I have mixed feelings each time I see a “Close the Gap” bumper sticker. The number of Australians supporting the health equity campaign, expressing outrage on the appalling gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians — and demanding government action — is certainly heartening. The fact that the government appears committed to the same goals, through its similarly named "Closing the Gap" initiative feels like it should be cause for celebration.
But just what is the government offering this country’s First Peoples when it says it is committed to “closing the gap”?
The government says its Closing the Gap policy is “a commitment by all Australian governments to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians”.
It is the framework for many of the governments’ “Aboriginal affairs” policies, and informs funding agreements between federal, state and territory governments. For example, the recently passed Stronger Futures legislation (which continues the widely hated NT intervention) comes under the Closing the Gap umbrella.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG), which includes the state, territory and federal governments, has set the following Closing the Gap targets: achieve health equity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people within a generation; halve the under-five mortality gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children within a generation; halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements within a decade; halve the gap in Year-12 attainment rates by 2020; and halve the gap in employment outcomes within a decade.
Closing the Gap has seven “building blocks” that COAG says will be necessary to reach its targets: early childhood; schooling; health; economic participation; healthy homes, safe communities; governance and leadership.
At first glance, the targets seem noble enough. So what is so bad about Closing the Gap? Let’s leave aside the fact the government has failed to meet any of its targets. Let’s simply look at the intent of the initiative.
It is telling that government, not Aboriginal people, has set the targets. Djapirri Mununggirritji is a Yolngu leader from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land. She sits on the boards of Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation and Reconciliation Australia. She told Green Left Weekly: “I wonder if they really mean what they say [when the government talks about closing the gap]? Are they serious — their policies don’t match up with what they say.”
COAG says it “recognises that overcoming Indigenous disadvantage will require a sustained commitment from all levels of government to work together and with Indigenous people”. But Mununggirritji said: “They talk about partnerships — what partnerships? Do they mean Yolngu being puppets on a string? We have our own ideas and solutions — why aren’t they in there?”
Labor says it is committed to building partnerships and “working together” with Aboriginal people, yet in 2009 Labor renamed the widely hated NT Emergency Response, known as the intervention, “Closing the Gap in the NT”. This was despite evidence that many gaps actually widened under the intervention.
The health inequality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, just like the imprisonment rates, life expectancy and other key indicators, are certainly shameful and in need of urgent action.
But Australian governments, whether Labor or Liberal, do not have the imagination, courage and commitment to take action without robbing Aboriginal people of the very things that keep them strong and make them who they are: their lands, languages and cultures.
Among the pages of Closing the Gap’s “principles”, “strategies”, “agreements” and “targets”, its plan for the smallest and most remote Aboriginal communities should ring alarm bells.
COAG’s “national principles for investment in remote locations” says “investment decisions” should aim to “improve participation in education/training and the market economy”, “reduce welfare dependency”, “promote personal responsibility” and promote “engagement and behaviours consistent with positive social norms”.
It says the government recognises Aboriginal people’s strong connection to land but needs to “avoid expectation” of investment in areas “where there are few … economic opportunities”. Instead, COAG says it prefers “facilitating voluntary mobility … to areas where better education and job opportunities exist”.
Mununggirritji said she felt the approach was “very whitefella”. “They’re mustering everyone into a tiny yard [that is, to be like whitefellas]. How is that going to help close the gap?”
She extended the “mustering” metaphor to moves by federal and NT governments to withdraw support to Aboriginal homelands and shift the funding to “hub towns”. Aboriginal critics say it’s an attempt to drive people off their “unviable” outstations into “regional service delivery towns”.
Mununggirritji said: “Trapped in the yard, everyone just starts fighting. Really, the government should be funding homelands —Yolngu are healthier there.” Many reports back up her claims.
A policy committed to closing the health gap would encourage and assist people to remain where they are healthiest. It seems to make “good economic sense”, if nothing else. But how do dispersed, very remote, incredibly tiny populations fit with the neoliberal push to “efficient service delivery”, “streamlining” and that mantra of “economic participation”?
Banduk Marika, also from Yirrkala, told GLW: “We’re losing too many of our people. We go to 10 funerals a year. The government is spending millions [on health] but where is it going? What are they doing?”
At one of many government visits to her community, Mununggirritji told officials: “Who do you think you are? You come to us with these policies [but] when are you going to ask us for our own ideas? We have ideas about creating employment [on homelands].”
Marika said: “Look at the tourism and Aboriginal art market. We bring so many people, so much money, to this country. Where is the recognition? Why isn’t this reflected in employment statistics? Aboriginal people are just used to prop up [employment for other people]”.
Closing the Gap’s Indigenous Economic Development Strategy seeks to “encourage responsibility for homes” and “support the transition from tenancy to home ownership”.
At the same time, “Stronger Futures” legislation recently passed in the Senate plans to “open up” Aboriginal land for economic development and investment.
Meanwhile, the plans to extend early childhood education into the bush sound great, but must be taken in the context of a dire lack of commitment to bilingual education in the NT. Within the mainstream, neoliberal definition of “education”, we can expect schooling of Aboriginal children to be very targeted at employment, “encouraging positive social norms” and “ending welfare dependency”.
Returning to the question of “closing the gap”, it may be prudent to look beyond the hype, beyond the targets, and ask just which “gaps” the government is seeking to close.
Could it be the gap between English-only education on the one hand, and a linguistically diverse, whole-of-community approach to raising children that teaches school-aged kids to be fluent in a handful of languages?
Or is it the gap between a suburban nuclear family in a home owned by a bank, and a culturally rich life on a vast natural estate, collectively owned and “in the family” for centuries?
Marika asked: “What about self-determination? What happened to that idea?”
It is a cliche for government’s to say Aboriginal people must be part of the solution, but the reality is that governments continue to carry out policy that implicitly suggests “being Aboriginal” is part of the problem.
It is time to honour and celebrate the fact that Australia is home to some of the world’s oldest living cultures, and think carefully about what gaps need to be closed, and how. We could start by asking Aboriginal people what they think.