Thursday, 24 March 2011

Closing the Gap with Indigenous Australia

Today is 'National Close the Gap' Day, an event organized by a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian groups working to support the Government's policies directed at tackling the huge disparities in life expectancy, employment, health and more between Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians.

It is worth supporting.

Because this is an issue all Catholics who take the Church's social teaching seriously should care about.

Policy failure

Australia has two major social policy failures that stick out like a sore thumb at the moment: its treatment of asylum seekers, and the appalling conditions that most Indigenous Australians live in.

The asylum seeker problem looms large on the political agenda.  But in reality it affects only around one or tow thousand people.  And putting in place a more sensible solution (such as community supervision) is difficult only because of bare knuckles politics, fueled by Tony Abbott's (content free) 'stop the boats' rhetoric. 

By contrast Indigenous policy issues, affecting our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of around 517,000 in 2006, continue to receive relatively little coverage in the mainstream media, except when it comes to displaced populations impacting on white Australian communities in Adelaide or Alice Springs!

Part of the reason, it has to be admitted, is that the solutions are a lot less obvious - and a lot less palatable for many of the social justice establishment.  The fact is that almost every possible solution has been tried in Australia at one time or other, and has failed.  And worse for the 'liberal' left, those solutions that do show some prospect of looking like succeeding, involve some degree of very un-PC external compulsion, usually instinctively dismissed by the soft left as misguided paternalism.

The Northern Territory Intervention

Up until a few years ago, most policy initiatives in recent decades made Indigenous leadership and engagement their starting point.  The endemic corruption, inter-tribal disputes and outright incompetence that ensued put paid to that. 

And when it came to looking for next generation approaches, the problem was the truly horrific loss of cultural and social cohesion of many communities, devastated by the effects of alcohol and other drugs, pornography, unemployment and more. 

Yet the status quo was untenable.  How could, after all, a first world country like Australia tolerate a system that resulted in outcomes like Indigenous people's live expectancy 17 years shorter than that of non-Indigenous; Indigenous children in some states 3.6 times as likely to die before the age of five; and only 47.4% of Indigenous children finishing a Year 12 education?

This was the background that lead to the Howard conservative Coalition Government's Northern Territory Intervention, and the subsequent Council of Australian Government's Closing the Gap Initiative maintained and extended under the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments.

The Intervention, it is true, was launched in an extraordinarily heavy-handed way, with no consultation, and insisting on some measures that seemed to reflect a rather broader ideological agenda rather than being strictly necessary to achieve the stated objectives.  But many of its worst features have subsequently been ameliorated.

But is it working?

A lot of money has been poured into Closing the Gap programs.  Much of it, arguably, simply goes some way to making up for years of under-funding particularly on the part of the Northern Territory Government.

The question is, is it having the desired effect?

The most recent Prime Minister's Report claims some small progress with child mortality and other measures.  For much of it though, it is just too soon to tell.  The best chance of change is to stick with it for a few years yet, and give it a chance.

Extend the NT Intervention?

There is one unintended consequence of the Intervention that is becoming clearer though, and that is the move of Indigenous populations out of their remote communities and to the larger towns in the Northern Territory.  And on that subject, Tony Abbott has penned a plea to extend the intervention to places like Alice Springs and Katherine for today's Punch.

Something certainly needs to be done to stem the flow of cheap alcohol, poor policing and appalling living conditions in this towns showcased on ABC's 7.30 last night.  Whether extending the Intervention is the right approach is a much more debatable question.

Restoring trust

Certainly the Intervention did nothing to help a key statistic highlighted in another article on The Punch today, and that's about levels of trust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Richard Fleming reports that:

"The underlying trust gap was unearthed in Reconciliation Australia’s recent Barometer Report. The report, compiled by AusPoll, found that 91 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians do not trust Indigenous Australians and 88 per cent of Indigenous Australians do not trust non-Indigenous Australians – figures which are truly embarrassing for our country."

So what can you, personally, do?

Well one option is to support onegeneration project:

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