Intervention, competing principles & the individual/communal dimension of Indigenous policy: a conceptual map illustrated by changing Northern Territory Census data in employment and housing

This seminar will revisit my triangular conceptual framework for Australian Indigenous policy developed a decade ago. That framework identified three competing principles of equality, choice and guardianship. Equality was identified as the dominant principle at the top and centre of the policy space, but with three interpretations: individual legal equality, equality of opportunity and socio-economic equality. The other two principles of choice and guardianship came into play through positive and negative evaluations of Indigenous difference and diversity and occupied more extreme positions at the bottom left and right of the triangle. Five positions of principle were thus identified in a linear left-right progression around a triangular policy space.

I clarify the nature of this policy space by identifying an individual/communal dimension running vertically through the triangle. Something interesting also emerges in the horizontal left-right dimension. Positive and negative evaluations of Indigenous difference and diversity are observed on both sides of the political spectrum, but at different levels in the individual/communal dimension. Thus there are elements of choice and guardianship on both the left and right sides of politics.

How do policy interventions of the last decade fit with this refined version of the triangle? Different policy structures allow different scope for Indigenous autonomy and choice at different levels in the individual/ communal dimension. Old Indigenous-specific policy structures permitted a high degree of local group autonomy and authority. New general programs are both more centralised and more directive of individual and household behaviours. One clear instance is the move from permissive local community employment under CDEP to the individualised remote work-for-welfare of RJCP/CDP. Another is the move from Indigenous community housing to public rental housing in remote areas, as promoted by the ten-year NPARIH. This seminar will conclude by showing how these two major recent changes in policy structures can be discerned in 2011 and 2016 Census data for the Northern Territory and other remote areas.

Listen to seminar recording.


Will Sanders has been thinking about Indigenous housing, employment and income support issues since first employed at NARU in 1981. He is intrigued by the dominance of the equality principle in Australian Indigenous affairs, but also the room for manoeuvre within and around it. Will was Deputy Director of the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research from 2010-2014. He is now CAEPR's most long-serving Senior Fellow.