Australia will not make any progress in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples unless the government is prepared to provide significant additional funding directly to Aboriginal organisations, the co-chair of the joint council on Closing the Gap has said.
The joint council signed off on a draft agreement for a closing the gap strategy at a meeting on Friday. That agreement outlined four priority areas for reform and set 16 targets, but the targets will not be released until after the agreement is approved by national cabinet at a meeting later this month.
Joint council co-chair Pat Turner, who is also the chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), said that the timeframe for achieving parity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in key measures like the incarceration rate, life expectancy and educational attainment was dependent on the level of government investment.
To date, the federal government has not committed any new money to the Aboriginal community-controlled sector to support the draft agreement.
The Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, who co-chairs the joint council with Turner, has repeatedly said there will be no new money, just a refocusing of existing funding.
Turner said the timeframe to achieve parity “depends on the level of investment of new money, in addition to the investment of money that’s already spent by government … through non-Indigenous organisations”.
The joint council has backed away from the dates for achieving parity that were listed in an earlier draft of the agreement, leaked to the Australian this week. They included the suggestion that non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians would not achieve parity in incarceration rates until 2093, a date that Wyatt on Thursday said was unacceptable.
The figure was heavily criticised by Aboriginal legal groups, including leading justice group Change The Record, which said setting a target of not achieving parity for 73-years was “a death sentence for hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
Wyatt’s office said the parity figures were intended to be indicative of what would happen if there was no policy change, and were not a target date.
He told Sky News on Friday the parity date was “just an indicative date that somebody suggested”.
“We’re not looking at that, that will come out,” he said.
In the communique released on Friday, the joint council said “expected parity dates are not fixed dates”.
“It is our collective ambition to reach parity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians,” it said.
“The ambition of the targets take all governments beyond a business as usual approach and will require an increased effort by all parties … With the full implementation of the Priority Reforms and a significant joint focus on the outcome areas, parity will be achieved earlier.”
Turner, in a statement released on behalf of the Coalition of Peaks, a group of 51 peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations, said the draft national agreement “does not include everything that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want, but I know that we have pushed governments in their commitments because the Coalition of Peaks have been at the table”.
“There is a significant difference from what governments alone were prepared to commit to in December 2018 and where we are now,” she said.
Turner said the coalition has conducted 70 face-to-face consultations, spoken to about 4,000 people and had 1,400 responses to an online survey in shaping the new closing the gap agreement.
“They told us very clearly that they wanted to see the structural changes reflected in the priority reforms,” Turner told the ABC. “They didn’t discuss in detail a lot of the targets, because they know full well what needs to be done, and it’s going to be the political will of governments that are going to enable us to achieve much better outcomes as we move forward over the next decade.”
The priority reform areas are giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a shared role in decision making at a national, state and local level; building on the Indigenous community-controlled sector; structural reform of mainstream agencies to address systemic racism; and better data collection and sharing.
The previous 10-year closing the gap strategy expired in 2018. It has taken almost two years of negotiations to get a finalised draft. Under the new strategy, which will run from 2021 to 2031, state and territory governments will be expected to give an annual report of their progress toward individual targets, as well as the annual report by the prime minister.
The 2020 closing the gap report card, delivered in February, found that just two of the seven targets had been met.
Turner said she will continue to lobby for more money, but that the Coalition of Peaks did not have control over economic levers.
“We wish we did have control of the monetary and fiscal policy, as far as it goes to our people, and the legislative arrangements, but the power for that rests with governments,” she said. “So governments have to step up, and they have to deliver.”