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Victorian First Nations groups urge support for Indigenous-led solutions to closing the gap

Dechlan Brennan -

Victorian Indigenous groups have responded to the Productivity Commission report released on Wednesday - which found governments had largely not fulfilled their commitments in relation to Closing the Gap - arguing many of the recommendations were common sense whilst simultaneously lamenting the lack of action.

The final report of the commission's first three-yearly review of government action on the National Agreement on Closing the Gap argued governments needed to move away from a 'business-as-usual' mindset and embrace power-sharing arrangements.

The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) said the report revealed "a troubling lack of progress in implementing crucial reforms" and said the findings highlighted a failure to empower Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) adequately which hindered their capacity to address the specific needs and priorities of their communities.

VACCHO chief executive Jill Gallagher said there was an urgent need for governments to prioritise strengthening the capacity of ACCOs in order to drive meaningful progress in key metrics, such as life expectancy and health and wellbeing.

"Despite varying government statements to the contrary, there appears to be a lingering, deep-rooted colonial-era notion in this country that governments know what is best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," the Gunditjmara woman said.

"In many ways the review reaffirms that despite the best intentions, governments are still sticking with the status quo, by failing to take concrete steps to put Aboriginal health in Aboriginal hands."

The First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria co-chair Rueben Berg said the Treaty process - which has been mired in political controversy in the last month - was an essential and missing step to helping close the gap.

"It's common sense," the Gunditjmara man said.

"If politicians want better outcomes for our communities, if they want to 'close the gap', then they have to start handing over some of the decision-making power to Aboriginal people. That's what we'll be talking about in our Treaty negotiations.

"Treaty is about making sure it's Aboriginal people who are the one developing and delivering the solutions at a local level."

The Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Forum Lead and Aboriginal Housing Victoria (AHV) Director of Strategy and Performance Lisa Briggs said the report highlighted the need for greater focus on Indigenous housing and home ownership, arguing safe and secure housing was a central tenet to closing the gap and reducing Indigenous disadvantage.

"Secure housing is the missing policy piece. It is fundamental to human safety, economic participation, psychological resilience, and physical health – all the areas in which governments are falling behind," Ms Briggs said.

"The data shows us that in Victoria, by 2036, the number of Aboriginal households will more than double. To maintain existing levels of social housing in line with population growth, we will need an additional 5000 social housing units just so existing, catastrophic levels of homelessness do not escalate."

Indigenous housing has routinely been argued as a key metric for reducing Indigenous disadvantage. A recent submission to the Yoorrook Justice Commission by AHV called for the Victorian government to return unused public land to Traditional Owner groups for the purpose of building housing, arguing colonisation has created a 250 year-long housing crisis.

"They [governments] need to do better, for our children, our Elders and our communities," Ms Briggs said." The Report reinforces the need for the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement to include a specific schedule for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, communities and organisations."

She said it highlighted the drastic need for a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Housing and Homelessness Plan.

"Now is the right time to expand on the existing Closing the Gap housing targets to include an Aboriginal homelessness target to respond to the rapid increases in homelessness experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country," Ms Briggs said.

All the statements mirror those proposals put forward by Indigenous groups throughout the country, which argue the improvement of outcomes for Aboriginal people is contingent on allowing Indigenous people to run and make decisions on metrics that directly impact them.

These recommendations were expressly outlined in the interim report by the Yoorrook Justice Commission last year.

Eleanor Bourke, co-chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, said the report highlighted evidence that "when First Peoples are engaged with and have control over decisions that affect their lives, the result is better outcomes."

"This is what First Peoples have long been calling for, it is what Yoorrook recommended, and it is what the Productivity Commission is highlighting in its report today," she said

Ms Gallagher said the community "knows community best," arguing ACCHOs have been delivering "extraordinary" care for half a century within an environment where culture was nurtured and celebrated.

"It's time for governments to release the shackles and create transformative policies that empower ACCOs, and their dedicated staff continue to apply Aboriginal ways of being, knowing, and doing to support thriving, healthy Communities," she said.

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