The swollen Generation

May 20, 2011
Actor Cate Blanchett and mining billionaire Andrew Forrest at the launch of GenerationOne.

In 2007, it was all about Kevin Rudd. Well … not so much the man, but the campaign slogan. Kevin07 was streamed from the rooftops, plastered on ALP propaganda and adorned the T-shirts of young and old alike.

It was a brilliant, fresh campaign.

But the joy was not to last. Three years later, the bandwagon that everyone had so merrily jumped upon had lost its wheels, its driver demoted and dejected.

The campaign was just that, a campaign. Right for the time, but ultimately short on distance.

So how ironic that the person credited with devising the whole thing should be fronting another media event that is attracting a great deal of attention, but precious little scrutiny and even less in the way of outcomes.

Tim Gartrell was the ALP national president and campaign director when Kevin Rudd was swept to power. The talented campaign strategist showed Australia how it was done, and his legacy is even more memorable after “The Real Julia” came to dominate and degenerate Labor’s chances at the following election.

Gartrell is now the CEO of GenerationOne, a campaign that “aims to end the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation”.

By all standards, it is an admirable goal, as was the ambition to do away with John Howard. But it is a goal that has fostered intense scrutiny among many sections of Aboriginal Australia, and rightly so.

Because GenerationOne, for all its glitz and glam, is ultimately dangerous for Indigenous Australia.

But first, let me refresh your memory.

The GenerationOne campaign was launched with all the star power of an Oscars ceremony. The skyline was lit up with photos of people placing handprints on canvas, as the images were projected onto the Sydney Opera House.

It was fancy and impressive, a gala fit for the line-up of guests, which ranged from movie stars to media moguls to the best brains in business.

And it was enough to secure GenerationOne media darling status, as journalists breathlessly reported the message as if Andrew Forrest had miraculously turned water into wine.

Or even more remarkably, found a blackfella a job.

The focus was not on the thousands of Aboriginal people around the country who have worked their whole lives to try to close the disparity in Indigenous living standards. It was on the glamour of the occasion, on the novelty of white Australians stepping up and taking part.

The irony of a so-called grassroots Aboriginal campaign getting a star-studded launch at the Sydney Opera House should not be lost on anyone.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with all Australians realising how dire the situation is, and taking action to raise awareness. I welcome anyone who commits to work to help our people.

But this was not a campaign forged in partnership with Aboriginal people, spurred on by listening, and by understanding the deep complexities within Aboriginal affairs.

By contrast, it was the ultimate top-down approach, from a group of the nation’s richest whitefellas determining that they had the key to solving the entrenched disadvantage that exists in this country.

And they not only had the answers, but the control.

For keen watchers of Aboriginal affairs, however, there were more questions than answers.

First of all, what exactly is GenerationOne? What does it seek to do? And what happened to the once similarly lauded, but now largely unreported, Australian Employment Covenant (AEC)?

Remember that? The AEC was launched about 18 months prior, with a highly ambitious — some may suggest ridiculous — target of finding 50,000 jobs for Indigenous Australians. It secured the support of the Rudd, and now Gillard government, and has bipartisan support.

In fact, during the election battle staged between Gillard and Tony Abbott, when both had barely uttered a word on Aboriginal affairs, they came together to support the GenerationOne campaign, and announced they would devote more energy to the AEC. This is just one of the many troubling aspects of GenerationOne.

First of all, despite its motherhood goals of “joining hands across Australia” to “end the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous” within a generation, it has failed to distinguish exactly how it aims to reach its goal.

And it has done it in the fancy, smoke-and-mirrors, top-down approach that ensures it will most surely, and regrettably, fail.

This is even more dangerous when considering the large amount of media attention GenerationOne is attracting, and the horn-blowing on the merits of the organisation from both sides of politics.

It is taking away from the real work — “grassroots” work — that is currently underway in Aboriginal Australia. People like those working in community controlled health services, in Aboriginal legal services, in human rights organisations and in a variety of other capacities around the nation.

It is also shifting attention away from the tireless campaigning of thousands of Aboriginal activists around the country, who have been working all their lives to lift the plight of their communities.

The other dangerous aspects of GenerationOne are the messages that have been sprouted by the organisation, both directly and indirectly.

The key spokesperson is Tania Major, a controversial figure in Aboriginal Australia thanks to her endorsement of the sort of “tough love welfare reform” spruiked by her mentor Noel Pearson.

Her presence is only one of many reasons that the organisation has divided the opinion of Aboriginal Australia. And if Aboriginal Australia can’t get behind an initiative like GenerationOne, then its goal to end the disparity is a hopeless one. It is only through placing the control back in our hands that we will be able to begin closing the gap.

Another troubling message was the one spoken by the first non-politician to address the nation — 13-year-old Aboriginal girl Madelaine Madden.

The address did little to educate Australians on the real barriers to Aboriginal employment, which come in a variety of forms, from location, to opportunity, to living and health standards and to successive government neglect.

The furore over Tarren Betterrigge (a friend of mine), the Aboriginal girl who was refused a job by a promotional company hiring for GenerationOne because she wasn’t dark enough, was also a staggering indictment on the organisation.

But by far, the most troubling aspect of all is GenerationOne’s ties to the AEC, the ambitious scheme to place 50,000 Aboriginal people in jobs.

A Senate Estimates hearing recently heard that only 1406 jobs had been filled under the AEC, at a cost of more than $5 million.

It’s a large departure from what the AEC has been sprouting — 27,000 positions pledged.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, pledges are only aspirational, they do not mean that they will actually be set aside for Indigenous people.

It is a damning figure, especially because the AEC has been relying on the number of job commitments it’s amassed to validate its achievements, not to mention its expenditure of public funds.

These job commitments are even more concerning because many are not Aboriginal specific. Some of them work like traditional “affirmative action” schemes, where they are open to anyone, but if there are two leading candidates equal in merit, the precedence goes to the Indigenous jobseeker.

Quoting job pledges as “mission accomplished” is highly misleading. That the AEC is relying on government funding is also concerning because the amount of government expenditure pumped into the scheme is not transparent.

The Rudd government had initially pledged $4 million, but the lack of information above the level of successive government investment for an organisation that has yet to demonstrate any real achievements is staggering, and warrants an inquiry.

And yet the Gillard government, and the Opposition, continue to support this scheme, despite its lack of outcomes.

For instance, Indigenous employment minister Mark Arbib recently claimed that the government did not judge the scheme based on outcomes but on the fact it has helped change corporate culture.

This is nonsense. Corporate culture was already beginning to change, and not because of Andrew Forrest, but because of many other factors.

The ANZ bank is a key example. It has been recruiting and training Indigenous workers for a couple of years now and is going above and beyond its social duty. NAB is another example.

Many other organisations have also been contributing through the formulation of Reconciliation Action Plans, an initiative not of Andrew Forrest, but of Reconciliation Australia.

So far, there has been precious little scrutiny on the AEC.

Instead, a great deal of column inches have been devoted to the lightweight GenerationOne, a smoke-and-mirrors game that detracts from the staggering failure of the AEC.

If this was a black organisation, the outcry would be immediate. There would be inquiries, finger-pointing and heated debate about the waste of taxpayer dollars. But so far there has been a deafening silence, drowned out by the hype surrounding GenerationOne.

It is a very clever campaign. But ultimately they are empty words. And a showy campaign cannot detract from the fact that in a few years time, it is unlikely to have kept its promises.

Just ask Kevin Rudd.

[Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South-Sea Islander journalist from Rockhampton. She is the editor of Tracker, a new Aboriginal rights magazine. This article is reprinted from the April edition of Tracker.]

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