The Prime Minster yesterday released the Closing the Gap report, 2011. The existence and release of this report early in the new parliamentary year is a positive development over the past three years and highlights a sustained effort on the part of Government to focus attention on Indigenous disadvantage.

There is certainly an impressive list of resources invested by the Government. More teachers, doctors, houses and so on. But the Prime Ministers’ speech also highlights many of the issues for which NATSIEC has criticised Governments of both persuasions over the years. For example, despite the Prime Minister’s claim of evidence based, accountable and transparent close the gap efforts there remains a distinct lack of benchmarks, goals and measurement of effectiveness.

The Prime Minster also said Close the Gap is a “call for changes in behaviour. A call to every person, to every family, to every community”.

What about Government? Does it not have to change its behaviour and challenge its own fundamental philosophy on development and change? Indigenous disadvantage has not only been caused by years of neglect. It is also a result of years of ineffective and failed policies, of structural racism, of inappropriate delivery of services and so on.

Take as an example the commitment to close the life expectancy gap within a generation. Yesterday, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, released a media statement commenting on the Government’s report. He also commented that Minister Warren Snowdon and Minister Nicola Roxon have agreed to begin developing a long term national plan to close the gap in Indigenous life expectancy by 2030. As Gooda also points out the Government signed a Statement of Intent to close the Indigenous life expectancy gap in March 2008. It’s now almost March 2011 – three years later and the Government has only now committed to begin to develop a plan to increase the life expectancy of Indigenous peoples. 

How do we reconcile what we hear in this speech with a three year gap between a statement of intent and a commitment to begin planning? How many years will it be before action arises from the plan? How do we reconcile the Prime Ministers’ claims with what we heard this week from NT Elders about the lack of consultation, the disempowerment felt in their communities, the increasing depression that many are suffering from, the tragic suicides in communities?  The same issues that were raised with NATSIEC during the Living Letters visit last year.

Despite the talk of working together, the tone of many of the Prime Minster’s comments about individual responsibility suggest that if, after all these resources are thrown at the “problem”, goals haven’t been achieved then it’s because individuals have failed to take responsibility. There is no doubt that in some places, some things are changing for the better, but if these changes are to be sustainable; if these changes are to really close the gap, then there also needs to be more and urgent attention paid to proper negotiation, proper consultation, partnerships, respect, culturally appropriate programs, empowerment, human rights. All those concepts that can sound a bit airy fairy, but in fact are the bed rock of ending Indigenous disadvantage. Without paying attention to these vital aspects the work may go on, but so too will the failures.    

The Close the Gap report 2011

Julia Gillard’s speech –

Mick Gooda’s media release