The ‘war cabinet’ to address Indigenous disadvantage sounds gimmicky on first blush, but may actually play a useful role if it allows the federal government to rely more on the evidence and less on interest groups and the median voter.Â In my view, the most promising reforms are all around education, so if I had the chance to make a pitch to the cabinet, here are five ideas I’d propose.*Â
- School attendance rates are appalling, and as Woody Allen says “90% of life is just showing up”. So pay Indigenous children to attend school.
- Literacy and numeracy gaps are large, and part of the difference may be teacher quality. So the federal government should promise bonuses of up to $50,000 to teachers who can get large improvements in performance in Indigenous schools. Teaching disadvantaged kids is the most important job in Australia – so why does no-one doing it earn a six-figure salary?
- Indigenous people are overrepresented in Australia’s jails, which do little more than warehousing. Since many are now private, why not rewrite the contracts, making payment conditional on post-releaseÂ recidivism and earnings? Let’s create incentives for those who run jails to do more education, and less clock-watching.
- A major impediment to children attending school is drunkenness in communities. But a ban is a drastic measure. Let’s allow communities to set their own tax rates on alcohol, and keep the revenue (remember, a ban isÂ effectively a tax rate equivalent toÂ the cost of petrol to the nearest no-ban town).
- As many Indigenous policies as possible (including those above) should be subjected to rigorous randomised trials. Those that fail should be discarded without sentiment, and those that succeed should be expanded. We know from the headline indicators that many Indigenous policies haven’t worked; it’s time to start sorting out the wheat from the chaff.
* Anyone who has read Imagining Australia, a book I coauthored in 2004 with Macgregor Duncan, David Madden, and Peter Tynan, will recognise numbers 3, 4, and 5.