The Gap isn’t closing, the question is why

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After six decades as a frontline player, observer, public servant, author, academic in the Territory, BOB BEADMAN is looking forward to 2022 with not a great deal more confidence than he has in earlier Christmases.

In a comment for the Alice Springs News Mr Beadman begins by offering this extract from his Eric Johnston lecture in November 2013:

“A prosperous future?

“The Territory continues to live up to the picture I formed in the ’60s. A foreboding, threatening, place. Raw and challenging. A violent land of extreme climates, and a cosmopolitan population mix that is unique.

“A land rich in promise, with its destiny still that generation away, always beckoning. Rich in natural resources, and horticultural opportunities, with the voracious Asian markets at our door.

“A place where one can contribute usefully to the future, and help decentralise the Australian population away from its huddling on the eastern seaboard. The Territory has us in its thrall.

“But the original Australians are struggling to adjust to what the Territory has become, its pace, and where it is heading. Governments are struggling too, to get the right mix of policies. The reality is that the Territory will not reach its potential until Aboriginal peoples are sharing equally in its fruits.”

Mr Beadman says a job is the one thing that transcends colour, country, continent and creed as people around the world move from hunter / gatherer or subsistence economies into the dominant money-based economy. Yet that drive seems to be missing here in the Northern Territory.

“I can hear already some people hyperventilating prior to attacking me. But wait a minute. I have been around since the policy days of ‘Assimilation’, to ‘Self Determination’, to ‘Self-Management’, and whatever it is called now.

“When I have expressed views along these lines in the past critics have accused me of being ‘assimilationist’.

“These same people, when asked what goals they would set for, say, health or housing or education outcomes will invariably say ‘parity with the wider society’. I agree – lesser goals would be unthinkable.

“Well, I don’t think those goals are achievable unless the other building foundations are in place – employment and income. If that is ‘assimilation’ then so be it.”

Eight years later and Mr Beadman clearly thinks nothing has changed. The question we must answer is why. Here are his current reflections:

Each year the Australian Government releases a report on Closing the Gap. What follows is copied from the cover of the latest one, taking the view that when Aboriginal people have a genuine say in the design and delivery of policies, programs and services that affect them, better life outcomes are achieved.

Structural change in the way governments work with Aboriginal people is needed to close the Gap driving and owning “the desired outcomes, alongside all governments”.

My comment is the reports are invariably optimistic, and flavoured with the expected Government salesmanship, but close reading always reveals disappointment at the lack of progress on some measures, or slowness or worsening of outcomes in other cases.

But it has always seemed to me that the reviewers are either restricted by the Terms of Reference, or lack the capability or the courage, to come to grips with the fundamental, basic, problems.

From left: From the former NT Grants Commission. David Willing, writer / director based in Melbourne; former Mayor of Alice Springs Damien Ryan, Mr Beadman and Cr Steven Hennessy from Mannum, SA. Willing was the departmental nominee; Mr Ryan the commissioner representing Municipal Councils, and Hennessy was then a resident at Timber Creek, the Mayor of the Victoria Daly Regional Council and a Commissioner representing Regional Councils.

Instead of reporting on percentage variations in absenteeism rates, how about digging deep into WHY kids don’t go to school, why don’t parents care, where are the parents, why is inter-generational welfare dependency so entrenched?

I despair that the Australian Public Service has been hollowed out so severely that it may no longer have the capability to tackle flawed policy issues.

And there are now so many policy issues needing fundamental reform.

Abandoning professional apolitical public servants dedicated to serving the government of the day, in preference to contract employees (card carriers in some cases) who always now live with the implied threat of contract renewal when developing their advice to Ministers!

Guess whether the advice provided under such threats will continue to be as frank and fearless.

Parallel to the politicisation of the public services around the country, has been the exponential growth of the numbers employed in Ministerial offices. I am at a complete loss as to why Ministers would prefer to obtain advice from tame sources beyond scrutiny. Where are the checks and balances?

Much of the work that used to be done by public servants is now outsourced to a few favoured consultancy firms. Billions are changing hands, again mainly beyond scrutiny often under the veil of ‘Commercial-in-Confidence’.

Regular, scathing Auditor General Reports, often about billions being rorted on an industrial scale (e.g. Sports Grants), are simply ignored.

Some of this money could be put to much better use in the Northern Territory on the massive infrastructure deficit dump passed onto the new Northern Territory Government in 1978.

The Opposition appears terrified of being wedged, and the tabloid media, worried about being excluded from the next media conference or trip, don’t dig too deep.

Renowned, national journalists, with half a century of political reporting behind them, are lamenting the slippage in standards and integrity in our governments.

NEXT: Some examples of policy issues in need of fundamental reform.

PHOTO AT TOP: Key players in the gap that isn’t closing, Coalition of Peaks lead convener Pat Turner, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ken Wyatt, Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Ms Turner has been behind a new national agreement for Closing the Gap, involving Aboriginal organisations in the design and delivery of reformed in priority areas. Source: Screen capture, ABC.

 

8 COMMENTS

  1. Is it possible ‘the Gap isn’t closing’ because Mr Beadman and peers have been working in Aboriginal affairs for 60 years without knowing ‘why’?
    Would that knowledge make a difference or be irrelevant due to the structural problems he describes?

  2. Seems obvious that many Aboriginal people simply do not share or own the Closing the Gap ideals.
    This being the case there is no new way that governments can work with Aboriginal people to finally close the Gap.

  3. Hi Bob, Indeed the trough has grown exponentially, not just in Aboriginal Affairs.
    Maybe they’re trying to close the wrong Gap.
    Perhaps they should close the mutual respect and understanding Gap first, and maybe they should be trying to bridge The Gap rather than close it.

  4. As Bob would know, the Public Service has had many chances to close the gap in many areas of social interaction between Aboriginal Australia and the wider community. But inevitably, it seems to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with monotonous regularity.
    In the social activity of sport, for example. In 1979, the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation was incorporated under the Companies Act. It had a board of eminent Aboriginal and TI members representing the different states, an administrative secretariat to serve the board, and annual Commonwealth government funding to conduct its affairs, with chairman Brian Dixon, a Tennant Creek lad, and NT Member Rose Damaso.
    With that structure, the NASF was perfectly positioned to become the national voice of Indigenous sport.
    In 1982, the NASF was admitted as an associate member of the Confederation of Australian Sport.
    In February 1982, the first ever NASF national Aboriginal Sports awards were presented on Channel 7 World of Sport. Junior recipients were from WA, NT, Victoria, Queensland and NSW.
    The NASF operated from its Canberra secretariat between 1979 and 1984. Then, disaster. The government stepped in, disbanded the NASF and absorbed its function within the public service. A very sad day. A sad story.
    Closing the Gap. What a pity.

  5. Bob Beadman has written a thought provoking, honest appraisal of the many anomalies in the managing of Aboriginal Affairs in the Northern Territory.
    He has alluded to the fact that finding the right people to manage key programmes is a big issue and is one of the pertinent reasons as to why there is still so much failure in Aboriginal advancement across the areas of health, education, social development, stable employment, housing.
    One of the needs is to find people who are prepared to work on Aboriginal assignments over a long period of time.
    Some of the people from the past who have been successful with Aboriginal people have worked with them over long periods. Such people are Father Percy Smith, Sister Eileen Heath, Dr Charles Duguid, Mrs Ida Standley, Ms Topsy Smith, Pastor Carl Strehlow, Pastor F W Albrecht, Bishop F X Gsell, Father John McGrath, Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Anglicans at the Roper River Mission and a number of others.
    Getting government employees to make long term commitments to Aboriginal enterprises is extremely difficult.
    In addition to this the politicising of matters to do with Aborigines does not help.

  6. Well said and thank you John for raising this vital dimension. I would add Frank and Wendy Baarda of Yuendemu to your list of committed luminaries.
    There are many more, too many to mention and happy to be unsung I should add but given Frank’s “committed” posting on matters educational I thought he was a good fit in this light.
    I have witnessed their efforts in the school and language centre and wish we could clone them both.

  7. Paternalism has replaced colonialism creating the so called Gap.
    The ones in positions of power must stop acting like if they were into a relationship parents vs infants. They do not have the rights to continually overrule the preferences of those “deemed” incapable of knowing their true interests.
    Our system will not work until the authorities supplying the needs stop to regulate the conduct of those under their control but instead see it as a partnership in which partners share profits and losses.

  8. @ Mike: A bit embarrassing that. Among the many unsung no doubt you mean the many committed Warlpiri school staff past and present.

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