Indigenous Australia

Close the Gap still reveals gaping holes in Government efforts

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Image via Youtube)

Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Government are failing Indigenous Australians when it comes to Closing the Gap, Daniel Gough writes.

TODAY I WRITE TO voice my concerns and profound anger at a long-term issue faced by our nation that still hasn’t been resolved.

This issue is personal to me as well as millions of other Australians, due to the horror and sadness many people – unequipped to defend themselves – have suffered and witnessed.

In case you didn’t know, the term "Kanyini" is a word from the Pitjantjatjara language traditionally spoken by Indigenous peoples of Central Australia. It means the connectedness between the land, the family, spiritual belief and the way of life.

The Australian Constitution that came into effect on 1 January 1901 – that was intended to unite all Australians – did not include Indigenous Australian peoples. They weren't counted as part of the human population.

The Government declared that

'... Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were a "dying race" not worthy of citizenship or humanity.'

Since then, while there has been a change in the Government’s perspective, Indigenous communities are still a rather large "gap" away from the rest of the Australian population. More needs to be done.

The initiative of the Close the Gap campaign is a start. The "Gap" refers to the disparity in life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates, poorer overall health, and lower levels of education and employment. However, Indigenous Australian people shouldn’t just be left trying to chase and keep up with the rest of their society. They should be the identity of Australia. Our Government and legal systems are not doing enough to ensure the same opportunities and quality of life for Indigenous Australians that is equal with the rest of the population.

This opinion is not only mine but is also shared by independent global human rights groups. The United Nations held a General Assembly on 13 September 2007, voting on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; 144 countries voted in favour, with just four voting against. Among those four was Australia. An embarrassing act by our Government, voting on behalf of the public, and a poor representation of Australia.

I am truly embarrassed to know that my country, Australia, as recently as 2007 could completely disregard the rights of the most important part of its population.

Just five months later, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd addressed the nation, with an historic and emotional speech. The National Apology, or "sorry speech", was the Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations. The apology didn’t manage to reverse the actions of the previous administrations, however it acknowledged that they were wrong to completely disregard the human rights of Indigenous Australian peoples. Rudd and his Labour Government attempted to compensate the Indigenous Australian population with a financial restructure to ensure improvements in Indigenous regions and communities.

Kevin Rudd made the following statement concerning social disparities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

This new partnership on closing the gap will set concrete targets for the future: within a decade to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for Indigenous Australians, within a decade to halve the appalling gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and, within a generation, to close the equally appalling 17-year life gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in overall life expectancy.

The 2018 Prime Minister's Report provides data indicating the progress (or lack of) of the Closing the Gap strategy.

The figures on infant mortality are encouraging: between 1998 and 2016, the Indigenous infant mortality rate has dropped 66.7% (13.5 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 1998 compared to six per 1,000 in 2016). In 2008, the plan was to half the gap by 2018, which is on track to be reached. Fingers crossed.

The Indigenous school attendance rate was 83.5% in 2014 and 83.2% in 2017. This means that, by the end of 2018, the set target is not expected to be reached. However, the rates of Indigenous students achieving the national minimum standards of NAPLAN testing between years three to nine has improved between 2008 and 2017.

The gap might be smaller, but there is still a long way to go.

The workforce is an aspect that Indigenous Australian peoples are being left far behind and it’s truly unacceptable — the Close the Gap report noted a 20% disparity in employment rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people aged 15 to 64 in 2016. Those who claim the Government is spending too much on supporting Aboriginal communities through welfare and other initiatives are completely blind as to what is occurring within society. We are still not spending enough in the right places.

I believe the rejection of Indigenous Australians in the workforce is due to poor media and Government representation — the 2016 Reconciliation Barometer survey reported that 55% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and 54% of non-Indigenous people believed that the Government could do more to reduce prejudice and discrimination. It may be true that some individuals won’t be able to compete in the workforce due to attaining fewer education accreditations, but the fault is structural — it isn't their own. How about we consider the restrictions faced by these individuals in schools or personal circumstances? 

Let’s not forget the trauma that Indigenous Australians have been put through by white people in such a short space of time. After living on this continent for roughly 60,000 years, they were dispossessed of their land by British settlers – who are associated with the idea "true blue" Australian – 200 years ago.

One hundred years later, in 1901, Indigenous Australian peoples weren't even recognised in the Australian Constitution. Between 1910 and 1970, at least 100,000 Aboriginal children were removed from their families. Unforgivable.

Through my local MP, Craig Laundy, I was able to get in contact with the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives and Aboriginal Federal Minister, Minister for Indigenous Health Ken Wyatt.

Mr Wyatt told me:

It is important for the future of our nation that our history and the difficulties and losses faced by many Aboriginal people since European settlement are acknowledged. That is why events such as the National Apology to the Stolen Generations are so important. What is crucial is that we continue to walk and work together to build understanding and respect, and to ensure equality of opportunity in everything we do.

In Closing the Gap, we must think about our roles and our responsibilities, not only as governments, but also as individuals, as family members and our communities. Changes can only occur when we as individuals, we as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, families and communities pull together. Many positive outcomes are being achieved but we still have a long way to go so that our Indigenous culture, our knowledge, our history, our art, and all of the things that are important to us are perpetuated. Let’s continue to build on the foundation of our unique Indigenous cultures, our history and our way of life.

Nationwide acceptance and acknowledgement is the first step according to Minister Wyatt. You may be led to believe that acceptance and acknowledgement has already been instilled across the nation.

If that were the case, then we wouldn’t be having situations such as the racial slur Adam Goodes received from 13-year-old girl on the sidelines during the AFL's Indigenous Round.

Changes are needed, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Make it happen.

Daniel Gough is an HSC student looking to pursue a career in journalism.

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