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Closing the Gap won’t work without human reconciliation


Close The Gap imagery

The Prime Minister's Closing the Gap speech to Federal Parliament last Wednesday was a finely crafted piece of work that failed to hit the spot. It was heartfelt, but the words seemed hollow.

It has become a personal mission to help my fellow Australians to open their hearts, as much as to change their minds, on Aboriginal policy ... Even as things began to change, a generation or two back, our tendency was to work for Aboriginal people rather than with them. We objectified Aboriginal issues rather than personalised them.

Yet this objectification is what underlies the current focus of Indigenous policy, which is to 'close the gap' in statistical disadvantage.

Statistical disadvantage has, in the words of University of Queensland analyst Elizabeth Strakosch, 'become the dominant way of framing the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia'. It is, she suggests, the sum total of 'our national Indigenous policy'. According to this view, it misses the point that human reconciliation needs to be achieved before the statistical gap can be closed.

Whether it's our Indigenous policy, or merely a campaign, 'Closing the Gap' is a media-friendly way of presenting in simple terms the complex challenge we have ahead of us. It facilitates the selling in overstated terms of any short-term improvements in the figures. 

It is not policy that has been thought out and developed. Rather it is a justification for getting out the big stick to achieve short term gains that will look good on the Government's political report card when the next election comes around. An example is the initial apparent success of the truancy officers measure, which Abbott referred to in his speech:

At my first COAG meeting, every state and territory agreed with the Commonwealth on the need to publish attendance data from every school. And that's why, at 40 remote schools, the Commonwealth is already funding new anti-truancy measures that, on day one of the 2014 school year, in some communities, seem to have boosted attendance from under 60 per cent to over 90 per cent.

What will attendance figures be in five years from now? What statistical blemish is he covering with his use of the word 'seem'?

Objectifying Indigenous Australians with such an overarching use of statistics represents another half-measured stab at improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. It is akin to its predecessor, the failed paternalistic NT Intervention that began during the Howard era and was continued by the successive Labor governments.

As Elizabeth Strakosch also points out, the Prime Minister 'has appointed his own advisory council on Indigenous affairs, rather than engaging with the elected National Congress. This sits uncomfortably with his commitment to a new engagement with Indigenous Australia.'

Close the Gap's preoccupation with statistics ignores the fractured social and political relations between Indigenous and settler Australia. It makes events such as the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations and the 2000 Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk for Reconciliation seem tokenistic. Especially when we consider ongoing hurts such as the annual Australia Day celebration, and the Australian War Memorial's refusal to recognise the death of at least 20,000 Indigenous Australians from 1788 at the hands of colonial authorities and settler militias.

The use of statistics to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians must go hand in hand with attempts to build human bonds between Indigenous and settler Australians. Building bonds is much more difficult than quoting and manipulating statistics. But it is likely to be more enduring.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Tony Abbott, Closing the Gap, reconciliation, NT intervention, Aborigines, Indigeno



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Existing comments

There is a need for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians but privileging the voices of non-indigenous Australians is not the way to achieve this. People on the margins need support and structure not condemnation in the form of control. Until there's a recognition of the pain caused by the celebration of Australia Day on 26th January, until interventions into indigenous autonomy cease, articles about "Closing the Gap" mean nothing.

Pam | 14 February 2014  

"The use of statistics to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians must go hand in hand with attempts to build human bonds between Indigenous and settler Australians." I've puzzled over this sentence for some time, but enlightenment has proved elusive. How might the use of statistics improve lives, even if such use were to extend a metaphorical hand? Wouldn't any attempts to build human bonds be hindered by such emotive labels as 'Indigenous', traditionally applied to flora and fauna, and 'settler', which would exclude anyone born in this country? How might a government go about 'building human bonds' and 'must' any of their attempts succeed?

John Vernau | 15 February 2014  

An interesting and timely short article on a subject recently discussed by our retired group. As one who has listened to the opinions, on 1st Australians, proffered by 6 generations of White Australians I would say that much of what has been called achievement in building a relationship between white and black Australia has been superficial. The great mistake that has been made over the decades has been to treat aboriginals differently to other Australians. Much of this occurs because the 1st people want to be treated differently. Until mainstream aboriginals accept and want to be Australians, like my aboriginal veteran mates, then reconciliation with the majority will not occur. Failing to recognize Australia Day, insisting on a separate flag, calling for yet more money to solve self inflicted problems & lining the pockets of a plethora of committees, and violently seeking aboriginal autonomy will not reconcile aboriginals with the rest of Australia. By the way most of our discussion group are 3rd or 4th generation Australians and strongly believe that we are as indigenous to this country as any aboriginal. The word indigenous should be used correctly and not used selectively.

Phillip Hayden | 17 February 2014  

Thank you. Australia cannot 'close the gap' (CTG) whilst unjust, paternalistic and racist legislation continues. Massive disregard for the voices of NT A&TSI people continues! The Intervention stripped the people of their basic human dignity and other rights (UNDHR &ICESCR).Their lands simply compulsorily acquired! Polices saw the skyrocketing of A&TSI incarceration, a doubling of self harm & suicide, and a ‘reduction’ in school attendance.... consequences of disrespectful & UNJUST policies. Much else lies within CTG statistics but not highlighted. On Education: Truant officers, boarding schools and welfare withdrawal are not solutions. A&TSI spoke http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/media/Welfare-Cuts-Requested-or-Imposed.pdf The Intervention was condemned by the UN (in August 2010). Its rebadged version under the (ironically named) 2012-2022 Stronger Futures (SF) legislation will continue to cause harm. In June 2013 SF legislation was seriously questioned by Australia’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights; the SF measures considered are unlikely to be ‘special measures’. The same report raised serious concerns over disempowerment & lack of proper consultation with A&TSIs as recommended by the A&TSI Social Justice commissioner & AHRC! The removal of land rights (2006, 2007 & so-called ‘land reform’ of SF poses pressing concerns; worth reading ‘In The Absence of Treaty’ (Dec 2013). For this and further information go to www.concernedaustralians.com.au

Georgina | 17 February 2014  

Thank you Michael. "Closing the Gap" IS something very achievable in Australia,a land with tiny population and vast wealth, touted as the 'lucky' country. Constitutional rights, still waiting..we have chosen to look after ourselves, stamp our anglo/irish heritage, our indigenous european origins in an asian/pacific island and enjoy life in a colonial outpost. If there was a sign of national maturity and pride it would have been an intelligent focus on nurturing the people who lived here first. A pride in the world's most ancient living culture. We can afford so many 21st century advances in our cities and we pride ourselves on $billion industries on sporting, business,sparkling infrastucture.We pride ourselves on being the best soldiers in British wars ... Our identity is like that of a child not wanting to grow up. Our motherland is still ..over there! Until Australian History has been acknowledged our Shame can't be healed...why have we not become versed in some of our local indigenous languages, when so many districts/towns/cities have names from the dreamtime? We are living in a beautiful land but must acknowledge this cultural foundation if we are to survive its geological, geographical (climatic) realities and 'step outside' western cannon of knowledge.We newcomers 'settlers' NEED as much indigenous education to survive> Indigenous australians, sadly almost annihilated and less than 2% of population,and yet we seem still unable to grant them basic freedoms without blaming them for their inability to assimilate (blend in ). Education and health have best results when tailored to the individual recipient, why is it so hard for governments to see?I feel we are Australia is sadly now viewed with doubt, disbelief, despair, an outdated outpost living in the 'glorious' days of empire.

Catherine | 17 February 2014  

I don't know whether it's supposed to be reconciliation or not, but the Alice Springs Town Council is currently trying to turn the Town Camps — Aboriginal housing areas mostly round the outskirts of the town, into normal suburbs. They have given the streets names and the houses in them street numbers. The result is that, in one camp, for example, you drive in past number 1, number 2, number 1, number 2, number 3. If you look hard you can see that there are two so-called streets involved. Admittedly the earlier numbering was very mixed up (it "growed like Topsy") but the replacement is worse.Often the best way to explain to someone how to find a certain house is to tell them what colour it is.

Gavan | 17 February 2014  

Phillip Hayden, with the greatest respect, why would Aboriginal people want to be "Australians" any more than the Palestinian people under the Israeli jackboot should want to be Jews?

Peter Downie | 17 February 2014  

I think, Tony Abbott is doing a good job for Australia. Today,s Poll; Tony Abbott bounces back. Coalition 52 per cent ALP 48 per cent.

Ron Cini | 17 February 2014  

Peter Downie, Arab citizens of Israel are non-Jewish Israeli citizens with full rights equal to Israeli Jews.

Ron Cini | 17 February 2014  

Our SHAME is the elephant in the room, and all of us suffer as our governments have blamed/shamed/ skirted around it.Shame causes a lack of motivation and brings all our efforts undone. It is the reason this truth, our history is not taught. Why should our indigenous people feel shame?Perhaps it is failing to assimilate, after families were broken, plagued with new disease,alcohol, sugar and then given no citizenship until 1967. Perhaps they were feeling less than human as OUR governments classified these people as flora and fauna, and managed them under departments of fisheries and wildlife. OUR SHAME needs acknowledging,and our self respect, pride, maturity and our lives will only be enriched by TRUTH. Reconciliation requires us, the invaders and newcomers, to say sorry, ask forgiveness for longstanding trauma and then forgiven begin to find a shared vision..........Constitutional rights and recognition of indigenous practices and autonomy of first Australians will give all marginalised people a reason to stand up and be proud,aspire to advance Australia as a truly fair land and then celebrate Australia Day.

catherine | 17 February 2014  

Ron Cini, thankyou for your succinct description of the legal situation of non-Jewish people, but surely we need to bear in mind that these "rights" are conferred by an invader.

Peter Downie | 18 February 2014  

In my experience in remote communities the kids come to school in large numbers for a short time at the beginning of the school year but quickly lose interest and stay at home. I am sure there are many and varied reasons for this but not the least is that the curriculum offered and teaching methods used are often almost identical to schools in urban areas who have mostly white students. This has very active indigenous kids sitting for a long time on the floor or at desks which is almost foreign to kids who spend most of their days and half the nights, running, climbing, chasing and kicking balls or anything that can be used as a ball etc. Another reason is that most of their families are home as there is very little work in the communities and the kids have more fun at home. if these schools ran a learning program that used their local community to learn about local government, the creeks and rivers etc to learn about environmental science, visit the local land forms to learn about geography, their local artists to teach music and art, and all of the above to underpin their reading writing and maths more kids might attend more regularly.

Faith | 18 February 2014  

I agree wholeheartedly with you Faith,how can we expect any change in school attendance,motivation, educational aspirations when the curriculum is not designed to cater for cultural differences and very underprivileged communities?Does LOTE include indigenous languages?We know language, art and custom hold all cultural histories. We say we know One size does not fit all.. Our great western archeological and scientific discoveries cannot redeem our lack of motivation to preserve and protect an ancient Australian history. OUR ignorance is breathtaking in 2014. How can we not acknowledge a basic right to express belief,heritage,cultural identity, when we claim this right ourselves?This is a foundation of democracy and already constitutional law. We have not protected a fundamental law for indigenous people, another example of systemic abuse and added to ineffective education, high incarceration rates and 3rd world health outcomes, failure and slow annihilation of this first people is GLARINGLY obvious to any reasonable person. OUR SHAME! UNLAWFUL and thus responsibility rests squarely in the hands of government.

Catherine | 20 February 2014  

Thankds Michael. The intervention is a longterm disaster. The motives behind it need constant questioning. Respect surely means involving people on the ground and allowing them to work things out their own way. Each group will be different. Trouble is, our culture is one of busy busy and hurry hurry.! I agree with Faith and Catherine.School must be relevant to the student. Learning in language first, including families in the education process instead of segregating according to age etc etc. Culturally appropriate education prepares students well for learning another culture and its ways. (Valuing and studying Aboriginal knowledge benefits us all.) Having stability of staff is important. Comfortable class rooms and furniture. space. Good health. Trained aides to Help to deal with life's difficulties just as welfare officers do in most schools in the Southern states. Feeling cared for as you are, rather than in order to only achieve Government selected score cards. Chris Sarra always seemed sensible about education. Besides, some of my young relatives miss school most of the time because they will not go there. Not Aboriginal. Nothing happens. And I understand why.

Audrey Winther | 24 February 2014  

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