Published in the Guardian on 7 August 2020
Throughout our country’s modern history, the treatment of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters has been appalling. It has also been inconsistent with the original instructions from the British Admiralty to treat the Indigenous peoples of this land with proper care and respect. From first encounter to the frontier wars, the stolen generations and ongoing institutionalised racism, First Nations people have been handed a raw deal. The gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ outcomes in areas of education, employment, health, housing and justice are a product of historical, intergenerational maltreatment.
In 2008, I apologised to the stolen generations and Indigenous Australians for the racist laws and policies of successive Australian governments. The apology may have been 200 years late, but it was an important part of the reconciliation process.
But the apology meant nothing if it wasn’t backed by action. For this reason, my government acted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Tom Calma’s call to Close the Gap. We worked hard to push this framework through the Council of Australian governments so that all states and territories were on board with the strategy. We also funded it, with $4.6bn committed to achieve each of the six targets we set. While the targets and funding were critical to any improvements in the lives of Indigenous Australians, we suspected the Coalition would scrap our programs once they returned to government. After all, only a few years earlier, John Howard’s Indigenous affairs minister was denying the very existence of the stolen generations. Howard himself had refused to deliver an apology for a decade. And then both he and Peter Dutton decided to boycott the official apology in 2008.
To ensure that the Closing the Gap strategy would not be abandoned, we made it mandatory for the prime minister to stand before the House of Representatives each year and account for the success and failures in reaching the targets that were set.
Had we not adopted the Closing the Gap framework, would we now be on target to have 95% of Indigenous four year-olds enrolled in early childhood education? I think not. Would we have halved the gap for young Indigenous adults to have completed year 12 by 2020? I think not. And would we see progress on closing the gap in child mortality, and literacy and numeracy skills? No, I think not.
Despite these achievements, the most recent Closing the Gap report nonetheless showed Australia was not on track to meet four of the deadlines we’d originally set. A major reason for this is that federal funding for the closing the gap strategy collapsed under Tony Abbott, the great wrecking-ball of Australian politics, whose government cut $534.4m from programs dedicated to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. And it’s never been restored by Abbott’s successors. It’s all there in the budget papers.
Whatever targets are put in place, governments must commit to physical resourcing of Closing the Gap. They are not going to be delivered by magic.
On Thursday last week, the new national agreement on Closing the Gap was announced. I applaud Pat Turner and other Indigenous leaders who will now sit with the leaders of the commonwealth, states, territories and local government to devise plans to achieve the new targets they have negotiated.
Scott Morrison, however, sought to discredit our government’s targets, rather than coming clean about the half-billion-dollar funding cuts that had made it impossible to achieve these targets under any circumstances. His argument that the original targets were conjured out of thin air by my government is demonstrably untrue. The truth is, Jenny Macklin, the responsible minister, spoke widely with Indigenous leaders to prioritise the areas that needed to be urgently addressed in the original Closing the Gap targets. Furthermore, if Morrison is now truly awakened to the intrinsic value of listening to Indigenous Australians, I look forward to him enshrining an Indigenous voice to parliament in the Constitution, given this is the universal position of all Indigenous groups.
Yet amid the welter of news coverage of the new closing the gap agreement, the central question remains: who will be paying the bill? While shared responsibility to close the gap between all levels of government and Indigenous organisations might sound like good news, this will quickly unravel into a political blame game if the commonwealth continues to shirk its financial duty.
The announcement this week that the commonwealth would allocate $45m over four years is just a very bad joke. This is barely 10% of what the Liberals cut from our national Closing the Gap strategy. And barely 1% of our total $4.5bn national program to meet our targets agreed to with the states and territories in 2009.
The Liberals want you to believe they care about racial injustice. But they don’t believe there are any votes in it. This is well understood by Scotty From Marketing, a former state director of the Liberal party, who lives and breathes polling and focus groups. That’s why they are not even pretending to fund the realisation of the new more “realistic” targets they have so loudly proclaimed.