Is it any surprise the 2017 Closing the Gap report, released today, shows that in four of the seven key areas, Australia is still lagging way behind? For too long, federal governments have offered window dressing for improving the outlook for Indigenous people in Australia, and the latest report confirms this. Although the original ambitions for Closing the Gap were modest when it commenced in 2008, it’s a travesty that even these targets are not being met.
The key areas of life expectancy, employment, reading and writing, and school attendance, are the four areas that have not been achieved, while the three areas that are being achieved, are child mortality rates, access to early education, and completion of education to Year 12 level.
In 2014, during the first Abbott budget, funding for Indigenous affairs was cut by $530 million, including legal aid funding, health programs, early education and language support. Four years later, the effects of these cutbacks are still being felt within Indigenous communities.
The National Congress of Australia’s First People’s, the national representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, has requested a ‘reset’ of the Closing the Gap Strategy, arguing the current strategy exists “persists in name only with the closing the gap targets being used to measure ‘national progress’ being pursued with no national leadership” and is “almost a full retreat” of the intentions of the original strategy, and that closing the gap in all seven key measures can only be achieve with a greater level of Indigenous community involvement.
This is a point which the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, only partially acknowledged, when he said data and material must be made “available to communities, to local decision-makers who need to know what is happening on the ground and track changes and monitor progress. This is a big shift.”
A big shift? Proving “data and material” to local communities may be important, but it was Malcolm Turnbull that abruptly put the progress of the Uluru Statement from The Heart to an end, when he incorrectly argued the Statement would end up creating “a third chamber of parliament” and would not be “capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”. He’s just not interested in Indigenous matters, and nor is his Liberal–National government.
In contrast, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced a future Labor Government would legislate to create an Indigenous representative body, the Voice to Parliament, a key body which the government has so far rejected, and create a compensation fund for survivors of the Stolen Generation, as well as a fuller commitment to closing the gap.
There is still a long way to go to ‘close the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes but, as Labor Senator Pat Dodson said, it’s not “a game between Labor and Liberal, it’s about the future of Aboriginal people having a quality of life in this country” before launching an attack on Malcolm Turnbull for walking away from the launch of the report, saying it was “indicative of the deafness of the absolute derision and the contempt which this government is meting out to the Aboriginal people”.