Patricia Turner
Collaboration on Closing the Gap

It was only three months ago that the prime minister stood up in parliament to make his latest report on the progress of Closing the Gap. Just two of seven targets, he revealed, are on track to be met by 2025.

The gap itself is a difficult concept. By its very nature, improvements do not always mean it is narrowed.

For instance, while Indigenous mortality rates and child mortality rates have improved slightly, so have those for non-Indigenous Australians, meaning the gap remains – and Indigenous children still face a mortality rate twice that of their non-Indigenous peers.

Similar gains for non-Indigenous life expectancy mean there has been no progress made towards Closing the Gap’s final goal – pulling closed the life expectancy divide, which remains at 8.2 years, on average – and it is not expected to be met by 2031.

Although it is concerning these targets are not on track, this moment also presents an opportunity for greater involvement and decision-making between community-controlled organisations and governments to effectively close the gap.

Soon after Scott Morrison’s speech, Covid-19 emerged – an immediate reminder of just how vulnerable we are.

The coronavirus is a pathogen, but it is also a diagnostic test being run on Australia – and the results for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not good. While community groups moved quickly to limit the threat of outbreaks in remote communities, we remain at a significantly higher risk of being profoundly impacted. In fact, we enter the virus’s high-risk group from the age of 50 – 15 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians with chronic diseases.

Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate. The gap between potential outcomes here is a symptom of the structural inequity that exists in Australia. It is not a natural occurrence but rather the direct result of years of neglect, disinvestment and failed policies that were developed without our input.

But in his speech, the prime minister also talked about a circuit-breaker – one he had championed and had been put in place. A formal partnership agreement came into effect in March 2019 between Australian governments and the Coalition of Peaks, an alliance of nearly 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak organisations. For the first time, the agreement set out shared decision-making on Closing the Gap between representatives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australian governments.

Through the formal partnership, the first ministers and the president of the Australian Local Government Association are now working with the Coalition of Peaks on a new national agreement on Closing the Gap. It will set out shared priorities and actions to accelerate improvements to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during the next 10 years.

Unlike the original Closing the Gap agreement reached by governments in 2008, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a seat at the negotiating table this time, for the first time. The Coalition of Peaks is committed to making sure communities and their organisations across the country can contribute their perspectives and have their voices heard.

This new agreement is being built around a set of four priority reforms that are needed to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It will establish formal partnerships between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives across the country on closing the gap; build and strengthen our community-controlled organisations to deliver the services we need; make sure governments are changing the way they work with us; and ensure access to data and information is shared with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities to support us being able to make good decisions about our lives.

Once in place, the national agreement will be a platform to address the structural inequalities Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face, which arise from years of unmet need.

This pandemic has shown the vital need for these reforms. Where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have strong existing partnerships with governments, we have been able to respond quickly to the threats of Covid-19.

Together, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and community-controlled health organisations have been able to respond quickly and decisively to protect our people.

Likewise, the formal relationship between governments and Aboriginal peak organisations in the Northern Territory and the Aboriginal Advisory Council of Western Australia has meant there have been informed responses to the needs of our remote communities that were impacted by the swiftly imposed travel restrictions.

Well-established and properly funded community-controlled organisations in other sectors have also been able to accelerate measures that support our communities. For example, the First Nations media sector has quickly provided health information in a way people can understand; the New South Wales Coalition of Peaks has supported our young people to stay engaged in their education and make sure our older people have access to food; and the Victorian Aboriginal Executive Council is working to make sure our kids continue to have access to safe early childhood services.

One of the key things we have seen during this pandemic in our regions across the country is the depth of leadership and self-determination of our people. Our local boards and community organisations have come together to consider the needs and issues of our people and have made decisions that we think have saved lives.

Social distancing restrictions have created challenges, such as meeting accommodation needs for people who need to be quarantined or protected, including our elders and people with medical conditions such as diabetes. Governments have been slow to respond, so we had to be resourceful to make sure our people were safe.

It is our organisations and communities that are best placed to respond to this crisis, and to drive progress towards the longer-term priority of closing the gap in life outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. Yet these same organisations and communities have borne the brunt of repeated funding cuts and a roller-coaster of policy and administration changes.

In this time of crisis, the absence of a national policy platform for governments to systemically rebuild our communities and address the inequities that too many of our people continue to face is stark. Stark, too, is the absence of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander national body that is bringing its collective expertise to work in partnership with governments to respond to Covid-19.

This vacuum is why the Coalition of Peaks was formed and why we have been continuing our work, in partnership with Australian governments, to chart a meaningful way forward. The new national agreement will be crucial to the post-crisis reconstruction. There will be long-term social, economic, health and cultural costs of the pandemic – all areas fundamental to closing the gap.

Governments must work in full partnership with the Coalition of Peaks to ensure that as we emerge from this crisis, policy is informed by the actual needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and works to strengthen our community-controlled organisations for the longer term. We cannot take another backwards step on Closing the Gap.

The Coalition of Peaks and our members remain committed to this partnership and have continued to drive the process forward, even while responding to Covid-19. This pandemic cannot – and should not – be used by anyone as a reason to delay the finalisation of the new national agreement. Instead, it should galvanise our collective efforts and sharpen our focus on the task of closing the gap.

We know that the federal and state and territory governments have had an enormous workload to protect us and now they have to help the country recover. However, our communities have also been affected. We need a new national policy framework to make sure we are on track. It must attack the inequities, such as poor health and housing, that have made us so vulnerable to Covid-19 in the first place.

People have labelled this virus as some sort of great equaliser. In reality, though, its impact is not shared equally. The truth is there can be no equality until we work together to dismantle structural inequity. Collective will is the only real equaliser.

That’s why the resolution from all governments for a new national agreement on Closing the Gap, based on shared decision-making and investment in our communities, is needed now more than ever.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Equal measures".

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