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Don't be disheartened by dismal Close the Gap reports

Myrna Tonkinson |  15 February 2016

Last week, Malcolm Turnbull presented the eighth annual prime minister's report on the government's Close the Gap campaign, and made a statement to Parliament.

Aboriginal woman and babyAs is customary, the Close the Gap Campaign steering committee also released its 2016 progress and priorities report, and its co-chairs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, and Dr Jackie Huggins, also made speeches and public comments.

The reports acknowledge that Close the Gap policy and programs have not succeeded, so far; the words 'target not met' recur throughout. The primary target, closing the life expectancy gap in one generation, 'is not on track', nor are many others.

There was an expectation that, ten years after the National Indigenous Health Equality campaign was initiated, the reports would include positive results. They do identify modest gains, notably a marked reduction in infant mortality and an increase in the number of Indigenous children completing year 12.

Overall however, the gaps remain wide.

Closing the Gap has bipartisan support, though each prime minister brings a different tone. Turnbull emphasised economic empowerment, talking up Indigenous people's successes, and the fostering of innovation and entrepreneurship.

He also stated the importance of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as pertinent to closing the gap.

The steering committee report expresses frustration with the pace of change, and advocates urgent action and greater Indigenous control at the local level. Its recommendations include two items that warrant comment.

The first is a reiteration of a proposal made in 2013, calling for reduced incarceration of Indigenous people to be made a Close the Gap target.

The second is for an inquiry into institutional racism in the health sector.

While Turnbull did not mention the 2013 proposal specifically, he expressed concern about high rates of imprisonment and recidivism in the Indigenous population. He advocated rehabilitation, particularly via opportunities for work, and 'the power of employment ... as a circuit breaker in that dreadful cycle'.

While many Indigenous people who are imprisoned have committed serious, often violent, offences, I can see no reason why lowering the incarceration rate could not begin immediately, starting with the many who are in jails and prisons for petty offences, notably non-payment of fines.

Recently, in WA, a woman died in custody after being locked up for non-payment of fines; she was ill with an infection resulting from violence inflicted by her partner, but entrenched racist attitudes among police and health personnel led to her pleas for help being ignored and her condition undiagnosed.

This extreme case is instructive regarding problems in health and education as well as incarceration. Preventable deaths, as well as unjustifiable detention, continue to occur. The 'circuit breaker' mentioned by Turnbull is just one measure that could be tried.

I find the recommendation for an inquiry into the health sector less persuasive. Do we really need another inquiry to establish that institutional racism exists, in the health system and elsewhere?

It is legitimate to name racism where it exists, but there are antecedents that have resulted in, or compounded, the current problems.

Past policies and practices that excluded Aboriginal people, provided substandard services, inadequate housing, poor diet etc. have resulted in diseases like scabies and diabetes, which lead often to cardiovascular and kidney disease, the prevalence of which is far more common among Aboriginal people than the rest of the population.

These practical realities require practical solutions that an inquiry can not supply.

Given that the situation is so dire on so many fronts, there is disappointment and anger about the lack of progress in achieving the goals of the Close the Gap campaign. The critics do not speak with a single voice as to what ought to be done, and it is difficult to know whose advice will yield best results.

Ten years is a long time in politics, but it takes time for effective social change to occur, when the present conditions are the result of generations of both deliberate and unintentional destruction resulting in grotesque inequalities.

While prime ministers and spokespersons can provide leadership, no one individual can ensure the success of any particular program. There are always imponderables, factors that cannot be entirely controlled, results that cannot be predicted reliably.

The disheartening results documented in the 2016 reports should strengthen the resolve of all concerned to set realistic goals, with consultation at local levels, drawing on successful models.


Myrna TonkinsonDr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. She has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974.



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Submitted comments

Dear Myrna thank you for your wonderful article. Closing the Gap is beginning to make a difference and I have seen some exciting changes. As someone who is part of a new hospital in Perth's eastern suburbs I can tell you we now have 44 Aboriginal people working with us. An indigenous man who entered our hospital recently remarked at how wonderful it was to see so many Aboriginal faces around the building and how his community loved the new hospital because they could see we were serious in our resolve to make a difference. Things like this will bring improved health outcomes for Aboriginal people but it all takes time.

Martin Loney 16 February 2016

I agree that it takes time to get meaningful change. I have been involved in indigenous issues in NW Qld for many years and now working in the Cape with the TO's on the upgrade of the Peninsula Dev Road. The progress in housing and community management are significant and the young are demonstrating the benefits in educational opportunities offered, especially by the churches, in becoming confident leaders.

Nev Hunt 16 February 2016

"The Intervention" in the NT makes it impossible to close the gap because it has disempowered remote Indigenous communities with a view to assimilating them into the dominant culture. The Government's position is highly hypocritical in claiming to want to close the gap, while maintaining this policy!

Ian R. Yule 16 February 2016

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