The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, is seeking to overhaul the goals of a national indigenous health initiative called Closing the Gap. Indigenous delegates from every Australian state and territory attended a summit with government officials in Canberra, Australia’s capital, starting February 5 to review the current goals of Closing the Gap. Indigenous leaders called upon the government to uphold the goals set by this initiative and proposed a list of future areas Closing the Gap could target to reduce social inequities for indigenous Australians.
Closing the Gap was initiated by the Rudd government in 2008 after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians for government policies that broke up their families and communities. Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation permitted indigenous Australians to sue the government, but the apology was not backed by direct reparations. Nonetheless, the Rudd government launched Closing the Gap to address health and welfare discrepancies between indigenous Australians and White Australians.
Turnbull’s review of the decade-old Closing the Gap goals comes after an annual report found that the government lagged behind on six of the seven goals outlined in the initial plan. The Closing the Gap steering committee, a coalition of non-profit groups, found that the program began to fall behind after the federal government cut $530 million from the Indigenous Affairs Ministry in the 2014 budget. The review also blamed a “revolving door of prime ministers, indigenous affairs ministers, and senior bureaucrats” for hindering the progress made under the initiative.
The initial seven areas targeted are child mortality, employment, reading and writing, school attendance, early education, and completion of 12 years of school. Currently, only the 12 years of education remains on track.
The Prime Minister’s department has drafted a paper for this meeting with indigenous leaders to create new goals in areas not covered by the initial plan. These goals include housing, higher education, resolving outstanding land claims, child protection, and reducing “recidivism and violent offending,” although the Australian government previously pushed back against goals regarding child protection and violent recidivism. Indigenous groups also want to include goals pertaining to indigenous culture and language and addressing historical damages.
The initiative’s original goals were criticized by some as overly ambitious, but former Prime Minister Rudd argued that they were meant to be difficult to make up for centuries of oppression.
Indigenous leaders emphasized that the government must be willing to make long-term commitments to meet these goals and should not anticipate immediate results, according to Karen Heap of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization.
Michael Mansell of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre argued that the government needs to create a “national Aboriginal body” committed to addressing the standard of living issues. One of Prime Minister Turnbull’s chief indigenous affairs advisers explained that this idea is still on the table, despite rejecting a referendum on it. “If [Australia] really wants to make a difference to the living standard of Aboriginal people, it must be driven by Aboriginal people who are directly affected,” stated Mansell.