The view from Billinudgel

No sign of Closing the Gap
Scott Morrison needs put his words about working in partnership with Indigenous Australia into action

Scott Morrison delivers the Closing the Gap report. AAP Image / Lukas Coch

As usual, this year’s Closing the Gap report was a pretty depressing document – some progress in some areas, but not much, and no sign of a real turnaround.

So in anticipation of the next one, Scott Morrison has moved the goalposts – we will have to be less aspirational. Not much optimism there. But the prime minister has signalled another possible change – less top-down policy from the government, and more of a partnership with Indigenous Australia.

Obviously this would be a good idea, although hardly a new one. Politicians have been promising it for decades, without any tangible result. And Morrison should know it: the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s proposal for an Indigenous voice, which he contemptuously misrepresents as a third chamber of parliament, is a perfect example.

As is his current schedule for reform: when outlining his priorities for the future, it was unclear if he had consulted with anyone but his own selected envoy, Tony Abbott. And while Abbott may often mean well, he is an unashamed paternalist: he knows better than any of the proposed partners what is to be done.

Thus the priority – Morrison’s priority – is education. This is undoubtedly hugely important, but is it more important than health, housing or the rate of imprisonment?

And more crucially, is this the priority of the communities affected? We don’t know because they were not asked, and while Morrison suggests that they may be in future, the signs are not promising.

His immediate response to Closing the Gap was a unilateral announcement to waive the HECS fees of teachers willing to work in remote communities for four years. This lacks, as Morrison might say, nuance.

Teaching in such communities is a specialised and onerous job – it is not one that can be turned into a success with a bribe. Even those teachers motivated to take on the task seldom last for four years.

There will also be more money for scholarships and support – always welcome, but these measures would be far more likely to produce results if Morrison actually involved his putative partners rather than simply treating them as his clients or customers.

This is about respect, and that is why the big gestures – Paul Keating’s Redfern Statement, Kevin Rudd’s apology, and the movement for an Indigenous voice and constitutional recognition – are vital. The practical approach to reform is clearly crucial, but to make it work there needs to be the cultural, emotional, inclusive commitment to a real partnership.

The biggest gap that needs closing is non-Indigenous Australia’s lack of an acknowledgement of the past. With that there must be a determination to not repeat the ignorance and denial, and to ensure there is genuine collaboration at every level in future.

Morrison has talked the talk; now he needs to walk the walk, and he had better get on with it if he is not to be part of the unhappy legacy of so many previous leaders.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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