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Malcolm Turnbull’s first Closing the Gap address acknowledges shortcomings and delivers platitudes but fails to make progress. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Closing the Gap a ritual of empty words

In 2007, freshly minted as prime minister, Kevin Rudd appeared untouchable – at least, that was the conventional wisdom. Labor supporters, sufficiently removed from the man himself that their optimism was left unchallenged, spoke of a long and reformative reign ahead. An effective campaign, itself a bright counterpoint to a stretched and tired incumbency, offered Rudd as an effective option for progress. National “reimagining” and “reinvigoration” were the keywords of his acolytes.

All of this, of course, was in the minds of supporters – within the party, a sense of triumph rubbed awkwardly against private doubts about Rudd. His megalomania, indecision and ruthlessness would be concealed by sharp slogans, bright T-shirts and a national desire for change.

That desire for change was quickly fulfilled by Rudd, when he made the new parliament’s first order of business a motion of apology to the Stolen Generations. It was February 2008. The speech was broadcast live in public squares across the country. Those squares were full. In them that morning, people stood and wept as a kind of national catharsis spilled from the screens. Age journalist Tony Wright would report: “Never, perhaps, has a deeper silence descended upon a prime ministerial speech in the house of representatives.”

The public gallery filled with survivors of the Stolen Generations, and the new prime minister stood assuredly at the dispatch box: “We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

“The 1970s is not exactly a point in remote antiquity. There are still serving members of this parliament who were first elected to this place in the early 1970s. It is well within the adult memory span of many of us. The uncomfortable truth for us all is that the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful.

“On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry. I offer you this apology without qualification.”

As rhetoric it was wonderful; but rhetoric alone cannot heal.

In 2005, the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma offered his own memorable lines. “It is not credible,” he said, “to suggest that one of the wealthiest nations in the world cannot solve a health crisis affecting less than 3 per cent of its citizens.”

The crisis was manifold: Indigenous Australians were dying far younger, were incarcerated far more often, were more greatly subject to domestic violence, drug abuse and discrimination. Custodianship of country was threatened by mining and indifference. Educational and employment attainment were worryingly low. And a rotten interrelatedness existed between all of it. The literature would speak of generationally ingrained “cycles”.

The following year, 2006, the Close the Gap Campaign was formed under the auspices of Indigenous leadership, with the aim of removing the mortality discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030.

Two years later, in the year that Rudd made his apology speech, a majority of jurisdictions within the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) would adopt the targets outlined in the Closing the Gap mission. Proud announcements of bipartisan and multi-jurisdictional commitment to Indigenous policy were made. The new prime minister offered grave pledges of responsibility. The principal areas of reform were health, education and employment.

PM speeches

Prime Minister Rudd made his first Closing the Gap speech in February 2009. Three subsequent prime ministers have now made the annual update speech – conventionally in the first week of parliament. The agenda being new in 2009, Rudd could largely offer aspirational language. Little had changed. But he would say something that has echoed since. “To speak fine words and then forget them would be worse than doing nothing at all.”

Like that line, much subsequent rhetoric on Indigenous disadvantage has almost apologised for itself – has recognised its inadequacy, and anticipated its audiences’ scepticism. Words, words, words. Six years later, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave the address, he described progress as being “profoundly disappointing”. Opposition leader Bill Shorten described it as “shocking” and “shameful”. In none of the eight prime ministerial Closing the Gap speeches has political responsibility been meaningfully explored – that is, respecting that the serial turmoil engulfing federal governance might have contributed to “profoundly disappointing” progress.

And so this week it was Malcolm Turnbull’s turn. The report – in as much as the data can be faithfully interpreted – was poor. Among the successes were improved attainment rates for year 12, and an improvement in infant mortality rates – although they had been declining prior to the Closing the Gap campaign. But broad literacy and numeracy rates were poor, and Indigenous employment had fallen since 2008. 

In Turnbull’s update were the obliging turns of recognition and optimism – acknowledging debt and offering recourse. “We have not always shown you, our First Australians, the respect you deserve. But despite the injustices and the trauma, you and your families have shown the greatest tenacity and resilience.

“The Closing the Gap challenge is often described as a problem to be solved – but more than anything it is an opportunity. If our greatest assets are our people, if our richest capital is our human capital, then the opportunity to empower the imagination, the enterprise, the wisdom and the full potential of our First Australians is an exciting one.”

The prime minister then looked back to Rudd, and offered constitutional recognition as a logical continuation of that symbolic redress. “In 2008, the National Apology to the Stolen Generations was a great milestone in the healing of our nation. It was a long overdue acknowledgement of grief, and the suffering and the loss inflicted on generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“We all recognise that healing takes time. And our generation seeks to make a further amends, a further setting right, through formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution. Our nation’s founding document should reflect Australia as it is, not how it was perceived 120 years ago.”

But then came the lament. This is something of a tradition in these prime ministerial speeches, though one more optimistically qualified by Turnbull this year: “In the eight years since the Closing the Gap targets were set, there has been mixed progress towards meeting them, and today again we are seeing mixed results. The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track. Between 1998 and 2014 Indigenous child death rates declined by 33 per cent and the gap narrowed by 34 per cent.

“While Indigenous mortality rates have declined since 1998, the life expectancy gap is still around 10 years – an unacceptably wide gap, and this target is not on track to be met by 2031.”

Turnbull expressed sorrow that Australia’s Indigenous population is distressingly over-represented in prisons – the figures are 3 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively – but did not wonder if a justice target might be incorporated into the Closing the Gap aims. Writer Amy McQuire believes so, and wrote in New Matilda this week that he “failed to acknowledge the Aboriginal chorus of voices consistently calling on government to incorporate justice targets”.

False assumption of unity

The power of language – as Rudd feared – now seems diminished by perennially depressing progress. One must ultimately be matched with the other. And the average Australian may have been confused this week by contradictions – expressions of “crisis” by some, and “cautious optimism” by others. The very statistics that underpin success or failure are also debatable. Turnbull said this week that Indigenous mortality rates have declined since 1998, though they are still off target, but in saying so he suggested a reliability of data. The Closing the Gap report says this: “Because of the lead times between the design and roll out of programs, and for improvements to be measured, analysed and reported, the Campaign Steering Committee counsels that improvements to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy should not be expected to be measurable until at least 2018.”

In other words, not only may we lament poor progress, we must also accept the paucity of data. It is a little-reported fact. And adding to confusion this week was the usual welter of jargon, acronyms and platitudes of good intentions. This is not to deny that these reforms must be subject to governance, expressed in formal arrangements of funding, implementation and oversight. More than a few must wonder if the bureaucratese is a camouflage for failure.

Another feature of these annual speeches is the appeal to unity, and the useful pretence that Indigenous Australians have a uniform opinion on policy and the design of the constitutional amendment. If you can pretend that everyone agrees, you may then employ simple rhetoric – “we must persevere together” and the like. But there is a wealth of dissent.

Among earnest appeals to cautious optimism, Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson said this week that Indigenous affairs were in “crisis” and would remain ineffective without “radical change”. Dr Jackie Huggins told Fairfax she agreed with Pearson. “In my working life, I have never seen Aboriginal affairs at such a low point,” she said. “There is no engagement, there is no respect … Sometimes I don’t feel part of this society because it breaks my heart to see the conditions my people are continually left in without any leadership from the top.”

Professor Marcia Langton spoke of the discrepancy between record public funding and the modest fulfilment of employment targets. Langton argued that success had, in fact, been under-reported. She wrote in The Drum: “Our analysis shows that record levels of public funding are failing to produce any direct impacts towards economic sustainability for Indigenous Australians. Instead of motivating Indigenous people to work towards their own financial wellbeing, it has encouraged a continued reliance upon government for Indigenous welfare.”

Langton’s and Pearson’s are dominant – and respected – voices in Indigenous affairs. But they are not the only ones. Others angst over their appeal to commercial and market logic, and wonder how to reconcile integration with the preservation of culture.

Eight years after Rudd’s speech, Indigenous policy still languishes. The gap remains. And we now treat the issue like Christmas – once a year we gather to share platitudes and goodwill, before swiftly returning to business as usual. The fact that Indigenous policy is passionately debated among Aboriginal Australia must be reflected in our reporting and our political statements. The discourse is rich and divergent, but when we deign to reflect upon it we defer to the myth of uniformity.

Turnbull this week was apparently at pains to promote the human lives above the statistics. He – and the rest of us – would do well to fulfil that by recognising not only the challenges but the variety of solutions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Closing the Gap a ritual of empty words". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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