In February 2020, the Closing the Gap report showed Australia that after 12 years of government intervention the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians had barely moved.
Closing the Gap is a government strategy to achieve equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in healthcare, life expectancy and education. The 2020 report found that only two of the seven targets were on track.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged that despite the best of intentions, Closing the Gap has never really been carried out in a partnership with Indigenous people, saying “to strip them of responsibility and capability to direct their own futures” is to “deny them of their liberty”.
“We perpetuated an ingrained way of thinking, passed down over two centuries and more, and it was the belief that we knew better than our Indigenous peoples. We don’t,” he said in a Closing the Gap address to parliament.
“We also thought we understood their problems better than they did. We don’t. They live them.”
Scott Morrison and Cabinet met with Indigenous people from across the country on 23 January to discuss their formal partnership, and progress in developing a new national agreement on Closing the Gap.
But a lot of work was done behind the scenes, and it wasn’t until 2019 that the Coalition of Peaks succeeded in achieving a partnership agreement on Closing the Gap with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) establishing a Joint Council.
The partnership agreement means that for the first time, decision-making on Closing the Gap will be shared with First Australians.
Pat Turner, lead convener of the Coalition of Peaks, said the agreement was a “historic achievement”.
“This is the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, through their peak body representatives, will share formal decision making with governments on policies that affect us,” she told upstart.
The Joint Council agreed the national indigenous reform agreement (NIRA) will be replaced with a new agreement for a refreshed approach to Closing the Gap, covering the next 10 years.
The Coalition of Peaks told upstart in an email that the new NIRA will be based on four priority reforms designed to restructure the Australian Government’s approach.
While Pat Turner recognises that priority reforms are not new, the agreement will capitalise on the NIRA’s strengths and develop areas of concern previously disregarded.
“The Coalition of Peaks want to change the way Closing the Gap policy and programs are designed and delivered,” she said.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been saying for a long time [what’s] needed to close the gap and we now have a formal structure in place to put those solutions to governments.”
- Through priority reform one, COAG will share decision making with First Australians.
- Priority reform two will deliver Closing the Gap services and programs to agreed priority areas.
- Priority reform three will ensure systemic and structural transformation to mainstream government agencies and institutions.
This isn’t the first refresh to Closing the Gap. Back in December 2016, COAG announced they wanted to work in partnership with First Australians in determining a new framework and targets.
However, the Coalition of Peaks felt governments weren’t listening to Indigenous communities or consulting them about changes they made to Closing the Gap, so the Coalition wrote to the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers in early October 2018.
It took two letters, contacting the media, and the intervention of the Prime Minister for COAG to agree to a community representative to negotiate on a new framework and to have an active role in its implementation.
Even after that, the Coalition of Peaks had to fight COAG for their own autonomy, to be able to choose their own representatives on the Joint Council.
The Coalition says governments must implement the reforms to see significant progress onwards from 2020.
Anthony Albanese said in a statement to parliament that it’s time to let First Australians lead the way in Closing the Gap because “there isn’t a gap; there’s a chasm”.
“We have before us an opportunity for bipartisanship that we cannot afford to miss,” he said.
“We cannot keep coming back here, year in, year out, wringing our hands.”
But shared decision-making depends on all parties having access to the same information, which led to priority reform four; ensuring Indigenous people can access and use locally relevant information to monitor the implementation of priority reforms and the Closing the Gap targets.
This is why the new arrangements like accountability, monitoring and reporting are being developed. They will strengthen public transparency and keep the fulfilment of the agreement earnest.
The refreshed approach to Closing the Gap will ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations can provide services and programs that account for different circumstances and locations.
But the Coalition of Peaks say Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia still need to negotiate their own agreements with the governments to meet the needs of a diverse range of First Australian cultures.
Article: Gianni Francis is a second year Bachelor of Media and Communications student (journalism) at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @giannifrancis6