Grattan on Friday: Abbott’s indigenous affairs challenge is to deliver on his ambition

Tony Abbott is committed to the Closing the Gap targets. AAP/Alan Porritt

There have been so many declarations of good intentions followed by minimal progress that it is hard to dare hope real advancement might be made in Aboriginal affairs in the next few years.

Yet, we have to ask, if not now, then when?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is putting maximum political capital into the task.

Indigenous affairs has a full time cabinet minister (Nigel Scullion, the Nationals Senate leader) and a parliamentary secretary (Victorian Liberal Alan Tudge). Administrative responsibility for most programs has been brought within the Prime Minister’s department.

Abbott is personally deeply engaged. How well he does will be one benchmark of the success or failure of his prime ministership.

The PM gets the importance of symbolism – a contrast with John Howard, who just before he lost office admitted he hadn’t appreciated its role. Howard (until his late conversion) thought “practical reconciliation” was the only thing that really mattered. Abbott understands that the practical must march in tandem with the symbolic.

Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology was a big leap forward in that regard. But politically, it was much easier than what now needs to come – a successful referendum for constitutional recognition. That will be a massive hurdle for the Abbott government to surmount.

The Rudd government also took important steps on the practical side, instigating Closing the Gap targets. Abbott this week reported on how these were going, and it was a very mixed picture.

The target of halving the gap in child mortality within a decade is on track, as is that of halving the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020, while having 95% of remote children enrolled in pre-school is close to being achieved.

But there is “almost no progress” in closing the difference (about a decade) in life expectancy between Aborigines and other Australians; there has been very little improvement towards halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy, and indigenous employment has seen some slippage.

“We are not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful targets,” Abbott told parliament on Wednesday. “Because it’s hard to be literate and numerate without attending school; it’s hard to find work without a basic education; and it’s hard to live well without a job,” he said.

“We may be doomed to fail [in Closing the Gap] – I fear – until we achieve the most basic target of all: the expectation that every child will attend school every day.”

Abbott has this week added another target to the Closing the Gap list: “to end the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous school attendance within five years.”

Achieving this bold target (which some observers see as a blunt instrument) will require a complex effort from federal, state and territory governments. Getting children into the classrooms (where the teaching has to be skilled and appropriate to special needs) also puts a good deal of weight on parents, and that opens up issues ranging from housing conditions to alcohol availability. Crucially, the drive must win the support from the people who have to make the changes.

Fred Chaney, Aboriginal affairs minister in the Fraser government who as 2014 senior Australian of the Year will devote much of his efforts to indigenous causes, praises “the positive signs” that have come from the Abbott government. “It’s starting with a high level of political commitment and bureaucratic and financial resources – the thing it has to do is to get it to work on the ground.”

This has always been the problem for governments: translating worthy policies into successful administration can be enormously hard.

Chaney says that well-documented previous experience has shown how administration needs to be fashioned if it is to succeed. “In shorthand, this involves bottom up work at a regional level. But governments have traditionally found this difficult, because their timetables generally preclude genuine community involvement.”

Another challenge is keeping advisers and stakeholders broadly in the tent. Healthy debate is desirable but serious division, especially among indigenous leaders, can be destructive.

So can fractures between levels of government. Nevertheless, the Abbott government would have to be ready to be tough with the Northern Territory if necessary, given the serious issues there surrounding alcohol. This is tricky when minister Scullion is a Territorian.

Ambit claims can also pose problems for a government that is trying to move things forward by consensus. One such came from Warren Mundine, chair of Abbott’s indigenous advisory council, when he said in his Australia Day speech that “for true reconciliation to occur I believe there needs to be … a treaty between Australia and each of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations.”

Abbott has committed to spending a week in East Arnhem Land later this year, and to use the time for a shout out, taking along “enough officials to make it, if only for a few days, the focus of our national government”.

To the maximum extent, bipartisanship is desirable in the indigenous area (although, inevitably and rightly, sometimes there will be debate over policy directions). Bipartisanship involves giving due credit to what has gone before as well as reaching across the contemporary political aisle. Abbott is seeking to emphasise continuity; on Thursday he marked the anniversary of Rudd’s apology, describing it as “the end of a damaging period of division and denial”.

He is well served by the fact that the two indigenous MPs, Ken Wyatt and Nova Peris come from opposite sides. They are chair and deputy of the parliamentary committee on constitutional recognition.

There is also a useful bipartisan link through Recognise, the offshoot of Reconciliation Australia that is promoting constitutional recognition. Its head is Tim Gartrell, former ALP national secretary (who knows a thing or two about running campaigns).

Abbott’s critics on the left doubt his sincerity on the indigenous issue, while some of his spruikers on the right are appalled by his passion.

The PM told parliament: “Many of us have been on a long journey. I can’t say that I have always been where I am now. The further this journey has gone, the more, for me, Aboriginal policy has become personal rather than just political. It has become a personal mission to help my fellow Australians to open their hearts, as much as to change their minds, on Aboriginal policy.”

There is no reason to believe Abbott’s commitment is other than deep and genuine. This is not an issue that brings political points. But it does go to the soul of the nation and the well being of many of its citizens, now and in the future. Abbott should be given marks for his ambitions, but living up to them will stretch him to the limit.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Small Business Minister Bruce Billson here.