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Photo of Shane Houston with South Sydney Rabbitohs Ben Ross and Rhys Wesser.

Far right: Shane Houston with South Sydney Rabbitohs Ben Ross (l) and Rhys Wesser (r)

By Chris Rodley

Shane Houston has learnt to be wary of grand plans for advancing Aboriginal Australia.

The 35-year veteran of the Aboriginal health sector, who is the University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services, has watched previous governments launch ambitious
schemes to combat the multifactorial problem of Aboriginal disadvantage.

Despite good intentions, he says, the plans often fall short because they try to do too much at once.

“We frequently try to do a little bit of everything everywhere, and that can weaken our ability to bring about real change because we spread ourselves too thinly,” he says. “The evidence tell us
that if we are to be effective, it is better to concentrate on a small and definite number of key areas first and do them really well.”

Now, the former activist is putting that philosophy into practice in his role as an independent adviser to the NSW government’s new Ministerial Taskforce for Aboriginal Affairs. The panel is focused on two clear goals: more jobs and more educational opportunities for Aboriginal people.

“This is a deliberate emphasis on the aspirational aspects of what we need to address,” said the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, at the launch of the taskforce on 25 August. “These two areas have been identified as vital to achieving generational change.”

Intervening at the “front end of the lifecycle”, he added, is also the best way to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system and combat child abuse in Aboriginal communities.

The taskforce is chaired by Minister Dominello and brings high-profile Aboriginal leaders together with senior government officials including the Treasurer, the Attorney General and the
health and education ministers.

“The fact you’ve got a third of the cabinet there means they are approaching this in a serious way,” says Professor Houston. “It’s a group of people that have responsibility for shaping the core
decisions of government.

“I know how hard it can be to get Aboriginal people at that senior ministerial table, and the fact that we are there to help shape the debate is a watershed.”

One priority for Professor Houston on the taskforce will be to grow the pipeline of Aboriginal students moving into higher education: in 2009, for example, just nine Indigenous young people in NSW received an ATAR score between 95 and 100.

Remedying the situation would likely draw on a range of strategies, he says, from strengthening youth services to ensuring that Aboriginal students are supported in making informed subject choices in high school.

Bringing role models to meet students, such as Rabbitohs Ben Ross and Rhys Wesser is also on the agenda.

“There are simply too few Aboriginal people completing high school at levels that allow them to easily progress to higher education,” he says. “If we can fix this and get students completing university, they will become the new generation of professionals that will lead our community.”

One of the challenges to policy innovations, however, will be getting disparate government departments working together. Government initiatives are typically structured in silos, with
education programs usually developed separately from employment programs – despite the fact that both are closely linked. Gaining collaboration between the various sectors can be difficult, says Professor Houston, due to the historic structures of bureaucracy and its processes.

Departments can also be guarded about cooperation due to tensions over who will resource programs and be held accountable for their success or failure. Finding ways to make the boundaries between bureaucratic departments more porous will be a priority.

While its focus is education and jobs, the panel will not ignore other critical issues affecting Aboriginal people, such as criminal justice, housing, youth and family services, and of course health – an area which is closely linked to employment, since people who have a job tend to be more healthy.

Whatever policy recommendations the taskforce makes when it releases its report in mid-2012, Professor Houston is keen to ensure they are based firmly on hard data.

“I’m particularly interested in getting evidence embedded in how we approach complex social questions,” he explains.

“I want us to be honest enough to look at the quality of evidence for a particular proposal and say, is this based on my gut feeling or it is drawn from a very strong empirical study?”

Evidence-based policy is the key to making well-informed decisions about where money is spent on Aboriginal programs, he says, and creating real change.

“As a friend of mine always says to me, if we implement simply what we already know, we would fix 80 per cent of the problems”.