According to The Australian, Andrew Penfold has broken ranks with all the other members of the PM’s Indigenous Council to support the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
So what can we make of this? Is Penfold brave – standing up to un-thought-through conventional wisdom? Or is he ignorant and dangerously misinformed?
My take is that he is ignorant. His world is a privileged sheltered space and his experience of how racism affects Indigenous people is informed – or not informed – by his sheltered context.
Now I am not a scholar of human rights, the RDA and the debate around free speech and I accept that there may be areas of the RDA that could benefit from a careful review.
For example, Sara Joseph who is an expert has argued here that the outlawing of talk that offends or insults may tip the balance between free speech and race discrimination too far. But in saying this she also stresses that this is a view that has not been formed based on personal experience of being subjected to racially offensive language. She also argues that the courts have never taken a stringent position in interpreting this provision, so the driver to change it is not really there (note: it was not the provision that Bolt contravened).
But there are real problems with the current exposure draft and Sara Joseph’s article is a nice summary of the problems, and worth a careful read.
However, it is clear to me that Penfold has not read Joseph’s article or Waleed Aly’s very damming piece
So how did this upper middle class business man who was educated at elite private schools earn a place on the PM’s Indigenous Council, and an AO to boot, just this year.
Andrew Penfold is widely known as the man who established the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) and its associated Indigenous Scholarship to elite private schools scheme. He is well known because the media has been saturated by feel good stories about individual Indigenous children who have been rescued from a remote backwater and who are now destined for greatness. Penfold himself has authored many of these stories.
Now I am not that concerned about a successful business man setting up a charity that funds poor traditionally living Indigenous kids to attend Australia’s most elite schools, although I do have concerns about it.
My concerns are as follows:
Firstly, this is the venture that has earned Penfold a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council. Now we have been told that this Council will have a big influence on Indigenous policy development and program implementation in Australia. What Penfold has established is, in policy terms, a minor add-on program. It hardly qualifies him as an expert in policy directions that are designed to overcome disadvantage not for the clever few raked from the rubble, but for all Indigenous people. His willingness to split with the Council so early in the piece over something that his background makes him uniquely unqualified to speak about, relative to other Council members, confirms my concerns about his suitability for this role
Secondly, his work and his project concern me because he has convinced the Australian Government to donate $20 million to his fund with absolutely no strings attached. I am presuming that these funds have come out of the very small program dollars currently allocated to Indigenous education.
When a program secures Government funding it must be accountable to a different set of requirements. What should our Government be asking about this feel good work?
I wrote about Andrew Penfold and his feel good but suspect work to ‘save’ Indigenous children one by one here. I don’t plan to repeat all the arguments about why this is a problem here because this article is much more about why I question Andrew Penfold’s suitability for a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council table.
So here it is. Andrew Penfold has justified why the Australian Government should fund his program as follows
We agree that governments must invest in improving education results for all Indigenous students in all schools, but the evidence is unambiguous – for decades billions of dollars a year has been spent by state and federal governments on Indigenous programs that their own departments and officials have described as ‘disappointing at best and appalling at worst’ and making no difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. So if the rhetoric about evidence-based policy means anything, it’s critical that AIEF’s proven, scalable and sustainable model continues to be supported.
There you have it. While Governments should be prioritizing investments that improve the outcomes for Indigenous students across the board, history tells us that this is a waste of money because it hasn’t worked. So my solution is to have the Government invest in improving educational outcomes for the few and forget about the rest. And as for the claim that his program is scalable – well – the limitations are rather obvious.
This is a chilling piece of logic.
Basically, if you are indigenous and living in a remote community, welcome to the lottery – if you win a scholarship and are flown away to an elite school, you will learn to read and can expect to live a rich rewarding life, but if you don’t, good luck. This feels like a future dystopia in a speculative fiction novel.
It is the Government’s responsibility to govern for all Australians. No Government can justify diverting the small amount of funds dedicated to meeting the educational needs of Australia’s most seriously disadvantaged students to fund a lucky win-the-lottery ticket to a privileged life – a rags to riches scenario for a few.
To say that the Government should walk away from its responsibilities for overcoming Indigenous disadvantage for all Indigenous Australians and invest in a privileged lucky few is an outrage, and must be challenged. It should not be applauded or honoured with positions on influential councils, generous untied Government funds, or Australia Day Honours.
But this is the sort of logic that comes from looking at all issues, not in structural terms but in individualistic terms. Andrew Penfold is on the record as saying that he developed his Indigenous scholarships program because he was given an opportunity to go to an elite boarding school and it was the making of him. He does not appear to have considered that his unique experience is not universally applicable with the same results.
Perhaps this makes some sense of his position on the RDA amendments. Andrew Penfold has not been at the raw end of racial discrimination and racial vilification, so his consideration of these matters is based on his limited individual experience. It is just a philosophical issue to him. It is to Sarah Joseph too, but even she, an expert in these matters, has been honest enough to acknowledge that not having the personal experience of racial discrimination is a possible limitation to her understanding of these sensitive and complex matters.
I do hope some judicious behind-the-scenes conversation at Council meetings with Andrew Penfold will extent his world view, but I am not optimistic.