Closing the Gap, Prime time for white declarations

[by Jack Wilkie-Jans]

Jack Wilkie-Jans. Image: supplied

In the wake of the handing down of the annual Closing the Gap report Australia’s parliament looks to Indigenous plight once again. And in what feels like deja vu, only two of the seven targets of the Closing the Gap initiative are on track. It’s not unsurprising, as aside from appointing an actual Indigenous Indigenous Affairs Minister there hasn’t been any major reform across the sector - be it in funding (to whom and for what) and in how Indigenous Australians are heard.


The Prime Minister’s speech to parliament last Wednesday as he delivered the 12th annual report was definitely well written, if poorly delivered. The Prime Minister could barely pronounce full words and in many instances skipping entire syllables. While it was an agreeable speech and the Prime Minister was brimming with passion, there were peculiar lines.


At one stage the Prime Minister said that often governments in the past had not always known of the damaging effects their policies had on Indigenous Australians. Peculiar. Incorrect, even. The damage perpetrated unto Indigenous Australians by various governments was often deliberate. For the government of today to ignore this leads one to presume that it’s merely going through the motions of being seen to govern effectively for Indigenous Australians


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The Prime Minister correctly mentioned that the “targets that were set for Indigenous Australians, not by Indigenous Australians, do not celebrate the strengths, achievements and aspirations of Indigenous people”. He also spoke of how the failings outlined in the report are not necessarily an indication of a lack of success of Indigenous people, nor indicative of a broken people. This was part of a long-winded introduction to the announcement that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) would consult on Closing the Gap measures with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peaks.


The Prime Minister lamented the failings of Closing the Gap efforts, like child mortality rates, life expectancy and suicide. He also celebrated areas where success has been made, for instance on early childhood education participation, year twelve graduation and stability shown on the fronts of employment rates and literacy & numeracy advancement. The Prime Minister also listed numerous other achievements of Indigenous affairs efforts, among them were the government’s commitment of $5.2 billion for the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, $4.1 billion for targeted efforts to improve Indigenous Health, that $190 million has been allocated for thirty Indigenous Youth Education programmes from the overall $200 million package, and $1.5 million to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led data collation project.


The Prime Minister’s speech wasn’t the only oration of the day by a parliamentarian. Maverick Member of Parliament (MP), Bob Katter, delivered an almost immediate and blistering diatribe in rebuttal of the Prime Minister’s speech and his government’s report. In a press conference live streamed on the MP’s Facebook page, Katter declared “war” on the parliament, seemingly on behalf of Indigenous peoples.


Katter took it upon himself to refute any and all efforts of Closing the Gap and the government’s commitment to working with Indigenous Australians. But he stopped short of committing any support for the Voice to Parliament recommendation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017) and scoffed at the notion of constitutional recognition. Judging by his tone, he did so on the basis of it seeming tokenistic.


Katter also spoke of the hypocrisy of the parliament across a number of matters, namely the formal apology for the Stolen Generations. But the big-ticket item that stood out to me was his use of the word “us” when making mention of Indigenous peoples. And before I say this, in the wake of the Bruce Pascoe/Indigeneity saga, I am aware of my own hypocrisy when I say that Katter is out of line in his self-identifying as a First Australian.


And speaking of hypocrisy, it’s wroth mentioning Katter’s earlier incarnation as - and among other things - Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs under the socially conservative premiership of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland. Part of his duties as minister was to oversee the reign of terror of the so-called “Protector-In-Chief of Aboriginals”, Pat Killoran.


In recent years Katter has attempted to position himself as the one true friend of Indigenous Australia in Canberra. Unfoundedly and unquantifiably he espouses a throng of black followers. It’s surprising he hasn’t anointed himself as “King of Kennedy” and done away with the MP title. Whether he is as supported by his black “brothers and cousins” as he claims is an aside; Katter being Aboriginal himself is a new claim and one that concerns me greatly. It’s a brazen and bullying attempt to assert his supreme, white authority over the Indigenous issues he likes to position himself in the middle of - when in fact he is never closer than the peripheral.


And true to the latter, Katter, in his declaration of war, persistently and fervently maintained a view that market gardens in remote Indigenous communities would be the cure-all answer to Closing the Gap. While quoting correspondence with a former Napranum Aboriginal Shire Council Chief Executive Officer, it’s clear that Katter can no way be as across-the-board on Indigenous solutions as he’d like to tell us.


In going into the future and in the hopes of truly closing the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous advantage/disadvantage, I can safely say that we can ignore Bob Katter. On closing the gap, I’ll take my chances with the government(s) of the day and Indigenous leaders with proven credentials in that space.