Australia effectively abandoned its Closing the Gap policy in 2014 when more than $530 million was cut from the federal Indigenous Affairs budget, a review of the Closing the Gap strategy claims.
The review by the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, released by the Human Rights Commission last week, said government approaches to Indigenous affairs had hampered any progress.
“Over the decade since 2008, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander affairs have experienced discontinuity and uncertainty,” the review said.
“Regular changes to the administration and funding, shifting policy approaches, cuts to services and a revolving door of Prime Ministers, Indigenous Affairs Minister and senior bureaucrats have all but halted the steady progress hoped for by First Peoples.
“After the initial funding commitments made for the Closing the Gap … the strategy was effectively abandoned with the extensive cuts (over $530 million) made to the Indigenous Affairs portfolio in the 2014 federal budget.”
The review said a “refreshed” Closing the Gap strategy needs to be worked out with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island health leaders and communities.
The call came after the release of the latest Closing the Gap report last week and what some have called a decade of failures to address inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
Read also Closing the Gap still a distant dream.
Aboriginal activist Michael Anderson, the last surviving member of the founding four of the Aboriginal Embassy, said the Closing the Gap agenda was a fiasco.
“In reality, the Turnbull Government wants to either abandon the Close the Gap program, or water down the targets, despite recent recommendations from the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), to do otherwise and properly engage with Indigenous people,” Mr Anderson said.
New framework needed
In its review of the decade-old strategy, a steering committee of the Close the Gap Campaign — which is made up of Indigenous and human rights organisations — said Australia needed a new framework for addressing the issues, one that was worked out with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
“National priorities like addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health inequality have not gone away, are getting worse, and more than ever require a national response,” it said.
“Without a recommitment to such ‘architecture’, the nation is now in a situation where the closing the gap targets will measure nothing but the collective failure of Australian governments to work together and to stay the course.”
State, territory and federal governments are currently calling for feedback on a refreshed Closing the Gap strategy, which will be released later this year.
‘We’re failing’: Oscar
Close the Gap Campaign co-chair and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar said the strategy began with great promise but had failed to deliver.
“The life expectancy gap has in fact started to widen again and the Indigenous child mortality rate is now more than double that of other children,” Ms Oscar said.
Close the Gap co-chair, and co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples Rod Little, said the refresh process was the last chance to get government policy right in order to meet the goal of health equality by 2030.
The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum said without addressing family violence, the Closing the Gap strategy would continue to fail Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children.
FVPLS convenor Antoinette Braybrook said: “There is an urgent need for justice targets to reduce both incarceration and rates of family violence if we are to achieve better health and wellbeing outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre questioned one of the areas the Closing the Gap report showed was improving.
“Data that shows the gap is on track to close for school literacy and numeracy in ACT and Tasmania is just not credible for Tasmania at least,” TAC chief executive officer Heather Sculthorpe said.
“Premier Will Hodgman changed the legal process for establishing Aboriginality and so enabled a huge proportion of the Circular Head population to claim Aboriginality. These inflated figures apply also to the Huon Valley and elsewhere.
“It is only by including non-Aboriginal students in the results that educational attainment can be claimed to be improving. The Aboriginal people who use our services are certainly not showing those great improvements in education outcomes”.
Save the Children urged Ausralian governments to work genuinely with Aboriginal communities during the refresh process to institute a national target to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.
Doctors from one of Australasia’s largest specialist medical colleges called for a strengthened and nationally coordinated approach to Closing the Gap.
Doctors prescribe much-needed change
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians backed the Closing the Gap steering committee’s review.
“This review highlights what we already know as doctors,” Dr Catherine Yelland said.
“The gap that exists between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians health outcomes is widening and requires a stronger and cross-jurisdictional response.”
Cairns Indigenous leader and pastor Norman Miller said it was appalling that Indigenous children were still dying at a greater rate than the rest of the community and Indigenous adults die at a younger age.
He said the Closing the Gap strategy was a “colossal failure”.
“We don’t want band-aid solutions. We want healing of deep wounds. There does need to be a shake-up as the government has proposed but unless they properly consult with and listen to Indigenous people, we’ll be repeating the failures of the past,” Mr Miller said.
“The Federal Government is talking about refreshing the program by adopting new targets and I would urge it to adopt targets to reduce overcrowding in housing, reduce homelessness, reduce violence against women and reduce rates of incarceration and child removal.”
Stolen Generation compensation
Meanwhile, Federal Labor has announced it will provide a compensation scheme to survivors of the Stolen Generation if elected to office.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s announcement came 10 years on from Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to members of the Stolen Generation.
Labor said the compensation scheme would provide for ex-gratia payments of $75,000 to Stolen Generation survivors and their families.
A Funeral Assistance Fund to provide one-off payments of $7000 to Stolen Generations members to help with the cost of their funerals would also be introduced under Labor.
The compensation scheme would be accessible to about 150 surviving members of the Stolen Generations in the NT and any Stolen Generations survivors in the ACT and Jervis Bay.