Closing the Gap: how are we getting it so wrong?

Why has the Coalition failed to take on Mundine's recommendation of a proper audit?

Why has the Coalition failed to take on Mundine's recommendation of a proper audit?

AAP: Nikki Short

Aboriginal people have become the scapegoats of bad decision making in Canberra. We must not allow another generation of Indigenous children to become victims of our inability to shift route, writes Patricia Karvelas.

It has become a yearly ritual, a moment where the nation pauses to face the national shame which is our continuing incapacity to close the gap between black and white Australians.

Every year, during the first week of Parliament, the Prime Minister of the day delivers a national report on progress toward the Closing The Gap targets. This year it reveals we are stalling on half of its benchmarks. It is unthinkable, seven years after this effort began, that we could be getting it so wrong.

Closing the Gap 2015 key points

  • No progress in halving the gap in Indigenous employment outcomes
  • Small gains in Indigenous life expectancy
  • Early childhood enrolment target not met
  • No overall progress on halving reading and numeracy gap
  • Slower progress on infant mortality gap
  • On track to halve gap in Year 12 attainment

A short burst of embarrassment matched with platitudes about the need to do better is part of the formula on Closing The Gap day. This year is no different. There have been dramatic statements that we must work harder. Tony Abbott has expressed a "profound" disappointment about the nation's efforts to lift Indigenous Australians out of disadvantage. But where does this leave us? How can we continue the same strategies when we know they are demonstrably failing?

The Prime Minister told Parliament that the Closing The Gap statement is crucial because it forces us to "stay committed":

It forces us to stay focused, and as far as I'm concerned there is no more important cause than ensuring that Indigenous people enter fully into their rightful inheritance as first Australians and as first class citizens of this great country.

But what are we committed to? We need a rethink about the way we move forward, or our ambitious goals will fail and another generation of Indigenous children will be the victims of our inability to shift route.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten used his reply to the Prime

Minister's statement this morning to argue against cuts to essential services and preventative health programs. Some Liberal MPs walked out, accusing him of politicising a bipartisan event. But since when does a bipartisan commitment to closing the gap mean politicians are required to stay mute on debating the way forward?

Silence is the last thing we need in this area.

Last year's budget cuts of $534 million from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs are rightly being scrutinised by the Opposition. The Government will tell you that while we are spending billions on Indigenous affairs nationally, we are not getting the outcomes we need. So why have they failed to take on the recommendation of their chief Indigenous advisor, Warren Mundine, to conduct a proper audit of spending?

The current Indigenous grant process - which has been delayed - is not the evidence-based audit Mr Mundine recommended. The cuts cannot be justified without a robust strategy for where the money should be spent.

Aboriginal people have become the scapegoats of bad decision making in Canberra. The narrative that they are the recipients of Commonwealth largesse is flawed given the system is failing them on so many levels.

Today's report paints a grim picture. There has been no progress in halving the gap in Indigenous employment outcomes, small gains in Indigenous life expectancy, and no overall progress on halving the reading and numeracy gap. There's been slower progress on the infant mortality gap. On the bright side, we are on track to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment.

The area of Indigenous affairs is not short on good strategies and even groundbreaking ideas. There are successes across the country. Without a rethink on a range of issues, including the strategy to get children to school and the employment gap, the eighth Closing The Gap report will be the same again and our collective depression will become an annual feature for decades to come.

Tonight, RN Drive will air the first of a 4-part series called Behind The Gap. Host Patricia Karvelas will be joined by Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and Labor's shadow spokesperson on Indigenous affairs Shayne Neumann. Listen from 6pm on Radio National.

Patricia Karvelas is the presenter of RN drive has been a prominent senior journalist in the Australian media for 15 years.


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