The Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap speech this week confirmed the failings of a policy that treats all Indigenous people as disadvantaged and in need of support - ignoring those who have achieved success, and downplaying the real levels of disadvantage experienced by others.
In delivering his speech, Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged that the statistics in the report don’t do justice to the diversity of Indigenous Australians.
As long as policies focus on Aboriginal people as a homogenous group - rather than focusing on the most disadvantaged of them - those policies will benefit only Aboriginal people who don’t need support, and have little effect for those at the bottom of the heap.
This is reflected in the mixed results of the Closing the Gap report - with little progress in most of the areas, and only some small gains in child mortality and Year 12 attainment.
Total state, local and federal government expenditure on services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians now exceeds $30 billion each year, and countless additional services and programs are delivered by non-government organisations. Unsurprisingly, this duplication has resulted in an unnecessary waste of resources, and funding is not reaching those who need it most.
However, while the Closing the Gap policy hasn’t managed to narrow the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes, it has managed to bridge the divide between two opposing sides in the Indigenous debate.
Normally those on the left vehemently oppose anything the right says when it comes to Indigenous affairs. But one thing both sides are agreeing on is that the Closing the Gap policy is flawed and the government needs to stop wasting money on policies and programs that don’t work.
Patrick Dodson has argued that the Closing the Gap policy should be scrapped, as has Professor Jon Altman, while Noel Pearson has voiced his despair at a government and system that cannot discern ‘excrement from clay’.
In his speech, the Prime Minister signalled his intention to work with Indigenous leaders and communities, and announced the government will be implementing a regional empowerment model in eight communities. He also emphasised the important role that supporting Indigenous businesses plays in improving the economic and social outcomes of Aboriginal people, noting that Indigenous businesses are about 100 times more likely to employ Indigenous people than other businesses.
Yet, while it is heartening to hear Mr Turnbull focusing on economic development and empowerment as important strategies to ‘close the gap’, Indigenous empowerment should mean real jobs, not government programs - as the PM’s chief advisor on Indigenous matters, Warren Mundine, has also stated.
Perhaps the best thing the government can do to assist Aboriginal people is to abolish the Closing the Gap Policy and the endless reports that accompany it with statistics even the Prime Minister himself admits are misleading - and focus on enabling those Aboriginal people who are in most need of support.
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