I was disappointed to read the predictable responses to this year’s Closing the Gap report - “Governments have failed and need to do more.”
I should not have been, as this has been the concerted cry from all the ‘whingerati’ for so long. While it is important to consider the role of government, it is also important to remember that the people have a critical role to play. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made this clear more than 25 years ago: “There is no other way. Only the Aboriginal people can, in the final analysis, assure their own future.” This does not mean doing it alone, but people must be actively involved in doing what they can to improve their lives. Fortunately, many Aboriginal people are assuring their own future, but a sizeable minority are not. Government can help this minority assure their own future, and thereby facilitate closing the gap.
The first step government must take in closing the gap, is to focus on another gap which is not often spoken about. I am talking about the gap between those Aboriginal people who are doing well and those who are living in conditions that most of us would not let a dog live in. I call this the ‘within gap,’ as opposed to the ‘between gap’ which receives most attention. Those Aboriginal people who are most disadvantaged must have access to the same opportunities as their more advantaged cousins, who often, but not always, live in regional centres and cities with all the mod cons.
Those Aboriginal people who are not doing well very often live in locations where opportunities for education and jobs are limited. When these opportunities are absent, self-respect is very often lacking. And a lack of self-respect erodes mental health, which leads to a lack of respect for others, which results in disharmony, violence, and crime.
It’s about jobs
It’s no secret: close the employment gap and most of the other gaps will close. Professor Marcia Langton summed it up well when she said: “We must not become dependent on governments, we must teach our children to work.” Helen Morton has stated that “Unemployment is associated with poorer physical and mental health. The bright eyes of children’s early hopes and dreams quickly fade without opportunities.”
Currently, a generation of Aboriginal children in some remote communities watch their parents collect pensions and play cards. They do not see working adults as being normal. And if there are no jobs, then they may well reason that it is not worth going to school. The most recent Closing the Gap report states it clearly: “Along with building skills and financial independence, being employed contributes to overall wellbeing … it also has a positive flow-on effect for family members and the community more broadly.” The report further states: “Only 35.1 per cent of all Indigenous people of workforce age (15-64 years) in very remote areas were employed compared with 57.5 per cent of those living in the major cities.” It is imperative that we focus on the ‘within gap’ before we lose yet another generation.
It’s about location
Those Aboriginal people who are well off are very much like myself. They were raised in places where there were opportunities, or they saw the need to relocate to where there were opportunities - children seeing adults working as normal. Members of this group are very often of mixed ancestry. As Indigenous commentator Kerryn Pholi states, they are virtually indistinguishable in appearance and behaviour from their non-Aboriginal neighbours. It is increasingly difficult to frame Aboriginal people as homogenously disadvantaged. It is therefore unreasonable, and a waste of taxpayers’ money, to focus on the ‘between gap’ by throwing money at a group on the basis that they identify as Aboriginal.
The statistics describing the most disadvantaged Aboriginal people are real, but as Stan Grant tells us, “Statistics need not be destiny.” There has been some progress in changing the destiny for a few who have been disadvantaged, but if there is to be a quantum change, efforts, programs, and policy must focus primarily on those Aboriginal people who are most disadvantaged and most vulnerable, and aligning them with employment opportunities must be paramount. If they live in areas where there are limited opportunities for employment, then relocation needs to be considered. This is never a popular consideration, and too few leaders like to make unpopular decisions.
Finally, for the ‘culture vultures’ who cling to the image of the Aborigine ‘living on country,’ it’s time to let it go. The existence of the Indigenous majority who are doing well - in fact many are thriving - is proof positive that Aboriginal people are not trapped in some cultural time warp that prevents them from partaking in modern ways, nor are they perpetual victims of colonisation. Furthermore, they do not lose their spiritual connection to ‘country’ by moving off country to find employment.
We know what needs to be done – ensure that those Aboriginal people who are most disadvantaged have the same access to employment opportunities as those Aboriginal people who are most advantaged. Now is the time to address this. If we don’t, the next report will be like the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that …