Once again the start of the federal parliamentary year has been marked by what has become an annual ritual. The release of the 10th Closing the Gap Report elicited the standard list of complaints from the usual suspect blaming supposed lack of funding and lack of indigenous control over policy for the repeated failure to improve the lot of the poorest indigenous Australians across a range of measures of wellbeing. And once more, the debate has failed to address the fundamental cause of the appalling disadvantage suffered by a minority of indigenous people — despite tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars spent on programs to eradicate it.
The rhetoric emanating from the indigenous lobby about closing the gap has little to do with finding real solutions for the differences in social outcomes between the most disadvantaged indigenous people and other Australians. Instead, the anniversary has been used as a pretext to advance the political agenda of urban-based indigenous activists, who are encouraging policymakers to double-down on the failed ‘separatist’ approach to indigenous affairs of the past 50 years, which is truly responsible for the plight of indigenous people in rural and remote communities.
According to legal academic Megan Davis, the reason the gap hasn’t been closed is allegedly because government policy has been about ‘assimilation’ and ‘making Aboriginal people white Australians’; these problems can supposedly be remedied by Constitutional recognition and establishing an indigenous parliamentary advisory body as recommended by last year’s Uluru Statement. Blaming the failure to fix indigenous disadvantage on government’s refusal to ‘empower’ indigenous organisations is the time-honoured political tactic employed by the indigenous lobby. But it falsifies history and ignores the real cause of ‘the gap’.
What it also points to is the political objective behind the push to create an indigenous ‘voice to parliament’ – which is to allow the indigenous lobby to gain control over the political narrative around indigenous affairs and protect its vested interests. Mention of the ‘A’ word – assimilation — is designed to force politicians to support recognition or risk being branded a racist throwback to the paternalistic era of the Aboriginal missions and reserves. The term also involves an appalling double standard.
Many prominent indigenous leaders enjoy all the benefits and opportunities of life in mainstream Australia as a member of the growing indigenous middle class, who in recent times — as ABC indigenous editor, Stan Grant has observed — have closed the gap for themselves and fully participated in the Australian dream of freedom, prosperity, and the ‘fair go’ for all. This is not the 1900s or 1950s when indigenous people faced not only prejudice but also structural barriers including legal exclusion from participation in Australian society. Thankfully, the days of White Australia are long gone, and most indigenous people are succeeding on their merits through hard work and education, as are Australians from all ethnic backgrounds in all walks of life.
A measure of this is the fact that the 80 per cent of indigenous Australians who live mainly in urban areas have similar employment, health, housing and other social outcomes as their non-indigenous peers. By contrast, it is in the rural and remote ‘homeland’ communities that the remaining 20 per cent of indigenous Australians suffer the worst disadvantage and disproportionately account for the size of the overall gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians
The ‘homelands’, which were established in the 1970s under the policies of Aboriginal self-determination, were meant to enable indigenous people to return to their traditional lands and live in traditional ways in order to maintain their identity as Aborigines. In practice, however, welfare dependence and other well-known and intractable social problems have led to entrenched community dysfunction, and have locked out generations of indigenous Australians in these communities from enjoying the full freedoms and opportunities available in modern, mainstream society enjoyed by all other Australians, including hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.
The doctrine of Aboriginal self-determination also dictated that ‘Aboriginal-controlled’ organisations receive taxpayer funding to deliver ‘culturally appropriate’ services in indigenous communities. The ‘Aboriginal industry’ of indigenous-specific service providers that was hereby created presided over the unfolding social disaster in indigenous communities, until blatant failure and corruption led the Howard government to abolish the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission in 2004. The abolition of ATSIC was followed by the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Intervention, and by the continuation of the Howard government’s practical reconciliation approach to mainstreaming indigenous services via the Close the Gap strategy implemented under the Rudd Labor government in 2008.
The rethinking of the separatist approach in the 2000s posed a mortal threat to the existence of the ‘industry’ – and to the secure careers and lifestyles of the thousands of members of the indigenous middle class who staff it. Little wonder the indigenous lobby has invested so much time and energy over the last decade promoting Recognition; this is about far more than mere symbolism. The far-reaching impact of such a radical constitutional change would be to grant the indigenous lobby what would effectively be a supra-parliamentary power of veto over any attempt by future governments to revise the failed separatist experiment that has led to violence, squalor, and poverty in indigenous communities.
This kind of ‘recognition’ will perpetuate the separatist indigenous nightmare – not extend the Australian dream to all. A constitutionally-enshrined advisory body will not therefore help to close the gap and ensure all indigenous Australians from the Kimberley to the Cape have the same opportunities in life. Rather, an indigenous ‘voice’ acting as the mouthpiece of the industry would make it next to impossible for Australian governments to consider what the indigenous academic Anthony Dillion has called the ‘other R-word’. This word is the ‘Relocation’ of indigenous people to mainstream communities where there are the jobs, the schools, the services and the opportunities that all other Australians, black and white, take for granted.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies