Closing the Gap - A cause for dignity

Few occasions in parliament see both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader stand firmly united, at least rhetorically, on a particular social issue. Earlier this week, both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott reminded us of the urgency in which “Closing the Gap” (addressing ways to secure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inclusion and wellbeing) is a crucial, though necessarily ambitious, national commitment.

Whether it is the generational gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy, the high incarceration rates of Aboriginal youth, the appalling rate of deaths in custody, the lack of employment opportunities, or poor community housing in the Northern Territory, we do not need to be reminded that Australia has a seriously pressing need to address the widespread injustices affecting our First Peoples.

So is this heightened political attention to repairing systemic Indigenous inequality a promising sign?

When the Northern Territory Emergency Response (“Intervention”) was announced in response to the “Little Children are Sacred Report” into child sexual abuse in 2007, the then Howard Government sought to mobilise feelings of outrage in order to justify a series of policy initiatives aimed at resolving the “emergency” at hand.

Despite the report’s very first recommendations, community consultation was superseded by electoral politics.  The government began by suspending the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Alcohol and pornography bans were implemented. Reforms meant that welfare payments for Indigenous people became subject to a bureaucratic quarantine.

It is easy to be convinced by crisis narratives, especially those involving children. If we can resist that sense of urgency, we can think more critically about the fact that issues like poverty, domestic violence, health inequities, and educational disparities were embedded deep within the territory. They did not appear overnight.

Policy requires evidence and consultation – not appeals to uninformed public anxieties.

Despite the PM’s appeal to public feeling, such as the hope for reconciliation and equality, she acknowledges:

“The reality of change is never simple, our knowledge is never perfect and action is never easy. But Closing the Gap has allowed Australia to move beyond anecdote and intuition and instead act on the best evidence we get.”

In arguing for the importance of evidence, the PM reminds us that sentiment alone cannot be the basis on which we base public policy. Additionally, securing change is difficult. I would have to agree. Troublingly though, if we compare such passionate rhetoric with the political reality, we see a very different story.

In 2012, the Gillard Government extended the Intervention for another 10 years under the legislative misnomer “Stronger Futures.” Even though the government restored the application of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the laws still extend alcohol restrictions and enable Centrelink the ability to suspend payments for parents whose children do not attend school.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and Amnesty International condemned the measures for failing the basic task of adequate consultation. After all, if you want to know what benefits someone, you may want to ask those affected directly. We also have to question the efficacy of an “emergency response” that needs to last for at least 15 years.

Given Australia’s disingenuous dismissal of its obligations arising under the UN Convention Relating to Status of Refugees 1951, it sadly comes as little surprise that Australia also fails to meet the threshold of acquiring “free, prior and informed consent” when implementing measures in Indigenous communities as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007.

For example, our social imaginary recognises Indigenous people consuming alcohol within the metaphor of “rivers of grog.” Yet, when we think about non-Indigenous alcohol consumption in Sydney, we see it as part of a “fun day out.” Whether it is Darwin or Sydney, incidents of violence persist. So why is the former more visible to us as a problem to be collectively managed, while the latter is considered an issue for individual decision-making?

No one is denying that alcohol can have corrosive effects on communities. Nor should the government abdicate its responsibility in regulating these issues. What is particularly concerning, however, is the way the unremitting need to police alcohol means that Indigenous peoples in these communities are caricatured as perpetual victims who need to be “saved” from themselves by a protective government.

We should work with, not speak for, Indigenous peoples and communities. We should support self-determination, not paternalism.

Let’s not forget the last time the state engaged in a colonising “responsibility” narrative, it forcibly removed children from their parents. In fact, it is already happening again in the NT.  

What this signals then is the need to reflect critically and uncomfortably on a number of questions.

If racism continues to scar Australia, why do we hesitate to constitutionally prohibit racial discrimination and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution?

If MPs believe that Aboriginal histories are an integral part of our identity and future, why do we insist on having our national holiday on a day that marks violent dispossession and colonialism?

Do we, or more accurately, our MPs, really think that we can respect the dignity of Indigenous communities by enforcing paternalistic and punitive laws that seek to demean and shame them?

We can talk about responsibility and benefits, but it matters little if individual dignity is eroded in the process.

Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow.

Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun

(Image via FDC) 

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