The failure to reach the Closing the Gap targets is no surprise. We should celebrate those
areas where we have seen some gains, but learn from the failures and come up with new strategies that will result in significant improvements in the lives of Aboriginal people. Today, there are thousands of Aboriginal people who are thriving, so we know it is possible to close the gap – we just need to be smarter and more focused. Some of those thriving are leaders in their chosen fields, some are our neighbours, and many just walk amongst us quietly doing their bit to make Australia a better country.
To make meaningful progress in closing the gap, it will mean taking a radical change from past approaches. I offer five radical ideas here that I believe are necessary for closing the gap close. If these ideas are not utilised, then throwing the allocated billions of dollars at the problem will be like putting a band aid on cancer. These ideas will help leverage the enormous amount of good will that non-Aboriginal Australians have for their Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and yield a greater return from the huge financial resources available for closing the gap.
Getting the Balance Right
The first idea is that while government need to provide opportunities, it cannot be totally responsible for closing the gap. The people themselves must play an active role. Tom Calmer has stated: “Governments can't solve the health crisis that we have. It's got to be done with and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” Many, like Tom, have achieved success, but there is still many more to follow. The worn out response of blaming the government must stop, as it simply saps people from even trying to make a difference in their lives. Interestingly, the message about what role the people must place was spoken about in the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody where it was stated: “There is no other way. Only the Aboriginal people can, in the final analysis, assure their own future.” Sadly, this advice has been overlooked. Instead the report has routinely been used to promote the myth that Aboriginal people in custody are dying at higher rates than non-Aboriginal people in custody.
The Other Gap
The second idea is to focus on another gap – the one which separates Aboriginal Australians living in poverty and sickness from those who are living a good life. Those Aboriginal people doing well are generally indistinguishable from other Australians, and are often the recipients of resources and services intended for the most disadvantaged. Strategies and policies must focus on need and not just race. This will mean focusing more on those Aboriginal people living in remote areas.
Stop the Rhetoric
Third, there is an urgent need to cease the rhetoric often used in Aboriginal affairs. This is the language of spineless politicians, academics chasing their next research grant, and those Indigenous ‘leaders’ whose goal is to build their own empires. Rhetoric is impressive sounding and gives the impression that a problem has been identified or that a solution has been discovered, but it’s essentially just ear candy. For example, consider the words of Professor Chris Sarra, member of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council: “Do things with us, not to us!” The conversation needs to consist of plain English that discusses those factors that allowed people like Sarra to achieve what he has – education being key among them.
Come out from Behind the Cultural Curtain
Fourth, there is a need to come out from behind the cultural curtain; that is, we need to stop the silly game of assuming that all Aboriginal people are a culturally distinct species bearing little resemblance to their fellow non-Aboriginal Australians. Many times I’ve been in meetings with Aboriginal ‘experts’ and ‘leaders’ who have spoken of how they live in a different world to non-Aboriginal Australians, have different needs, and possess a different understanding of life, only to drop all that once we leave the meeting and step into the nearest café for a burger and coke. I’m left thinking: “What the hell just happened?” Certainly there are some Aboriginal people who do very much embrace and practise traditional Aboriginal culture (or a form of it) and are less confident in navigating their way through the dominant Westernised culture that characterises much of modern day Australia. For these people, special considerations are needed.
Let’s be clear on a couple matters here: Aboriginal people are people first and Aboriginal second; and the commonalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians far outweigh any differences. It therefore follows that Aboriginal affairs is everybody’s business and that simply having some Aboriginal ancestry does not qualify one as an expert on all things Aboriginal. That last sentence has just upset a few of the Aboriginal gate keepers and Aboriginal industry supervisors.
Finally, we must focus on the real issues: employment, education, housing, and the problems associated with remote living. If we don’t, we can expect to see more community dysfunction such as violence and suicide. Certainly government has made some valuable contributions in these areas, but sadly attention has been diverted onto trivia like Australia Day protests, treaties, an obsession with seeing racism where it doesn’t exist, and blaming colonisation. Political correctness and identity politics has discouraged politicians from maintaining focus and speaking up. With Jacinta Price nominating for the Coalition in the Northern Territory, I believe there is now some real hope now for focusing on the real issues.
Certainly closing the gap is a generational process, but I believe that if we adopt the suggestions I’ve offered here, we will begin to see some meaningful change for the next Closing the Gap report.