In February each year, on what has become known as ‘Groundhog Day’, the Australian Prime Minister delivers the news of the abject and endemic failure of Closing the Gap, a government strategy that aims to reduce the appalling disadvantage faced by Australia’s Indigenous people.
The ‘gaps’ represent the differences between various life factors and living standards that non-Indigenous people enjoy in Australia when compared to that which Indigenous people are statistically likely to face. The stated intentions of the strategy, first published in 2008, are to:
- close the life expectancy gap within a generation (by 2031)
- halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade (by 2018)
- ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities within five years (by 2013)
- halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade (by 2018)
- halve the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment rates (by 2020)
- halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade (by 2018)
This must be a dreaded time for Australian PM’s and whilst successive Prime Ministers have tried to gloss over the results in various ways by putting some positive PR spin on the results or blaming their predecessors or even Indigenous people themselves, the dismal results documented every year only serve to highlight how incapable our government is. They probably curse the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for initiating the damn thing in the first place!
I worked in the Australian Government’s Indigenous Culture Branch from 2011 to 2014, a time when the Branch largely resided within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Based in the Perth office of the Ministry for the Arts (closed by Tony Abbott in 2014) I worked with Indigenous people in regards to the various Indigenous arts and cultural funding streams that the Branch administered. In my three years in the public service I served under Prime Minister’s Rudd, Gillard, Rudd again and finally Abbott – not that I met any of them.
The best part about the job was meeting with Indigenous artists and cultural leaders working within the arts and cultural sector in Western Australia, many from the Stolen Generation. Sometimes we met in person, but as many of these leaders lived in remote communities we mostly talked by phone.
We were service providers, and we all know what it’s like when a service provider pisses you off. When you’re on the phone to Vodafone complaining about the crap service they provide, you know that you’re talking to a staff member working at a low level within the organisation, but you hope that maybe your complaint will get passed on up to the highest level, although you know it probably never will.
My experience of working within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) was akin to what Vodafone call centre staff must experience daily, although what we were talking about was much more important than data-limits or bill-shock. Knowing that they were talking to a DPMC staffer, Aboriginal people would frequently give me advice on how the Government should work with Indigenous people. Probably unlike Vodafone callers, the people I spoke with were rarely anything but polite, despite knowing from years of experience of dealing with bureaucrats that offering the advice was probably a waste of time, and they were right, as no procedures existed for me to pass such advice up-the-chain of command. The reason why there were no such avenues was, I suspect, because collectively the people at the top of the chain of command such as the Prime Minister either thought they knew all about it already or really couldn’t give a shit.
What struck me about the advice I was given was that the same messages kept coming through from people representing different Aboriginal arts, language and cultural groups in Western Australia. The following messages, in order of frequency, directed to the Australian Government via yours truly, are the ones I reckon I heard the most:
- The Australian Government needs to listen to Aboriginal people, but doesn’t
- Culture, in all its various manifestations including language, music, dance and law, is everything
- Country is everything too, and getting young Indigenous people back ‘on country’ is especially important to maintain the ongoing connection with the land
Since my first days in the Department I’ve been paying attention to what our elected representatives have had to say about addressing Indigenous disadvantage and their ideas about how to do so. The methods the politicians want to employ don’t align with what Indigenous people were telling me every day about listening, culture and country.
Like many people, I was left aghast when Tony Abbott, then Australian Prime Minister and self-appointed Minister for Indigenous Affairs, sneeringly described the decisions made by Indigenous people to live in remote Indigenous communities as a “lifestyle choice”. As I understood it, there exists a cultural obligation to live on country and look after the land, and getting more Indigenous people back to their communities and country is an important activity helping to solve many of the problems that Indigenous people face. I was often told about how bringing young Indigenous people, particularly teenage boys from the cities, back on country to learn more about their heritage, culture and traditional ways significantly helped them to overcome many of the challenges they faced living in the city, which in turn reduced the likeliness of them displaying anti-social or criminal behaviours. It’s hard to believe that Abbott undertook a week long “listening tour” of Arnhem Land; having big ears apparently doesn’t improve one’s listening skills!
Just last week the Guardian published an article by the internationally respected journalist Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri man, in which he says
We hear from black leaders what we have so long heard and which continues to go unheeded: listen to us, engage with us, empower us. That political gap remains as difficult to close as the gap in life expectancy.
Calls such as Grant’s, from Indigenous Australians to non-Indigenous Australia, and especially the Government, is loud and clear – listen to Indigenous people!
The call to listen isn’t only present in the articles and speeches that people like Stan Grant and others write, it’s also clear from the music and art made by Indigenous people. Take for example the song lyrics for From The Bush by The Warumpi Band:
You’ve got all you need
Can’t you listen to us?
We know how to share it up
In the bush
You’ve got all you need
Can’t you understand?
We got to have our land
In the bush
Listen to me
The impassioned plea to listen delivered through the Warumpi Band’s energy in From The Bush is reflected in Tony Albert‘s towering Pay Attention art installation (two versions pictured at the top of the page and below) where the level of exasperation is similarly obvious. Whilst Albert’s work rewards those who want to engage with it more deeply, the message couldn’t be any clearer!
Just the other day I received an email addressed from Dr. Lynore Geia, a senior health professional and Bwgcolman woman, inviting me to hear her story via an embedded video (see below). In the email she says the following, which is also reiterated in the video;
The biggest role for our non-Indigenous friends is to listen, to hear our stories.
But the Government says that it is listening.
Recently, as reported by the ABC, a spokesman for the Government said that the Prime Minister “has met and spoken to several Indigenous leaders and people, and will continue to seek a diverse range of views as we progress Indigenous policy matters… all members of the Government are out listening, and responding, to the needs of their communities. This includes Indigenous people.”
I call bullshit on this. The government might be hearing the voices of Indigenous people, but they certainly aren’t listening, and their behaviour and the continually poor results against the stated objectives of Closing the Gap indicate that they don’t want to. Whilst our elected representatives might claim to be “passionate”about helping Indigenous people, or have a great deal of “knowledge” about Indigenous culture, passion and knowledge count for little without the capacity to listen .
When the government does listen to what Aboriginal people have to say, they do so selectively. As Amy McQuire, a Darumbul woman, writes for New Matilda,
Governments are more than willing to listen to Aboriginal solutions that align with their own belief systems. They are less likely to listen to Aboriginal people who do not support white dreams for black futures.
I recently wrote a post about listening where I widely quoted Stephen R Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People who provides interesting insights into the listening process and how to develop what he calls emphatic listening.
To highlight a point about listening, he provides the following allegory:
Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and hands them to you.
“Put these on,” he says. “I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now and they’ve really helped me. I have an extra pair at home; you can wear these.”
So you put them on, but it only makes the problem worse.
“This is terrible!” you exclaim. “I can’t see a thing!”
“Well, what’s wrong?” he asks. “They work great for me. Try harder.”
“I am trying,” you insist. “Everything is a blur.”
“Well, what’s the matter with you? Think positively.”
“Okay. I positively can’t see a thing.”
“Boy, are you ungrateful!” he chides. “And after all I’ve done to help you!”
The attitude of the optometrist towards his patient will be an experience familiar to many Indigenous people. When white folk first arrived in Australia and decided they wanted to help Indigenous people, they said to them “Our religion has served us well, so if you follow our religion you will be better off”. Today our elected representatives say “Our economic systems have served us well, so if you buy into our economic systems you will be better off”. The preferred method of improvement suggested by ‘the ones who know best’ may have changed, but the message to “do it our way” hasn’t.
The sense of white supremacy still reeks strong in Australia today. This isn’t surprising given our history since Federation in 1901; a large percentage of the Australian population grew up whilst the White Australia policy was in place, and were raised to believe in the false assumptions of their perceived racial superiority.
The current Australian Prime Minister talks about addressing Indigenous disadvantage using words like “innovation”, “enterprise” and “economic empowerment through employment”, and when he does, I think back to the words that Indigenous people used when telling me how they thought disadvantage should be addressed. “Culture”, as in arts, language, music, law and the like, was a concept often discussed as a key to closing each of the gaps, but I never hear politicians talk about culture in this way. When Aboriginal people told me about how they would address disadvantage, no one ever said anything about “enterprise” or “constitutional recognition”. That’s not to say that these things don’t matter to Indigenous people, but I would suggest there are probably other priorities, such as culture and country, that most would seek to put first. The “white gaze”, says Stan Grant, is what “traps black people in white imaginations”.
People like columnist Andrew Bolt, a man who I doubt even believes his own shtick, are quick to talk about the ‘responsibility’ that Indigenous people need to take to help close the gap of disadvantage. In any discussion where two people or groups are trying to move forward on a particular issue, the very first step is for one side to offer a suggestion and the primary responsibility of both parties is to listen. If listening doesn’t occur moving forward is an impossibility. When it comes to closing the gap, it is the Government that is not taking responsibility, as it’s incapacity to listen prevents the discussions from getting over the very first hurdle, or even to the starting blocks. Indigenous people couldn’t demonstrate more responsibility in this regard, working hard to find consensus across a broad range of different languages and cultures, and then delivering on a platter to the rest of us clear instructions on how exactly to move forward. It’s white Australia that is being irresponsible by ignoring what has been provided!
As I’ve written about elsewhere, I spent some years living and working in Northern Ireland and observing the peace process there, which was then and remains today a stop-start process. The main hurdle that existed at that time involved an ultimatum that the IRA decommission its weapons in order for the peace process to move on to the next step, that being the withdrawal of large amounts of British troops from the province and the right of IRA members on the run to return home without fear of prosecution. The issue of decommissioning was an incredibly vexed one, but the Republican community worked through the issues, decommissioned the weapons, and reaped the benefits of increased peace.
Listening should be much more straightforward than the decommissioning of weapons in order to advance a process. But for white Australia to start to listen it needs to firstly get over its own presumptions of superiority.
Today I write from my own anecdotal experience and quote what I’ve heard and read from Indigenous people I don’t claim that the people I listened to represent anyone’s views other than their own. I generally found that the Aboriginal people I spoke to welcomed the Closing the Gap strategy as a good one and it was often referred to. I’ve heard it said that the strategy has been welcomed by Indigenous people because it was written with genuine and widespread consultation with Aboriginal people, although I’ve heard contrary opinions on this claim too.
I have, however, seen first-hand some of the cynical approaches that governments take to consultations with Aboriginal groups, such as the organisation of consultative sessions to which only a few, often irrelevant people, are invited; this allows governments to tick the “consultation” box and then having manufactured consent from Indigenous people, act with impunity thereafter.
If I learned one thing from working for various levels of government in Australia it is that governments do what they want to and on their own terms. I got the distinct feeling that Indigenous people were nothing more than an unpleasant inconvenience to the higher echelons of the Australian Government, and certainly weren’t a people to be celebrated.
Indigenous people know what needs to be done to close the gaps, and whilst Indigenous Australia is very diverse, there is widespread agreement about how to do so. There are plenty of engaged people who work in government positions, including Aboriginal people, and at a Federal level a handful of Ministers exist who are not incapable of genuine emphatic listening. Collectively though, the Australian Government retains its colonialist attitudes of arrogance and superiority with ideological heels firmly rooted in the Social-Darwinian ignorance of the White Australia Policy. With an incapacity to see through anything other than an economic lens, the Australian Government doesn’t have a clue about what’s best for Aboriginal people.
The first box to tick might be the hardest. Let’s start by putting aside our own egos and pay attention to Indigenous people like Stan Grant, Tony Albert, The Warumpi Band and others who provide the nation with very clear instructions on exactly how to close the gap, the first of which is “to listen”.
Click here to view my post about listening.
The featured image for this post is a photo taken by Mervyn Bishop – you can read more about the photo here.