We need to do more than just condemning racism to close the gap.

17 Feb 2016

Why don't our politicians condemn racism?

There is currently a petition circulating with over 20,000 signatures calling Prime Minister Turnbull to condemn the words of racist shock jock, Alan Jones, who recently said that “We need Stolen Generations”.

There is certainly a lot of merit to the idea that, as Prime Minister, it is important that our nation see Malcolm Turnbull speak out against such racist, offensive, dangerously ignorant, and grossly ill-informed comments.

There is much concern however, that merely condemning a call for more Stolen Generations would be to ignore the reality that we already have one being enacted before our very eyes. A Stolen Generation of children that is steadily growing, and one that due to massive cuts in funding for frontline Indigenous services and the highly criticised reallocation of funds through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy has left existing services grossly under resourced to meet the enormous task at hand. It has also left them in uncertainty as to the future of their funding after June of this year.

It doesn’t really seem to matter much what some past their used by date shock jock thinks or says when this is the reality of what is already happening. Where these words do become dangerous though is that it reinforces bull-headed ignorance within others, and makes it so much harder to have meaningful national discussions about what is actually going on.

Australian Greens Senator, Rachel Siewert, acknowledged this in her own condemnation of the words of Jones where she said: “Mr Jones’ comments are uninformed and awful. Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children are ten times more likely to be in out of home care, we need to be focusing on how to reduce that, not making ridiculous comments about the need to increase the number of kids going into care. Aboriginal children make up less than 5% of the general population yet they make up 35% of children in out of home care. In my home state of WA it is just over 50%.”

This situation, inadvertently brought further into the light by this racist rhetoric, means our new Prime Minister has an opportunity to do much more than merely condemn his call for a Stolen Generations.

The Prime Minister has an opportunity to reduce the record high numbers of child removal and incarceration that is currently happening, and provide support to Aboriginal families and communities, and certainty to the organisations who are tasked with reducing the numbers of children in Out of Home Care and incarcerated in Juvenile Detention centres.

A recent evaluation of the efficacy of the Northern Territory Intervention has shown that is has been grossly ineffective, and has failed to support the basic Human Rights of Indigenous peoples in the Northern Territory.

As reported in the Guardian, a current Senate Inquiry being held in the Northern Territory, which the Northern Territory government has refused to attend, has heard that the Indigenous Advancement Strategy which was meant to cut red tape and make funding processes more effective is “confusing”, “unprofessional”, and “providing far less funding than needed”.

Considering that over half a billion dollars was removed from Indigenous spending in 2014 without rhyme nor reason, and that the Indigenous Advancement Strategy was rushed in its design and implementation, it is hardly surprising that this inquiry has been told that it is “fundamentally flawed” and needs to be urgently redesigned.

With the recent government focus on Closing the Gap, and the calls of many Indigenous people for the government to make significant changes to ensure that the government is capable of making progress in meeting their own targets, now is the perfect time for the Prime Minister to show not just his moral commitment to closing the gap, but a practical capacity to actually achieve meaningful progress towards it.

We have all seen too many symbolic gestures and good intentions to be very impressed by words and rhetoric alone. We need to see results, and a transparent and accountable plan to achieve them.

Senator Siewert told IndigenousX that “Last year I tabled a report from the Community Affairs References Committee into Out of Home Care. The report focussed attention on the number of Aboriginal kids in care and the circumstances in which they ended up there, addressing issues like disadvantage, lack of resources, lack of culture awareness, need for early intervention and family support programs and the list goes on.

“The Government talks about Closing the Gap. While children continue to go into out of home care at such alarming rates we cannot hope to close the gap.

“There are significant challenges facing the system, this means addressing systemic and interrelated issues linked to social disadvantage including family violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health services. The Government pulled half a billion dollars from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander services in the 2014-15 budget. This funding must be reinstated to support families and re-build frontline services. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy needs an urgent overhaul following it’s chaotic rollout.

“It is also clear we need justice targets to stop the disproportionate rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including youths, ending up in detention.”

Many have called for Justice targets to be added to the Closing the Gap reports, but this idea again been knocked down by Indigenous Affairs Minister, Nigel Scullion, leaving it firmly in the ‘too hard/don’t care’ baskets.

Professor Tom Calma recently wrote, in reference to reducing the gap in Indigenous life expectancy, that while we need to be patient with meeting the Closing the Gap targets, “This achievement will only be realised if policy stability, funding certainty, long-term commitments and meaningful and respectful engagement and empowerment of Indigenous peoples prevail.”

This echoes calls that have been made by all corners for decades now, to little avail.

Co-Chairs of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Dr Jackie Huggins and Rod Little, commented that “We [Congress] have called on the PM to meet with us urgently and enter into a mutually respectful relationship with us to seriously address the ‘disadvantage crisis’ that continues even with the efforts of successive governments and failing Closing the Gap targets. We again call on the PM and others not to ‘do things to us or for us’ but rather to do them with us. We ask that there are no more cuts to our community controlled services, that the Indigenous Advancement Strategy be dismantled, and services refunded to support the strengthening of families with children because our services are the best positioned to close the gaps between us and other Australians.”

While it is heartening to see the calls from the wider community to condemn the words of Jones and Co., but the true strength of our collective voices is in amplifying those voices on the ground, and calling for positive and practical changes to the way government structures processes, policies, and funding regimes to ensure that families and communities have guaranteed access to adequately resourced services.

There will always be voices within the Australian community that promote ignorance and racism (hopefully not always with national media platforms to spew them from though), and those of us who oppose these views need to condemn them, but we also need to lend the power of our voices to those working on the ground, both frontline services and community groups like Grandmothers Against Removal, as well as those lobbying government for change.

This is how we can all work together to make meaningful progress towards Aboriginal empowerment and closing the gap.

There is ample evidence from independent reports and evaluations, from frontline services, advocacy bodies, community representatives and activists, and from within Government itself, that serious change is needed with the Government’s approach to Indigenous Affairs.

The Prime Minister has an opportunity here to show basic common sense and practical leadership by making these changes to Indigenous Affairs funding, to remove failed policies and practices, to learn from these mistakes and to empower Indigenous peoples in a way that none of his predecessors have so far been willing or able to do.

This is our best chance for meaningful progress towards Closing the Gap.


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