Claire G. Coleman
The failures of Closing the Gap

On February 13, 2008, the First Nations people of Australia received something for which we had waited decades. Kevin Rudd, having been prime minister for a little over two months, followed through on an election promise and apologised to the Stolen Generations. It was a landmark moment in the history of Australia, particularly in the relationship between the First Nations and those people we have been forced to share our lands with, those who overwhelmed us and now control the continent.

Not long after that, delivering on a promise to “close the gap” in life expectancy and quality of life between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, that same prime minister established a number of targets. Delivering on those targets would move some of the way towards eliminating Indigenous disadvantage. Those targets had time frames in which they were to be delivered. Those targets and dates were agreed on by both major parties, the Labor government and the Coalition opposition, and every state government was on board.

It was all so very hopeful.

Those in business or engineering might identify these commitments as “deliverables”. For each aim there was a quantifiable target, a delivery date. Some of those deliverables are due for completion this year. Yet after 10 years, and four prime ministers, not one of these targets has been met.

This week, on Monday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull released the latest in a series of 10 yearly documents, “Closing the Gap: Prime Minister’s Report 2018”. Outlining his government’s success, or lack thereof, in closing the gap, the report was 132 pages long and rich with glossy images. Because of its length I will focus on how poorly the government is performing at improving the metrics of disadvantage on which the strategy focuses.

First, to the targets expiring this year. These are critical and speak strongest to the failure of the Closing the Gap strategy. Making a commitment to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018, the report states that the child mortality gap has been closed 32 per cent. This is described as “on track”, despite being 18 percentage points short of the target. It is hard to imagine anyone accepting a gap in child mortality at all: even the target of reducing the gap by only 50 per cent could be considered woefully inadequate.

A program failing to reach a target by its deadline cannot be described as being “on track”.

The target to close the gap in school attendance was also not met, but this time the report does not attempt to say it is on track. In turn, this result is likely to be part of the cause of the failure to halve the gap in literacy and numeracy, although there are likely other causes too, such as an apparent resistance in our governments to bilingual education.

Also expiring this year, 10 years on, is the target to halve the gap in Indigenous employment. This target is a bit limp, as again, there is no real reason to accept a gap in Indigenous employment at all. However, the report is unambiguous in condemning 10 years of government attempts to improve employment outcomes for First Nation Australians, admitting that this gap has actually widened.

Of the targets expiring this year, which successive governments have had 10 years to work towards, none have been met. The Closing the Gap project, even with all the money being spent on it, has delivered essentially nothing.

Of the three targets not due to be met this year, the desire to have 95 per cent of Indigenous children in early childhood education by 2025 seems genuinely on track, with a rate of 91 per cent and seven years to achieve the remainder. Additionally, it is certainly possible to close the gap in Indigenous children’s attainment of Year 12 education by 2020, though I suspect it will be the efforts of the students, not of the government, that achieves it.

The last target examined in the report is so critical and such an utter failure that I was moved to tears as I read the figures. The difference in life expectancy for Indigenous people is the factor that for many people, including myself, defines the strategy of Closing the Gap. The difference is 10 years. When an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child is born, they can expect, on average, to die 10 years younger than the national average. The target was to close that gap by 2031 – to equalise Indigenous and non-Indigenous life spans in 23 years.

The report admits that this critical target is not going to be met; in fact, in the past 10 years, they cannot even claim a one-year improvement in the difference.

Those statistics say nothing of the human cost of this gap; these are not numbers dying, they are people. Every Indigenous person who dies young leaves behind family, leaves a gap in their community. Those people who die are sons and daughters, parents and grandparents, keepers of culture. They might be artists, musicians, teachers, craftspeople; their lives enrich the lives of people both inside and outside their communities.

Even if the gap was closing, it would be too late for the many people who have died too young in the past 10 years.

The Closing the Gap targets are limited and do not attempt to measure some of the arguably more important causes and symptoms of Indigenous disadvantage. First Nations people are far more likely to end up in jail than non-Indigenous Australians. When in police custody, we are vastly more likely to end up dead. Indigenous children are being taken out of home at a far higher rate than non-Indigenous children, in a continuation of the Stolen Generations 10 years after the apology. These statistics, although they represent factors that compound our disadvantage, contributing to the difference in living standards and life span for Indigenous people, are not targets for Closing the Gap.

In his speech delivering the prime minister’s report to parliament, Turnbull said it was time for “doing things ‘with’, not ‘to’, Indigenous people”. This was precisely the spirit of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”, the reason the Uluru statement asked for a representative voice enshrined in the Constitution. One might wonder how Turnbull could utter those words considering his public contempt for the recommendations in the Uluru statement.

The Close the Gap Steering Committee published its own report this week, titled “A Ten-Year Review: The Closing the Gap Strategy and Recommendations for Reset”. This report excoriates the government’s failures in closing the gap and summarises a simple reason for those failures. The strategy, they state, was “incoherently implemented” and was effectively abandoned five years into its 25-year schedule. Perhaps not coincidentally, the abandonment of the strategy coincided with the 2013 election of the Coalition government.

Since the apology, and the bipartisan commitment to Closing the Gap, little of substance has changed for the First Nations people in this country. The disadvantage and inequality that arrived with the British continues unabated. Indigenous people are not significantly better off than we were 10 years ago. In some ways, we might actually be worse off. People could be forgiven for assuming there is no real intent on the part of the federal government to improve this, no action on the part of either of the major parties to address this inequality. How else could such a failure be possible?

One thing has changed, though – people seem angrier. Over the past few years, I have noticed a wave of anger surging from Indigenous people and communities sick of racism and Indigenous disadvantage. Three weeks ago, on January 26, a reported 60,000 people marched in protest in the streets of Melbourne. I was there.

But with all the experts and all the money the government has to solve the problem of Indigenous disadvantage, they don’t appear to have a solution. They certainly haven’t implemented one. 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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "The credibility gap". Subscribe here.

Claire G. Coleman
is a Noongar author whose debut novel Terra Nullius has been long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize.

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