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as deficits to be technically addressed by state action without any consideration of Indigenous aspirations is out of date, out of touch and destined to fail.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.