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Closing the gap report revelations reveal nothing new

By Jack Wilkie-Jans - posted Tuesday, 11 April 2017


Last month the ninth annual Closing the Gap Report was released by the Federal Government and it revealed what anybody living in remote or regional areas could have revealed: that the targets to "close the gap" are not all holistically on track. In Parliament we heard the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader rehash the same rhetoric of the need for partnership and the need for more coordinated development & implementation of Indigenous affairs policy. For the past nine years such sentiments have been lauded yet never followed through. Which is why Indigenous affairs remains one of the most wasteful, in terms of spending, sectors in Australia and why only one of the "closing the gap" targets is said to be on track.

Dr. Jackie Huggins AM told ABC News 24 that should some of the Royal Commission and other reports relating to Indigenous incarceration and health statistics have been implemented sooner the issues may not be so systematic as they are now. Likewise, if all governments had opted to listen to the people on the ground- and I mean actually listened to, not just fly-in and then out again after sitting and taking photos with someone they'll go back to Canberra calling "Aunty" this or "Uncle" that in a speech. Governments have been warned over the years that their collective and shameful approach to Indigenous affairs has been secular and narrow minded.

The time is well overdue that new voices be heard in the Indigenous affairs political sphere. This is happening; more Indigenous representatives sit in Parliament than ever before and a newly revamped Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council features the brilliant and underrated Dr. Chris Sarra.

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In my experience, where Indigenous affairs policy falls down is not necessarily in its altruistic intentions and not even so much in its ground-level implementation but in its spending. Who gets the $30B [or so] per annum? Mostly the same old-hat organisations who have demonstrated time and again in numerous financial audits and other controversies that they and their governance are mostly interested in self-congratulation as seen in the disproportionate salaries adopted within such organisations' structures. I'm not barring any holds, when I say that I apply that to Indigenous run and Indigenous governed organisations in receipt of Indigenous affairs spending as well.

This is because for so long governments' approach to Indigenous people and Indigenous affairs has always been one of paternalism. Since the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (QLD) Indigenous people have never been perceived to do for themselves. As David Bowie espoused last year, albeit in ironic reference to his own artistry, "Nothing Has Changed". Apply that to Indigenous affairs and it rings true. Current policies such as the Welfare Reform Trials (although calling them trials is a blatant lie as they are clearly and sadly here to stay) and to a similar extent, Alcohol Management Plans, are cut from the same cloth with the racist mentality now so wet with good intentions that nobody can see them for what they actually are, being segregation and apartheid.

The week before the report was delivered the Prime Minister accused the Opposition Leader of leading a career hinged on the "politics of envy" yet at the unveiling of the Closing the Gap Report he ignored the politics of guilt shrouding Indigenous affairs spending. The vast swathes of cash streaming from Canberra to ineffective, bureaucratic riddled policies and poorly managed organisations is a direct result of this. The "mission mentality" towards Indigenous people (especially those living in places so remote to the major cities that they may as well be the slums of India or the shanties of Africa) being that of 'out of sight out of mind' is still strong and appears intentionally less divisive when flushed with cash.

The implications of all this and the layered on faux sympathy espoused- and to no real avail- from politicians in their thousands since the early 90s is that a sense of entitlement, in a sense, grows. Not from those on the ground but from those in elevated positions of influence who see beyond the need on the ground to the immense opportunity now afforded to be able to make significant dollars off the backs of the blacks of Australia and their plight.

Two primary examples of this occurring is in the sudden plague of Regional Training Organisations (RTOs) & Remote Jobs Communities Programs (RJCP) as well as unfair misuses of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cwlth).

The reality, no matter what boxes most RTOs tick, they are not interested and nor can they really truly help increase Indigenous employment. In Cape York Peninsula, Indigenous people on welfare remain some of the most over-qualified yet under-skilled. When it comes to providing training as a service to welfare recipients often obliged to participate, factor in the process of "loading" (a process of identifying greater or lesser need/vulnerability of the applicant) the selecting of Indigenous prospective trainees can prove quite lucrative.

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In Queensland in the past there was a little thing called "Contestable Eligibility" which in a way was a more appropriate means to link the right candidate to the right training opportunity or course. While this assisted in more training to jobs realisation, it may not have provided RTOs and government policy agendas with the desired number of successful completion of traineeships or courses. In Queensland the former Newman lead Liberal National Party (LNP) Government opted to scrap Contestable Eligibility as a means to introduce more trainees into courses. This ultimately lead RTOs to play a numbers game and focus more on the number of incoming and successful trainees- not necessarily focusing on the actual skills acquired and mastered to accompany said pieces of paper.

This scrapping of Contestable Eligibility basically created a cash cow for RTOs under the Indigenous sector of public money.

While training can never fully be argued to be a bad thing, the false hope this constant push provides to Indigenous people such RTOs claim to be helping is in truth setting them up to fail. Without question.

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About the Author

Jack is a Traditional Owner from the Western Cape, Cape York Peninsula, an Aboriginal Affairs advocate and he sits on the board of the Cape's peak body organisation for social, economic and environmental development, Cape York Sustainable Futures Inc.

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