Well, you know, I think it’s never acceptable if we don’t have a consistent policy approach and consistent funding and ministers who can stay focused and committed.The lack of progress should never be interpreted as a failure by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s a failure of bureaucracy and a failure of the politicians to keep an even course and to keep the funding and the policy direction consistent.
Prof. Tom Calma discussing where things have gone wrong (and occasionally right) in the attempt to close the gap between indigenous and white Australians.
“It is imperative the government provides appropriate funding for the implementation plan in the 2016 budget. Specifically, there needs to be an overall increase in resources directed towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health — in proportion to population size, service need and demand. This vital, given the National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes expired in 2014, and funding under that agreement has finished.”
Opinion Close the Gap Campaign (see below)
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Tomorrow ( February 10) we will see the latest report card on the stark disparities between Indigenous lives versus those of other Australians.
The Government will respond to the latest Closing the Gap report. Tony Abbott was the prime minister for the last one and he described it as “profoundly disappointing”. And while tomorrow’s report will show progress in some areas, overall it will paint a bleak picture.
To discuss the issue I was joined a short time ago from Canberra by Professor Tom Calma, the chancellor of Canberra University and the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia; Dr Jackie Huggins, the co-chair of Australia’s National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples; and Luke Pearson, the founder of Indigenous X, a social media space drawing attention to all sorts of Indigenous issues.
Professor Calma, Dr Huggins, Mr Pearson: thank you very much for joining us this evening.
LUKE PEARSON, FOUNDER, @INDIGENOUSX: Thank you.
JACKIE HUGGINS, DR., NATIONAL CONGRESS OF AUSTRALIA’S FIRST PEOPLES: Thank you, Leigh.
TOM CALMA, PROF., CO-CHAIR RECONCILIATION AUSTRALIA: Thank you.
LEIGH SALES: Professor Calma, is it too cynical to think that tomorrow we’re probably going to hear what we hear every time this report comes out, which is some talking up of small progress in some areas; but when the glaring disparities are pointed out, we’ll hear the old staple: that there’s still a lot of work to be done?
TOM CALMA: Oh, look, but I think the reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done. You know, we’re talking about a generational target, a generational aspiration to be a able to close the inequality gap.
And we’ve only been going for 10 years and whilst that seems like a long time on paper, you know, the real concern is that in that 10 years we’ve seen, really, the campaign kick off in 2008. So then you’re only looking at, you know, less than 10 years since the Closing the Gap campaign started by government and it is early days.
And even though we’ve seen some progress, we’ve also seen massive changes within government and I can’t think that there’s one minister who is still in the Government who was involved with us at the beginning of this campaign.
LEIGH SALES: Everyone would say, of course, it would be fantastic if the pace of change were faster, but do you think that the pace we’ve seen so far is realistic and therefore acceptable?
TOM CALMA: Well, you know, I think it’s never acceptable if we don’t have a consistent policy approach and consistent funding and ministers who can stay focused and committed.
The lack of progress should never be interpreted as a failure by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s a failure of bureaucracy and a failure of the politicians to keep an even course and to keep the funding and the policy direction consistent.
LEIGH SALES: Dr Huggins, what’s your take on some of the points that Professor Calma has raised there? Do you see a problem with a lack of consistency in the bureaucracy and in the political sphere?
JACKIE HUGGINS: Yes, we do. From the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples’ point of view, we do see that there is lack of engagement, not a general commitment to the needs and the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their community.
And we believe that our country, our people are in deep, deep crisis in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy in this country.
For me: I’ve worked for many decades now and I can’t remember such a low point in our history where our people on the ground are just not getting the services.
You know, there’s twice as much spent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander funding than there is across other populations. Now, we know that with the billions of dollars that are spent, much of that is not even reaching to communities and people in dire needs in our communities. So…
LEIGH SALES: And so where’s the bottleneck there? Like, why does that happen?
JACKIE HUGGINS: Well, a lot gets wasted and a lot gets caught up in government and bureaucratic funding. And the programs that are not reaching our people on the ground are very important programs.
And we’ve just seen recently with the cuts in our budgets and we hope that the next round of government policy in the budget does not cut our people further. But we know that’s probably not the reality, because there are going to be cuts right across the board.
LEIGH SALES: Mr Pearson, what’s your take on what the other two speakers have had to say?
LUKE PEARSON: Yeah, well, I’d agree, you know, with the most part.
You know, when the failures in Closing the Gap come out and get announced, it’s quite often Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who cop a lot of the brunt of the blame for what’s going on. But with the closing of services, with the lack of funding, with the big stick approach from Government usually being the mainstay, it’s not at our end where these things are falling over.
And so I think, you know, the failure within Government here to meet their own targets is a great opportunity for us to actually sit back, acknowledge the failure, look for some of those reasons why and acknowledge the fact that, you know, we’re the only Commonwealth nation that doesn’t have a treaty.
We also have the highest rates of Indigenous incarceration. We have off-the-charts numbers of Indigenous youth suicide. And I don’t think these things are unrelated.
LEIGH SALES: With those issues: I mean, I could sit here and spend the whole rest of the interview just rattling off just shameful statistics in this area.
Given the gap that there is in so many aspects of life between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, why do you think, Mr Pearson, this isn’t an issue that’s just absolutely front-and-centre of the public debate in Australia every day?
LUKE PEARSON: I think a big part of it is that, you know, from within Government, from within media, within mainstream Australian society, the big conversation that we don’t want to have is about Aboriginal empowerment and is about racism.
And those two issues are conversations that we’re going to need to have and there’s going to be some very hard questions that need to be asked if we’re going to see progress around those points. And while we still look at, you know, “Aboriginal people can’t be trusted” to look after our own affairs and we have a preference to look at Government for solutions, rather than from communities, we’re going to keep moving backwards.
LEIGH SALES: Professor Calma, Mr Pearson raised the idea of a treaty. What do you think about that? And what do you say to people who might say, “Oh well, that’s symbolic but it wouldn’t be a practical help”?
TOM CALMA: Well, look, I think it’s very important because we’ve got to look – and this is what the Close the Gap campaign is all about – is looking holistically at the issue of health and looking at the determinants that impact on whether people enjoy good health or not.
And that includes employment, education, social and emotional wellbeing, you know, our mental health status. All have to be looked at and addressed appropriately.
And treaty is just one of those key issues that we need to consider.
LEIGH SALES: Dr Huggins, let me take you back to a point that Luke Pearson raised about the type of conversation he thinks Australia needs to have about racism and empowerment. What’s your view about that?
JACKIE HUGGINS: Yes. Look, I absolutely agree. In fact, as a historian myself I know that, you know, the true history of our country and the racism that has been permeated since is not taught. It’s not recognised and it’s not even believed sometimes, out there in the community.
I think racism is at the very core of the systems that operate in this country. It goes to the heart and soul of our people in terms of trying to lead better, fulfilled and richer lives.
And if white Australia can come to the proposition that, you know, we don’t want racism in our country; it’s not accepted and we should move on together as a nation; I’m sure that we would find in our hearts and in our minds that there is a possibility that we can work this thing together. Because as Stan Grant said in his speech recently, you know, we are better people than that. And certainly our people – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the first nations people of this country: I believe and many other people do believe that we deserve much, much better.
LEIGH SALES: Final question for you, Luke Pearson: what’s the one thing you’d like to hear Government say tomorrow when this report’s released?
LUKE PEARSON: That they’re going to prioritise the voices of Indigenous people: not just a select few, but from the community; people who work in the sectors, from teachers, from doctors, from nurses, from the activists who are standing outside.
There’s so much information out there and so many perspectives that are valuable and need to be respected if we’re going to be able to move forward together.
LEIGH SALES: Thank you so much to all three of you for making time to speak to us tonight. Much appreciated.
TOM CALMA: Thank you.
LUKE PEARSON: Thank you.
JACKIE HUGGINS: Thank you.
At the heart of this nation, there is a fundamental wrong in the relationship between the First Peoples and non-indigenous people. We are divided between those who celebrate Australia Day without any thought of the implications of that day, and those who mourn Invasion Day and mark it as Survival Day, those for whom racism is an abstract noun, and those for whom racism is a concrete daily reality.
There is yet another division. It’s the entrenched indigenous health crisis that separates those who can enjoy good health in their golden years from those who die 10 to 17 years younger.
The denial of these basic human rights to equality and dignity were why we heard a rallying cry 10 years ago from the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Tom Calma to achieve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality within a generation.
He said in 2005, when launching his Social Justice Report, that “it is not credible to suggest that one of the wealthiest nations in the world cannot solve a health crisis affecting less than 3 per cent of its citizens”. This call to action led to the establishment of the Close the Gap Campaign .
Next month marks the 10-year anniversary of our campaign. Made up of more than 20 indigenous and non-indigenous organisations, and supported by more than 200,000 Australians, the goal is to achieve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality by 2030. In other words, to “close the gap” within a generation.
So what has been achieved in a decade? We had a major breakthrough in 2008 when all sides of politics came together to sign the Close the Gap Statement of Intent, a commitment by all governments through COAG to achieving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality. This was followed by funding of $1.6 billion committed over four years to tackle the crisis.
Since 2009, we have seen improvements in infant and child health outcomes, a gradual closing of the gap in smoking rates, significant increases to the number of health checks and increased access to medicines due to higher levels of resourcing to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector.
But the long-term impact of such improvements on adult health and life expectancy is yet to be seen, with a life expectancy of 69.1 years for indigenous men being nearly 10 years lower than for non-indigenous men, and a life expectancy of 73.7 years for indigenous women being nearly 9.4 years lower than for non-indigenous women. We know that it takes time to design, deliver and evaluate health programs. Similarly, it will take time for health improvements to become evident. TS Eliot once said that “between the idea and the reality … falls the shadow”. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, that shadow too often takes the form of a cloudy spot on an X-ray, a diabetes diagnosis or a disrespectful or racist encounter at a hospital reception desk.
It is the shadow that falls between a handshake or the signing of a statement, and a budgeting decision by a treasurer. Closing the gap and moving out of the shadow require long-term, concerted efforts and respectful relationships between government and our people. It requires strong leadership from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and buy-in from our communities.
This has been exemplified by the nation’s high-level body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak health organisations, the National Health Leadership Forum, which has pushed for action on health inequality and worked with government to guide future directions.
Their hard work in partnership with the Australian government led to last year’s launch of the Implementation Plan for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan (2013-2023). The implementation plan will reinvigorate efforts to close the health gap through identifying core service models and service gaps, workforce requirements and funding mechanisms, reducing racism and highlighting the importance of culture to improved health outcomes. But a plan without appropriate resourcing cannot address the appalling life expectancy gap.
It is imperative the government provides appropriate funding for the implementation plan in the 2016 budget. Specifically, there needs to be an overall increase in resources directed towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health — in proportion to population size, service need and demand. This is vital, given the National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes expired in 2014, and funding under that agreement has finished.
What’s heartening is that Australians are, in ever-increasing numbers, demanding decisive action to support achieving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality by 2030. It is clear this generation of Australians wants to see their governments make good on the commitments made back in 2008.
Health inequality has been described as a stain on our nation. This generation knows it has the opportunity, and responsibility, to remove it. The message is clear. We must be the generation that closes the gap.
Mick Gooda is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and co-chairman of the Close the Gap Campaign. Jackie Huggins is co-chairwoman of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and co-chairwoman of the Close the Gap Campaign.