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To Close the Gap, we Need to Stop the Crap

A new Closing the Gap agreement has been put forth, one for which there are high expectations of it being a game changer. While I don’t totally dismiss it, I’m not sure that it will be a game changer. The new approach contains some good ideas, but also some ideas I have concerns about.

Maybe this new approach will be like Prime Minister Rudd’s apology? I never opposed the apology, I just never expected it to be the magic bullet the way many predicted it would be.

I agree with Linda Burney when, she, along with others, say that what is required now is innovation, urgency, action, and funding. However, there are some underlying assumptions driving the new agreement that I think need considering before any action is taken.

It is not my intention to dissect the new targets here, as they mostly seem reasonable. I want to focus on two points instead. The first is that I believe that focusing on Closing the Gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians is the wrong gap.

Instead, the focus needs to be on Closing the Gap between well-off Aboriginal Australians and those Aboriginal Australians who live in appalling conditions and lack the sort of opportunities and services that most of us take for granted. I call this the ‘within gap,’ as opposed to the ‘between gap’, which receives most attention.

To focus on the between gap, can mean that due to averaging effects, the true magnitude of problems are understated. By averaging, I simply mean that there are many parts in Australia where Aboriginal people live long and healthy lives, but there are also some parts where they die much younger, and grouping them together can hide this detail. Further, averaging can also mask where there have been significant successes. However, Mr Morrison has said that a more granular approach will be taken, so hopefully this will mean that Aboriginal people will not be homogenised when addressing targets. There is great diversity in the Aboriginal population, and this must be considered.

Those Aboriginal people who are not doing well, very often live in locations where opportunities for education and job opportunities are limited. When these opportunities are absent, self-respect is very often lacking. And diminished self-respect results in diminished mental health, which leads to a lack of respect for others, which results in disharmony, violence, and crime.

Perhaps we need to consider what Nicholas Rothwell wrote about in The Australian

newspaper many years ago—it’s about place and not race?

Focusing on education and employment is consistent with the newly revised targets, so that’s good. I believe most gains in these areas are to be achieved by adopting the ‘granular approach’ proposed by the PM, so as to ensure that resources are focussed on those Aboriginal people who are most disadvantaged.

These Aboriginal people 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. For these Aboriginal people, their greatest threat to wellbeing is Coon cheese. Close the gap between the well off and least well off Aboriginal people, and the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians will automatically close.

Interestingly, those Aboriginal Australians who are doing very well, do so without a treaty, ‘truth telling’, the Uluru statement from the heart, and a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament. These distractions promote a toxic ‘us-them’ mentality and this is the second point I wish to discuss here.

The us-them mentality that characterises Aboriginal affairs today co-exists with the belief that Aboriginal people must be the decision makers on all things Aboriginal, as they alone supposedly possess some special knowledge and skills unavailable to non-Aboriginal Australians. Such a view gets passed off as the impressive sounding ‘self-determination’. But it isn’t; it is a euphemism for separatism and is therefore doomed.

The need for self-determination is premised on the assertion that Aboriginal people are vastly different from non-Aboriginal people, having vastly different needs that only other Aboriginal people are qualified to respond to, or indeed should have an opinion about. Of course, such a scenario creates the perfect opportunity for cultural experts (or culture vultures) to become consultants and gatekeepers. All this reminds me of an article I previously wrote for Spectator where I described the culture vultures as being like the butcher with his hands on the scale when he is weighing your meat—self-interest is at play.

I have spent much time with many Aboriginal Australians from both urban and rural/remote settings, and while there may be some minor differences between them and non-Aboriginal Australians, the differences are not large enough to justify an us-them approach. We all have essentially the same fundamental needs: to live in safe and clean environments, have an education that equips us for the modern world, engage in some form of service to others, and have access to basic goods and services such as modern health facilities and fresh food.

I have no problem with Aboriginal controlled services. If Aboriginal people want to use them, that’s fine, but they should not be fed the BS that other (non-Aboriginal) services are not appropriate for them.

The most essential ingredient for Closing the Gap is the recognition that the commonalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people far outweigh any differences. Until that is acted on, any revitalisation of Closing the Gap targets infused with the same old rhetoric of ‘self-determination' will yield the same old results we’ve seen for more than a decade.

Now if the new approach to Closing the Gap is a success, then I will gladly admit that I was wrong. But if it doesn’t work, then I suggest that we focus on jobs, education, and safe living environments, and target those Aboriginal Australians who are most disadvantaged. I also propose that we do it from the premise that Aboriginal affairs is the business of every Australian.

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