(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Every mid-February, early in the parliamentary year, the prime minister stands in parliament to deliver the annual report on Closing the Gap. They always given an excellent, heartfelt speech.

Scott Morrison has today done the same. The speech he gave last year was one of his best.

And the speeches, no matter which prime minister of which party is delivering them, are always in service of explaining failure. Morrison is the fifth prime minister to deliver a Closing the Gap report, and every one has been the story of steady deterioration in performance — year after year after year after year.

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As Guy Rundle pointed out in 2015, it’s a “ritual now as ancient as a welcome to country, the national reflection on why we have made no progress on Aboriginal conditions”.

In a couple of areas to do with life expectancy and mortality, the lack of progress is because outcomes for Indigenous Australians are improving, but not as quickly as for non-Indigenous Australians. But it’s a story of failure across other indicators.

For several years now, the government rhetoric has been about focusing on improving outcomes by empowering Indigenous communities.

For example, it’s been shown over and over again in Indigenous health that programs designed and implemented by Indigenous communities and Indigenous practitioners succeed where top-down programs designed in and implemented from capital cities fail.

Morrison has repeated the message today, according to parts of the speech dropped to the media ahead of the formal release of the report. “Closing the Gap was never a partnership with Indigenous people,” he says.

We believed we knew better. We don’t. I’m very hopeful that a new approach that’s more locally led and more collaborative will take us much further than the top-down, one-size-fits-all, government-led approach ever could.

That’s great stuff from the prime minister, and no doubt he means it. But Malcolm Turnbull said the same four years ago.

We need to listen to and draw on the wisdom, the ingenuity, the insights of indigenous people across the nation from the cities to remote communities … we have to redouble our efforts to ensure effective engagement between the government, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to build trust and develop further that respectful relationship… to allow decisions to be made closer to the people and the communities which those policies impact.

The failure is not Morrison’s, any more than it was Turnbull’s.

It’s a collective failure of the federal government, one that goes back decades, and which seeks to remedy problems with deep and systemic causes.

There’s a good chance we’ll hear a similar, doubtless excellent speech, from Scott Morrison this time next year, reporting the same failures.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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