” We have started the task of determining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander position on Closing the Gap. We know that Closing the Gap needs to be more than a set of targets. What we need is a radical shift to the way governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at all levels of policy design and implementation. We also want to place Aboriginal Community Controlled Services at the heart of delivering programs and services to our people.”
Donnella Mills, the Acting Chair of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation or NACCHO, and John Paterson, the Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory, an affiliate member of NACCHO, and convener of the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory.
I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on. I wish to acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region.
I would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be attending today’s session and acknowledge their lands and culture.
We thank the Lowitja Institute for bringing us together again to think, speak and be First Nations solutions for global change, and for giving us the opportunity to speak with you today about the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations across Australia on Closing the Gap.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have historically been excluded from decision-making on the policies and programs that directly affect them and the communities in which they live. This is despite evidence which demonstrates that the only way to improve our people’s health and wellbeing is with their full participation in the design and delivery of services that impact on us. And despite our collective repeated calls over many years for full participation in decisions that impact on our lives.
Today we want to share with you how a group of Aboriginal community controlled organisations have exercised political agency by leading the way, challenging the possibilities and imagining a future of shared decision-making with governments on policies and programs that impact on our people and our communities.
You may remember that in 2007, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), comprising leaders of federal, state and territory, and local governments, committed to ‘closing the gap’ in life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Australians. They also committed to a range of targets to end the disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians in areas like infant mortality, employment and education.
This was the first time that Australian Governments had come together in a unified way to address the disadvantage experienced by too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Commonwealth Government at the time also made an unprecedented investment in programs and services to ‘close the gap’.
Despite this unprecedented coming together of Australian Governments and investment, Aboriginal people were not formally involved in Closing the Gap, it was not agreed by us and it was a policy of governments and not for our people.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people felt that Closing the Gap presented the issue of our disadvantage as a technical problem built around non-Indigenous markers of poverty. This only served to hide the extent to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ disadvantage is a political problem requiring deep structural reforms.
Closing the Gap did not address the biggest gap that we face: the gulf between the political autonomy and economic resources of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous people.
The policies and programs that then followed whilst making some difference to our peoples lives did not achieve their potential. Now ten years later we have not made the progress against the closing the gap targets that had been hoped.
In 2017 the Commonwealth Government embarked on a ‘refresh’ of the Closing the Gap framework and undertook a series of consultations. The consultations were inadequate and superficial. There was no independent report prepared on their outcomes. The lack of transparency and accountability surrounding these consultations were very disappointing, but not surprising.
As the ‘refreshed’ Closing the Gap strategy was being prepared for sign off by the Australian Governments, our dismay and disappointment galvanised a small group of community controlled organisations to come together to write to the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers asking that it not be agreed.
We weren’t going away, and there were three important messages that we wanted governments to hear. These were:
- When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are included and have a real say in the design and delivery of services that impact on them, the outcomes are far better;
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to be at the centre of Closing the Gap policy: the gap won’t close without our full involvement; and
- the Council of Australian Governments cannot expect us to take responsibility and work constructively with them to improve outcomes if we are excluded from the decision making.
By staying strong and consistent in our messaging, our voices could not be ignored. In late October 2018, we were invited to meet with the Prime Minister, who acknowledged that the current targets were ‘government targets’ not ‘shared targets’, and that for Closing the Gap to be realised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had to be able to take formal responsibility for the outcomes through shared decision making.
On 12 December 2018, Australian Governments publicly committed to developing a genuine, formal partnership between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and Indigenous Australians through their representatives on Closing the Gap and that through this partnership a new Closing the Gap policy would be agreed.
The initial fourteen organisations then became almost forty, as we brought together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peaks bodies across the country to form a formal Coalition to negotiate a new Closing the Gap framework with Australian Governments. We include both national and state and territory based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peaks representing a diverse range of services and matter that are important to us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to Closing the Gap.
As a first step and through our initiative, we negotiated and agreed a formal Partnership Agreement between the Council of Australian Governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations which came into effect in March 2019.
The Partnership Agreement sets out that the Coalition of Peaks will have shared decision making on developing, implementing and monitoring and reviewing Closing the Gap for the next ten years. This is an historic achievement.
It is the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peaks have come together in this way, to work collectively and as full partners with Australian Governments. Its is also the first time that there has been formal decision making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Australian Governments in this way.
A key commitment of the Partnership is the creation of the new Joint Council on Closing the Gap. The inaugural meeting of COAG’s Joint Council on Closing the Gap took place on 27 March. Noting that it is the first Council established by COAG that has representatives from outside government, it marked a historic step forward in the working relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments.
It is not an easy path that we are on and there are many challenges.
The Coalition of Peaks are strengthening their own governance and it is not always easy coming together by teleconferences to work through our positions as we navigate our distances and the pace in which we need to work to stay in front of Australian Governments with their many resources.
We are committed to being transparent and accountable to each other through consensus-based decision-making. This has helped us build trust in each other, in our agreed processes of negotiation and representation, and has made us a strong and effective force to be reckoned with.
Australian Governments are also slow to change, and despite agreeing to the formal partnership with us, we are yet to see them fully embrace what it means to have us at the table and respond to our propositions.
We have started the task of determining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander position on Closing the Gap. We know that Closing the Gap needs to be more than a set of targets. What we need is a radical shift to the way governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at all levels of policy design and implementation. We also want to place Aboriginal Community Controlled Services at the heart of delivering programs and services to our people.
The Coalition of Peaks have also agreed with Australian Governments that they will lead consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities across Australia on a new Closing the Gap framework later this year. This will be the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies will lead consultations with our own peoples on government policy.
Whilst the road is challenging, by presenting governments with alternative model for engaging with us, an historic new model of power sharing has been forged.
In conclusion, I’d like to share with you some of the key learnings of partnering for success and keeping governments accountable to community health priorities.
Throughout our negotiations with government, we learned the importance of staying strong and presenting a unified voice. Our membership may be large and reflective of very diverse organisations. But this diversity is also a strength, as long as we are willing to stay true to our common.