Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered the federal government’s third “closing the gap” report on February 9. The report is an annual review of national efforts to address the mortality gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
In an outrageous denial of the government’s failure, Gillard called for Aboriginal people to accept the blame for critical crises in health, education, employment and housing and chronic community breakdown.
In the same week, Aboriginal elders, human rights organisations and prominent Australian individuals joined a fresh round of calls condemning the federal government’s intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, now midway through its third year.
Two statements were made at a public meeting in Melbourne on February 8. Elders from several NT communities released an open letter “to the people of Australia”.
It said there had never been proper consultation, and income quarantining and compulsory acquisition of leases over Aboriginal land in 64 communities had destroyed the wellbeing and cultural integrity of people in their communities.
“Through harsh changes we have had removed from us all control over our communities and our lives,” it said.
A statement, signed by 31 prominent Australians — including Malcolm Fraser, Larissa Behrendt, Julian Burnside QC, Phil Lynch and Patrick Dodson, accompanied it.
The “statement on Aboriginal rights by leading Australians”, said: “Aboriginal people in the NT must have choice and must not be forced to abandon lands and heritage in order to obtain services that are automatically provided to other Australian citizens.
“Bring the NT intervention to an end, including the termination of involuntary income management.”
The statement said: “It is our belief that inequality cannot be addressed by the removal of control from affected peoples over their lives and land.”
Gillard barely mentioned the intervention and offered little evidence that government policy was helping close the gap. She said Aboriginal people needed to take “personal responsibility” and make “changes in behaviour” to close the 17-year gap in life expectancy.
She cited high-profile Aboriginal commentator Noel Pearson’s anti-welfare mantra — the conservative belief that abject poverty and social dysfunction are crises of Aboriginal people’s own making — as her inspiration.
Pearson supports the practice enforced on Indigenous people in the NT of restricting welfare income by putting half of each welfare payment on a Basics Card, to be used only on necessities. He also calls for it to be expanded to other communities across Australia.
When former PM Kevin Rudd launched the “closing the gap initiative” in 2007, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were dying about 17 years earlier than other Australians.
The NT has the lowest life expectancy for Aboriginal people — 61.5 years for men (77 years for other Australian men) and 69.2 years for women (82 for others).
The mortality rate of Aboriginal infants is three times higher than Australia’s average.
Treatable diseases are chronic in many remote communities. The Fred Hollows Foundation said up to 60% of children suffer from trachoma, an infectious eye disease that causes blindness if left untreated.
The World Health Organisation says Aboriginal people are a “special high risk group” for chronic suppurative otitis media, a middle ear infection that causes permanent hearing loss and which affects up to 40% of children living in remote communities.
Nationwide, Aboriginal people suffer higher rates of nutrition related chronic disease — the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says Aboriginal people aged 25-54 are “between 23 to 37 times more likely to die from type 2 diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians in the same age group”.
In the NT, overcrowded housing and little education or employment measures compound the appalling state of physical, psychological and social health.
NSW Aboriginal Land Council chairperson Bev Manton rebuked Gillard’s patronising speech. ABC Online reported on February 10 that Manton said: “Aboriginal people have endured hardship on a scale most Australians could only dream of.”
South Australian Aboriginal leader Lowitja O’Donoghue said Gillard’s view that Aboriginal people need to simply “change their behaviour” ignored the fact that the government refused to fund Aboriginal-controlled programs, reported the Australian on February 11.
“When we want to step up to take action, we find white people are all the senior managers,” she said.
Central Land Council director David Ross said the government’s “closing the gap” plan was a top-down approach. Ross: “We need investment in Aboriginal programs which work from the bottom up.”
Manton echoed this view: “It does not reflect the barriers that have been placed on generations upon generations of Indigenous people and undermines the willpower of thousands of Aboriginal Australians who battle against these barriers.
“Aboriginal people will take jobs when there are jobs to take. Prime Minister Gillard might like to explain to the nation how her party destroyed the economies of many communities when they pulled apart CDEP.”
Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs also issued a damning criticism of government policy, saying Aboriginal people had been “disengaged” from development processes, and caused “increasing despair and family breakdown”.
The NT intervention is draconian and paternalistic, and Aboriginal people feel deceived and betrayed by its retention and expansion by the Labor government, said social justice commissioner Mick Gooda on the release of his first assessment on February 11.
“Top-down imposition of measures will never be sustainable," he said.
Gooda turned Gillard’s speech back onto the government and said politicians and bureaucrats needed to “change the way they do business”.
Manton said if Gillard really wants to close the gap “she must put away her patronizing tone, and visit one of our communities”.
“She must sit, and she must listen. And she must understand that if she truly wants the blame game to end, she has to ensure government does its part as well.”
There was no mention in Gillard’s speech of large-scale investment in Aboriginal community-controlled health services, or providing the training for Aboriginal people to carry out the delivery of culturally appropriate health care across all communities.
The elders’ statement read: “We demand the return of our rights, our freedom to live our traditional lives, support to develop our economic enterprises to develop jobs and to work towards a better future for all our peoples.”
This is what will help close the gap.