Ever since Australia was colonised by Europeans in 1788 we’ve grappled with how to make it work. Arguably, we’ve gotten a lot better about the whole ‘inclusion’ part of it. But there is still a long way to go. Arguments have been bandied back and forth for seemingly eons. Increase welfare, cut welfare, keep welfare the same but give Indigenous Australians more access to services. The ideas are many but knowing what works, and being brave enough to try it, is a scarcity. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has recently re-addressed the situation with a new look at how, dare we say it, to move forward.
MM contributor Rick Morton writes:
“Indigenous people should expect of themselves the same thing that all Australians expect as well,” she said.
Because I also believe that with opportunity comes responsibility and individuals only achieve progress through work and effort.” – Julia Gillard.
It was a moment when the shackles of a terrible past were loosed, when the Federal Government said a simple ‘sorry’ to the Indigenous people in Australia and asked them to participate in a better future.
It was a word but it meant a lot.
Words have this peculiar habit of inspiring change but they are, of course, never enough on their own.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week gave the third report to Parliament on the nation’s Closing the Gap strategy, aimed at boosting Indigenous equality across the broad areas of Health, Education and Employment.
It was a call to arms of sorts, a verbal rubbishing of the idea that change can be achieved without the significant emotional investment of both Indigenous Australians and the Federal Government.
“Saying sorry was vital for so many reasons.
One that I want to reflect on today is the chance it gave us to break the cycle of blame between Australian Governments and Indigenous Australia.
In the worst moments of this cycle, Australian
Governments have sometimes seemed to say to Indigenous Australia, let us know when you have got your act together.
And in the worst moments of this cycle, Indigenous Australia has sometimes seemed to feel, the Australian Government has to invest before our behaviour can begin to change.
Both attitudes are destructive and wrong. Bad behaviour by individuals is never an excuse for Government failure. The failures of Government are never an excuse for bad behaviour by individuals.”
Here’s why we should care. Indigenous Australians, by adulthood, are nine times more likely to have committed suicide than your average Australian.
They live on average 11.5 years less than average Australians.
There is roughly a 50:50 chance an Indigenous person is not employed.
An Indigenous adult is likely to be jailed more often than a non-Indigenous adult. About 13 times more often, in fact.
The sad, terrible list goes on and more can be found at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
It’s easy to dismiss the nuances of history with the broad brushstrokes of hyberbole but the essence of what the Prime Minister had to say is clear for all to see.
She pulled no punches in a brave speech being praised from both sides of politics.
It carried the motif of Ms Gillard’s own ethic, that work and dedication to your work can lift an individual up.
That demography need not be destiny.
That the racism of low expectations should pass and that Indigenous Australians should be actively involved and responsible in making changes to their own behaviours so that the change might pass more quickly. Or at all.
Indigenous Australia, at its best, has been defined by figures and personalities who broadcast the effectiveness of such an ethic.
Ms Gillard referenced two educational and social leaders herself when she spoke of the commitment of Chris Sarra and Noel Pearson.
But there are, of course, many more from Queensland’s Neville Bonner (the first Aboriginal to sit in Federal Parliament as a senator) to Cathy Freeman, she with the apparent speed and grace of a cheetah.
And as much as the speech and the policy is about Closing the Gap – by its virtue requiring an acknowledgement that there is a gap – it was about putting an end to the oftentimes easy to make distinction between Indigenous Australians and Australians in general.
This is about the responsibility of all adults and all families, no matter their background, to step on to the stage and play a part.
So it doesn’t matter, it follows, whether you are an Olympic runner or a parliamentarian or a butcher or a baker or a candlestick maker.
It matters, simply, that you ‘be’ something and that that something is good.
And to help out the Government has committed to six, some would say ambitious, targets by 2031. Those are:
Close the Gap in life expectancy
Halve the gaps in mortality rates in infants under five
Ensure Access to early childhood education
Halve the gap in read, writing and numeracy
Halve the gap in Year 12 attainment rates
Halve the gap in employment outcomes.
These milestones bring with them, in the Prime Minister’s words, the responsibility of opportunity.
But it also requires of us the ability – and the desire – to work with Indigenous Australia, to shelve the vestigial attitudes of racism that some of us have and the passive racism of many more.
If it works, it’ll be because it shatters the cycle of blame. But it’ll fail if even one side doesn’t come to the party.
This is a rework of the give a man a fish / teach a man to fish parable, a cliché because it appears to be true. But the shades of grey in real-world policies can never be so absolutely all or nothing.
We will all be judge and jury when 2031 rolls around as to whether these have been effective but what we need to know now is whether we are on the right track.
Are we? What’s the solution? If you commanded the resources of the Australian Government, what would you do, and what would you sacrifice, to Close the Gap?
That is the multi-billion dollar question.
Ultimately, it is the people Ms Gillard termed the ‘hidden heroes’ who will make the difference.
“The mother in the city who feeds her children and gets them ready for school.
The aunty in the country town who tells the stories to the young.
The father in a remote community who sets an example of strength and gentleness to his sons.”