Thursday, 18 February 2021
Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples: 13th Anniversary
When Noel Pearson wrote 'Radical hope' for the Quarterly Essay in 2009, many hoped it would turbocharge the Rudd apology with some practical action. But 13 years on not much has changed: annual statements to parliament are filled with excuses and Pearson's Cape York interventions remain very much on life support.
For 230 years our continent's original landlords would see themselves as having been accommodating hosts to the tenants and squatters who have arrived since 1788. Though a couple of centuries late the movement has now begun to reassert Indigenous control over public land. An example of that would be national parks, handed over first to co-management and then potentially leased back to governments for the privilege so that non-Indigenous citizens can enter. You may call it rent seeking, but after all that's what landlords have done forever.
The grounds for this are that Australia's steps in nationhood silenced Indigenous Australians when it truly mattered. Mostly this was unintentional, but privileges like nationality, voting and land rights were all granted late, painfully and typically on mainstream terms. Jacques Derrida wrote extensively about the South African reconciliation experience, describing the violence as 'excessive and powerless, insufficient in its result, lost in its own contradiction'. He'd probably argue there were similarities here with apartheid set aside. That's why the heart of the 2008 apology was so important as a plea for forgiveness. The Danish philosopher Svend Brinkmann described true forgiveness as not being instrumentalised for any other purpose such as feeling better about ourselves, moving on, compensation or improving social cohesion.
Indigenous hospitality on this continent has been true hospitality, because they relinquished control over their space and did so pretty much unconditionally. That's probably why the apology has had so much difficulty since, because both sides sought to externalise the outcomes. One party wanted to get on with life, and the other saw it as another step in a justice war.
The original seven gaps ignored economic development. There were two in health, four in education and one in employment. We simply poured money in from the top and we poured money through Centrelink at the bottom. That rendered many Indigenous kinship structures and the senior men and women who lead them as little more than customer reference numbers.
The first two health targets out of the now 16 and the snowstorm of targets are not controversial. But those pursuing school quality look at enrolment more than attendance or even performance. Accepting 55 per cent as the level of children being developmentally on track impedes the following two very important gap closures. If we ignore academic outcomes, we end up with too many children stuck halfway through primary school, disengaged for a decade and then pushed into competency based certifications. With 88 per cent securing appropriate housing risks more and more housing without an ability to maintain the home and pay the rent, which is so important. Outcomes 10, 11 and12, the ones that concern me most—reducing incarceration, youth detention and out-of-home care—fail to look at the underlying antecedents that lead to that, in particular the offending. We simply don't give enough choices to judges in the first place, and focusing on administrative or judicial outcomes is simply the wrong place to be looking.
Failure to break down national gaps into regions, councils and communities has also let a lot of local actors off the hook. There's more focus on the Bureau of Statistics once a year than there is on service providers in-between. Thousands of latter-day middle-class Australians now identify as Indigenous, and that skews the data far more than the good work we should be doing on the ground in remote Australia. For that reason this week I simplified this boondoggle of gaps down to three, and they're based on the characteristics not of what Western society looks like but of what globally functional economies look like. Four out of five families should be independent of government income replacement and public housing. Four out of five children, we know, internationally who are meeting global education standards can transition into a healthy economy. Four out of five jobs need to be outside of the public service—namely, private sector enterprise and a service economy—which simply doesn't exist at the moment.
Finally, every ethno, geo and demographic group will have gaps with each other, and Indigenous Australia can forge that path to a functionally happy and healthy society without direct comparisons to the mainstream. While that point will be exclusively one for Indigenous Australia to make, I argue it isn't about achieving Western outcomes per se. We can be better than we are and we should be striving so that everyone in this society can be, but, more importantly, that in so many cases Indigenous Australians can lead us to close our own gaps.
The House adjourned at 17:00