AUSTRALIA: ‘Closing the Gap’ 2014

On 12 February 2014, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivered the sixth annual Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap Statement in Federal Parliament and tabled the 2014 Closing the Gap Report – the first since he was elected Prime Minister in September 2013 (earlier posts on the SOGIP blog relating to ‘Closing the Gap’ can be accessed here, here and here).

As in previous years, the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee released its annual shadow Progress and Priorities Report on the same day.

During the 2013 electoral campaign, Abbott pledged that he would be a ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’. Once in office, he achieved this in a very literal way by transferring responsibility for the majority of Indigenous policies, programmes and services to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). The Department’s website affirms that:

Bringing these [responsibilities] into PM&C reflects the high priority the Government has placed on Indigenous affairs and will support the Government to deliver its reform agenda to improve outcomes for Indigenous people.

This reform agenda is identified as focusing on:

  • making sure children go to school so they receive a good education;

  • working with leaders, communities, individuals and employers to get adults into work;

  • making sure communities are safer to live in and that the rule of law is applied; and

  • achieving constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Abbott has now also appointed Nigel Scullion as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and has created the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, chaired by Warren Mundine, and comprised of non-elected indigenous and non-indigenous members (see here and here). According to the PM&C website: ‘The Council’s role is to advise Government on practical changes which can be made to improve the lives of Indigenous people.’

However, Abbott’s commitment to Indigenous Affairs was quickly brought into question following the announcement of a number of significant budget cuts, including to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (despite its potential aggravation of the serious problems associated with Indigenous overrepresentation in the Australian justice system), and to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (the country’s foremost representative body for Indigenous Australians existing at the national level today) – see hereherehereherehere, and here.

Another area of concern is the potential repeal or amendment of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), which makes it unlawful to act in public in a manner that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin. The Government’s newly appointed member of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Tim Wilson, has advocated changing section 18C on the grounds of upholding freedom of speech (as reported here). However, the AHRC’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, has warned of the serious dangers inherent to diluting or repealing section 18C. The two Co-Chairs of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, along with representatives of a number of Australia’s migrant communities, have also advocated for the maintenance of section 18C and the current legal mechanisms for dealing with complaints of racial vilification.

The Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council has also been criticised. For example, Jon Altman characterised the Council as ‘recycling unelected and contentious people from the past as his [Abbott’s] key advisers, people who while individually successful have no track record of delivering success in indigenous policy.’ Altman further affirmed in this connection:

Monopolistic advice from like-minded people is not the way to foster the sort of competition of ideas and advice that will be needed in the increasingly complex 21st century to address increasingly complex indigenous development challenges.

In his Closing the Gap Statement, Abbott reaffirmed his personal commitment to Indigenous Affairs, identifying it as ‘a personal mission to help my fellow Australians to open their hearts, as much as to change their minds, on Aboriginal policy.’ Abbott continued:

We are a great country – I firmly believe the best on Earth. But we will never be all that we should be until we do better in this [Aboriginal policy]. There is no country on Earth where people are made more welcome. There is no country on Earth whose people have more innate generosity to others. Yet for two centuries – with fragrant exceptions, of course – Australians had collectively failed to show to Aboriginal people the personal generosity and warmth of welcome that we have habitually extended to the stranger in our midst.

The inhumane policies implemented by the present and past Australian Governments to deter asylum seekers and ‘stop the boats’ (arguably in contravention of Australia’s international obligations – see here) belies the narrative of a welcoming, generous Australia constructed by Abbott in this speech. Furthermore, by representing ‘Australians’ as having ‘failed’ to welcome Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) peoples (by implication, as they should have), Abbott discursively obscures the historical fact that ATSI peoples are the original inhabitants, the first peoples, of the country. Thus, mirroring the usurpation of ATSI sovereignty by colonisation, Abbott discursively usurps this original, foundational position and legitimacy of ATSI peoples, in favour of ‘Australians’ (defined by implication as essentially non-indigenous).

Despite Abbott’s affirmed commitment to opening peoples’ hearts and changing their minds on Aboriginal policy, the approach to Closing the Gap articulated in his Statement is very much in continuity with the previous policy initiatives implemented under this banner. In his statement, Abbott noted that several targets are on track to be met:

  • halve the gap in child mortality within a decade;
  • have 95 per cent of remote children enrolled for pre-school;
  • halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020.

However, he reported that almost no progress has been made in relation to closing the life expectancy gap, very little progress has been made in reading, writing and numeracy, and indigenous employment has been going backwards. Abbott consequently concluded:

We are not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful targets. Because it’s hard to be literate and numerate without attending school; it’s hard to find work without a basic education; and it’s hard to live well without a job.

Following this logic, Abbott announced the creation of a new target: close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous school attendance in five years. Abbott’s conception of education and the benefits of school attendance are based on traditional Western and neo-liberal premises and models. Abbott affirmed at one point in his speech:

it’s being demonstrated in places like Aurukun that a strong education in traditional culture is actually helped by a good education in English. Right around our country, it should be possible to be proudly Aboriginal and a full participant in modern Australia.

It is highly significant that a good education in English is identified by Abbott as being beneficial to an education in traditional culture, and not vice-versa. As a consequence, Abbott can be seen to implicitly posit being ‘a full participant in modern Australia’ (through being educated, having a job and ‘living well’) as the precondition for being ‘proudly Aboriginal’ (which is itself defined implicitly as ‘non-modern/primitive’, ‘uneducated’, ‘unemployed’ and ‘living poorly/badly’).

Moreover, in his Statement, Abbott appeared to propose a general policy initiative (or at least a general method of appraising progress on this target) relating to indigenous and non-indigenous students without distinction, affirming that: ‘We will know that this gap has been all-but-closed when schools achieve 90 per cent plus attendance regardless of their percentage of Aboriginal students.’ While in a sense epitomising the ultimate objective of Closing the Gap, which projects a future in which ‘equality’ renders differentiated statistics and treatment of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians unnecessary, the application of such an approach before ‘equality’ has been obtained could be seen to run counter to and undermine the Closing the Gap policy platform as a process fundamentally based on differentiated statistics and treatment in the present.

In his formal response, Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, obliquely criticised this aspect of Abbott’s Closing the Gap Statement, when he affirmed:

We should remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—the victims of so much exclusion, so much marginalisation—have every right to be sceptical of supposedly universal policy pronouncements.

Shorten also implicitly criticised Abbott’s affirmation of the consistency of goodwill and good intentions in the area of indigenous policy, stating: ‘We must always remind ourselves that there can be a fine line between good intentions and “we know better” paternalism.’ Shorten advocated:

an approach that empowers [Indigenous Australians], not directs from the top down. Aboriginal people deserve more respect than being told it is as simple as ‘obey the law.’ One size does not fit all. Sometimes the tone of a message can be as effective or harmful as the content.

In his Statement, Abbott distinguished the approach of Governments in the past with that of the present Government, stating that:

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. We saw problems to be solved rather than people to be engaged with.

Nevertheless, Abbott failed to engage with indigenous organisations and representatives who had been strongly advocating the creation of a new target in relation to the overrepresentation of indigenous Australians in the justice system, including in prisons (see here, here and here). Abbott also failed to discuss in any detail the life expectancy target, and did not address the calls of indigenous organisations and groups (including the Closing the Gap Campaign in its 2014 shadow report) for the implementation of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013-23 and the securing of adequate long-term funding at the federal and state levels through the conclusion of a new National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Health Outcomes (see here).

Abbott also barely mentioned the campaign for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, despite the fact that this constitutes one element of the Government’s official Indigenous Affairs reform agenda. In contrast, Shorten spoke in some detail on this point and advocated a series of significant amendments to the Constitution ‘to offer more than a nod of recognition’.

Nevertheless, the commonalities in the overall approach and assumptions articulated by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on Closing the Gap far outweigh the differences. Thus, ‘bipartisan support for Closing the Gap’, which has been qualified by Jon Altman as the ‘comfortable Canberra consensus between the two major parties’, would appear to be holding strong. According to Altman:

This consensus is based on principles that combine a neoliberal focus on individualism, private property and material accumulation with a belief in mainstreaming or normalisation. In my view this approach will not close gaps, alleviate poverty, or address diverse indigenous aspirations.

Altman identifies the need for different approaches to address the range of highly complex contemporary indigenous issues being faced, including approaches such as that taken by the Australian Greens that ‘focus more on human rights and self-determination, that seriously engage with articles in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP].’ He stresses the need for policies relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to accommodate difference and diverse circumstances, and to be ‘community driven rather than dictated from Canberra.’

While little of the current rhetoric articulated around Closing the Gap affirms or values difference and particularity, the speeches made in Federal Parliament in February 2014 discussed above contain strong affirmations of the need for indigenous empowerment, engagement and partnership with government. But despite this rhetoric, the exercise of the right to self-determination by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Indigenous Peoples of Australia (as affirmed by UNDRIP article 3) remains a distant aspiration.

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