The cost of not caring
In the decade, almost, that prime ministers have been tabling Closing the Gap reports, a maudlin repetition has developed.
The figures have remained stubbornly unmoving. Rates of ill health and mortality have sat high. Education and employment targets have been missed. With each address, a search is made for positives. Less and less have they sounded convinced or convincing.
As Amy McGuire, a South Sea and Darumbal woman, noted, the report has been shifted further and further down the order of parliamentary business. “This year, rather than being the first piece of business on the first sitting day, it was delivered at midday more than a week later, to a half-empty chamber.”
Turnbull’s speech on Tuesday was notable for the time it spent discussing matters other than the report in front of him. “Being an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian means to succeed, to achieve,” he said. “To have big dreams and high hopes.”
He restated his “determination” to see constitutional recognition for First Australians. He acknowledged the need to work with First Australians. He accepted that “we still are not making enough progress”. He made no mention of cuts to Indigenous spending.
Last year, as he tabled the same report, he said this: “Under successive governments, under both sides, progress against the Close the Gap targets has been mixed – we have to be honest. We cannot sugar-coat the enormity of the job that remains.”
Ringing against his words was something Kevin Rudd said in the first such address: “Too much time – too many decades – have already been lost… To speak fine words and then to forget them, would be worse than doing nothing at all.”
Since then, another decade is all but gone. The figures have turned backwards. Only one of eight literacy and numeracy benchmarks was met. The decrease in child mortality has plateaued. The government accepts that its target to halve Indigenous unemployment will not be met. There has been an alarming spike in the removal of children from Indigenous homes. A second Stolen Generation is being born.
The reasons for these failures are myriad. A lack of will and funding are two. Another is more troubling, however. It is care. People simply do not care.
The readers of this newspaper are the best educated in the country. They are among the best off and most socially aware. But even among this group the care for stories about the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is slight.
The numbers bear this out. Stories about First Australians are among the least read. On the newspaper’s cover, they affect sales. Television producers report the same with their programming. Audiences – educated, progressive audiences – simply switch off. They stop watching. This is true across the media.
It is painful to confess this. It is the unacknowledged fact around which the “fine words” of politicians dart. But it is only in confronting this that we will truly close the gap.
There are reasons for this indifference. The facts of Indigenous disadvantage are complex and the lack of ready solutions scare off empathy. White Australians still refuse to engage with the history of dispossession, of theft and genocide, that underpins disadvantage. There is also plain racism.
Each of us has a duty to face Indigenous disadvantage and not stop facing it. To do this once a year, with the tabling of a report, is not enough. To look away is to accept senseless death, ill education and lost hope.
This starts with caring. Until we as a country care, truly care, nothing will change. This week’s grim figures are the truth of that.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 18, 2017 as "The cost of not caring". Subscribe here.