First Nations person ‏@NellieNelliepw lists priorities and issues for the Closing the Gap "refresh" on 29 November last year

Unless overcome, structural issues in the heart of Australian politics and governance seem destined to doom the Turnbull Government's Closing the Gap "refresh", writes Dr Zoe Staines.

LAST YEAR was full of highs and lows in Australian Indigenous affairs.

The Uluru Summit brought Indigenous leaders from across Australia together to propose a new way forward. Despite the public bastardisation of the proposals by politicians with alternative agendas, the Uluru Statement From the Heart outlined sensible and modest reforms that would enable Indigenous Australians to have a real say and shape the policies that affect them.

As Australia’s First Peoples, who have spent 230 years living with the anguish and sorrow of colonisation, a simple voice in their own affairs was an incredibly modest request. However, in late October, it was leaked that the proposals had been shut down in Cabinet, leaving Indigenous leaders and many others across Australia feeling heartbroken and betrayed. It can only be described as ironic that, three to four months later, the Prime Minister is now reaching out to those same Indigenous Australians to "work in genuine partnership” in refreshing the Closing the Gap agenda.

The rhetoric of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the Closing the Gap Next Phase Discussion Paper, released in January, is almost too much to stomach.

It talks about [Discussion Paper, 2018, p3] Indigenous Australians becoming the

'... decision-makers over issues that impact their lives… [and seizing] opportunities for themselves, their families and their communities.'

The Paper shows, again, that only one of the eight targets – Year 12 attainment – is on track, leaving politicians and policymakers scratching their collective heads. As they have many times before, they have come to the conclusion that simply "more participation" and "more partnership" is needed with Indigenous Australians. Undoubtedly, but history has shown that passive participation and partnership are not sufficient.

The Closing the Gap framework has not worked because it is just that — a framework. There is no flesh on the skeleton of targets and desires. That is not to say targets aren’t helpful in focusing efforts and ensuring accountability. But there are structural problems here. The experience of passive "participation" and "partnership" over the previous decades, punctuated by the political reaction to the Uluru Statement, shows us that the Government does not understand how to partner. It does not understand how to delegate power in ways that recognise expertise held outside of its inner chambers. It was this knowledge that led to the Uluru Statement in the first place.

The experience of programme saturation in Indigenous communities, the relentless waves of fly-in-fly-out workers who don’t understand local culture and custom, duplicate services, poor evaluation, wasted resources, and culturally-inappropriate approaches across urban and regional/remote environments are the crux of the problem. These problems stem from a failure of the Government to understand the contexts within which Indigenous disadvantage is experienced and its inability to overcome its deeply entrenched paternalism.

The 2018 Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee Report also identifies further structural issues, including poor planning, a failure to align approaches to the Closing the Gap commitments and essentially "abandoning" the strategy.

This has been coupled with [Steering Committee Report, p8] wavering political commitment to the Agenda with the recent

'... revolving door of Prime Ministers, Indigenous Affairs Minister and senior bureaucrats.' 

Unless these issues are addressed, a refreshed Closing the Gap agenda will simply be more rhetoric.

As the debate and uproar ensued after Turnbull formally announced the Coalition Government’s rejection of the Uluru Statement From the Heart, songwriter Kev Carmody’s lyrics kept popping back into my head:

The left hand holds the bible, right hand holds the gun.

On the one hand, the Commonwealth asks for greater participation and leadership, but on the other, it does as it pleases and makes its own decisions about the livelihoods of Indigenous Australians regardless of what they tell it. This is utter hopelessness.

The Closing the Gap refresh sheds light, again, on the structural problems in Australian politics and governance that serve to undermine efforts at ending disadvantage. Unless and until these structural issues are overcome – whether it be through implementation of the Uluru Statement From the Heart, or some other means – a simple "refresh" of the targets is doomed to fail.   

You can follow Dr Zoe Staines on Twitter @zoettes.

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