Indigenous affairs: close the gap, but open the conversation

Closing the gap in statistical disadvantage is now the dominant way of framing the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia, But is it the right way? AAP/Marianna Massey

The sixth annual Closing the Gap statement, delivered to federal parliament earlier this week, had the same message as previous years. There is some progress, some regress and more work needed to achieve the six health, education and employment priorities on schedule.

Again, prime minister Tony Abbott – and opposition leader Bill Shorten in reply – vowed to redouble their efforts.

This annual Closing the Gap ritual is important in many ways. It is a rare moment of both parliamentary bipartisanship and political humility in the face of ongoing failure to meet clearly stated goals. It also refocuses national attention on a policy area that is often sidelined.

Yet as the impact and political currency of the intervention wanes, closing the gap in statistical disadvantage is now the dominant way of framing the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia, and of directing our efforts to change this relationship. It is, in effect, our national Indigenous policy.

It is worth asking deeper questions about what Closing the Gap brings to the political conversation and what it leaves out.

Performance measurement is not policy

Repeatedly stating our commitment to progress – and measuring our (lack of) progress – does not actually make that progress happen. Closing the Gap is a “report card”: a set of performance measurements rather than a substantive policy program.

It can too easily become a placeholder for real policy change, allowing political leaders to demonstrate commitment at the opening of parliament without following through for the rest of the year.

Whether the Abbott government will “walk the talk” to close the gap is still unclear. Abbott has a “passionate” personal commitment to this area. He reaffirmed on Wednesday his election promise to spend one week a year in a remote Indigenous community.

But as Abbott himself acknowledges, good intentions have never been in short supply in this “wicked” policy area and are no guarantee of change.

The challenge is compounded by the increasingly complex Indigenous policy environment. The Howard-era decision to mainstream Indigenous health, education and social services has fragmented policy, and made state governments into central players in a way they have not been since [1967](,1967(Aboriginals).

Further, Abbott continues the top-down NT intervention. He has appointed his own advisory council on Indigenous affairs, rather than engaging with the elected National Congress. This sits uncomfortably with his commitment to “a new engagement” with Indigenous Australia.

Personal exhortations and federal bureaucratic reshuffling will only go so far in levering change in this environment.

The seduction of numbers

More importantly, the continual focus on the “gap” itself sidelines public debate about why the gap exists and how it can be closed. It is an appealingly neutral approach to such an uncomfortable and contentious policy area. This is because it presents us with a technical rather than political problem that is objectively defined and agreed upon by all.

With it, both sides of politics feel they can set aside “ideology” and come together in hard, practical work to achieve measureable goals.

Yet the bipartisan approach to Closing the Gap is built on a highly political account of the nature of Indigenous disadvantage. In this account, the gap is caused by specific Indigenous behavioural deficiencies rather than complex interactions between issues or underlying structural factors.

Abbott offered school attendance as the key behavioural change required:

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.

In turn, Abbott has created a new performance measurement of an Indigenous behaviour (school attendance). He will send out officials to enforce that behaviour (truancy officers). One gets the feeling that if it was possible to just tell Aboriginal people to live longer and to send out officers to enforce it, he would be doing this too.

Tony Abbott has a ‘passionate’ personal commitment to Indigenous affairs, but will his government deliver real change? AAP/Alan Porritt

This narrative account of the underlying problem is not argued but presented as a self-evident fact in the context of a discussion of apparently technical statistics and an affirmative bipartisan moment of commitment to Aboriginal well-being. It is hard to disagree with Abbott’s particular framing of the problem without appearing to undermine consensus and hold up practical efforts with political bickering.

While school attendance may indeed be critical, the case needs to be argued rather than asserted. Different policy options to achieve this goal should also be carefully weighed.

Relationships can’t be measured

Lastly, there is the question of what is left out of the gap as it is currently defined. Incarceration rates, which are climbing dramatically, are one concrete area of inequality that should clearly be included. More broadly, though, it leaves out the question of the social and political relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia.

Recently, indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion claimed that he will prioritise Indigenous participation in policymaking because it improves outcomes and creates better policy. This is sensible, but it subordinates the question of how the government values and interacts with Indigenous people to the question of the best method to reduce disadvantage.

Such logic can and has been used to justify the opposite course of action: exclusion of Indigenous perspectives, and even coercive paternalism. Instead, we need to recognise this relationship as a good in itself.

Bureaucracy, not constitutional wording, is the frontline of the encounter between Indigenous people and the state. How the government conducts itself in this area creates lasting effects.

Political negotiation and social change are not outcomes; they are processes. And they can’t be measured using numbers.