The crisis affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is urgent – but it has existed for a very long time. It is, at its core, a crisis of inequality, the type of inequality that can’t be reversed with a quick fix.
Partly, it is the result of a social divide which persists between Indigenous people and other Australians – a divide which is fuelled by misconceptions and misinformation, . For example, focus group research conducted on behalf of Oxfam Australia indicated a general view that Aboriginal people live ‘out there’, in remote communities. This misconception reinforces stereotypes and generates a sense of ‘us and them’. .
The truth is that most Aboriginal people live in urban and major rural centres. They live here in Brisbane. We pass them everyday, work with them, share public transport with them. Yet, many non-Indigenous Australians simply don’t see or appreciate this daily interaction. Perhaps it is because, unless Indigenous people reflect the stereotypes, we simply don’t notice them. Perhaps it is because we focus on differences, not on similarities. And perhaps it is because negative news about Aboriginal communities tends to be reported, while success stories and good news are rarely seen in the media.
Sadly, the Commonwealth Government’s recent Emergency Response in the Northern Territory has served to reinforce this social division. The Government’s welcome decision to elevate the profile of Indigenous issues was accompanied by an intense focus on the minority of Aboriginal people living in remote communities. Specifically, it focused on communities which take a different approach to issues such as land ownership and employment, and communities grappling with some very serious, indeed shocking, social problems.
We again witnessed Aboriginal people being defined in terms of difference, dysfunction and negative stories , with little acknowledgement of the discrimination and disadvantage which have contributed to the current crisis, or indeed many programs and activities that are bringing positive change. Aboriginal people seemed to have been defined more as ‘objects’ of government policy rather than active players able to be in control and shape as well as implement the required response.
Of course, we must respond urgently and immediately to evidence of child abuse. There is hardly an individual or an organisation that has not expressed its whole-hearted support for dealing swiftly and decisively with this abhorrent situation. However, what the Government has done is reduce a broad social, economic and health crisis which spans the whole country down to a narrow focus on child abuse in remote communities.
The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory have formulated an excellent, thoughtful plan to combat child abuse in Aboriginal communities – one which incorporates both swift, immediate measures and longer-term measures to address the root causes of the problem.
However where is the Government’s emergency response to the stark reality that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child born today is likely to live 17 years less than other Australians?
There is much to be done if we are committed to closing this gap in life expectancy. We are now reaping what we have sown through the failure of successive governments at all levels to address the root causes of this crisis.
The backlog of service delivery and infrastructure to Indigenous people is now extreme. Funding needed to address the housing shortfall is estimated to be in the vicinity of $1.2 billion. Similarly, the Australian Medical Association estimates that $460 million a year is needed to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the same level of access to primary health care as other Australians, commensurate with their need.
This is not asking for any ‘special’ or preferential treatment for our Indigenous people – proper and adequate health care is a basic human right. That is why Oxfam proudly supports the Close the Gap campaign, working with some of Australia’s leading health, human rights and Aboriginal organisations to secure the political will at all levels of government to close the life expectancy gap within a generation. And this will be best achieved by putting Aboriginal people in the “driver’s seat” of this process and by tackling systematically the housing, education and employment problems which have such an impact on their health outcomes.
But the current crisis will not be solved just by money – there is a much tougher challenge for us to overcome. Unless we are willing to take a long hard look at the historical legacies that have been imposed on Indigenous peoples, and the prejudices that we may find in our own hearts, no amount of funding will eliminate the inequality still experienced by our fellow Australians.
Yes, so far governments have failed to deliver, but have we really done our best to hold them to account? Have we made our expectations clear? Have we refused to tolerate inequality? Have we relentlessly kept these issues on the national agenda? And have we celebrated and supported the daily success stories from Indigenous communities, that show us time and again that properly resourced services in control of the community do deliver improvements? The fact that we are still grappling with many of the same issues forty years after the 1967 referendum suggests we have not.
The new-found focus on Indigenous issues provides a timely opportunity for us to make amends. I challenge all Australians to seize this chance, and take personal responsibility for generating the political will required to close the gap in our generation.
An edited version of this opinion piece was published in The Courier Mail on 22nd August 2007