Indigenous Australia

Gap widens under Abbott Government — in outcomes and understanding

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Not quite all smiles during PM Abbott's much heralded "week" in Arnhem Land last year

Tony Abbott released the Closing the Gap report yesterday, which showed that after major public funding cuts Indigenous disadvantage has gotten worse, not better. Kamilaroi traditional owner Natalie Cromb is not surprised.

THE Close the Gap Report was released yesterday by the Abbott Government with unsurprising results. Life expectancy has made little progress and the target will not be met; literacy and numeracy fared the same with little to no improvement since 2008; access to childcare in remote communities was not met; only infant mortality and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students attaining year 12 educational qualifications is apparently on target.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed Parliament to speak to the report, which he said was "profoundly disappointing".

Yet, despite some general rhetoric about "commitment", the only policy he appeared to push was that of getting Indigenous kids to attend school because, he said:

“When school attendance is above 90 per cent for all schools, regardless of the number of Aboriginal students enrolled, the gap will have been closed.”

This Government is so very profound — get kids to attend school and the gap will close. Simple, right?

Not all in attendance at Parliament considered closing the gap in such simplistic terms, however — some actually considered that we, as a nation, ought perhaps be doing more than simply telling kids to go to school.

Senator Nova Peris OAM, who on her website describes herself as 'a traditional owner/descendent of' three North Australian Peoples, expressed her disappointment at the fact that the gap was, in fact, widening when considering wider measures such as incarceration rates and juvenile reinvestment.

She said:

“Australia is so rich in so many areas, but we've got a lot to be ashamed about in the treatment of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten took the opportunity to urge Mr Abbott to reverse his Government's Indigenous Affairs portfolio funding cuts, that were in excess of $600 million and which funded funded pivotal grass roots programs intended to provide empowerment and justice to Indigenous Australians.

During Mr Shorten's speech, Tasmanian Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic and at least five of his Coalition colleagues took exception to Mr Shorten urging the Government to take action and walked out of the chamber.

Mr Nikolic termed Mr Shorten's speech as "point scoring". These are the usual antics of the L-NP we have come to expect — throwing a tantrum when your hypocrisy is pointed, as shown by the boycott and heckling during Kevin Rudd's Apology to the Stolen Generation

I mean, what have they done really? Appoint an Indigenous advisor that not only doesn't have any teeth or power in shaping policy, but is an Abbott buddy guaranteed to toe the party line; express commitment to the Indigenous people and then cut over $600 million from grass roots programs and justice service for Indigenous people citing "wastage" and relying upon the token buddy's say so; commit to spending a week in Arnhem Land upon election only to take 11 months to fulfil the commitment and then spend just three days there, spending the entire time pushing the party's corporate agenda instead of sitting down and listening to the community.

The LNP members that walked out are grandstanding to overshadow the contents of the report. This is not about Liberal and Labor, this is about equality and righting wrongs. But that is something the LNP has never been concerned about.

Whilst the Report is saddening, it is not a surprise because Indigenous people have already been communicating this for decades.

What is disappointing is the fact that, with the benefit of this Report and others before it, along with his hand selected (read: token) Indigenous advisors, the best that Tony Abbott can come up with is:

  • getting children to school;
  • getting adults to work; and
  • making Indigenous communities safer.

These policies will not "close the gap", they will widen it and further disenfranchise Indigenous people because it is sending a clear message: Indigenous people don’t love their kids enough to send them to school; Indigenous people are lazy so we need to make them work and Indigenous communities are rough, so we need to increase the police presence.

To add insult to injury, Abbott has used language which seeks to sanitise the true history of this nation by condescendingly stating Indigenous people have a special place in "our national story".

I can’t speak for all Indigenous people, but when I look back on this land's history and the horrific acts that occurred to my family, ancestors and the wider Indigenous community, past and present, the word "special" is the furthest description from my mind.

This Report is alarming, the previous reports have been alarming and, yet, Australians, on the whole, are not alarmed.

Without revolutionary change that brings about a Treaty, Constitutional recognition with a compensatory program, and significant changes in the areas of education, health, welfare, and environmental laws and policies, the gap will remain and the transgenerational pain and trauma will continue.

What this Government and many before them – with the exception of the Keating Government – fail to understand is that the benefits reaped by this nation economically, socially and environmentally has come at the cost of Indigenous people and there has never been any genuine attempt at any reparation.

Sure, most may from a purely academic level understand there were abhorrent acts committed against the Indigenous people, but to truly understand, you need to listen and put yourself in their shoes. Contemplate what you would do.

How you would go on if your child was taken – or, worse, killed in front of you – to send a message of capitulate or die?

How would you contemplate living a clean life and seeking employment to pay taxes to a government that worked your mother as a slave without pay until she died too young with an old crippled body?

As confronting and awful as it is to hear the stories of the Indigenous people wronged by the governments of this nation and the "settlers" that terrorised them for generations — imagine living it.

What is your discomfort compared to the very real pain of the people who have lived this history; who continue to live this reality?

Empathy and knowledge are the answers.

So, while this Report is important in quantifying the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous wellbeing, it merely scratches the surface without there being a government willing to pursue the Indigenous Affairs portfolio of responsibility with gusto and with a sense of social justice instead of the symbolism we have all come to expect and, sadly, tolerate.

All Australians need to have a vivid understanding of the true history of this nation, for without this understanding, there will be no change.

Without an understanding that the good fortune of this country came at a price that has not been paid for needs to be understood. This is not about shame, this is about being urged into action.

Once all Australians are no longer being kept in the dark about history, the Government will have no choice but to yield and realise Indigenous people have a right to self-determination and, with this empowerment, the gap will close and wellbeing will be measured by the health of communities, not individual wealth accrual or contribution to government's taxation revenue.

Next week, this Report will be forgotten by the Government. Don’t let them forget. Join the fight for equality and justice. Be a part of change, be a driving force. Don’t settle for the status quo — change the lives of Indigenous Australians by proving yourself to be an ally of action, in deeds, not just with words. 

Lobby your local, state and federal members – even if you detest the political party they belong to – and express your views. Seek that they push for changes to the curriculum so that the true history of this nation is taught, understood and learnt from. Push for adequate access to resources in the justice system and that the justice system is adequately monitored to ensure that racial profiling does not occur. Seek that they push for access to education and health resources, even in the most remote communities in the country.

I welcome your ideas, your passion and your involvement in the conversation. We can exchange stories and experiences. Send me an email or follow me on Twitter and let us prove to the government that people power matters. 

You can email Natalie Cromb at and follow her on Twitter @NatalieCromb.

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