The Closing the Gap Trap

11 Feb 2016

Close the Gap. Closing the Gap. What's the difference?

Close the Gap. Closing the Gap.


The former is the campaign to get the government to change the way it structures the Indigenous Affairs; the latter is the government’s efforts to do so. The fact that the government hijacked the branding of the Close the Gap campaign to make its own response look better was probably not a great way to build trust and send a message of respect, partnership and collaboration… but I digress.

Neither of these names really encapsulate the realities of what is going on because no three-word slogan ever can… the realist in me says ‘it is what is’, the optimist in me says ‘it doesn’t have to be though’ and the pessimist in me says ‘see you all next year when the next lot of CTG reports come out saying exactly the same thing’.

Every year the Close the Gap and Closing the Gap reports come out, and every year we see little to no progress made in the key target areas and often we see that the gap is widening in these areas.

The media and political sideshow that exists around these events eventually gets polarised to the inevitable point.

On the one side we have those highlighting that the government is failing to meet its own targets and pointing out that a large part of this is due to the governments refusal to respond to the evidence base; refusal to listen to Indigenous people who are involved at all levels in health, education, and employment; and their refusal to commit to long term funding along with transparent and accountable processes of evaluation and planning.

On the other side we have various people in media and politics who say that Aboriginal people are just blaming white people for their own problems and need to accept collective and individual responsibility for the gap. At the more extreme ends of the spectrum they argue that the government should scrap all Indigenous specific programs and services and that to anything less is ‘dividing our nation’… because apart from that we’re all so awesome and unified, I guess.

In the middle we have the majority of people saying “Wtf is all this about then?”, spending a total of five minutes trying to get their heads around it all, then giving up and hoping the problem will somehow magically solve itself.

This dichotomy though is what forces those working at the highest levels to allow government to get their photo ops every year, make nice speeches, and avoid meaningfully and acknowledging and addressing the failure of government programs and initiatives. The fear is what Dr Charles Perkins identified years ago when he said: “We pray eternally that the White authority structure will not turn on us and impede what little progress we have made.”

So even though what is happening is doing little to close the gap, the fear is that if the resistance to it is too strong then we will lose even the possibility for meaningful change. We will lose the few remaining services that we have, even though we know the ones that exist are brutally under resourced to achieve the necessary steps towards closing the gap.

This leads us to another quote from Dr Perkins:
“We live off the crumbs that fall off the White Australian tables and are told to be grateful.”

Without those few precious crumbs many more lives will be lost, but if we continue to accept nothing but the crumbs that we are given lives will similarly be lost, but we will also lose any hope of meaningful change or Indigenous self determination at individual and collective levels.

The fact that the political speeches made this year focused heavily on the governments requirement 3% of procurement contracts go to Indigenous businesses doesn’t fill one with hope that the budget will have much additional funding for Indigenous health, or that the government is seriously considering how to make practical long term funding commitments that align with their long term goal of ‘closing the gap’. We’ll have to wait for the budget to come out before we know of course, and by then if there is no change to the funding regime it’ll be too late and we will have to wait for another year.

The windows of opportunity each year are so small that the ongoing work of decades gets reduced to a few small moments to try and hold the government to account and get them to not just increase available funding, but significantly shift the processes by which this funding is allocated and to implement rigorous processes of evaluation and accountability.
The media interest in ‘close the gap’ and ‘closing the gap’ comes and goes within a single day, and the focus of their attention very rarely even skims the surface of where we are at and where we need to go.

So how do we change this?

I think the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging it. It is giving a name to the elephants in the room: the role of government, the role of the media, the role of advocates, the role of activists, the role of practitioners, the role of community members, and the role of those who want to help, and the role of the racist rhetoric from those who want to dismantle not just Indigenous affairs but also dismantle Aboriginal communities entirely and Aboriginal cultures.

All of these groups claim to want to see an improvement in the lives of Indigenous people and to see an improvement of the way government works to ‘close the gap’. Despite this apparent alignment of goals, the steps they call for couldn’t be further apart. The lack of awareness of media facilitates the polarising of views, and enables both media and government to avoid responsibility for their role in the ongoing farce.

Attempts to ‘close the gap’ with insufficient resources, processes and policies ensure failure.

Attempts to highlight the failure of government policies and insufficient allocation of resources get thrown back at us as ‘blaming white people for our problems’.

Strong attempts to address either of the above risk losing the grossly insufficient resources that currently exist and seeing even more aggressively punitive and racist policies introduced instead.

That’s the trap that sits at the bottom of the gap, leaving us stuck on a fine line between general incompetence and covert racism, and the malicious intent of overt racism.

The entire nation is trapped, and people are never more dangerous than when they think they are trapped.

It is a feeling that brings out the absolute worst in people: fear, hatred, anxiety, resentment, and confusion. It encourages short sighted responses to long term problems. It breaks down opportunities for meaningful dialogue, collaborative approaches, and long term strategy. It avoids having to search for honest answers to difficult questions.

I’m not sure how we break this cycle… but I guess that all I can say is that I hope you mob working on the ground keep staying strong and try to perform miracles with what little resources you have and that you don’t lose what little you have to work with.

I hope you activist mob keep that fire burning for our rights, our sovereignty, keep everyone on their toes, and keep working to expose racism and government inaction.

I hope you mob working at the top levels don’t lose what little influence you currently have and strive to work with people in all camps to create more practical opportunities for our people, our organisations, and our communities. I think if our advocates and our activists can connect and communicate more effectively they can make each other so much stronger.

I hope people in media start to realize that they are active players and not merely independent observers and in turn strive to increase their own ability to highlight the realities of what is going on all year round and not just 3 or 4 times a year.

I doubt any politicians will ever read this but I hope they can realise that the gap will not be closed by speeches and photo ops but by long term commitments guided by the evidence base and backed up with accountability and transparency rather than punitive responses, misguided rhetoric, and political expedience. I hope you expand the scope of ‘Closing the Gap’ to include justice targets, and any number other essential factors and indicators that all contribute to your current inability to make meaningful progress in service delivery.

I hope non-Indigenous people reading this realise that it’s never been about ‘blaming white people for our problems’ but instead about recognising the ongoing impacts of invasion, racism, and colonisation and striving to remove the barriers to progress that are in the way; and if you think that Aboriginal people are just trying to ‘play the race card’, ‘make white people feel guilty for things their ancestors did’, or any other copy and paste generic statement then yes, you are one of those barriers. Well, more accurately, your ignorance and animosity is one of those barriers, and hopefully you can help us and yourself by working to remove the blinkers and see that what is really happening out there is complex, is nuanced, is something that involves many different people working on many different fronts all trying to do whatever they can not just to ‘close the gap’, but to stop it from widening and being further cemented into the national landscape.

Most of all though, I just hope we aren’t saying the exact same things in another 20, 50, or 100 years’ time, because unless we make meaningful changes on all of the above right now that’s exactly what is going to happen.


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