Closing The Gap Between Rhetoric And Reality


Last Thursday, two years after his apology to the stolen generations, Kevin Rudd delivered his "Closing The Gap" speech to Parliament. Two years ago, Rudd recalled, he "pledged to lead a new, national effort to close the gap in life expectancy and life opportunities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians."

"Governments first must take responsibility for addressing their past failures in Indigenous affairs," said Rudd. Note the reference to past failures? Presumably we’re supposed to believe that since Rudd took office the government has been doing everything right. The rest of the blame for the current state of affairs was distributed by Rudd between the Australian public and Indigenous Australians who should "take greater responsibility".

Indeed, the PM made every effort to evade acknowledgement of what is clear to observers: his policies are not closing the gap. We don’t need to look hard for evidence that this is so.

In July 2009, the Productivity Commission released a report into Indigenous disadvantage which found that there had been no improvement in 80 per cent of the indicators examined by the Commission.

The research undertaken by the Productivity Commission addresses directly the "six clear targets" that Rudd last week acknowledged his Government had set in 2008. Not only did the Commission find no evidence that Rudd was approaching his targets, they did not find any evidence of improvements in these six target areas. When confronted with this report last year, Rudd described its findings as "devastating".

Six months later, in his "Closing The Gap" speech, the Prime Minister claimed that in all six target areas, things are moving in the "right direction". There are "positive trends", "significant improvements" and the like.

Has Rudd received any new evidence that this is the case? If he has, it hasn’t been made public. As he should know, this report represents the best information available on the targets to which Rudd referred — and it is not the only example of information that he has chosen to overlook for political reasons.

The Northern Territory Intervention was implemented under Howard with the support of the ALP and it has been maintained under Rudd. This policy — the most significant federal Indigenous policy innovation in the last several years — is soon to be expanded.

As Rudd noted in his speech, his government has invested $1.2 billion dollars in the Intervention. He did not mention that the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) released a report on the Intervention last year which monitored the progress of the policy to June 2009. Rudd may have chosen not to mention this report, Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory, because its findings clearly point to policy failure.

In fact, in spite of the Government’s enormous expenditure on the Intervention — and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin’s plan to impose compulsory income management nationally — Rudd almost entirely avoided the Intervention.

Astonishingly, Rudd’s only reference to income management was via discussion of the Cape York Welfare Reforms directed by Noel Pearson in northern Queensland. Improved school attendance rates under this program are, Rudd argued, an indication that the policy works.

Why didn’t Rudd discuss the results of compulsory income management in the 73 "prescribed communities" of the Northern Territory? According to FaHCSIA’s report, school attendance declined from 63.1 per cent in June 2007 to 63 per cent in June 2009.

It wasn’t until Rudd got around to discussing the Intervention’s housing program (SIHIP) that he really hit his stride. Here, Rudd stridently condemned the "legacy" of "government failure", as shown by "unacceptable delays" in SIHIP. According to Rudd, his officials took "unprecedented action to get the program on track", and finally delivered results. He announced that "the keys to the first two houses [were]handed over to tenants this week."

More than two years after the Intervention started "we remain", Rudd stated confidently, "on target" to build 750 new houses. At the current rate of "unprecedented action", we can expect the remaining 748 houses to be finished in 2758.

The 750 new houses were allocated to address the overcrowding conditions endured by the estimated 40,000 people living in "prescribed communities". The FaHCSIA report noted that 73 per cent of children under 12 months old were at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) due to bed sharing.

However, we shouldn’t solely attribute blame for the housing crisis to the Federal Labor Government. The NT Government has done its part to contribute to the overcrowding crisis by selling or demolishing nearly 200 public housing dwellings over the last two years.

Spending $1.2 billion on the Intervention sounds like a major commitment to addressing entrenched inequality in the Northern Territory. The FaHCSIA report, in which government spending is painted in the best light possible, however, shows what kind of investments the Rudd Government is making in closing the gap.

In addition to 76 nurses and nine allied health professionals, the Government is funding just eight new GPs to meet the needs of the 73 prescribed communities in the Northern Territory and while we have heard much about "rivers of grog" the enormous Intervention budget includes all of $2.6 million for alcohol and drug treatment services.

The Government also shows its urgent commitment to protecting children from abuse with five child protection workers now funded to cover the 73 prescribed communities.

Such failings were noted by the panel picked by Macklin to review the Intervention. Their scathing criticisms of the Intervention were largely ignored by the Minister. 

Paul Toohey summarised the findings of the draft report nicely. It pinpointed, he wrote, "dysfunctional government service delivery" and "the chronic failure by all levels of government to provide basic civic services". These were found to be the "key determinants" of all that was wrong with Aboriginal communities.

Late last year it was reported that the Northern Territory Labor Government had diverted $2 billion over the last five years of money earmarked for Indigenous communities. Figures showed that instead, "the NT Government was overspending on superannuation, debt, and culture and recreation."

Rudd’s disingenuous Closing The Gap speech makes it hard to believe that his government is tackling Indigenous disadvantage in good faith. Until our leaders stop lying to us about the impacts of their policy, it’s hard to see how real progress can be made.

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