In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments decided to ‘close the gap in indigenous disadvantage’. It identified 6 targets in the fields of health, education and employment where policy could ‘close’ gaps between Indigenous and other citizens.
By 2020, some progress had been made on each target, but only two were ‘on track’ to be met: halving the gap in Indigenous secondary school completions, and ensuring that 95 per cent of Indigenous four year-olds participate in early childhood education.
There was no significant Indigenous involvement in setting these targets, nor in working out how they might be achieved. Indigenous health professional bodies argued a need to move beyond targets to:
‘Ensure the full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their representative bodies in all aspects of addressing their health needs.’
The Prime Minster and Leader of the Opposition agreed, and in 2009 Australia reversed its opposition to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs explained that:
‘The Declaration gives us new impetus to work together in trust and good faith to advance human rights and close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.’
Yet, neither Indigenous participation nor the Declaration have subsequently had significant influence on policy development. There is no meaningful agreement on the ideas that Indigenous nations are independent political communities, and that Indigenous people are entitled to influence in state policy-making. For example, the Federal government has rejected arguments for a guaranteed Indigenous Voice to parliament. And it hasn’t engaged in discussion about treaties to recognise distinctive Indigenous political status.
So, it was significant that when he launched new closing the gap targets last week, the Prime Minister explained that a fundamentally different approach had informed their development. Scott Morrison said that in the past, ‘We told Indigenous Australians what the gap was that we were going to close – and somehow thought they should be thankful for that’. Instead: ‘This is about changing the way we do things and ensuring that we apply the resources most effectively to do that’.
Indigenous peoples have been invited into a partnership with governments to develop these new goals. Education, health and employment are still important. But the new targets are more specific in their focus, and reflect broader Indigenous aspirations relating to land and language rights, and the rate of Indigenous imprisonment.
But, in the same week, the Attorneys-General of Australia’s six states and two territories couldn’t agree on a proposal to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14. This is significant, because 60% of prisoners under the age of 14 are Indigenous.
A human rights approach to policy development does support the new closing the gap targets. But the approaches to implementation, evaluation and accountability fall short.
The Government says that formal partnerships with Indigenous bodies will be developed and that there will be shared decision-making. Indigenous exclusion will not continue. However, partnership and policy co-design do not presume substantive Indigenous leadership or political authority.
The value of the new target to increase Indigenous land holding depends on the strength of Indigenous property title. At present, governments may extinguish native title, as the Queensland government did, to override the Wangan and Jagalingou nation’sobjection to a private company’s construction of a coal mine on its territory. This was a breach of the Declaration’s insistence that this kind of development may occur only with the Indigenous nation’s free and informed consent.
As well as there being no guarantee of Indigenous leadership, there is no adequate means of accountability to Indigenous people for meeting the targets. The idea of ministerial accountability to the public, through parliament, doesn’t work when there is just one Indigenous minister in Parliament, and just five Indigenous members, each of whom is principally accountable to their non-Indigenous electors.
The lead Indigenous negotiator was correct to say that these new targets were a ‘huge step forward’. But the partnership is not equal, is state lead, and there is no accountability to Indigenous Australia for its success or failure.
A Voice to parliament and treaties could support the transition from partnership to leadership.