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The 12th Annual Closing the Gap Report: A Need for More Effective Community Engagement?

Since Kevin Rudd’s 2008 National Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the subsequent commencement of the Closing the Gap initiative, there have been 12 annual reports tracking Australia’s national progress toward closing health, education, and employment gaps for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Closing the Gap, since its inception, has set 7 targets with varying deadlines: Halve the child mortality gap by 2018; enrol 95 percent of all indigenous four-year-olds in early education by 2025; close the gap in school attendance by 2018; halve the gap in literacy and numeracy skills by 2018; halve the gap for year 12 attainment or equivalent for those Indigenous Australian aged 20-24 Years; halve the gap in employment outcomes by 2018 and; close the life expectancy gap within a generation by 2031. While this most recent report highlighted that some progress has been made towards these targets, only 2 out of the 7 are on track to be achieved within their respective deadlines, being early childhood enrolments and year 12 attainment. Over half of these have already fundamentally failed, with deadlines ending 2 years ago. This begs the question: where is the government failing in its efforts to close the gap and what strategies can be undertaken to rectify these failings?

Our Perspective

From our perspective here at Cross Cultural Consultants the answer to that question lies in truly effective community engagement, leading to policy that is genuinely co-designed with communities for place-based solutions that have real community buy-in. Australia is a vast continent, and although there is a trend in the issues facing many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there is a tendency to see all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as one single homogenous group. This could not be further from the truth. There are in excess of 50 language groups in the Northern Territory alone, and complex layers of historical events and traumas that differ from group to group. Considering these complexities, it is no wonder why policy addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues that have a ‘one size fits all’ approach fails to deliver desirable outcomes.

In 2018 the Coalition government and the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to, and begun undertaking steps toward, a Closing the Gap refresh that revises targets and priorities, promising to work together with Indigenous people to set a new agenda (NIAA, 2019). In response to this year’s report, both the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese displayed a rare vein of bipartisanship, agreeing that the current approach to Closing the Gap is not working. The Prime Minister himself admitted that a “top-down, government-knows-best approach,” which does not work in partnership with Indigenous people is the wrong model to follow and that the overhaul of the framework as per the 2018 commitments would be led by Indigenous Australians (Higgins, 2020). The truth of this Indigenous led overhaul remains to be seen, however the concepts underlying the alleged revised approach can be considered as a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, as is the case with so much policy, what the head says is not necessarily what the hands deliver. Promises made in federal and state parliaments are filtered through various departments and public servants, converted into requests for quotes and tenders that all too often sacrifice quality for the sake of time and money. CCC has worked on countless tenders and undertaken jobs where community and stakeholder engagement, although included within the scope of works, has been woefully under-resourced in terms of its scope and allotted time for completion. Effective community engagement, in a landscape as complex and varied as Australia’s, is time consuming. However, laying the groundwork for tailored policies through quality community engagement and generating genuine community buy in, while slow work at first, is more likely to lead to a faster and more efficient implementation. Moreover, tailored solutions led by communities are more likely to legitimately contribute to building social capital and capacity, thereby improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the board, including in the areas targeted by Closing the Gap. Such an approach focuses on community empowerment and reflects the notion of giving people a hand up, rather than simply a handout.

Closing the Gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not a simple process, as the last 12 years have demonstrated, and it will not be achieved overnight. However, effective community engagement in policy making, which leads to community buy in and empowerment, is in CCC’s opinion the only way to truly achieve better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and for Australia as a whole. Put simply in the Uluru Statement, “When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish… they will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country” (Uluru Statement, 2017).

 

 

References:

Higgins, I. (2020, February 13). Closing the Gap report shows only two targets on track as PM pushes for Indigenous-led refresh, ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-12/closing-the-gap-report-2019-indigenous-outcomes-not-on-track/11949712

National Indigenous Australians Agency, Australian Government. (2019). About Closing the Gap. Retrieved from https://closingthegap.niaa.gov.au/about-closing-gap

The Uluru Statement. (2017). The Uluru Statement from the Heart. Retrieved from https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement

 

Unleashing The Creative Potential Of Aboriginal People

At the time Captain Cook first arrived in Australia he described Aboriginal people thusly:

“From what I have said of the Natives of New Holland they may appear to be the most wretched People upon Earth; but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the Superfluous, but with the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe…”[1]

Cook’s opinion was not unusual at the time, and it was generally believed that Aboriginal people had little to offer intellectually to a Western marketplace despite the millennia of culture and knowledge that preceded settler arrival. This belief has unfortunately tended to hold over the two century history that mainstream Australia shares with Aboriginal people, and it is only in the last few decades we have begun to see change. Mainstream Australia is finally understanding that there is a range of expression that is distinctly Aboriginal, uniquely creative, and valuable in its own right.

From art, to dance and theatre and even comedy, Aboriginal people are now stretching out into their creative potential, and many Australians are embracing the trend. It’s why we’re seeing musicians like Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu reach the world stage, and television programs like Black Comedy and Cleverman being celebrated at home and abroad. However, while white Australia is happy to accept Aboriginal potential in the realm of arts and sports, there needs to be a greater acceptance of Aboriginal intellect as well. Embracing Aboriginal thought leaders is a necessity in shutting down many long-held views that Aboriginal people aren’t ‘quite as good’ as those of European heritage. So, how can white Australia support and encourage Aboriginal Australia to unleash their creative potential, and what kind of possibilities are out there?

Economic Systems In Different Culture

Aboriginal economy functions in a very different way to white Australia’s economy. Relationships go beyond the basics of business, and obligation and trust run deep. It is challenging for someone coming from outside an Aboriginal mindset to properly understand the economic structures of Aboriginal Australia simply because it is a totally different world perspective. Aboriginal people view the world in a different way, and that has caused issues throughout the timeline of interaction.

A major issue when two economic systems come together is that the dominant one tends to assume that the other culture will assimilate to prevailing cultural norms, which clearly hasn’t happened in Australia. Unemployment among Aboriginal people is much higher than non-Aboriginal rates, around 3 times in fact [2]. When surveyed, some 63% of Aboriginal Australians say that it is inadequate training limiting them from getting a job, while some 47% say they just don’t have an understanding of the rules inherent in a workplace [3]. It is those rules that we need to target to achieve long-term and sustainable Aboriginal employment.

There are many assumptions that cause issues when Aboriginal people attempt to join a western workforce. The first is that they’ll just ‘figure it out’ without any kind of induction or support. This mistaken assumption could be because many Australian employers simply cannot see how Aboriginal culture is that different from white culture. Instead they often view Aboriginal people as ‘lazy’ and happy to take money for nothing[1]. The second, and one that probably isn’t talked about enough, is the fact that even when Aboriginal people work they often encounter failed systems. There is a definite, and unfortunate, trend of workplaces flooding their employee pool with unsustainable short-term Aboriginal jobs simply to fill Indigenous employment targets [2]. There’s also the issue of Aboriginal-specific positions, which can be a fantastic way to enter into the job market, but must also include more defined pathways so that Aboriginal workers aren’t finding themselves stuck in roles that cannot advance [3].

Recognising The Past For The Future

It is our contention that recognising the contributions of the past is the best way to pave the way for Aboriginal creative potential in the future. While early settlers to Australia may have believed that Aboriginal people had nothing to offer, the reality is that the country would not have advanced so quickly if not for the help of local Aboriginal experts. They assisted European explorers in the crossing of mountains, the navigation of rivers, the transport of goods, services and people, the navigation of a harsh land, and the survival of it. However, as Dr Cahir notes: “they contributed in many ways and that contribution hasn’t really been recognised” [4].

With more recognition about their impact on the past, we feel that Australia as a whole would be more receptive to the potential involvement of Aboriginal people in the future. Take, for example, our relationship with our Asian neighbours. Well before European settlers even thought of exploring the area, the Yolngu people had a thriving trade with the Makassan people that could have lasted some 400 years [5]. This venture was no doubt assisted by the cultural similarities in the two people, something that we have failed to consider up to this point in our relationships with Asia.

Aboriginal Australia and the Asia Pacific region have more in common than we may ever have with either. Perhaps partnerships with Aboriginal people are what we need to succeed in the Asian environment. History has shown us that strong partnerships, built on cultural similarities, personal relationships and trust can create prosperous communities at both ends. We say that success is worth embracing!

[1] Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards, NSW. Plunder and Protection: attitudes to Aboriginal Art. ab-ed.bostes.nsw.edu.au

[2] Korff, J. 2017. Aboriginal Employment, Jobs & Careers. creativespirits.info

[3] ‘Insights provided in report’, Koori Mail 459 p.39

[4] Cahir, D.F.’Documentary film explores significance of Aboriginal entrepreneurship in Victoria during colonial times’, ABC News              19/11/2015

[5] Makassan Contact With Australia. wikipedia.org

 

Can People In The Dominant Culture Truly Understand Racism?

It’s the battle cry of white Australians, arguing against an uncomfortable reality: Australia’s not a racist country… we’re so multicultural.

Yes, Australia is certainly a multicultural country, but to suggest that would preclude racism is naïve to an extreme. Particularly when 97% of Aboriginal people report they experience racism ‘often’(1), and almost 50% of white Australians still believe that Aboriginal people are given some kind of unfair advantage. When one-in-five Australians would move seats if an Aboriginal person sat next to them. When 10% of non-Aboriginals say “they would not hire an Aboriginal job seeker”. When a third of Australians still think that Aboriginal Australians are ‘lazy’(2).

These are not signs of a country free of racism. The underbelly of Australia is a racist one, make no mistake, and we all suffer for it, even if we do not understand it. While Aboriginal people talk about the racism they experience, others shake their heads in disbelief, in denial.
So, can the dominant culture really understand racism?

White Privilege

“White privilege is an institutional set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate powerful positions in our institutions.”

~ Francis E. Kendall, 2002 (3)

Privilege is hard to see when you’re born into a situation with easy access to everything you need, and much easier to see when you aren’t. The two most common kinds of privilege in our society are white privilege and male privilege. When it comes to racism, those with white privilege find it hard to talk about those on the other side of their experience because they might not feel privileged, or feel that they have more power. Quite simply, they just don’t notice it because they take it for granted.
Most cultural experts agree that an understanding of the often unconscious ways that white privilege works is the first step to tackling racism. A lack of understanding about white privilege is what many believe stops white Australians from failing to understand the impacts that racism has on people in this country.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism, sometimes called systemic racism, is a term used to describe a situation where companies, organisations, or government bodies act in a racist way. Sometimes these actions are deliberate, sometimes they are indirect, but they all have an impact. Institutional racism often slips past the general public undetected, tending to get so caught up in being worried about individual actions of racism, often failing to see the structures of our systems are inherently racism.

Institutional racism is often found in the structure of government programs. These programs might be intended to work for the majority of the population, but minority groups are often excluded because of circumstances or a lack of in-depth understanding of their situations. As a result, they aren’t able to access these programs, which the government might blame them for, instead of seeing how the system has actually let them down.

The Effects Of Racism

We often fail to see the long-term effects of racism, recorded in any instance where an individual is exposed to racism continuously, at any age. Studies with Aboriginal people have shown that experiencing regular racism can lead to poor emotional and physical health, can push people into unhealthy activities, and can limit equal access of necessary services (4).
Basically, if Aboriginal people feel that they aren’t being treated well, they’re less likely to put themselves in those situations again. Where this racism occurs among health care provides or health workers, trauma over racist actions could stop Aboriginal people from seeking treatment, even when they really need it.
The ripple effect of racist behaviour is often much more than we all consider, and when three out of four Indigenous Australians experience racism every day, it’s worth paying attention to.

Here’s The Thing

Australia is a long way from being a country free of racism, but it seems to us that the first step is an obvious one. For those born into cultural privilege, who make up the domain culture in this country, it’s not you who decides if the experiences of the minority are true or false. You cannot speak about them being sensitive, or about political correctness gone crazy, when you have not stood in their shoes. You may not be able to comprehend the level of racism in this country, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

1 ‘How racist are you? Take the test’, Daily Life 11/9/2014
2 ‘BeyondBlue to launch a new campaign highlighting the link between racism and depression’, news.com.au 29/7/2014
3 ‘Understanding White Privilege’, Kendall, F.E., 2002, CPT 6/09
4 ‘Poor health, racism go hand in hand – research’, Koori Mail 448 p.32

Why is Reconciliation important to modern Australia?

Reconciliation.

More than 200 years after the English invaded the land they so erroneously entitled Terra Nullius, it seems that much has changed for the worse, and very little has changed for the better for the original people, the First Australians. In a period of 50 years, Aboriginal people went from being masters of their domain, to being supplicants in their own land, with a population loss of over 80%. As a result of the ongoing marginalisation and exclusion that has been a feature of the interaction between the new masters and the old, Aboriginal people in this country still suffer from higher child mortality, they still get far worse educational outcomes, and they still die much earlier than their counterparts of non-Aboriginal descent. These are some of the measurements used when our Government talks about Closing the Gap, initiatives by which they hope to reduce the disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on numerous fronts.(1)

So, what about reconciliation? Is it really important?

In modern Australia, those viewing the many failures of the Australian Government to enact positive change will tell you that there is almost nothing more important to Australia’s future as a nation than reconciliation. In fact, the process of reconciliation is something many feel that modern Australia can’t afford not to pursue.

What Is Reconciliation, Why Does It Matter?

In the big picture sense of the term, reconciliation in Australia signifies the bringing together of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with other Australians. Rather than being a single action, program or behaviour, reconciliation is a process that eventually hopes to achieve an equality between Australia’s original inhabitants, and those who came after.

Reconciliation matters because Australia has a unique history, but we don’t acknowledge it. It matters because we tell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they should just Get over the atrocities committed to their people, their ancestors, throughout history and as late as the 1970s (and beyond) while standing by a Lest we forget acknowledgement of ANZAC history. We aren’t saying that the ANZACs shouldn’t be commemorated, but why accept one aspect of our past when we shy away from the other?

What it comes down to is this: Australians have a view of themselves, but that view doesn’t match up with the history of the country they call home. As Sol Bellear, the chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service said: “Put simply, reconciliation hasn’t worked in Australia because as a nation, we continue to refuse to face up to our real past.”(2)

Australians often argue that, individually, they didn’t have a hand in these atrocities and that is true. But that doesn’t mean that they should just be ignored, or that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should just be expected to go on as if they had never occurred. The damage has been done, but there is still a way forward. History has taught us that without reconciliation, there will always be anger and hate. A better future is made so by understanding the mistakes of the past, and working to ensure they aren’t repeated.

What Is Reconciliation Not?

Reconciliation is not assimilation. It is not making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people just like us. The Australian Government, and the Australian people, have attempted this in the past and succeeded in causing yet more damage. We have tried to wipe Aboriginal people out, we have tried to breed them out. We very rarely realise that just because our way of life is ideal for us, doesn’t mean it will also be ideal for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The river is the river and the sea is the sea. Salt water and fresh, two separate domains. Each has its own complex patterns, origins, stories. Even though they come together they will always exist in their own right. Our hope for Reconciliation is like that.

– Patrick Dodson(3)

Beyond History

Of course there is more to reconciliation than history. Reconciliation Australia has identified five interrelated dimensions of reconciliation (4), to get a better idea of what is needed to achieve reconciliation, and how we will know our country is reconciled. These are:

– Race relations: That two-way relationships exist between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal Australians through society, based on trust and respect.

– Equality and equity: That Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participate equally and equitably in all areas of life and society, meaning all life outcome gaps are closed and the unique rights of each cultural group is recognised and respected.

– Institutional integrity: Political, business and community institutions support and uphold reconciliation in their structures and goals.

– Unity: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and rights are both recognised and valued as a part of Australia’s shared national identity, leading to national unity.

– Historical acceptance: All Australians both understand and accept the wrongs of the past, and their impact. Agreements are made to ensure those wrongs are never repeated.

These are big goals, but they are the kind of goals that Australia should be embracing if we want to have this bright future that we have dreamt of, and that we have been promised.
There is no future for Australia without reconciliation, and while we still have a long way to go, the tide is starting to turn. All we need to do now is go with the flow.

1 ‘What is Closing The Gap’, Australian Indigenous Health Info Net, healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au, Nov 2016
2 ‘NACCHO Aboriginal health: Hostility to Utopia film a denial of nation’s brutal past – Sol Bellear and Adam Goodes’, nacchocommunique.com, Mar 2014
3 ‘RAP blessed with water’, Reconciliation News, Dec 2009, p.26
4 ‘The State Of Reconciliation In Australia’, Reconciliation Australia, Feb 2016, p.7

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