By Kevin Rudd
I n recent years, Australian politics has degenerated from comedy (Tony Abbott grovelling to the Duke of Edinburgh) to tragedy (Malcolm Turnbull grovelling to Peter Dutton) and now farce (with Barnaby Joyce … well, just being Barnaby Joyce). The ability of the country to conduct anything approaching a serious public policy debate on any aspect of our strategic, economic, social or environmental future seems to have disappeared.
As a national polity, we have fallen victim, like much of the collective west, to the globalisation of superficiality. We savour the titillation of the moment. We have acquired the national attention span of a gnat. All while the mega-changes that are fundamentally impacting all our futures – from artificial intelligence, block chain, cyber, politically destructive levels of inequality, the rise and rise of China and irreparable climate change – are raging around us without any effective policy response.
One part of this broader picture is the absence of any effective debate about the collapsing bipartisanship in what we had once believed was a collective, national project of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians. This has been a half-century-long undertaking.
It began with the 1967 referendum. It continued under Gough Whitlam with the Northern Territory Land Act and the Racial Discrimination Act. It expanded under Paul Keating with Eddie Mabo, the Wik and the Native Title Act. Then followed the Bringing Them Home report, the Sorry Day marches and the stories of the stolen generations.
Next the national apology, the national Closing the Gap strategy and the initiation of the processes of constitutional recognition of our First Peoples. And most recently the Uluru “statement from the heart.” Yet during the week of the 10th anniversary commemorations of the national apology on 13 February, and the government’s response to the 10th Closing the Gap report to parliament, it was almost impossible for either Indigenous or non-Indigenous voices to be heard at all, as we all wallowed in the next instalment in the New England chronicles of the decline and fall of Barnaby Joyce. The government, perversely, was delighted. It masked Malcolm Turnbull’s pusillanimous response to the fact that we are currently on track to achieve three of the seven Closing the Gap targets we set back in 2008 in education, health, housing and employment.
The national apology was an important element of the reconciliation process. The political right reject it as “mere symbolism.” Leaving aside the fact that this was a formal recommendation of the report of the royal commission into the stolen generations, it was also necessary to begin the process of healing after centuries of mistreatment of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. It was an emotional bridge that had to be crossed, recognising at a most elementary, human level that fundamental wrongs had been committed by white Australians against black Australians. It couldn’t just be swept under the carpet. It was time, after 210 years, to own up. And we did.
The practical part of the reconciliation process came with Closing the Gap. The far right, and others from the faux left, have long attacked the Closing the Gap strategy. My response has always been “what gets measured gets done”. And “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.” As for those who have argued that the targets we set for infant mortality, mandatory pre-school, literacy and numeracy standards, school attendance rates, year 12 completion rates, employment and life expectancy were too ambitious, again my response is: they are deliberately ambitious because of the depths of Indigenous disadvantage. Is anyone seriously suggesting that we should aspire for something less than Indigenous equality with non-Indigenous Australians?
The uncomfortable truth is that a major reason we are falling short of meeting all our Closing the Gap targets is the steady withdrawal of commonwealth policy and funding effort over the last four years. In 2014, the current government withdrew $500m from the strategy almost as soon as they took office.
But that was just the beginning. They have also failed to renew a slew of commonwealth-state programs, specifically established by my government back in 2008 to close the gap:
the $563.6 national partnership agreement (NPA) on early childhood development, discontinued as of December 2013; the $1.6bn NPA on Indigenous health outcomes, also effectively discontinued in December 2013; the $229m NPA on Indigenous economic participation, discontinued as of June 2013; the $6m NPA on remote Indigenous internet access, designed to link communities to digital commerce opportunities; the 2014 discontinuation of the $291m NPA on remote service delivery, designed to radically improve governance levels of local Indigenous organisations; the discontinuation of the $807m NPA for the Northern Territory which included significant funding for the improvement of local policing; and now the commonwealth is saying to the states that on the longstanding funding agreement under the $1.9bn NPA on remote housing (later called the Remote Indigenous Housing Strategy or RHIS), there will be zero funding from Canberra once the current agreement expires in July 2018. All this makes a radical difference.
So what of the future? It’s hard not to conclude from the above that Turnbull no longer cares about reconciliation. Ken Wyatt, his minister, does. But he has become a lone voice in a government drifting further to the right on everything. We also see this in Turnbull’s response to the Uluru statement on behalf of the nation’s Indigenous leadership. Uluru asked for three things: a constitutionally entrenched national Indigenous advisory body; a legislated Makarrata commission to develop a treaty; and then a treaty itself between parliament and the First Peoples of Australia. Turnbull’s response has been to dismiss all three out of hand. No correspondence to be entered into. That’s it.
The beginning of wisdom on reconciliation, Malcolm, is to listen with respect. You failed the first test. There’s nothing constitutionally or legally problematic with any of the three proposals. The only real problem is the resistance from the right within the Liberal party. It’s time to reopen the dialogue on Uluru. Just as it’s time to take Closing the Gap seriously, by renewing the inter-governmental agreements the government has unceremoniously terminated.
What Australians rarely understand is that the world is watching how we treat Indigenous Australians. It always has, despite our national self-image of a bunch of good-hearted Aussies who believed in a fair go for all – except, it seems, for Indigenous Aussies. The world knows how ugly our history has been. It has not just been our own dirty national secret. It has shaped the world’s view of us over the decades. The world celebrated with us at the time of the national apology. They welcomed our decision in 2009 to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And now they are watching closely what happens next in our long, long project of national reconciliation.