‘On Closing the Gap, We Must Stay the Course’
The Honourable Kevin Rudd
26th Prime Minister of Australia
The Australian National Press Club
12 February 2018
I begin by acknowledging the First Australians on whose lands we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
I thank the National Press Club for the invitation to address you on this the eve of the tenth anniversary of the National Apology to Indigenous Australians.
My argument today is a simple one.
That the targets we set ten years ago for Closing the Gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in health, education, employment, housing and longevity should be enhanced, and not weakened.
That for these targets to be realised requires consistency of political commitment, policy effort and funding support over time, rather than allowing these to fluctuate with the fashions of the season.
That we should celebrate where we are achieving success in changing indigenous lives.
But that a major reason, although by no means the only one, we are languishing in meeting a number of these targets, is the uncertainty in government financial effort over recent years, and this needs to be named for what it is, rather than being buried in increasingly indecipherable lump of statistical mud.
And finally, that Closing the Gap remains core business in our wider national project of national reconciliation, and that reconciliation itself represents a deep choice about the type of nation we want the Australia of the future to be.
The Hard Business of Reconciliation
Reconciliation is hard.
It is a word that falls so easily from our lips.
Indeed there is a danger that we have used it so often and that its meaning has become dulled in our hearts and in our minds.
But as human beings, we know from our own experience what it is not to be reconciled after an important relationship has been shattered.
Just as we know when the restitution of such a relationship has occurred.
In the case of our relations with Indigenous Australians, reconciliation seeks to reverse the entrenched patterns, perceptions and practices accumulated over seven generations of European settlement in this land.
And we wonder why it’s hard to change?
Of course it hard to deal with something so hard-wired in the nation’s mind, and some cases, the nation’s soul as well.
Yet something happened a little more than a generation ago when a small number of brave souls decided to change, and the course for reconciliation was set.
It began with the 1967 Referendum.
It continued with E.G. Whitlam, the Northern Territory Land Act, Vincent Lingiari and the Racial Discrimination Act.
Then P.J. Keating, the Redfern Statement, the High Court’s Mabo Decision and then the Native Title Act.
Followed by the Bringing Them Home Report, the Stolen Generations and the Sorry Day Marches.
Then the National Apology, Closing the Gap, and the first National Partnership Agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories, a $5.2 billion commitment over ten years targeted explicitly on Closing the Gap.
A now Uluru. A National Indigenous Voice. A Makaratta Commission. And finally a Treaty.
Friends, reconciliation is a long journey.
A very long journey.
There have been, and will still be, many, many twists in the road.
For settler societies across the world, it is a road less travelled. But it is a journey worth making. The alternative would leave us as a nation glowering at each other from different corners. Each of these achievements over the last fifty years since the referendum have been milestones along this road.
This long, long road to reconciliation.
Each has been hard.
At the time each seemed almost impossible.
In retrospect they all seem easier than they were.
Each required effort.
Each required organisation.
Each required political and in some cases personal risk.
And each required leadership.
Looking out towards a future that could be ours to have.
Bringing the people with us by appealing to the better angels of our nature.
Rather than simply quaking in the pall of racism’s shadow.
My simple message is that reconciliation is achievable.
It’s not just the stuff of idle dreamers.
We’ve actually made progress on the road.
We are actually bending the arc of history together.
Change is possible.
And in this we should be encouraged.
While being equally mindful of where we have also failed.
Where progress may have been scant.
Where much, much more remains to be done.
And when necessary, done in different and innovative ways.
But always driven by animating vision, deep in our mind’s eye, that a reconciled Australia, where black and white Australia are fully equal partners in our nation’s future, is eminently achievable.
For as it’s written elsewhere, without a vision, the people perish.
In Defence of the Closing the Gap Targets
Closing the Gap is the engine-room of reconciliation.
It’s where real things change in indigenous lives.
Or don’t change.
Much has been written about Closing the Gap in recent times.
Much of it negative. The targets were too ambitious. They were ill-conceived. Inadequate consultation from the outset. They reflected a negative view of indigenous Australia. The list goes on.
My response is simple: these targets were meant to be ambitious; they were meant to challenge us all; because we had to shake ourselves out of our national torpor that business as usual was fine, or we could just fiddle at the edges of indigenous disadvantage.
More importantly, however, the targets were hard because the time had come to actually measure what we were doing.
What gets measured gets done.
And what doesn’t get measured usually doesn’t get done.
It’s all about being clear about where we are succeeding, and where we are failing.
And if we are not moving the dial, or not moving fast enough, then to change policy course, to innovate with new approaches, to work with local indigenous and corporate leaders on what would work better.
That’s why I said at the time that the Prime Minister of the day should report each year on the anniversary of the apology on the measures of progress or regress.
This too is hard thing.
It’s far easier just to fudge it all up with the fine-sounding generalities, banalities and platitudes that too often become the preferred language of our national political discourse.
I do not oppose the targets we set a decade ago being updated.
I do not oppose the targets being enhanced.
Nor do I oppose the strategies, policies and programs we deploy being adjusted if existing settings are not delivering the goods.
What I do oppose is if these targets are watered down.
To let governments, federal or state, off the hook.
To lessen the political responsibility.
To lessen the financial burden.
As if we could satisfy ourselves with a national vision that says an unequal Australia, whose inequality was determined by the colour of our skin, was somehow now acceptable for our national future.
I for one say it is not.
What has been achieved so far under Closing the Gap
It has become almost commonplace these days for the commentariat to say the Closing the Gap strategy has failed.
This is because based on the last annual report—and I have not had time to peruse the most recent one, it having been delivered in the last hour—only one of the seven targets that we set was on track or being met. Although I am advised on this year’s report we are now on track to achieve three of the seven.
The counter-argument to this negativity is that in none of the target areas have we actually gone backwards on where we were a decade ago.
In practically all of them, we have gone forward against where we were.
In some areas the progress has been negligible.
In others substantial.
And in a few the improvement has been spectacular.
On infant mortality, out target was to reduce the rate by 50%. Instead, as of 2015, it had been reduced by 33%.
On pre-school enrolment, we set a target of 100%, revised down to 95%, whereas as of 2015 the enrolment rate was 83%.
On school attendance rates, we set a target of reaching the 93% rate for non-indigenous children, whereas by 2016 we had achieved 84%.
On reading, writing and numeracy, we set a target of halving the gap in achievements compared with non-indigenous children, whereas according to the 2017 NAPLAN data, we were lagging in seven of the eight data sets.
On Year 12 completion rates, out target was to halve gap with non-indigenous children, and by 2015 the rate had increased from 45% to 62% compared with 2008.
On employment, our target was to halve the gap in employment outcomes for indigenous Australians by 2018, but whereas the indigenous employment rates have improved, negligible progress has been made towards the target we set.
Finally, on indigenous life expectancy, the target we set was to halve the rate by 2031, whereas the current ten-year gap has been stuck for some time, in part because of a new generation of cancers which have hit and begun to hit hard indigenous communities, and because general life expectancy for the whole population has improved.
Overall then, a mixed picture. Let’s be honest about it.
We should however celebrate progress where we see it, particularly when we now see a whole new generation of indigenous children doing better at secondary school, through programs such as the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation which has already put 1,000 kids through school, with 90% plus completion rates, and with more than half of these going on to university.
And we see evidence of that here today at the National Press Club in Canberra.
Equally we should also ask what is going wrong in relation to the other targets.
The uncomfortable truth is that one of the things going wrong is the funding effort from the Commonwealth government.
This process began with a $513 million cut to indigenous programs from the very first budget of the Abbott-Turnbull government of 2014-15.
Furthermore, as various National Partnership Agreements signed by my government and the states expire, a systematic pattern of withdrawal of Commonwealth effort has emerged.
This began with the discontinuation of the $563.6 National Partnership Agreement on early childhood development in December 2013, within months of the change in government.
The same with the $1.6 billion National Partnership Agreement in Indigenous Health Outcomes, which was effectively discontinued also as of December 2013.
The same for the $229 million National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Economic Participation as of June 2013.
The same for the $6 million National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Internet Access designed to link communities to digital commerce opportunities.
The same for the 2014 discontinuation of the $291 million National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery, designed to radically improve governance levels for local indigenous organisations.
And also the discontinuation of the $807 million NPA for the Northern Territory which included significant funding for the improvement of local policing.
And now the Commonwealth is saying to the states, I’m advised, that on the longstanding funding agreement under the $1.9 billion National Partnership on Remote Housing (later called the Remote Indigenous Housing Strategy or RHIS), there will now be zero funding from Canberra for the future once the current agreement expires this July.
If this is true, it will be the first time in half a century that the Commonwealth will have withdrawn all effort from remote indigenous housing.
In Queensland alone, my home state, there will be a need for an additional 1,250 houses simply to keep pace with demand for the future.
5,500 such houses will be needed nationally.
Housing is fundamental to health.
It’s fundamental to kids’ ability to attend school.
It’s fundamental to safety in local communities.
How can Closing the Gap targets ever be met if the Commonwealth just walks away?
The Commonwealth will claim that some of this funding and a number of these programs have been folded into the 2014 Indigenous Advancement Strategy or IAS, although this has already been the subject of criticism from the Australian National Audit Office.
The bottom line is that the IAS has been deliberately constructed by the current government to make it increasingly difficult to compare changes in overall Commonwealth funding commitments.
One simple challenge to Mr. Turnbull, on this day, the day that he’s delivered the tenth Closing the Gap report, is how much actually has been cut in total Commonwealth funding for indigenous programs since I left the Office of Prime Minister at the end of 2013.
I cannot find a simple answer to that.
How much has been cut in individual federal programs in health, education, housing and employment, if we compare like with like?
This is simply a question of public transparency, Mr. Turnbull.
The states tell me it now runs into the billions annually.
On this anniversary of the National Apology, the nation I believe needs to know.
In the absence of that data, and the presence of what we do know of the National Agreements that have been abolished, I can only conclude that a major reason we are starting significantly to fall short of the Closing the Gap targets is because this Commonwealth Government has withdrawn funding effort.
For the Commonwealth, the bottom line is this. Tony Abbott helping to bang in a few nails on an indigenous housing project in Far North Queensland does not add up to an indigenous housing policy.
Even less does it add up to a policy on Closing the Gap in indigenous housing, or Closing the Gap in anything else as well.
Great pictures for the six o’clock news, just like riding quad bikes in the desert.
But it was all a public relations mirage to conceal the reality of a large-scale withdrawal of Commonwealth funding effort over a four-year period.
And while Abbott is gone, Turnbull it seems has been little better.
Although in the midst of all this, I commend genuinely the continued valiant efforts of Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt, as he strives the preserve what he can of the Comonwealth’s funding effort. Good on you, Ken.
But as Noel Pearson has recently written, and eloquently, in the end neither Abbott nor Turnbull were much interested in indigenous policy beyond the image politics of what Pearson describes as “a three-sentence bronze plaque.”
The Future of Closing the Gap
So what of the future?
We will need now afresh to engage the Australian community on how Closing the Gap is still achievable.
Rather than yielding to national “learned-helplessness syndrome”, that somehow it just can’t be done.
Or that the great reconciliation project, of which Closing the Gap is part, will forever be beyond us.
So how could we change our approach?
There are three changes that come to mind.
The first is the way we think of the targets we set. When we debate abstract percentages of the entire indigenous population, it seems perhaps too vast a chasm for us ever to cross.
But if we reduce these to actual numbers of indigenous people, it suddenly I argue becomes a more manageable task.
As of June 2016, there were 745,000 indigenous Australians, of 3% of the entire national population, including 29% of the Northern Territory population.
So let’s look at education as an example. According to the analysis of the 2016 NAPLAN data, if we were to meet the combined literacy and numeracy targets we have set for indigenous kids under Closing the Gap, it would mean the following.
In reading we would another 640 Year Three kids nationwide, 870 Year Five kids, 480 Year Sevens, and 1,100 Year Nines to pass these NAPLAN tests in order for us to meet the national target.
That’s not impossible.
In numeracy we would need another 1,270 Year Threes, 690 Year Fives, 630 Year Sevens, and 260 Year Nines to pass the relevant tests to meet the target.
Again, not impossible. Within the realms of possibility.
And in each case the data tells us the bulk of the work needs to be done in the Northern Territory and in New South Wales. This is entirely doable.
Take our target for halving the gap in the number of indigenous Australians in the 20-24 age cohort with Year 12 completion by the year 2020.
The data once again is instructive.
By 2020, we would need 54,000 indigenous young people to have Year 12 completion within that age cohort.
Based on where we are now, without further effort, and however with the maintenance of what we are doing now, we will have 41,600 in this category.
In other words, if we have a national challenge of getting another 11,600 kids across the line to meet this target, or an extra 2,300 nationally each year.
Once again, put it in those terms it’s entirely doable.
Hand that to a combination of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, the Clontarf Academy and similar institutions across the country as a contracted piece of work, and I think we could get there.
Let’s look at the apparently intractable problem of indigenous employment. Our target was to halve the gap in indigenous employment by 2020.
As of 2015, there were 202,100 indigenous Australians of working age in employment.
Assuming we can sustain current effort against project population growth, by 2020 we would need to find jobs for another 64,000 Aboriginal Australians to meet our target.
And while this is a stiff challenge, particularly given contractions in the mining workforce in recent years, it’s still not beyond our capacity to do so.
The Government should walk in the door of the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group and say “Mates, here’s a challenge. Whatever you need the government to do to help to make indigenous workers job-ready, we’re prepared to do it.”
Now in 2009, 30% of BCA companies has an indigenous employment focus, and now that has risen to 90%. It’s not just idle sentiment.
BCA companies have also increased their total number of indigenous employees from 12,000 to 20,000.
These are big changes for which business should be congratulated.
So I simply say this: let’s enter into a contract with business to make this happen, and help business meet the Closing the Gap employment target.
Only they can do it. They generate jobs. Government doesn’t.
Another 64,000 jobs is not beyond us across the nation.
Once again it’s hard, but put in numerical terms it’s doable.
My second thought arises directly from the first.
The 2017 indigenous expenditure report by the Productivity Commission advises that in 2015-16, both levels of government, Commonwealth and state, invested a total of $33.4 billion in indigenous programs, up from $27 billion in 2008-9.
Most of that growth, by the way, comes from the states and territories.
The time has come to dedicate more of these considerable funding resources to outcomes-based funding partnerships, with business and with non-profits, and with local indigenous enterprises and organisations.
This will not solve all of our problems with Closing the Gap.
But if properly constructed, and contract enforced, and data collected, they will help solve many.
I am not calling for the wholesale contracting out of indigenous services. Far from it.
Many will remain core government services.
But where they are failing, I say this: innovate. Try something new. There’s a way in which this can be done.
Parts of the Commonwealth bureaucracy remain hostile or indifferent to this. I know that. I’ve been through that.
Finally, after 27 years of working with indigenous Australians myself at both a state and federal level, each and every partnership agreement must be embraced fully by local indigenous leadership.
Otherwise it is doomed from day one.
Indigenous empowerment is not a slogan. It is a reality that either works for us or against us in Closing the Gap.
Across Australia we should be relaxed about adopting and adapting a thousand different approaches to Closing the Gap on the ground.
What works in the Kimberleys will not necessarily work in Arnhem Land, will not necessarily work on Cape York, and let me tell you it definitely won’t work in Redfern or in South Brisbane.
Each of these parts of our indigenous community across the nation are different.
So, to paraphrase the Chinese philosophers, “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.”
That’s one of the objectives of the National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians that I established after leaving office.
To create in partnership with our universities a centre of indigenous policy innovation and excellence.
What we need therefore in summary is consistent, hard, national targets on Closing the Gap to keep everybody honest.
But then, complete flexibility across the country on how this is done.
To conclude, these are hard times in the difficult debates on the future of our great national project of reconciliation.
I’ll have more to say on this tomorrow, when we meet in the Great Hall of Parliament House.
But my message today is that Closing the Gap remains within our national reach.
So too does reconciliation itself.
With strong political leadership prepared to make a difference.
With policy consistency and creativity.
And with funding resolve.
We can build an Australia where the First Australians are not simple an integral part of our national identity, but are full and equal partners in the charting of our national future as well.
And in so doing, we can show the world what we can do here on these shores together.