Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Macklin's Ministry: Taking the blinkers off

You have to be retired and living in Broome on a hot, humid, wet-season afternoon to watch a National Press Club address outside election time. Today’s guest was Jenny Macklin, Federal Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. For a former deputy ALP leader she is neither charismatic nor that well known. The latter is unlikely to last long given the range and gravity of her portfolios and her obvious commitment to getting things done.

At times over the years I have wondered where she was. A low profile deputy can be an asset sometimes but not in an opposition having trouble being heard as we experienced during Simon Crean's leadership. Their personalities and media images were just too much alike.

Today Jenny delivered her speech competently and effectively, in contrast to Bob Brown's last Press Club address. After a few early stumbles she warmed up and seemed to engage her audience. It was a very solid performance from an experienced and savvy politician. Mind you I've been over magnetism since the 70s. Give us results any day.

I hoped to find out what’s happening with indigenous housing and was not disappointed. There seems to be a clear plan to involve communities in housing design, construction and related training. A breathe of fresh air from the negativity of all levels of government about why local indigenous people, who need real work and training, can’t get it in their own community.

This has been just as true of large communities as you might have expected of small ones. Millions of dollars have been spent on construction without apprenticeships being offered. The skills shortage has been a joke in much of remote Australia. This is especially the case where there are no mining projects, which have seen some belated but welcome developments in indigenous training. The disconnect between job vacancies, young indigenous people seeking employment and a host of government agencies empowered to organise training, has been a continuing disgrace.

Let's have no more excuses. Let's have no more "yes, but..." or undelivered promises. Hopefully Kevin Rudd's accountability based on real performance targets will put an end to the charade.

Macklin seemed to be on top of the issues related to home ownership, leasing and land rights. Whether she can solve them is another matter. She quoted Walgett resident Joseph Flick’s advice: "Take the blinkers off and look for new options". It will be interesting to see what the response to the options is from aboriginal leaders. There are certainly concerns about the extinguishment of native title claims if land rights are alienated by government building.

The Australian’s initial news report of the speech seemed to embrace the spirit of reconciliation, and bipartisanship. There were no references to ideological socialist experiments that have characterised past coverage:

Ms Macklin’s housing plan, announced today, will deliver more flexibility in the current 99-year lease scheme over communal indigenous land, offering 20- or 40-year leases.
New leases in land rights overhaul (The Australian 27 February 2008)
Jenny was at her best when handling questions. There were two questions about Michael Mansell’s attack on her that she answered quite effectively. The rest of question time showed that she is on top of both the problems and the detail of her ministerial responsibilities. Her position on quarantining of welfare payments promises to create ongoing debate. It can apply to all welfare recipients with children who are at risk, regardless of race. It will be used on a case-by-case basis. My understanding is that this is not the way the NT Intervention has worked so far where it seems to have been applied to whole communities.

The 2020 Summit might be short on female leadership but Macklin showed that the Cabinet is neither short on female numbers or talent. It was an informative, if not entertaining, presentation. It was a refreshing change to watch Tom Calma, from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, nodding in apparent approval.

We can only hope that Jenny Macklin will be remembered as one of the best ministers in the Rudd government. The stakes are too high for anything else. She seems to have made a flying start and to share Kevin's impressive work ethic.

For the full speech see Closing the Gap - Building an Indigenous Future

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