Malcolm Turnbull Spent The Morning Listing All The Ways He’s Failing Indigenous People

He should try closing the gap between what he says and what he does.

turnbull closing the gap

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Today Malcolm Turnbull marked the ten-year anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations, and the beginning of the Closing the Gap strategy, by standing up in Parliament to give us the annual update on how exactly the strategy’s going.

If you listened only to his speech, you’d be forgiven for thinking things were going well, and the government was actually doing great things for Indigenous people. Turnbull actually uses the words “promising result”, despite the fact that only three of the seven Closing the Gap targets are on track, and a good chunk of them were due to be achieved by this year.

In fact, despite repeatedly emphasising the government’s commitment to doing things “with, not to” Indigenous communities, Turnbull spent the entire speech trumpeting government action that nobody asked for while largely ignoring the actual priorities outlined by Indigenous leaders in the Uluru Statement.

Here’s a look at what he said, and how it matches up with reality (spoilers: it doesn’t).

“Promising Results” On Closing The Gap?

The Closing The Gap targets are ten years old now, and only three are on track. Turnbull described this as a “promising result” — more specifically, he described it as “the most promising result since 2011”, which is technically true given that before this year only one target was on track.

Still, it’s a low bar. It’s true that there’s been slow progress on many of the targets, but it’s also true that many of them are way behind where they should be. They were meant to be ambitious, but the government was also meant to try to achieve them.

Here’s where they’re actually at: the three targets that are on track (not necessarily achieved) are halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Year 12 attainment by 2020, getting 95 percent of Indigenous four-year-olds into early childhood education by 2025, and halving the gap between mortality rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children by 2018.

The targets that aren’t on track are the effort to close the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy and school attendance, and halve the gaps in employment and reading and numeracy. Three of those off-track targets were meant to be completed by this year.

Blink and you’d have missed this detail in Turnbull’s speech, though, because he spent the vast majority of it rambling about tax cuts, business, jobs, university, more business.

“Our push for an internationally competitive tax system is designed to enable all Australian businesses, including those owned and operated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Australians to grow,” he said at one point, despite “an internationally competitive tax system” appearing nowhere on the lists of priorities provided by Indigenous Australians.

As for those missed Closing the Gap goals, the government has decided they need to “take the time” to “refresh” them. Never mind that they’ve had ten years.

As Kevin Rudd said just minutes after Turnbull’s speech, “a major reason, although by no means the only one, we’re languishing in meeting a number of targets is the uncertainty in government’s financial effort over repeat years and it needs to be named for what it is, rather than being buried in a lump of statistical mud.” 

Listening To Indigenous Communities, But Only When The Government Feels Like It

Turnbull’s other favourite phrase today was about how the government is committed to do stuff “with, not to” Indigenous communities. He also repeatedly thanked Indigenous leaders present for their “wise and powerful voices”, while largely avoiding what those voices are actually saying.

For example, he announced that his government is totally committed to constitutional recognition for Indigenous people, but remains opposed to a First Nations Voice to Parliament, despite the Uluru Statement saying in no uncertain terms that the community rejects the former and wants the latter.

In fact, Turnbull took pains to totally avoid mentioning the Uluru Statement, which the government pretty much ignored despite it being a groundbreaking, very clear statement of Indigenous people’s priorities.

In his response to Turnbull’s speech, Bill Shorten said that if Labor is elected, they will implement a legislated Indigenous Voice to Parliament if the Coalition doesn’t support a referendum to enshrine one in the constitution.

As for Turnbull, he ultimately summed up by saying that “the last decade has given us a richer understanding about what works and what does not”. He’s not wrong — over the last decade we’ve learnt that the government dragging its feet on the Closing The Gap goals, and rejecting Indigenous-led initiatives like the Uluru Statement, really does not work.