In February this year, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave his annual Closing the Gap Report, he once again described Australia’s collective failure to close anything — First Nations peoples were still dying younger and sicker, were incarcerated in disproportionate numbers and were left behind according to most education and employment indicators.
There had to be a change.
In July, Mr Morrison announced the signing of the new National Closing the Gap Agreement — an intergovernmental agreement that was, for the first time, made with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives — the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations (Coalition of Peaks).
This National Agreement on Closing the Gap (July 2020) committed all Australian governments (federal, state and local) to a 20-year program of work focusing on making inroads into the huge disparities in life expectancy, health outcomes, incarceration rates, education and employment outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous Australians.
The agreement was the result of a huge shift in approach.
As Pat Turner — chief executive officer of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation and convenor of the Coalition of Peaks — explained at a recent National Press Club address, “… the National Agreement on Closing the Gap … is a commitment to indigenous peoples being heard through a series of formal partnership and shared decision making arrangements, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people choose their own representatives and operate in accordance with our own internal governance structures and are supported to have our own independent advice.”
There was also a clear commitment of governments to “strengthening the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sectors to deliver services and programs to our people”.
This is based on the accepted view that community-controlled organisations get better engagement, deliver better outcomes and employ more First Nations people.
Whilst the new agreement was welcomed, there was an absence of any detail about how it would be resourced and funded. Maybe the funding details would be in the budget? But no.
As ANTaR national director Paul Wright explained: “It is mind-boggling trying to understand how the government can announce such a commitment (to Closing the Gap) and yet not provide any means to enact it. How the economic situation we find ourselves in has given the green light for the government to spend, spend, spend in epic proportions and still not find any money for their flagship Indigenous Affairs policy.”
In his budget speech, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg did announce that the government would be “investing $150 million in the Indigenous Home Ownership Program to construct new homes in regional areas, creating more jobs and helping hundreds of indigenous families buy their own home”.
This of course is a welcome inclusion, but a drop in the ocean when one considers what is actually needed for the housing shortfall across Australia.
In the lead-up to the budget, a survey of leading economists suggested that the majority of them believed a significant boost in social housing would have been the most effective stimulus measure that could be taken.
There are about 160,000 Australian families currently waiting for public housing, many of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and many have been waiting for many years.
It is so much harder to address the social determinants of health that underlie the state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health statistics unless people have safe and adequate housing.
There was some budget funding for worthy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, but the amount was a drop in the bucket.
There was nothing for Closing the Gap, nothing for constitutional reform, nothing for the truth and reconciliation process called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Nothing for the vitally important work our country must do to address the huge inequalities in outcomes for Australia’s First Nations people.
The Treasurer, when delivering the 2020 budget, rightly stated: “So many Australians, through no fault of their own, are doing it tough.”
The most vulnerable communities in Australia are doing it the toughest and this budget fails to help them at this desperate time.
As ANTaR’s Paul Wright so succinctly put it, the Federal Government “…must do better.”
● SRRG would like to acknowledge ANTaR National’s contribution to this column.
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