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New Ideas for Closing the Gap

On Tuesday 14 February 2017, Malcolm Turnbull tabled the annual Closing the Gap Report in parliament. Former Indigenous Advisory Council chair Warren Mundine is reported as saying that this is a “critical time” to define the way forward in indigenous affairs – critical for this government but even more critical for Indigenous people.

Some inconvenient truths

Real progress in closing the gap must entail discussing inconvenient truths and making unpopular decisions – such as few people in positions of influence and power are prepared to do. But until leaders start facing inconvenient truths and making unpopular decisions, we can expect future Closing the Gap reports to be the same – disappointing.

Closing the gap means addressing questions like: What should be done to lower the shockingly high rates of violence and child abuse in some Aboriginal communities? What should be done for those communities where the people are welfare dependent because there is little hope of economic growth and development? Many don’t like these questions because they fear the answers. Any who dare ask such questions risk ridicule and slander. Too many ‘culture warriors’ prefer to believe that the problems Aboriginal people face are rooted in colonisation, fuelled by rampant racism, and normalised by an uncaring government. Their dogma – or is it blind faith? - is that more money, apologies, acknowledgment, and symbolism are the solutions. Haven’t we tried that repeatedly?

A new mindset

Helping Aboriginal people requires a new mindset that sees Aboriginal people having the same fundamental needs as other Australians. This mindset understands that the commonalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people far outweigh any differences.

The mindset I am speaking of is one that prefers action to ear-tickling rhetoric, long-term thinking over short-term palliatives. It will seek to address real problems like health, poverty, and violence, rather than indulge in endless consultation, research, claptrap speeches, and report writing till the end of time. Most importantly, this new mindset must capitalise on the fact that Aboriginal people are capable of achieving much when given the opportunities that most Australians take for granted – as several thousand Aboriginal people have already proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The new mindset must not bow to political correctness, and must never fall for the line that Aboriginal affairs is the business only of Aboriginal people. Rather, the new mindset must affirm that Aboriginal affairs is every Australian’s business. It is the kind of mindset that while recognising Aboriginal Australians as this nation’s first peoples, does not waste time obsessing over history (the invasion) or chasing chimeras like treaties. This kind of mindset will have as its goal to see that the children gain a world class education, adults are sufficiently skilled to take on real jobs, and whole communities are living in safe, happy, and healthy environments.

This new mindset does not propose that Aboriginal people are totally responsible for fixing their problems, as government certainly has a role to play. However, individuals must be actively engaged in finding and implementing solutions if there is to be any closing of the gap. Many already are, but many more must follow in their footsteps. This is not a new idea. Twenty-five years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody stated categorically: “There is no other way. Only the Aboriginal people can, in the final analysis, assure their own future.”

With our new mindset, less attention will be given to the activists, who too often act as gatekeepers – like the ones protesting on Australia Day. Ironically, many of the activists, while actively promoting the message that government is to blame or that Aboriginal people are held back by history, are themselves doing quite well, enjoying benefits which too many Aboriginal people do not. These advantaged Aborigines are able to use their poorer cousins - often but not always living in remote parts of Australia where setting up business and basic services is not economically justifiable - as their rationale for protest. What’s worse, they are immersed in dysfunction, violence, and poor health to such a depth that it is seen as normal.

The time is now

There has never been a better time than now to fully embrace our new mindset. The goodwill of Australians towards Aboriginal people is enormous - but it is not limitless. Many people get tired of seeing opportunities missed, and bad behaviour excused - even justified on the grounds of historic injustices. They get sick and tired of seeing white Australia branded as racist and blamed for all the problems.

If we fail to act now, the next generation will be blaming us for yet another lost generation of Aboriginal Australians. That will not just be a loss for Aboriginal Australians, it will be a loss for all Australians – how much has Australia already lost through failing to recognise and nurture Aboriginal talents? Never forget – as Australians, we are all in this together!

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