There’s plenty of blame to go around for the failure of the Closing The Gap effort over the last decades. It’s been the victim of funding cuts, Canberra’s insular mentality and our federal structure that makes dealing with Indigenous issues an exercise in almost Kafkaesque bureaucratic complexity.

Monday’s Closing the Gap report, marking a decade since the Stolen Generations Apology and nearly ten years since Kevin Rudd committed the Commonwealth to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “to achieve equality in health status and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians by the year 2030”.

What’s happened since then does not paint Canberra bureaucrats and both sides of politics in a flattering light, despite all the good intentions and hard work.

A report released yesterday by the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee coolly articulates where the process fell apart. It’s complex, and there are a sea of acronyms to get through — and the health bureaucracy generates the longest and least user-friendly acronyms — but there have been three major failings.

First, the establishment of the strategy by COAG, which came with significant additional Commonwealth health funding, had little input from Indigenous communities; instead, it was driven by the Commonwealth and State governments without, the report says, “any significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement, let alone partnership.”

The reason this is a crucial failing is that it is now universally agreed that in Indigenous health, the too-few success stories are the ones that involve ownership by and, where possible, implementation by, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders communities themselves, including by Indigenous health workers and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations. This requires something beyond the usual pro forma “stakeholder engagement” Canberra-style liaison, something that enables communities to have the opportunity to shape programs and priorities. 

Second, there was no specific implementation plan on how the Closing The Gap strategy would be delivered on the ground, how it would be measured (crucially) and how spending would be targeted. That wasn’t begun to be remedied until 2013, and even then not fully.

“Despite the launch of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan in 2013, this was actually a Framework, and an implementation plan was not available until 2015. Moreover, the Implementation Plan was the framework of a plan rather than a real implementation plan and lacked the fundamentals, most notably a service gap analysis or concrete action to fill the service gaps, budget or workforce provision. The Implementation Plan is still to address social determinants.”

Third was the Abbott government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which involved shifting a multiplicity of Indigenous programs into five broad streams controlled by Abbott’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Along the way, $534 million was cut from the total funding. More serious than the reduction in funding was that the shift to PM&C was a debacle, which ended up the subject of a searing Australian National Audit Office report last year that criticised virtually every aspect of PM&C’s handling of the Strategy. 

No one came to the Closing The Gap process with anything other than a commitment to achieving long-overdue results in lifting the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians much closer to that enjoyed by non-Indigenous Australians. But under both sides, typically Canberran problems — lack of consultation, bureaucratic rearrangements, poor internal processes, and funding cuts — sucked whatever momentum was there out of the entire strategy.

One, small example illustrates how this can happen. Aware that results showed we were no longer making progress in closing the gap, this time last year Malcolm Turnbull committed, among other things, to appointing an Indigenous commissioner at the Productivity Commission to take on an oft-discussed need in Indigenous policy: radically increasing the level of evaluation of programs so that policymakers and communities can have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. The commission advertised for such a position last June. Seven months later, no appointment has been made. According to the PC, the appointment process is underway, and the matter currently rests with Treasury.

The government has belatedly begun consulting with Indigenous communities over its planned “refresh” of the Closing The Gap strategy. It’s doing so in an atmosphere poisoned by Malcolm Turnbull’s appalling and high-handed rejection of the Uluru Statement last year. Goodwill hasn’t been enough to close the gap, but even that precious resource may be squandered.

Peter Fray

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