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Governments "continue to waste" National Agreement on Closing the Gap, Productivity Commission reports

Giovanni Torre -

The National Agreement on Closing the Gap is "an opportunity governments cannot continue to waste", the Productivity Commission has warned as it released its latest report.

The Commission found governments across Australia have largely not fulfilled their commitments under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and has made four recommendations to drive progress in its new report, released February 7.

The final report of the Commission's first three-yearly review of government action on the National Agreement found governments have "failed to fully grasp the nature and scale of change" needed to meet the obligations they signed up to under the agreement.

Commissioner Natalie Siegel-Brown said most government actions and plans to implement the agreement to date "re-label business-as-usual, or simply tweak existing ways of working".

"The agreement can and should be a blueprint for real reform, but governments will need to move beyond business as usual and address the entrenched attitudes, assumptions and ways of working that are preventing progress," she said.

Over the course of the review, the Productivity Commission held 235 meetings, including 136 meetings with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations; received 101 submissions, including 51 submissions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations; and held seven virtual roundtables to discuss priority policy areas.

The review found progress to implement the National Agreement's reforms was "weak", and that "disparate actions and ad hoc changes" had not led to noticeable improvements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The report makes four recommendations to government: share power; recognise and support Indigenous Data Sovereignty; fundamentally rethink mainstream government systems and culture; and implement stronger accountability.

"Government knows best" thinking persists

The Commission found evidence of a failure by governments to relinquish power and the persistence of "government knows best" thinking.

The report's first recommendation proposes five actions; including amending the agreement to better emphasise power sharing, and having governments recognise the expertise of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in what works for their communities.

Commissioner Romlie Mokak, a Djugun man and member of the Yawuru people, said "efforts to improve outcomes are far more likely to succeed when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lead their design and implementation".

"Nothing will change until this model of partnership, based on genuine power sharing, becomes the rule and not the exception," he said.

The report finds that progress is unlikely unless government organisations "fundamentally rethink their systems, culture and ways of working".

Commissioner Siegel-Brown said the lack of progress reflects a disregard for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's knowledge and solutions throughout government.

"Breaking down these entrenched attitudes and ways of working will require a focused and deliberate effort from every department and organisation," she said.

The Commission recommends that all government departments take a series of actions to overhaul how they work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including developing and executing an "evidence-based transformation strategy".

The report also recommends amending the agreement to support Indigenous Data Sovereignty – the right of Indigenous people to exercise ownership over Indigenous data.

The Commission notes that the first three recommendations must be supported by the report's fourth recommendation: stronger accountability.

Commissioner Mokak said the National Agreement on Closing The Gap provides for an independent mechanism that will drive accountability by supporting, monitoring and reporting on governments' transformations - "but here too governments have dragged their feet".

"Without further delay, each jurisdiction should establish a strong legislated independent oversight mechanism. Obligations under the agreement should also be embedded in all other significant intergovernmental agreements and reported on in each organisation's annual report," he said.

"If governments do not make change on the scale that's required, the agreement will fail and the gap will remain. For governments to help close the gap between improvements in the life outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, they will first need to close the gap between words and action."

Report "reveals limited progress"

Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, told National Indigenous Times the government agrees "that progress by all partners in implementing the Priority Reforms so far has not led to the extent of change needed", acknowledging the report "reveals limited progress on the four Priority Reforms".

"We will take some time to work with our Coalition of Peaks and our state and territory government colleagues to consider the findings of the report," she said.

"On Tuesday 13 February, we will present the Commonwealth's Closing the Gap Annual Report 2023 and Implementation Plan 2024 to the Parliament. The Annual Report will take stock of progress made in 2023 and commit to new actions that focus on making a practical difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians."

The Coalition of Peaks, a partner to the National Agreement and a group representing more than 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations, said governments must take the findings seriously and "fulfill the commitments they have already made".

Coalition of Peaks' acting Lead Convenor Catherine Liddle said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people "know what is best for our communities, but governments across the board are still not meaningfully giving us a voice in the decisions that affect our lives".

"The National Agreement sets a road map, informed by our communities across the country, on what is needed by governments to help close the gap. This includes making sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives are at the table with governments to share and lead in the decisions that impact on our communities' lives," Ms Liddle said.

"When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are given ownership over the decisions that affect their lives, the resources they need, and the opportunity to partner with government, we see better outcomes."

Ms Liddle said more funding was needed to deliver the reforms, noting there had been no significant injection of funding since 2008.

"We are calling for a dedicated Closing the Gap fund, enshrined in legislation, and directed to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and our organisations to support our self-determination.

"Next week the Prime Minister will address Parliament on the anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations, and we hope his words will be matched with action. It will also be the first time the Prime Minister has addressed the nation in a significant way following the Referendum."

"Health inequity gap is a chasm"

The Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council backed the Productivity Commission's recommendations for urgent reforms to meet targets under the National Agreement.

QAIHC Acting Chief Executive Officer Paula Arnol said the findings demonstrate governments are not sharing responsibility or using the skills and knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Organisations.

"The health inequity gap is a chasm. We need urgent action now," she said.

"Our communities and services live with real inequity. Life expectancy targets aren't on trajectory, and suicide rates amongst our people are climbing.

"The Productivity Commission report proves governments need to strengthen the structures that empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and share decision-making authority."

Ms Arnol noted that the report recommends some key actions, including amending the agreement to better emphasise power sharing, and having governments recognise the expertise of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in what works for their communities.

"We need stronger involvement from Community Controlled Organisations if we're really going to close the gap," she said.

"Our members live and work in our communities and regions, their strength is in building solutions for mob. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partnerships and collaborations are essential to achieve real change."

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