The turning point

It is difficult to better Tom Calma’s original formulation. In 2005, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, he said this: “It is not credible 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.”

Calma was pushing for targets to Close the Gap. Three years later, he would have them. Fifteen years later, none of the targets would be met. This is not credible. It cannot be.

After announcing a plan to Close the Gap, then prime minister Kevin Rudd made a solemn commitment to address Indigenous disadvantage. “To speak fine words and then forget them,” he said, “would be worse than doing nothing at all.”

This was more rhetoric than truth, but it condemned Rudd and the leaders who followed him. In the February of each year, a different prime minister would offer a different version of the same personal failure. Tony Abbott would call his figures “profoundly disappointing”. Malcolm Turnbull would say his shortcomings were an opportunity rather than a problem. Two years later, he would leave early from the breakfast where the figures are announced – he didn’t have 15 minutes for a life expectancy gap that runs to 10 years.

Writing for The Saturday Paper that year, Claire G. Coleman said: “It is difficult not to conclude that the current government isn’t really trying: in the five years they have been in power, nothing has changed.”

Profound work has been done in the background. A coalition of Indigenous groups has been redrawing targets. On Thursday, it was announced these organisations will be central to meeting a new set of 16 targets.

After much lobbying, lowered incarceration rates are finally among the indicators. So is reducing suicides and the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care. There are targets for land rights.

Pat Turner, convener of the Indigenous organisations that helped draft the new targets, said this was the first time Indigenous people had been involved in setting these indicators. It is only through Indigenous engagement that the targets will be met.

“These gaps have burdened our people and caused the erosion of health and wellbeing of generations of First Nations Australians,” Turner said. “The national agreement represents a turning point in our country’s efforts to close these gaps.”

There is much to celebrate in these new, Indigenous-led targets, and then this: in making the announcement, Scott Morrison said there would be no new money. On Monday, his government rejected a change to laws that would stop 10-year-olds being locked up. For all Turner’s good work, there is still the government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 1, 2020 as "The turning point".

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