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Sorry day anniversary: One year on, mind the gap

The first anniversary of the National Apology, “National Apology Day”, provides an opportunity to reflect on whether anything has changed in relations between the settler colonial state and society and Indigenous Australians.

The Rudd Government’s National Apology was a statement in two parts. The first was an unreserved and long overdue apology on behalf of the nation for an extended and very ugly episode in its history, an apology to the stolen generations that was delivered with great compassion. Few were not moved by this part of the apology, its poignant symbolism provided the nation with a long overdue emotional release.

The second part of the apology looked to the future and was far more practical: it set the agenda of Closing the Gap (CTG) as the “new” Indigenous affairs policy framework. This element was not negotiated with Indigenous people, and nevertheless set in concrete six targets that are ambitious and aspirational but likely unachievable. Arguably, if these targets were to be achieved, they would result in a radical transformation of the lifestyles of many Indigenous Australians, a transformation captured well in the stated policy goals of the previous Howard government to “normalize” or “mainstream” Indigenous ways of life.

The apology speech was at once compassionate and conservative: its conservative element is a continuation of the business as usual top-down approach of the Australian state in Indigenous affairs that the PM stated he was keen to overcome.

This contradictory approach, closure on apologizing (without compensating the victims of intended and unintended consequences of state policy); and defining Indigenous disadvantage as deficits to be technically addressed by state action without any consideration of Indigenous aspirations is out of date, out of touch and destined to fail. It resonates with other recent passionately espoused but fundamentally flawed approaches, statistical equality by the year 2000 (promulgated by Hawke/Keating governments 1983-1996) and practical reconciliation, health, housing, education and employment equality (promulgated by Howard governments 1996-2007).

The CTG framework looks to close a number of statistically identified gaps like employment outcomes, year 12 retentions, reading, writing and numeracy; and child mortality by 50% in ten years; while the toughest gap, life expectancy, is to be closed within a generation. (The last is also the goal of a very different community-focused Close the Gap health campaign started in 2007 by a coalition of NGOs)

It is very unclear what 50% gap closure means or whether it is anticipated that gaps will be closed incrementally over the decade year-by-year or possibly just by the end of the decade or possibly in some regions more than in others. What these statistical gaps and indeed the Apology fail to take account of is what might be identified as the racism and human rights gap, a gap that underpins the NT Intervention and appears to have been retained by the Rudd government in its support for the continuation of the intervention measures. This gap has been recently commented on by Justice Kirby and forms the basis of a complaint to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Symbolically, it is interesting to contrast the immediate response of the PM to the concerns of Victorian bushfire victims about Centrelink’s bureaucratic insensitivity with the snail’s pace response to problems experienced by Aboriginal people in prescribed areas in the NT whose quarantined incomes have been unavailable to them over a period of days due to technical or bureaucractic bungles or who are forced to pay hundreds of dollars in taxi fares to travel to the regional centres to find shops that can take their BasicsCards.

How has the Rudd government travelled in the last 12 months in responding to these gaps? I sense that some of the national optimism of February 2008 might have abated. For Indigenous people the last 12 months have been a roller-coaster. Optimism at significant representation at 2020 (April 2008), a disappointing 2008-2009 Budget over-focused on the Northern Territory (May 2008), anger at Minister Macklin’s rejection of key recommendations in the independent review of the NT Intervention, relief owing to significant multi-year investments in the COAG communiqué of November 2008, and then no recognition of special need in the $10.4 billion stimulus package 1 (December 2008) and the same again in the $42 billion stimulus package 2 (February 2009).

As during the Howard years, many of the measures in these packages, like subsidies to assist first home buyers and to insulate homes, contain hidden distortions: they will be inaccessible to many Indigenous people and will open rather than close gaps. So will the abolition of effective labour market programs like the Community Development Employment Program that should be expanded during recession.

In the past year there has been a plethora of reviews of programs and of piecemeal as well as significant multi-year funding commitments always accompanied by the new mantra of “closing the gap”. It is far from clear if new resources have been deployed effectively to assist those most in need or to those most acquiescent to the state-defined CTG agenda? One suspects that when we see the delayed first annual government (not independent) report on progress it will say more about inputs and little about outcomes. This is not surprising, it is early days and few statistics are available.

At the national level, the apology statement promised a new age when business as usual would not do. But in the NT and elsewhere it seems to be “business as usual”, endorsed by a new and worrying political bipartisanship for mainstreaming. Indigenous representative machinery is urgently needed to give authoritative voice to the diversity of Indigenous views, privileging none over another. And endorsing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples might help to hold Australian governments accountable for the equal treatment of all Australians. While performance targets are useful to hold governments accountable, these need to be both negotiated and adaptively managed in the face of changing economic circumstances.

The CTG framework and its focus on equality of outcomes need to be balanced by recognition of the existence and value of difference. Closing the Gap is unnecessarily tied to a pathologising discourse that creates a false binary: it is not equality of outcomes or recognition of difference, nor just symbolic or practical action. These are false debates fueled by the discourse of failure and the culture wars of the past decade. In reality we need to move, as a nation, to a more nuanced policy framework that recognizes the complexity and diversity of circumstances and aspirations of Indigenous peoples today.

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  • 1
    Prof Joel B1
    Posted Monday, 16 February 2009 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Regardless of the above story I find it both deeply amusing and saddening that Rudd actually forgot about his “Progress on Indigenous matters” speech.

  • 2
    rosettamoon
    Posted Friday, 13 February 2009 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Harold - I can picture you now - in fact did’nt I bump into you at the Glendambo roadhouse….you were wearing those shorts up to your neck, long socks up to your wobbly knees, and those missionary polished shoes.

    Get a F#$@n ! grip on yourself and the reason for this intervention. Its commercial and in-confidence and its an act of racial discrimination in the very motions of it and the removal of said act.

    People like you make me want to puke in the gutter, geez you are a right moron and should get your head out of your arse and start to take notice of the racist reality that is the Rudd government.

  • 3
    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas
    Posted Sunday, 15 February 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    My parents were Samogitians. Even though I have never been there I too am one.
    According to a huge treasure of work by award winning French anthro-pologists and Archaeologists inspired by a relevantly recent discovery of the royal edict issued by the returning Napoleon “any Samogitian entering France from this day on will be treated as royalty” (re’discovering our Napoleon’ project which has also turned up the extraordinary ‘Australia’ – fauna and flora parks & displays in France by the very involved Josephine pre 1788) the Samogitians who were upper Ganges people migrating slowly via Persia to suitably cold north-western Europe to population devoid (0) Samogitia becoming its original aboriginals 10 + thousands of years ago just as Australia became inhabited by the Australian aboriginals.
    The Samogitians always fought hard for their Land for thousands of years which in modern times is known as Lithuania. The Australian aboriginal has my Samogitian aboriginal sympathy.
    The problem here is they have never had there ownership properly or appropriately recognised which would have afforded them Hilton Hotel accommodation just as the seriously evolved Governor Philip started to embark on same.
    Things went wrong in a way that they well may not have if the French were a few days quicker to Australia.

  • 4
    Frank Baarda
    Posted Friday, 13 February 2009 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Did some of you people commenting on this article actually read it? Did you understand it?
    The Rudd Government is continuing with the Brough/Howard assimilationist agenda and to us out here on the ‘Intervened’ ‘prescribed areas’ the Apology is sounding increasingly hollow.

    Every dollar spent on the subsidised idleness of most outback Aboriginal communities….”!
    I’d like to know where those dollars are. So far at Yuendumu the Intervention’s main contribution to our “subsidised idleness” is a $200,000 fence around our rubbish tip (5Km away) and a “Men’s Cooling off Shelter” that looks like a small prison and has never been used. The Intervention has also spent probably more than $1 Million on wages, accomodation and hire cars for our GBM (Government Business Manager or Ginger Bread Man) and Centrelink personnel to implement that bizarre and racist scheme known as ‘Income Management’.
    Its about time that the “debate” is turned around. Instead of talking about the “Aboriginal Problem” and everybody and their dog talking about and having an opinion about “what Aboriginals should or shouldn’t do to better themselves”; perhaps we should be talking about and celebrating what is good about remote Aboriginal society (such as the thriving Arts industry, the emphasis on family and friendship, the great sense of humour- despite continuous put downs, the beautiful languages, the immense botanical and zoological knowledge base etc.). One Gap that needs closing and hasn’t rated much of a mention is the ‘Ignorance Gap’, and guess which side of that Gap needs to be improved?
    No doubt I’ll be attacked for these comments- ¿Y qué me importa? (“sticks and stones….”)

  • 5
    Harold
    Posted Friday, 13 February 2009 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Every dollar spent on the subsidised idleness of most outback Aboriginal communities is a dollar not spent on better health care for the aged, scientific research or whatever one’s preference for well spent money might be, so why is it done? One good reason might be that vanishingly few Australians have the knowledge or capacity to do anything useful for Aboriginal welfare so let’s not pretend we can do better. However, if there is anything we can do for Aborigines, apart from simply leaving them alone, with or without subsidies of the various kinds all communities of the unemployed receive, it is how to live our way of life. Half-decent boarding schools for the chidren, with family annexes where parents could stay and do some courses while maintaining adequate contact with their children should be within our competence. Teaching Aborigines how to be Aborigines which seems to be some people’s aspiration is futile and doomed to failure.

  • 6
    Helen
    Posted Sunday, 15 February 2009 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    I applaud your comments Frank. Bravo!
    Pity more honesty and broader realism and a serious attempt to end racism in Australia aren’t approaches to be “mainstreamed” and “normalized”.

  • 7
    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas #3
    Posted Sunday, 15 February 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Harold your problem is you come to your point of view as a cheat justifies his actions.
    “Every dollar spent on the…” is typical of what I mean.
    Firstly your ‘idleness concept’ ignores that part of our white ineptness has been to pay them to ‘piss and pooh in the bush’ for ? some ecological reason?
    It’s their land mate and till you sort that out it’s their dollar and we’ve made sure they won’t know how to take it.
    Tell me if you have any idea of your long term psychological status after a long term of putting up with the way you have treated them.

    Psychology, psychology, psychology is everything

  • 8
    paddy
    Posted Friday, 13 February 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    rosettamoon….You are way too kind.
    But your description of “Harold” is pure poetry.

    Of all the promises that “Our Kevin” has trashed…..
    *This* one is the cruelest.

  • 9
    Frank Baarda
    Posted Friday, 13 February 2009 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Jon Altman is amongst the regretably far too few commentators that don’t live in the Northern Territory yet are able to see through the authorities’ spin and propaganda used to justify their top down draconian policies.
    As a long time non-Indigenous resident of Yuendumu, I despair at the widespread acceptance of the stereotypes of dysfunctional communities, violent immoral Aboriginal men (“the perpetrators”) and helpless long suffering Aboriginal women and children (“the victims”). I can assure you that Yuendumu is nothing like that. What I can also tell you is that the double whammy of the Intervention and council amalgamations has usurped local decision making power and killed much local initiative.
    In an article in the Australian (January 2009) entitled “Principle not power for prescient servant of the people” Mike Steketee quotes Kim Beazley Sr. as having written:
    “In Australia, our ways have mostly produced disaster for the Aboriginal people. I suspect that only when their right to be distinctive is accepted will policy become creative”
    Amen.

  • 10
    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas #4
    Posted Sunday, 15 February 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Frank you sound like a tryer deserving a little cheer for a rather intelligent try.
    FRANK Something seriously more than ‘debate’ needs to be turned around since we’ve drugged (C2H5OH) them and f-cked them to death or a living state which they have trouble describing anymore. ‘Remote’ is an interesting word and while I am sure whites will deny it until they understand the psychological ‘subconscious’ concept adequately whites will be using it here in more than the way to which they will admit.
    Sorry was not meant to act as an excuse or a political stunt but to stimulate that powerful psychological driver of human behaviour known as ‘shame’.
    Psychology, psychology, psychology is everything.

  • 11
    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas
    Posted Friday, 13 February 2009 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    The aborigines had a life expectancy at early settlement and before which was no better than it is now. At that time white settler’s expectancy wasn’t much different, not much gap if any. The gap is the work of the white man who hasn’t taken his black brother with him or whose black brother hasn’t come with him.

    We owe our black brother the use of his land. Maybe that’s why. Sorry help’s enormously at bringing back our black brothers trust (they’re only human after all) and subconsciously starts the process of his white brother grappling with the profound reality of having used his land to enrich ourselves.
    To respond appropriately to such a profound realization is extraordinarily difficult given that we are only human after all.
    Rudd may be an example of being a bit better than just that.
    Psychology, psychology, psychology is everything

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