paternalistic dominance seemed strong’ (Coombs 1978: 2).

While Coombs claimed no ‘special knowledge’ of ‘Aboriginal matters’, he clearly had in 1967 some very firm and well-formed views about the organisational arrangements through which the Commonwealth should pursue future Indigenous affairs policy. He also evidently had some very well honed skills in the gentle bureaucratic arts of mixing policy and administration, which he would need in spades once appointed by Holt to chair the new Council he had recommended. If we turn to Tim Rowse’s account, rather than Coombs own account of these years, we see perhaps a little more clearly the assertive toughness of this very experienced senior public administrator who, through his years at the central bank, was used to having some statutory autonomy from his political masters as well as working closely with them. 2 Rowse’s account of Coombs’ years as Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs is full of tension and struggle. The Council was not, as Coombs wanted, The title of Rowse’s account, Obliged to Be Difficult, is drawn from a file note of a conversation in 1971 in which Coombs had told Barrie Dexter, the Director of the new Office of Aboriginal Affairs and another member of the new Council, that when Holt first asked Coombs if he would be Chairman of this proposed new Council for Aboriginal Affairs, Coombs had asked Holt how ‘dinkum’ he was about Aboriginal issues because if he took on the job and Holt was not ‘dinkum’ he, Coombs, would be ‘obliged to be very difficult’. Holt, according to Dexter as told by Coombs, had replied that he knew how difficult Coombs could be and that he wouldn’t be inviting him to be Chairman of the new Council if he, Holt, wasn’t ‘genuine’ (Rowse 2000: 3).

With Holt’s death only a month after Coombs had accepted the appointment, Rowse doubts whether Coombs, in November 1967, actually imagined ‘just how difficult he would be obliged to become’ (Rowse 2000: 3).

given a statutory base and it did not answer directly to the new prime minister after Holt’s death, John Gorton, although it did remain within the prime minister’s portfolio. From late February 1968 the intermediary ‘minister-incharge’ of Aboriginal affairs became WC Wentworth, who often did not agree with Coombs’ advice and had ideas of his own which, as Coombs saw it, he did not pursue very effectively. The new Council and Office of Aboriginal Affairs also had to contend with different advice on Aboriginal issues coming up from the Northern Territory Administration through the Department of Interior to a Country Party Minister, Peter Nixon. This was particularly so on land issues, which the Council wished to move beyond ideas of Aboriginal involvement in economic development towards the possible ‘recognition of legal title on the basis of traditional occupancy’ (Rowse 2000: 35). 3 During the Gorton prime ministership, which lasted till March 1971, the Council met almost complete disinterest in these sorts of new approaches to land issues, despite there being two ongoing Aboriginal land disputes in the Northern Territory at Wattie Creek and the Gove Peninsula where the Commonwealth had full power to act. Coombs seemed to have more rapport with the next Prime Minister, William McMahon and crafted a policy which McMahon announced in April 1971 assuring ‘continuing Aboriginal groups of effective access to land for recreational and ceremonial purposes as well as for the development of enterprises’ (Rowse 2000: 54). But as Coombs tried to develop this policy statement further in the latter months of 1971 he also had to deal with a new minister and with the Council and Office of Aboriginal Affairs being removed from the prime minister’s portfolio into a new Department of Environment, Aborigines and the Arts.

Coombs did not particularly warm to his new minister, Peter Howson. Despite McMahon’s instruction to Howson to ‘maximise Coombs’ autonomy ’ in order to ‘conform with the promise’ made to Coombs by Holt before his death, this was not how it worked out (Rowse 2000: 59). Howson tried to manage down the irrepressible Coombs and his ideas for policy change, rather than providing encouragement or support. Even having access to a new seven member Ministerial Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, instituted alongside the move out of the prime minister’s portfolio, proved of little use to Coombs.

As Rowse records it, in the ‘winter of 1971’ the Council was ‘assessing its chances of overcoming Interior’s inevitable objections to its submissions’ on land issues in the Northern Territory to the new Ministerial Committee. Coombs As early as 1968, the third member of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs alongside Coombs and Barrie Dexter, Professor WEH Stanner of the Australian National University, was drafting a new Aboriginal affairs policy for the Commonwealth which included ‘legislation to establish a court for determining claims to land on the grounds of traditional occupancy’ (Rowse 2000: 35).

and the other members of the Council accepted that there was ‘no possibility, under this government’, that Aborigines would get any stronger title to land than a lease. What they hoped and would fight for was leases in recognition of ‘long association’ with conditions that permitted ‘Aborigines to defer, indefinitely and without penalty, the commercial exploitation of their territories’ (Rowse 2000: 61). Six months of negotiations through both the Ministerial Committee and a related inter-departmental committee failed to deliver anything like what the Council wanted, despite some apparent sympathy from the prime minister.

When McMahon announced the Commonwealth government’s new policy on Aboriginal land and other issues on Australia Day 1972, all that he could offer Aborigines in the Northern Territory was ‘general purpose leases’ over land of which ‘they have the intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use’ and over which ‘the granting of the application would not conflict

with the interests of other Aboriginal groups or communities’ (McMahon 1972:

9 quoted in Rowse 2000: 67). When this weak announcement about Aboriginal land policy provoked the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra, relations between Coombs and minister Howson went from bad to worse. When Coombs gave a public lecture later in 1972 portraying the Australia Day policy ‘in a poor light’, Howson accused Coombs of not having given frank and fearless advice of ‘what he honestly thinks should be done’ and of just weakly recommending ‘policy that we would like to follow’ (Rowse 2000: 68). Coombs struck back, citing a ‘constant set of themes’ in Council

advice on Aboriginal land issues over an extended period of time (Rowse 2000:

69). Coombs did not like being accused of being a weak policy advisor when, as he saw it, he was being strategic.

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