BSc BSocWk MRegSc Qld
Lester is a Social Worker with practical experience working with people with disabilities, vulnerable families and Indigenous people with housing problems. He has also worked for government as a policy officer and program manager. He has lectured at James Cook University's School of Behavioural Sciences, the Northern Territory University's Faculty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and Queensland University of Technology’s Faculty of Health. His research interests pertain to the wellbeing of Indigenous people, social policy problems, human needs and wellbeing and teaching practice. Lester’s Doctor of Philosophy, was completed at the AERC at UQ and was entitled:
"The Indigenous Living Conditions Problem: 'Need', Policy Construction and Potential for Change."
The living conditions of Australia’s remote dwelling Indigenous people are broadly acknowledged to be so problematic that they require government intervention. The consequent government intervention has, over time, also been recognised to be problematic. Attention is periodically drawn to the policy’s chronic ineffectiveness in solving the Indigenous living conditions problem. Similarly the public liability for the intervention is periodically scrutinised and the press and Indigenous activists hold the policy up for public criticism. The apparent frustration precipitated by the government approach is also manifest in periodic Ministerial statements and outbreaks of irrational contrary policy, as is evidenced in 1997 by Indigenous camp clearances in the town of Katherine.
This Doctoral study examined the ‘Indigenous living conditions problem’ and Commonwealth Government intervention as a strategic approach to solving this problem. It analysed official perceptions of this problem and the appropriateness of the official policy construction as a logical strategy for achieving the policy’s expected outcomes. In doing this is builds upon the work of such theorists as Will Sanders and Ian Hughes who have previously criticised the impact of such policy on Indigenous autonomy and the right to self-determine.
The problem in Indigenous living conditions policy is demonstrated in Chapter 1 by a case study and supplementary analysis. This analysis is progressed in Chapter 2 by an inquiry into the nature of the perceived problem in Indigenous living conditions. This introductory policy-analysis presents an uncritical, picture of the diachronic development of both the contemporary policy problem and the strategy for its solution. It examines a mainstream ontology of the problem so that Government intervention strategy can be considered as a field for epistemological investigation. Thus the discussion highlights recurring perceptions that the policy has failed, and asks, what is wrong with Commonwealth Indigenous living conditions policy.
The material presented in Chapter 3 provides a logical examination of Indigenous living conditions policy as a methodology for intervening in the specific environmental conditions which are perceived causative of the officially constructed problem. The analysis finds that there is a disappointing lack of clarity about the specific problem, the causative variables that affect the problem, and the logical consequences of the intervention process. Rather than exposing conceptual clarity the examination suggests that the policy is focussed upon an ill-defined concept of ‘housing need’. An explanatory investigation of this conceptual phenomenon indicates insufficient recognition of its existence.
It is found that, though the policy has been subject to considerable evaluation, its review has adjusted the operational effectiveness of the intervention process but not its conceptualisation and logic. Because the problem has been ill-defined, the experimental intervention into the subject environment has been registered as effective, irrespective of demonstrable outcomes for the subject population, Indigenous clients.
Chapter 4 examines the economic underpinnings of the policy to determine what historical expectations allowed policy to develop a mismatch between its outcomes mismatched and its intentions. Historical documentation indicates that formative policy intervention into remote Indigenous living conditions focussed on creating training facilities which encouraged residents to rapidly disperse and integrate into the mainstream economy. The coercive nature of this formative policy was submerged beneath an ostensibly just welfare model because it appeared to assist poor Indigenous people to meet their ‘needs’. This construction of a just policy regime persisted as a result of a perceived ‘need’ for housing assistance.
In Chapter 5 historical material is analysed to ascertain whether humanitarian policy developments, reformed the coercive objectives which directed Indigenous policy and established Indigenous ‘self-determination’ as an official agenda. The historical critique indicates that Government humanitarian efforts have since the inception of Indigenous policy focussed on assisting Indigenous people through interventions which policy-makers perceived were needed.
Chapter 6 examines the social construction of the concept need in social policy and its application in Indigenous living conditions policy. Community perceptions of human needs are considered against psychological theory of the concept. This seeks to reconstruct ‘need’ as a policy concept that accords with theory and mainstream intentions for social policy. This theoretically robust concept is then applied as an analytical tool for considering the construction of the need for intervention into Indigenous living conditions.
The dissertation concludes that a problem in Indigenous living conditions cannot be solved without dealing with the following assumptions: 1) if a ‘problem’ is not significant to those who are perceived to experience it then it will be difficult to coerce their participation in solving it, 2) if a strategic intervention is not focussed on solving a problem then it will not solve it, and 3) if a problem is not conceptualised clearly enough for its causes to be isolated then intervention is unfocussed and not likely to cause a solution. The reconstruction of the concept ‘need’ in policy permits a reconceptualisation of Indigenous living conditions problems, a reconsideration of the strategic conceptualisation of policy processes, and a re-examination of the causes of Indigenous dissatisfaction (unmet need). These outcomes are achieved because theoretical conceptualisation of human need permits client conceptualisations of their problems to be understood as deficits which might be incorporated into policy.
The discussion concludes that Indigenous self-determination is an important but forgotten need which requires satisfaction after any living conditions intrusion. To solve the problem in Indigenous living conditions policy, any housing (or other) intervention must permit (1) Indigenous environmental control and (2) those consequent perceptions of self-efficacy which facilitate the psychological and environmental management required for a non-problematic post-policy environment