The sixth annual closing the gap report was given by Prime Minister Tony Abbott last Wednesday week. He recalled the impact that Paul Keating’s “Redfern Park Speech” in 1992 had on him as a parliamentary staffer, and proclaimed that, “Our failures towards Australia’s first people are a stain on our soul”. This is demonstrative of a man impassioned by a cause and serious about fighting for its resolution, and could be a career defining address for Australia’s 28th Prime Minister.
The Closing the Gap report is an annual update on the progress of six targets set out by the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) in an effort to deal with inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. These targets were declared in 2008, and since then the prime minister’s report on ‘closing the gap’ has become an annual tradition.
These ambitious targets, as stated on the COAG’s website, are to “close the gap in life expectancy within a generation (by 2031); halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018; ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities by 2013; halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018; halve the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rates by 2020; and halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians by 2018.”
While some of these targets are on track to be met, literacy, numeracy and employment targets are not. Mr Abbott points to poor school attendance as a major cause for these failures, and cites indigenous leaders as sources for this observation. It is easy to see why poor school attendance would have long term detrimental consequences for indigenous communities, which suffer from this problem disproportionately.
The Prime Minister in his report reaffirmed his commitment to constitutional recognition of Australia’s first people, and announced a seventh target: “to end the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous school attendance within five years.” Abbott claims that resolving this issue – achieving 90% attendance at every school regardless of indigenous population – would be a large step toward achieving the COAG targets that are currently lagging behind. This initiative was strongly supported by Warren Mundine, former ALP national president and current chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council.
Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, in his reply address emphasised bipartisan support for the goals stated in the Prime Minister’s address, and advocated more sweeping constitutional reforms. Mr Abbott has promised to finalise a draft of the referendum statement by September.
Abbott’s statements send a powerful message regarding the commitment of the current federal government to closing the gap. It is reasonable to interpret the actions of politicians as political posturing, or in this case to capitalise on a particular demographic. However the Prime Minister since entering parliament in 1994 has spent his own time, outside of his own electorate, volunteering with indigenous communities. This time was spent performing a variety of tasks, as a teacher’s aide, as a truancy officer, and most importantly as someone in parliament willing to listen. After two decades of enthusiastic service and engagement with indigenous communities, it may be giving too little credit to consider the Prime Minister’s motivations political rather than personal.