In an historic first, the Australian Government has committed to reducing the rates of First Nations people incarcerated, of First Nations child removal and First Nations suicide rates in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap announced Thursday.

The National Agreement was released today by the National Cabinet, the Australian Local Government Association and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islander peak organisations (Coalition of Peaks).

Through four Priority Reforms the National Agreement will redress how Government engages with First Nations communities and organisations and enforce accountability.

The reforms include:

  1. Formal partnerships and shared decision making between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives
  2. Building the formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled services sector to deliver services
  3. Transforming government organisations
  4. Shared access to data and information at a regional level.

The National Agreement has also established 16 national socioeconomic targets which identify areas of responsibility which will work to increase life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

These outcomes address areas such as life expectancy, education, employment, suicide rates, violence and abuse against Aboriginal women and children, the speaking of traditional language, land and sea rights and youth and adult incarceration and detention.

For the first time in Australian history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and governments will share decision making around Closing the Gap reform.

Pat Turner AM, Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks and CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) noted Australia’s “unforgivable gaps in life outcomes” which have burdened First Nations people. She said the National Agreement is a turning point for the nation.

“The National Agreement has been hard fought between the Coalition of Peaks and governments. It was always going to be tough. This is the first time a National Agreement designed to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been developed and negotiated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she said.

“We have also had the voices of the more than 4,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who participated in our engagements on what should be included in the new National Agreement guiding us in our negotiations, and we needed to show that they had been heard.”

Turner also noted the increased commitment from governments today, compared to that in December 2018. An increase, she said, which has occurred in response to the work of the Coalition of Peaks.

“Today we celebrate this historic Agreement and those who fought hard to make it a reality. But tomorrow, the true work begins when we start to implement its commitments within our communities.”

The National Agreement comes in response to previous Closing the Gap targets failing to be met.

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, spoke to ABC’s Radio National Breakfast Thursday morning regarding the flawed original agreement.

He said “the glaring gap was accountability”.

“Certainly, the former Prime Minister reached agreement with each State and Territory … but the responsibility fell primarily to the Commonwealth.”

The National Agreement has been welcomed by many Aboriginal organisations including the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APO NT), ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body, and the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC).

“For many years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities have asserted that solutions to the challenges that we face as First Nations people are found within our own communities. This is the first time we have been given the opportunity to develop these priority areas,” said VACCHO CEO, Jill Gallagher AO.

John Paterson, spokesperson for APO NT, said: “The new National Agreement is a critical step forward that acknowledges the voice of Aboriginal people here in the Territory.

“We want to see a greater improvement in educational outcomes, more jobs and training opportunities, reduction in incarceration rates and real investments in tackling the social determinants of health and creating more opportunities for Aboriginal people to establish businesses to become self-sufficient.”

Whilst many Aboriginal organisations have thrown their support behind the new National Agreement, some are concerned about the lack of action taken by Government on issues occurring at present.

In response to the targets surrounding reducing Indigenous incarceration, Amnesty International Australia Indigenous Rights Advisor, Rodney Dillon said “these targets along with the failure to show leadership by committing to raise the age of criminal responsibility at Monday’s Council of Attorneys-General meeting contradicts the Government’s rhetoric on addressing the numbers of Indigenous people in Australian jails.”

“Actions speak louder than words, and an important step in making real, systemic change by raising the age on Monday was wasted.”

“Such a failure undermines the new Closing the Gap targets and all the work Indigenous organisations have done to try and drag the Australian Government along.”

GetUp’s First Nations Campaign Director, Larissa Baldwin said the new targets “show the government is not listening to the families and communities on the ground, they want people to stop marching but won’t show us they’re listening.”

“In the last month millions of people around the world have made perfectly clear that we need serious reforms to end Black deaths in custody now.

“The urgency of this crisis is not matched in these targets, they do not address the 232 years of systemic police violence and deaths in custody.”

By Rachael Knowles