closing the gap

Huzzah! The nation is saved! Settler and Indigenous division has been overcome! Again! Yes, it’s Closing the Gap time! Again! It’s always Closing the Gap time. It’s like Christmas, or the Walkley awards, which now happen eight times a year. It just keeps coming round and round and round.

For more than a decade, the release of the annual report on life conditions for Indigenous Australians has been something of a sick joke.

Inaugurated by Kevin Rudd, it was put in place at the same time Rudd re-affirmed John Howard’s “Intervention”, thus putting in place a decade and more of white control of Indigenous affairs, supervised by one-woman omnishambles Jenny Macklin. 

Closing the Gap presented Indigenous life conditions as a series of disconnected statistical occurrences, all to be addressed via a series of quantitative targets, which made little allowance for cause-and-effect between diverse issues.

This was then plugged into a series of administered and often privatised non-delivery services, which saw white administrators living in large quickly built houses beside Indigenous communities they were meant to be, and weren’t, organising housing for. Literal 19th century colonialism.

To cap it off, insufficient money was then made available to meet the targets in the Closing the Gap reports. So in a decade almost no progress was made, except on some education targets. 

And every year, the same reports would bubble through the mainstream press: we are still not meeting the targets, our national shame, etc. 

By a few years it should have been obvious that such reports were now complicit in the giant con that Closing the Gap had become. The function of Closing the Gap was to make us feel better about ourselves. We were trying. We were good people

Bizarrely, the annual failure to get any movement at all towards the targets became some sort of perverse source of self-congratulation. Even though it was clearly difficult, we were trying. It was difficult. We were very good people.

The principal thing Closing the Gap did was disguise the political character of oppression. The post-Intervention system had given numerous groups an interest in perpetuating a series of core problems. 

Crucial health management issues were shoved back and forth between state and federal institutions; high and mandatory incarceration rates, attractive to white Top End voters, made the expansion of the incarceration circuit autonomous. 

Incarceration gave a pretext for child removal, which is done by private agencies, often established by former state-employed social workers building businesses from contracts with their former departments.

These are both colonialist state regimes, but also neoliberal markets. They persist not out of neglect, or passive racism, but because there is an interest for many people in doing so. 

None of this ever made it into Closing the Gap. Now we have new Closing the Gap, which has replaced seven targets, with, Lord help us, 16, and created in partnership with “50 Indigenous organisations”. 

Well if there is some, any, genuine stepping back from the Intervention/post-Intervention control of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd/Abbott/Turnbull years, that’s a win. 

But is there?

Many of the 50 bodies listed are semi-statutory groups, dependent on government funding — and I bet their leaders have had to make some tough, and in some cases, coerced, decisions.

But many grassroots community, political and other self-organised groups are missing.

(Noel Pearson and others have protested at being cut out of the process, and asserted that the only guide to progress is the Uluru statement; ironic, because Indigenous groups opposed to the Uluru statement, as co-option by the settler state, argue that they are excluded by Pearson et al, who have claimed the mantle of leadership; doubly ironic, watching white “allies” mouth loyalty to the Uluru statement without realising how divided about it Indigenous people are).

But even if there is more Indigenous involvement, the new Closing the Gap simply reproduces quantitative targets, which seemed to be divided between the impossible (96% school attendance to Year 12 in remote areas) and the piss weak (a 15% reduction in incarceration by 2031). 

This shows you what a con the document really is. Because of course incarceration rates in the Northern Territory could be lowered immediately — by the federal cabinet striking down its mandatory sentencing laws, which see adults and children endlessly cycled through 14 day, 90 day and longer sentences for non-violent crimes.

Western Australia is a Labor state, and they could and should strike down their own. Neither will of course, and the Jim Crow prison conveyer belt will continue.

It is ghastly beyond measure what has developed in the north, and it needs radical solutions, which is no incarceration for non-violent offences, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 from 10 (which the government just refused, virtually the day the new Closing the Gap was coming off the press).

Closing the Gap’s substitution of quantitative goals for qualitative goals has one effect: it makes cover for there being absolutely no progress at all, year on year. 

It obscures the fact that some of these issues can only be addressed by structural change. School attendance is poor in part because schools are urban industrial institutions, which only enforce their own discipline in such societies, and a different type of school, or even a post-school educational form, is required for remote area societies. 

Out-of-control food prices should be capped and then subsidised in remote areas, and some, maybe all, private providers superseded by state-community run outlets, guaranteeing supplies of good food (and trying to avoid a coercive behavioural management approach to better nutrition, i.e. not fanging it on Indigenous kids for drinking a can of Fanta).

The ridiculous idea that these very different societies will become full-time waged labour work societies should be abandoned, and forms of labour/life activity — tending, gardening, land and heritage management — recognised as part of a remote area universal basic income scheme.

Medical care should work backwards from what’s needed to the cost, not from an inadequate budget to rationed provision. Every community needs a full-service clinic capable of high intervention and lifestyle management on a daily basis, especially for diabetes and pre-diabetes — which is upstream of just about every other health condition.

Just work out how many clinics are required from the patient-to-medical caregiver ratio, and then how much it’d cost. That’s the target. The abstract and arbitrary goals aren’t required at all. The extra clinics (and other things) are the target. If they’re established, health will improve. The abstract targets are used to disguise how much money it would cost to give Indigenous people the care they have a right to.

Would we do it if it was white people who were in such poor health? We did! In the early 20th century we became world leaders in tropical medicine for the sole reason that we were trying to develop the north, and white people were dropping like flies. The state of healthcare provision to remote-area Indigenous people in Australia is a war crime, nothing more and nothing less. 

And look, all of the above suggestions may be oversimplified, or missing something, or wrong. What I’m pointing to is that we need approaches of this type, willing to diagnose the character of the problem, and make change, not drown policy steering in abstracted benchmarks.

None of this will happen. But it is what should be demanded. Yes, you could say it’s good that there is Indigenous community involvement in setting these damn targets and benchmarks and KPIs. But it’s also the government compelling Indigenous peak bodies to co-operate in their co-optioning, and we have all seen this.

In the absence of such — and the near-total lack of such coverage in the big media, which now just take dictation from the government — we will be back here again in a year. None of the difficult-but-straightforward things that could be done will be done, or even started on, and we will ponder the lack of progress towards distant goals.

Then we will use our total failure and redoubled determination as a measure of our virtue. We’re trying. We’re good people. Happy Closing the Gap day! Huzzah!

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.