Two recent articles on theconversation.com have questioned the focus and effectiveness of Australia’s “Closing the Gap” policy in Indigenous Affairs. Is it time to give the policy the flick? What would it take to play to our strengths in Indigenous Affairs governance?
This year’s ‘Closing the Gap’ figures provide little cause for joy. Australia’s media organisations dutifully reported the progress (or lack of progress) made by the Australian Government towards the ‘Closing the Gap’ targets (a good infographic from the ABC can be found here). In the Government’s favour, progress was made towards halving the child mortality gap and enrolling Indigenous children in preschool. Other targets however—such as closing the gap in employment figures, closing the life expectancy gap, and halving gaps in reading, writing and numeracy—are well behind schedule.
If this were indeed a report card, as it is so often called, then it wouldn’t be one you’d be pleased to take home to Mum or Dad. Reporting on these figures in a speech to parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted that Australia was ‘not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful [Closing the Gap] targets’. Our ‘failures towards Australia’s first people were,’ he acknowledged, a ‘stain on our soul’.
For Abbott, the solution to these failures is clearly to do more of the same. He committed the government to an additional target, namely, to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance in the next five years.
However, as two recent articles on this topic on theconversation.com show, it may be time to revise our commitment to the ‘Closing the Gap’ policy.
Eva Cox on what actually works in Indigenous Affairs Policy
Cox’s article provides a clear summary of recent research on policy success and failure in Indigenous Affairs governance.
There is now a lot of evidence about the importance of flexibility, community involvement, program continuity (including continuity of funding) and cultural appropriateness to the success of policy programs in Indigenous Affairs governance. Less effective, however, are “one size fits all” approaches, interventions developed and run without local Indigenous community control, and services on short-term and non-continuous forms of funding.
Cox asks why so many policies in this field continue to be poorly designed when good evidence exists about what makes for effective policy in this field.
There are definitely some policy design issues to take into account here, especially around the challenges of coordinating services across many agencies and levels of government. However, developing an answer to this question requires us to look beyond policy design and into the broader politics of this policy field as well.
Elizabeth Strakosch on the relationship between Government and Indigenous people
Strakosch’s article urges us to enter into a new conversation about the significance of a policy such as ‘Closing the Gap’ for the relationship between government and Indigenous peoples. There are two points from her article which I believe are worth emphasising. The first point is that ‘Closing the Gap’ mistakes targets for policy. Obviously any well-thought out policy approach will include a set of indicators for policy success. ‘Closing the Gap’ however, is pretty much only a set of indicators. It is not a fully developed approach to Indigenous Affairs.
As Strakosch put its:
Repeatedly stating our commitment to progress – and measuring our (lack of) progress – does not actually make that progress happen. Closing the Gap is a “report card”: a set of performance measurements rather than a substantive policy program. It can too easily become a placeholder for real policy change, allowing political leaders to demonstrate commitment at the opening of parliament without following through for the rest of the year.
This brings us to a second point. Focusing on statistical indicators reduces the complex relationship between government and Indigenous people to a “technical rather than political problem” and its hard to improve a relationship if its expressed primarily in technical, bureaucratic terms. Strakosch argues that the,
…continual focus on the “gap” itself sidelines public debate about why the gap exists and how it can be closed. It is an appealingly neutral approach to such an uncomfortable and contentious policy area… Yet the bipartisan approach to Closing the Gap is built on a highly political account of the nature of Indigenous disadvantage. In this account, the gap is caused by specific Indigenous behavioural deficiencies rather than complex interactions between issues or underlying structural factors.
In other words, while the ‘Closing the Gap’ report card may award the government a shaky ‘C’ for effort, the failures of the policy are really seen to belong to Indigenous people rather than to governments.
The focus of the policy on closing a statistical gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people implicitly defines Indigenous people as either inherently lacking or stubbornly resistant to government attempts to shape their behavior. There is little room, in ‘Closing the Gap’ for a political discussion about what future Indigenous people would envision for themselves, or how governments might help them to achieve this.
Ditching the ‘Deficit Discourse’
It may be time to ditch approaches that focus on what Indigenous people lack, and focus instead on helping people to remember and express their strengths and aspirations.
Scholarship on the common narratives—or discourses—that play out in the field of Indigenous Affairs policy and politics suggest that the prevalence of ‘deficit discourses’ may be counterproductive. For instance, a recent scholarly article by Cressida Fforde and coauthors argued that:
Terms such as ‘Closing the Gap’ employ language that continues to carry an implicit assumption of deficit that, we posit, may work against achieving the very aims for which is was developed. ‘Closing the Gap’ may well fall within the definition of what Freire…terms the ‘sloganising’ of the oppressed, and if so, it can be predicted that it may act to disengage people from the programs that are delivered under its banner. (p166)
Strength-based approaches, on the other hand, could offer proactive and inclusive alternatives to current policy approaches and would be much more likely to meet the criteria which Cox outlined for successful program design in Indigenous Affairs governance.
It’s time to put some serious thought into ditching undermining and alienating ways of talking about Indigenous achievement. My response to Strakosch’s call for a wider conversation on the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is to ask the following questions:
What would it look like if we employed strength-based approaches to Indigenous Affairs policy?
What policies already model this approach?
Can we do more to shift the political discussion in this country to one that is less implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) disparaging of Indigenous Australians?
Cover image by strangejourney