The Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap report to Parliament this morning was a bit like an unprepared best man’s speech at a wedding, missing all the important information — possibly even written on the back of a napkin. The takeout message — which is, yep, the gap isn’t closing quite like we hoped — filters out into a blur of “let’s hold hands and continue working together”. But does anyone really want to hold Tony Abbott’s hand?
Sure he’s the self-declared “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”. We’ve all heard that. But when you actually look at his record, it is heavily focused on symbolic gestures.
It started with the commitment, made before the last election, that he would be Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs. It was such a wonderful commitment, he probably thought this would satisfy people for a while.
But after cutting more than $500 million from indigenous programs in the 2014 budget, including funds for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and indigenous legal aid, it became apparent that his personal devotion to the portfolio was not a gift.
George Brandis also continued to push radical changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to defend our right to be bigots — changes that were eventually withdrawn by Abbott. But some damage had already been done, with nasty conversations spawned on national radio for months as a result of this proposal.
Within a few months of the budget, Abbott thought it was time for some more (painful) symbolic gestures — announcing that Australia had been “unsettled” before the First Fleet arrived and, shortly after, that white settlement was “Australia’s defining moment”.
In December, 2014, Abbott thought he would need to say something about constitutional recognition, as he had made an election commitment to bring forward a proposal for change within 12 months. Abbott continued the trend (started by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard) of saying obligatory stuff about constitutional recognition once or twice a term but not actually driving a case for change. That would take a fair bit of vision and political strength. It appears even Labor now would prefer to talk about Australia becoming a republic with the hope that this might fix a few things at once.
Leadership from conservatives will make or break the constitution issue. Abbott did announce that he hoped it might be possible to hold a referendum in May 2017 — the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. He announced he was prepared “to sweat blood on this”, leaving us all with some unfortunate visuals and the question: what does this involve?
This year’s Closing the Gap report to Parliament was a bit more restrained. It didn’t include any new targets. He probably learnt his lesson from last year, when he set a new target to close the gap in school attendance in five years. The following month, all Australian governments at the Council of Australian Governments meeting agreed to more stringent public reporting of indigenous school attendance rates and to have some specific strategies by October. The October report was lot more broad brush, admitting perhaps that all the state and territory ministers had gone back to their departments and schools and decided it was too hard.
The only substantive election commitment — to fund 5000 job placements through GenerationOne (costing $45 million) through establishing four training centres — has changed to funding contracts with 28 vocational training and education centres. Whether this results in jobs that last more than 26 weeks, let’s say even a year, is something that remains to be seen. GenerationOne itself continues to point out problems with the incentive structures for job network providers. This contrasts with the latest figures in the Closing the Gap report showing the gap continues to widen on indigenous unemployment. The young, fast-growing demographic of the indigenous population makes this policy challenge even harder.
Economist Jon Altman has pointed out that fortunately for Abbott, most of the new data sets will come out just after the PM’s first term, meaning we won’t know the true effect of this term of government for some time.
Sure it is easy to throw grapes from the sidelines, and governing is hard — but it’s time to drop the charade that has become this character role of “Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs”. Tony Abbott needs to get real about the fact that he has many problems to deal with and give this job to someone who has the intellectual rigour, the negotiation skills, the weight in cabinet, the time and the energy it deserves.