Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull began the annual Prime Minister's “closing the gap” speech on February 10 with a few lines in the Ngunnawal language. But, as an Aboriginal woman, all I heard was more Turnbullshit.
“We recognise that prior to the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians spoke hundreds of languages and over 600 dialects," he said. In my mind this means that, despite the Mabo High Court judgement of 1992, he still believes Australia was "settled".
Turnbull did go on to allocate an additional $20 million to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to assist in the “collection of critical cultural knowledge, and promote an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, traditions, languages and stories, past and present. It will keep safe this knowledge for all Australians by digitising and protecting it from being lost”. This is commendable in its own right, but this was supposed to be a "closing the gap" speech.
In the eight years since these targets were set, Turnbull admitted "Today again we see mixed results". So why are the results "mixed"?
In February last year, I wrote of the impact of the shameful cuts to spending on Aboriginal services, when last year's Closing the Gap report was announced. A year later, nothing much has changed.
The latest Closing the Gap report is a huge fail. It shows little progress in closing the shameful gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia on health, literacy and education while Aboriginal unemployment and underemployment has steadily become worse since 2008.
I will focus on the two areas — education and employment. The first early childhood education target expired in 2013. That target was never met. The current target aims to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018. It has not been met to date and is unlikely to be met.
There is a target to halve the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rates by 2020. This gap has narrowed but it would be good to see it closed. But I am not optimistic because no one is being held accountable.
According to Professor John Lester, Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Research at the University of Newcastle, it is time to take this issue seriously.
"I'm yet to see a principal lose his job because he hasn't performed in terms of delivering an education to Indigenous students," he said. "We're not holding them accountable for the results. If 80% of our kids are going to school regularly and we're not getting the results, the school system is failing Aboriginal people."
In employment, Turnbull reports that, as in previous years, the target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is not on track. Not on track is a gross understatement. This gap has widened.
In 2014, the federal government announced a “new approach to engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve real results” in employment. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy consolidated the many different Aboriginal policies and programs that are delivered by the government.
One objective has a particular focus on getting Aboriginal Australians into work, fostering Aboriginal business and ensuring Aboriginal people receive economic and social benefits from the effective management of their lands and native title rights. This policy has failed.
Policies and programs on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment have failed because they are, at most, short-term fixes by successive governments. The policies are entrenched in "whiteness" and do not adequately address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and economic issues and do not contribute to self-determination.
If the government really wants to reduce labour market disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples it needs comprehensive policies and programs that specifically target early intervention at the school level and programs that encourage private-sector organisations to employ and give meaningful careers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It also means holding the responsible people accountable if targets are not met.
In Turnbull's speech he quoted the message he had heard from Aboriginal groups: "Do things with us, not to us". The first step would be to “listen to us”. Patrick Dodson said: "Closing the gap hasn't got a buy-in from Indigenous communities, without Indigenous participation it's going to be doomed to fail.”
Uncle Tauto Sansbury, Narungga elder and recipient of the 2015 NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award, said: “The gap will never be closed until state and federal governments start facing up to the reality of everyday life for Indigenous people, and lay to rest their missionary approach to Indigenous affairs”.
He noted the Forrest Review as a clear example of this. Other examples include “the government consultation with a select and unelected body of advisors and the mainstreaming of Indigenous services”.
The bulk of the recent round of Indigenous Advancement Strategy money went to non-Indigenous organisations which, according to Uncle Tauto, “supposedly know better what will work for us than we do. Yes, just like the missionaries of old.”
In his speech, Turnbull said constitutional recognition would be an important step towards true reconciliation, and would assist in "closing the gap" on Aboriginal disadvantage. Please explain, Mr Turnbull, how constitutional recognition will do this? The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not want this feel-good exercise for the government. It will not close the gap on our disadvantage.
If our greatest assets are our people, as Turnbull went on to say, then surely it is time to listen to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are saying. It is time to involve us in determining our own futures and the future of this nation. Speak to the right people, not the Warren Mundine's and Noel Pearson's of this world. Speak to grassroots community people. We know what is best for our people. We know how to close the gaps on our own disadvantage.
[Sharlene Leroy-Dyer is a descendant of the Guringai/Gadigal/Wirajuri/Dhurag peoples of New South Wales and an academic at the University of Newcastle. She has just completed her Phd thesis which addresses labour market disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.]