Closing The Gap
By Tony Abbott - Australian Polity - Volume 3 (Number 1)
Perhaps the most lapidary remark of the former Prime Minister in his apology was: ‘unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.’ It should be a resonant statement, evocative as it is, not just of the great issue before us, but of our great heritage of love and of reaching out to people. We must always remember that: unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.
The Prime Minister has given us some very encouraging statistics. There is much to be grateful for. There is much to take satisfaction in. There is much to be proud of in what the Prime Minister has told us. And I do not want to quibble, because I know that, were I in her position, I would be recounting similar statistics to the House. They are important. And yet, so often when we hear the statistics there is a nagging sense that they can obscure as much as they reveal. So often the statistics are a record of what government is doing, rather than a record of how people are living. It is excellent, and I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government that we are moving towards halving the gap in so many of these areas, but a gap which has been halved is not a gap which has been closed and, in the end, it is not good enough merely to halve the gap – we have to close the gap.
It was very encouraging to hear the Prime Minister tell us that access to preschool for all four-year-olds living in remote communities would be achieved next year – remarkable, wonderful, praiseworthy – and yet it’s one thing for people living in these communities to have access to preschool for their four-year-olds; it is another thing to ensure that all the youngsters are attending preschool. This is the big challenge and this is the real test of whether we are building civil society in the remote indigenous communities of our country.
So often when we hear the official reports we know the effort that officials are making. We feel a palpable sense of the goodwill behind these reports and yet we don’t get a sense that individual lives are improving and that communities are flourishing. We know there are better resourced schools in remote Aboriginal communities, but we can’t be sure that Aboriginal children are really better-reading, better-counting, are really more familiar with what they need to know in order to be first-class Australians in the modern world.
We know that much money is being spent, that much effort is being expended to provide better housing in remote indigenous communities. But can we be sure that these houses are more cherished by their current occupants than the poorer houses of a generation ago were by theirs? We know that much good work is being done in the area of indigenous employment but still there is not nearly enough indigenous employment in the real economy as opposed to indigenous employment in Aboriginal organisations and in the governmental sector.
Every Australian wants to be able to think that his or her life has been at least as good as the lives of his or her parents and that the lives of his or her children will be better than the life that he or she has led. How many Aboriginal people can honestly say today that their life has been better than that of their parents? How many Aboriginal people can honestly say, as they look at their kids, that they are confident that they will have a better life – a life of more self-respect, a life of more fulfilment – than they themselves have had? These are the challenges before us. There is still a long journey for all of us to make.
The statistics are important and it is good that the statistics are more sophisticated than they were; that ever more effort is being put into their accurate collation of these statistics, but sometimes I think that the official statistics can overcomplicate things. There are simpler, easier-to-collect statistics than those which the official statistician labours over which I think would give us a truer picture of the real state of indigenous society, particularly in remote communities.
How many children are attending school every day? It should be 100 per cent, or near enough to it, and yet we know that it is not. And yet there is no reason why that roll could not be called a couple of times during the school day, and we know there is no reason why, in each indigenous school right around the country, those statistics could not be published on a month-by-month basis so that we know exactly what is happening in that school because exactly what is happening in that school is a microcosm of what is happening in that community.
We know, despite all the good intentions, despite all the declarations, that very many indigenous people don’t attend employment programmes. We know that because we go to indigenous communities and we see the number of youngsters and adults who are plainly not engaged in school or work in the middle of the day. Why couldn’t the statistics be published on a week-by-week basis of precisely how many people have been attending work programmes in remote indigenous communities? Again, that would give us a truer snapshot of the real life of these communities than the more elaborate statistics with which the statistician busies himself.
Finally, we all know that in happy communities the trauma that presents to the clinic is normally the result of something that might have happened in a football match or something that might have happened while mustering stock, and yet we also know that much of the trauma that presents to clinics in remote areas, is the result of various forms of domestic violence. This statistic, too, should be collated on a week-by-week, month-by-month basis and it should be published because these are the statistics which would tell us what is really happening in these communities
I know what these communities are like. I haven’t lived there. I haven’t stayed there as much as I would have liked, but nevertheless I have spent enough time in the remote places of our country to know what they are like and I know that if there is an all-night party, as there often is, the adults do not get up to go to work, and if the adults do not get up to go to work, the children do not get up to go to school and if the adults do not work and the children do not learn, we will never close the gap, we will never close the gap – that’s why there is more, much more that can be done.
We know that by dint of vast efforts by government, superhuman efforts by individuals, that better services are being delivered in the Aboriginal communities of our country – but we cannot be sure, as yet, that a better life is being enjoyed by Aboriginal Australians. Real change, does not happen in this Parliament – although sometimes it might start here, sometimes it might be reflected here – real change begins in the places where people live. We should try, as far as we can, within the limitations of our official lives, to be more engaged with the real life of Aboriginal people. I have had the privilege of spending some longer periods of time in some of the remote communities of Cape York, in Coen and in Aurukun, and last year Noel Pearson took me to some of his sacred country and I then spent a couple of days helping with a building project not far from Hopevale.
All of us are different. All of us have different demands on our time but the more this kind of thing can be done, the better for policy-making; the better for the quality of government when it comes to Aboriginal people. I say to the Parliament that should I become Prime Minister, it is my firm intention, my commitment, to spend at least a week every year in a remote indigenous community with officials – because it is not enough for the politicians to become more familiar with the real life of these places – the officials, upon whom so much depends, also need to become more familiar with the real life of these places. If it is good enough for the Aboriginal people of Australia to live in these remote communities, it ought to be good enough for the Prime Minister and other members of the government to stay there.
This is an edited extract of a speech in the Australian Parliament on the ‘Closing the Gap’ statement, February 15, 2012