A long-urged commitment on Wednesday from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to a “genuine formal partnership” with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the Closing the Gap Strategy has been strongly welcomed by Indigenous health and legal groups who had said they had been shut out of the “refresh” process until now.
“This is something that we’ve long campaigned for – because involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in decisions that affect their lives will lead to far better outcomes,” said Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) in a statement.
“We are pleased that the Prime Minister and COAG have finally recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must play an integral part in the making of the decisions that affect their lives – and it’s the only way forward to closing the gap.”
Cheryl Axby, co-chair of the National Peak Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) welcomed “this new era of partnership in the design, implementation, monitoring and review of the Closing the Gap strategy”.
“Our voices have been locked out of this process for too long,” she said in a statement.
NACCHO, ATSILS and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations had been sounding the alarm about the Closing the Gap process in recent months, saying they had been left out of the process of reviewing and re-setting Closing the Gap targets until a “crisis talks” in Canberra with Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week.
COAG met in Adelaide on Wednesday and issued a detailed Statement on the Closing the Gap Refresh, which commits to a “true partnership” with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and emphasises the need to recognise and build on their strengths and resilience and to “raise our sights from a focus on problems and deficits”. It said:
COAG recognises that in order to effect real change, governments must work collaboratively and in genuine, formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as they are the essential agents of change.
This formal partnership must be based on mutual respect between parties and an acceptance that direct engagement and negotiation will be the preferred pathway to productive and effective agreements. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must play an integral part in the making of the decisions that affect their lives – this is critical to closing the gap.
COAG will ensure that the design and implementation of the next phase of Closing the Gap is a true partnership.
Governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will share ownership of and responsibility for a jointly agreed framework and targets and ongoing monitoring of the Closing the Gap agenda.
The Statement commits COAG to achieving positive progress on all priority areas set out in February this year by a Special Gathering of prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
These include housing, families, children and youth, justice, health, economic development, culture and language, education, healing and eliminating racism and systemic discrimination.
All priority areas are important and interconnected.”
All Australian governments recognise the need to address intergenerational change, racism, discrimination and social inclusion (including in relation to disability, gender and LGBTIQ+), healing and trauma, and the promotion of culture and language for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
These will be taken into account as cross system priorities for all policy areas of the Closing the Gap agenda.”
COAG also declared it was “listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, communities and their peak and governing bodies” in its official communique.
It said a strengths based framework, which prioritises intergenerational change and the aspirations and priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across all Australian communities, will be finalised and associated draft targets agreed through the formal partnership.
“Governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives will share ownership of, and responsibility for, a jointly agreed framework and targets and ongoing monitoring of the Closing the Gap agenda. This will include an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led three yearly comprehensive evaluation of the framework and progress,” it said.
COAG said the arrangements of the formal partnership will be settled by the end of February 2019, and will include a Ministerial Council on Closing the Gap, with Ministers nominated by jurisdictions and representation from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The framework and draft targets will be finalised through this Council by mid-2019, ahead of endorsement by COAG.
Up for consideration are new draft targets in education, economic development (including for 65 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth to be in employment, education or training by 2028) and housing (increase the proportion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population living in appropriated sized (not overcrowded) housing to 82 per cent by 2028, and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ land, water and cultural rights.
Long-urged draft targets in justice and child protection look to significant and sustained progress to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out of home care, reduce violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children, and reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in detention by 11-19 per cent and adults by at leaast 5 per cent by 2028.
This was welcome news for ATSILS.
“Solutions to end over-imprisonment must look holistically alongside other areas of disadvantage in the Closing the Gap strategy – health, education, employment – in order to create real change for future generations. In addition, family violence, child protection, disability and housing targets must be added,” Axby said.
“The Federal Government must lead this critical national work to address the ongoing legacy of colonisation, to heal our nation.”
NACCHO said that before the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies intervened, COAG was due to settle a new Closing the Gap framework and targets without the full involvement and agreement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through their representatives.
“COAG’s commitment to a genuine formal partnership approach between the government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the Closing the Gap strategy is a welcome step in the right direction,” it said.