The latest Close The Gap report has been labelled “insanity” by Dr Ngiare Brown because no government actually had the intestinal fortitude to reform the systems which continue to fail Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Dr Brown, Executive Manager Research and Public Health Medical Officer at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and a member of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC), said the Albert Einstein quote that the definition of insanity was repeating the same behaviours and expecting different outcomes seemed entirely apt when considering the latest update on the Close the Gap initiatives.
“This is what we have had from successive governments,” Dr Brown said. “They think they’re re-inventing the wheel, that they’re doing us some enormous favour but you don’t empower and enrich vulnerable populations by stripping them of the only assets they have and their assets are their land, their Culture and the services specific to providing clinically and culturally competent care.”
After seven years of successive Prime Ministers standing up in the Federal Parliament, hands on hearts, stating their commitments to Close the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage, Dr Brown finds “it difficult to believe we still seem to be having these conversations and anticipating outcomes will change when we don’t actually change what we do and the way in which we do it”.
Dr Brown said current Federal Government policy “particularly the economic rationalisation in communities, is a vehicle for assimilation” and that things would only change through Aboriginal control.
“We need to change the way that we do things and governments will not do it,” she said.
John Singer, who came from the APY Lands to be in Canberra for the Close the Gap report, agreed it was a policy failure of government.
“I think it’s in terms of a lot of their policies that’s where the failings have been and in particular the proposed changes are going to put us back more than one step what he said, it is going to put us back 50 steps,” he said.
And Mr Singer said it appeared the self-proclaimed Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Tony Abbott, with his five day per week, 52 week per year work for the dole scheme, was blaming Aboriginal people for their own disadvantage.
“By the sounds of this Prime Minister and his government they are blaming us for a lot of the things that are happening in our communities which is just a total joke. It’s a ridiculous statement,” Mr Singer said.
Close The Gap Steering Committee Co-Chair, Mick Gooda said there had been limited progress in some areas.
As at all six previous Close The Gap Day breakfasts every politician to speak agreed the issues were urgent and the disadvantage was unacceptable but it seems every time it gets a little hard the implementation becomes an issue for the State and Territory governments and not the Federal Government.
“That is totally not good enough,” Mr Gooda said. “And it’s just cost-shifting between the States and Territories and the Commonwealth, and that game’s been going on for 40 years … this is a Federation issue that has got to be fixed.”
The 1967 referendum gave the Commonwealth the powers to make laws for Aboriginal people where States were being recalcitrant and while these issues are a little different Mick Gooda believes there are parallels that would allow action but there is a “lack of will”.
“That gives the Commonwealth Government the power to do it but they have got to have the will to do it and I don’t think we have seen much will,” he said.
“We know the States get money for everyone in their State including Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders – these are citizenship rights whether it’s water and power, or sewerage in a remote community, or public housing in an urban area that these are things you get funded for to provide for your citizens.”
Dr Brown agrees there are fundamental rights every other citizen expects and gets that are being denied to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“When we first did Close The Gap back in 2007, 2008, there were targets that were developed around some of the social determinants, things like environmental infrastructure and food security which meant that every community should have access to the basics for a healthy life; which meant functional, safe homes, fresh running water, waste disposal services, really basic stuff that everyone else takes for granted.
“We are not having those rights of citizenship met,” she said.
Kirstie Parker, Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, says the Federal/State divide is a false dichotomy that could be fixed if the Federal Government accepted its leadership role.
“It can all be fixed by the Commonwealth believing it has a responsibility to take a leadership role in any matter pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she said.
“The Australian government can’t just wash its hands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because there are some things they say are, on paper, the responsibility of States and Territories.”
John Paterson, Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT (AMSANT), said given the budget cuts in Indigenous Affairs and the failings revealed in the Close The Gap report, the Prime Minister’s professions to want to be a Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs had been made “a mockery”.
“On one hand we’ve got government saying we want to improve the disadvantage of Aboriginal Australians and on the other hand you’ve got governments cutting and axing funding, very important and supportive funding, critical programmes and services for Aboriginal people and communities,” Mr Paterson said.
Northern Territory Senator, Nova Peris is a strong woman but talking about the “insanity” of the government’s Indigenous policy and seventh Close the Gap report nearly brings her to tears.
Senator Peris says Mr Abbott’s admission the report is “in many respects profoundly disappointing” is “an understatement”.
“We are going backwards, we are not going forwards with respect to how we treat Australia’s First Peoples,” Senator Peris said. “I get sick and tired of the words used, especially by a conservative government, about goodwill and there needs to be an act of generosity.
“What does that mean? And I get so angry because while we are here in this place battling policies out, we continually fail and are continually oppressing the mob; Aboriginal people of this country,” she said.
Ms Peris said the Prime Minister’s Close the Gap speech in Federal Parliament last week had “no goodwill in it”.
“There is no will to hold the States and Territories to account,” Senator Peris said. “It makes my skin crawl when I hear, especially when I hear the Prime Minister, this self-proclaimed Prime Minister for Aboriginal people speak because what he says couldn’t be any further from the truth.
“It’s patronising and it’s condescending and it makes me sick,” she said.
Rod Little says the biggest problem is governments are making policies without the “full involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
“I think the investments are placed in the wrong places, the rhetoric of the decision-making without the full involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the decision-making about where the investments go and the development and design of the policies and the programmes,” he said.
That and the fact the advice government is getting is handpicked, meaning it will hear what it wants to hear.
“They’re listening to their advisers but they’re listening to the friends of government,” he said.