ANALYSIS: There’s a few simple reasons why yet another Close the Gap report chronicles endemic government failure. Amy McQuire explains why governments still don’t get it.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may not have the arrogance of the man he dethroned – he didn’t, for example, appoint himself ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’ despite failing to meet the selection criteria. But he still matches Tony Abbott in the soaring heights of meaningless rhetoric when it comes to black Australia.
That rhetoric was on full display today by Turnbull’s false campaigning for government to work with Aboriginal people rather than deliver ‘to’ them. Indigenous policy has, and still is, meticulously crafted in direct opposition to this very sentiment. Everything the Abbott, and now Turnbull government has done so far, still points in the direction of disempowering Aboriginal Australia. It’s all about doing things “to” rather than with. Always has been, always will be.
This morning Turnbull delivered his first Closing the Gap report since taking office. It is the eighth report card examining “progress” on targets to eliminate Indigenous disadvantage since Kevin Rudd came up with the politically unfortunate idea in 2008.
There were few surprises in the report, as anyone who has even a passing interest in Indigenous affairs could have predicted.
While Rudd and Gillard tried to bury failure and redirect blame (Gillard most spectacularly by claiming it was time for Aboriginal Australia to share responsibility), both Abbott and Turnbull have been forced to admit that despite ‘optimism’, the majority of the Closing the Gap targets are moving further away from success.
It seems governments are finding it harder and harder to simply paint over the cracked walls of Indigenous policy failure, when it becomes clearer with every new devastating report that the foundations are in ruin.
This year’s report card finds that of the seven targets, only two are on track. And one of those – lowering Indigenous infant mortality rates – has been declining steadily for two decades now, well before the targets were devised.
The other – halving the gap in year 12 attainment rates for Indigenous Australians by 2020 – is also on track, as it was in last year’s report card, because there is no new data for this year.
The five failed targets – closing the gap in life expectancy, closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance, halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements and halving the gap in employment outcomes, are not on track to be met.
Ensuring access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013 had already failed, hence the need for a new target.
Despite that, Mr Turnbull told Parliament today while results were “mixed” there had been “significant gains”. We can, he said, “be hopeful for the future”.
That was the first lie. The results are clearly not “mixed”. The results are an abject failure, as they have been for the past eight years – strangled by a crippling and dangerous bipartisanship in Indigenous policy on behalf of both major parties.
This abject failure is of course, reflected in devastating statistics that continue to weigh Aboriginal futures down. But according to Turnbull in Parliament today, there is still cause for us to move forward with “mutual respect”, even though the respect is one-sided, and has always been weighted against Aboriginal people.
Turnbull today recounted a conversation with Aboriginal educator Dr Chris Sarra, who set up the Stronger Smarter Institute, where he asked him the three key things governments could do in Indigenous affairs.
Dr Sarra answered a while later in a speech:
“Firstly, acknowledge and embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians,” Mr Turnbull told Parliament.
“Secondly, bring policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair.
“And lastly, do things with us, not to us.
They are wise words from Dr Sarra, but were co-opted by Turnbull in his speech today, twisted and assimilated to meet Turnbull’s own agenda.
One of those agendas was a fluffy version of constitutional reform, which Turnbull used as an example of doing “things with us, not to us”.
According to Turnbull “constitutional recognition of our First Australians provides us with the opportunity to implement those three strategies.” Acknowledging the history in language that is “meaningful to all Australians” is Turnbull’s idea of “nurturing hope and optimism” and it is one “done together and not done to”.
Turnbull shows a semblance of his predecessor’s dangerous ignorance in failing to realize that Constitutional Reform in its current incarnation goes completely against Sarra’s three steps.
The great farce of constitutional reform has been a white-led, top-down government approach to shutting up Aboriginal aspirations for treaty and sovereignty. It has caused severe division amongst First Nations peoples across Australia, and has been watered down substantially over the past few years.
It is the prime example of a government doing things “to” rather than “with” Aboriginal Australia. It completely undermines the humanity of Aboriginal Australia, as a people who have a right to have a say in our future.
In fact, it funds a campaign – Recognise – which actively seeks to dilute dissenting voices.
In the same way, the Closing the Gap report is also an example of governments doing things “to” rather than “for” Indigenous Australia.
The targets are ultimately government-devised and tailored around government agendas and the lowest hanging fruit. Blackfellas are expected to fit into the boxes.
For example, while Turnbull mentioned the devastating impact of the rising Indigenous incarceration crisis in his speech today, he failed to acknowledge the Aboriginal chorus of voices consistently calling on government to incorporate justice targets into Closing the Gap.
You can’t solve Aboriginal poverty without addressing the devastating numbers of Aboriginal people – men, women and children – who are losing their future to the criminal justice system. In the Northern Territory today, 96 per cent of juveniles in jail are Aboriginal.
While Turnbull mentioned the apology to the Stolen Generations, he failed to mention how you can “Close the Gap” while Australia takes away more and more Aboriginal children, ripping them from their families and placing them in out-of-home care at rates that have gone up exponentially every year since Rudd said ‘Sorry’.
While Turnbull cynically used the poetic imagery of Vincent Lingiari’s fight for land rights, he massaged it into his own agenda, to promote land rights solely through the lens of economic development.
While economic development is important, Turnbull’s comments undermine the fights across the country today from Aboriginal nations who are struggling to assert weak native title rights to care for country in the face of mining giants who steal fortunes by destroying it.
While Turnbull says we must ‘protect hard fought for land rights’ while at the same time allowing a path to economic development, there are still concerns across the country of governments looking to water down land rights and heritage legislation to speed up development.
There is still cause for cynicism, for example, around the white paper for developing Northern Australia, and whether Traditional Owners will be adequately consulted.
This is not about doing things “with” Aboriginal Australia, it is about doing things “to” them.
Turnbull claims that it is time to “listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when they tell us what is working and what needs to change” and it is “our role as government to empower the environment to encourage local solutions.”
These are important words, but unfortunately, they fail to match up to the actions of government, and there is no real reason to believe a Turnbull government will depart from the days of the past.
This is because governments are more than willing to listen to Aboriginal solutions that align with their own belief systems. They are less likely to listen to Aboriginal people who do not support white dreams for black futures.
That is why we have a drive towards constitutional reform, and not one towards treaty.
And it’s why we have an eighth report card on ‘Closing the Gap’, when the gap continues to widen.