Review Finds Government’s Closing the Gap Policy Has ‘Fallen Apart’
8 February 2018 at 5:05 pm
The federal government’s Closing the Gap policy has “all but fallen apart” due to extensive funding cuts and political instability, a 10-year review into the strategy has found.
The Closing the Gap Strategy was unveiled by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2008, looking to achieve life expectancy equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by 2030.
On Tuesday, The Close the Gap Campaign – made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous health and community organisations – released a 10-year review of the strategy that concluded it had been “effectively abandoned” by the government.
.@June_Oscar tells @TurnbullMalcolm you made a commitment to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rather than do things to us. Now is the time for you and your government to fulfil that commitment. #ClosetheGap pic.twitter.com/0jWMHUTghD
— AusHumanRights (@AusHumanRights) February 7, 2018
“Over the decade since 2008, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs have experienced discontinuity and uncertainty,” the report said.
“Regular changes to the administration and quantum of funding, shifting policy approaches and arrangements within, between and from government, cuts to services, and a revolving door of prime ministers, Indigenous affairs ministers and senior bureaucrats have all but halted the steady progress hoped for by First Peoples.
“After the initial funding commitments made for the Closing the Gap Strategy, via the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA) and the supporting National Partnership Agreements (NPAs) – the strategy was effectively abandoned with the extensive cuts (over $530 million) made to the Indigenous Affairs portfolio in the 2014 Federal Budget.”
The report said the Closing the Gap Strategy “requires a reset” which rebuilds the appropriate architecture to ensure disparities in health outcomes for the Indigenous population do not continue to widen.
“National priorities like addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health inequality have not gone away, are getting worse, and more than ever require a national response,” the report said.
“Without a recommitment to such ‘architecture’, the nation is now in a situation where the closing the gap targets will measure nothing but the collective failure of Australian governments to work together and to stay the course.
“Yet, if Australian governments are serious about achieving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality within a generation, a refreshed Closing the Gap Strategy must include commitments to realistic and equitable levels of investment.”
Close the Gap Campaign co-chair and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner June Oscar AO, said the strategy had failed to deliver and required urgent action.
“The life expectancy gap has in fact started to widen again and the Indigenous child mortality rate is now more than double that of other children,” Oscar said.
“This is a national shame and demands an urgent tripartite health partnership. This must be high on the agenda at [Wednesday’s] COAG meeting.”
Oscar said the federal government needed to show leadership in resetting the Closing the Gap approach since the Commonwealth had overriding responsibility for primary health care.
“The national architecture of health equality efforts – the Closing the Gap Strategy – has suffered from unrealised potential, and an unravelling in recent years,” she said.
“There is now little in the way of a coordinated response to the health of our peoples, and the federal government, working with the states and territories must change this.
“We want to see premiers, chief ministers, health and Indigenous affairs ministers in every jurisdiction providing regular, public accountability on their efforts to address the inequality gaps in their state or territory.”
More than 50 Indigenous leaders met with government representatives in Canberra on Tuesday to discuss the report’s findings, a week before Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is scheduled to give the annual Closing the Gap statement.
Turnbull admitted in last year’s statement to parliament that six out of the seven targets were not on track, but said his government was committed to closing the gap.
“My government will not shy away from our responsibility and we will uphold the priorities of education, employment, health and the right of all people to be safe from family violence,” Turnbull said.
“We will not waver in our quest to achieve these outcomes.
“But we will have the humility to admit that we must travel this road together, with open hearts and a determination to ensure that our First Australians, and all Australians, will be able here, more than anywhere, to be their best, and realise their dreams.”
Rod Little and June Oscar pulled no punches at parliament this morning. Literally speaking truth to power, they looked @TurnbullMalcolm in the eye and told him to step up. #ClosetheGap pic.twitter.com/lwICTMghyG
— Janet Rice (@janet_rice) February 7, 2018
Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) CEO Ian Hamm, told Pro Bono News the government “shouldn’t be surprised” by the review’s findings.
“I think it’s reflective of a process that probably from its inception, was not what it should have been, if we want to not only close gaps, but look to where the Aboriginal community rightfully should be in a generation,” Hamm said.
Hamm said it was important the refreshed strategy is co-designed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and includes community consultation, but added that the focus should go beyond simply closing gaps.
“Perhaps we should stop talking about closing the gap and talk about bigger strategies and [examine] what is the ambition of Aboriginal Australia and what does it want to look like in 10 to 20 years, rather than just talking about closing specific gaps,” he said.
“The strategy really needs to engage the Aboriginal community in it, and the Aboriginal community also has to lead it. And then governments should look at what it can do to achieve this greater outcome.
“This is better than governments leading actions on a couple of specific targets which we’ve been doing for 10 years. Because if you don’t consider the bigger picture, you don’t actually get anywhere besides burning a whole bunch of money.”
Labor leader Bill Shorten called for “absolute commitment” from all sides of politics to address the widening health gap.
“The overwhelming message today is that 10 years on from the Closing the Gap statement, the [statistics], the numbers, the human outcomes are getting worse, not better. And what is now required is an absolute commitment, from all sides of politics, to make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are included in the decision making,” Shorten said on Tuesday.
Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert added that the review should prompt an urgent reset by the government.
“I am saddened but not surprised to read today that the government ‘effectively abandoned’ Closing the Gap policy after five years,” Siewert said.
“I strongly urge the Turnbull government to adopt the recommendations outlined in the report released today. The government needs to listen to our First Peoples who have been offering solutions on how to reach close the gap targets and genuinely close the gap.
“We do not want to look back in another 10 years and see that matters are even worse, it’s time to turn things around.”
— Leonie Williamson (@OhNoLeonie) February 7, 2018
Despite the numerous issues raised, Oscar, along with fellow Close the Gap Campaign co-chair Rod Little, said they were hopeful a recommitment by government could get things back on track.
“While the approach has all but fallen apart, we know that with the right settings and right approach, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people leading the resetting of the strategy, we can start to meet the challenge of health inequality, and live up to the ideals that all Australians have a fundamental right to health,” the co-chairs said.
Likewise, Hamm said he still was hopeful that his vision for a culturally confident Aboriginal community was achievable in the next 10 to 20 years.
“One thing I’ve learnt about being Aboriginal and being involved in this for a very long time, is that you don’t take setbacks as finality,” he said.
“I’m as hopeful and as confident about what Aboriginal Victoria might look like in a generation from now as I was before this week’s discussion about closing the gap.
“This is a long-term journey and we have to bear in mind that a lot of things will contribute to where we want to get to. And the Commonwealth Closing the Gap Strategy is just one of the many things that are in play during our journey.”