Gap Between Symbolism & Practicality Must Be Closed First
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Gap Between Symbolism & Practicality Must Be Closed First

Gap Between Symbolism & Practicality Must Be Closed First

When the Prime Minister said earlier this week, ‘what we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle decisions’, I don’t think he intended to set off the latte left; he thought he was saying something ‘pretty obvious’ – and it is pretty obvious.

We cannot continuously subsidise communities where there are no job opportunities, where there are limited formal education opportunities, and that are unable to provide their own basic municipal services, if our goal is to indeed, ‘close the gap’.

There is a bipartisan commitment to closing the gap in Australia, but we have been unable to achieve much progress at all – as the Close the Gap report made clear: ‘close the gap in life expectancy within a generation, progress: not on track’ – results: ‘limited progress’. Ignoring the fact that “progress” is used as both a description for results, and as its own category, it is plain to see that we, as non-traditional owners of this land are not holding up our end of the bargain. There are other targets where we are failing too; halving the gap in infant mortality by 2018, the literacy gap, employment outcomes and year twelve completion. Most are not on track and this is simply not good enough.

Small communities, without sufficient population concentration tend to be forgotten in government policies. Jenny Macklin stated:

In identifying where to concentrate government investment, COAG has developed a range of practical criteria including:
• significant concentration of population;
• anticipated demographic trends and pressures;
• the potential for economic development and employment; and
• the extent of pre-existing shortfalls in government investment in infrastructure and services.

This was in 2009, when COAG was dominated by Labor Governments: Federally, Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Victoria, ACT, Tasmania – so it was a Labor who developed this criteria.

It appears as if the sustainability of remote communities has always been questioned – unfortunately, it has taken our current Prime Minister to stand up and say that we cannot afford to fund these communities if we truly want to close the gap. If we want to change the metrics for ‘the gap’ – we probably can fund these communities – but there seems to be no appetite for that in the current economic & fiscal climate.

Interestingly, this is for most Australian’s the first time that they have heard of the policy to transfer responsibility for Aboriginal Communities’ Municipal Services to State Governments – rubbish, roads, dust and dog management.

This was a policy announced last year. The Left did not attempt to create a large campaign of condemnation against Abbott then. They didn’t launch a massive campaign against the policy either – probably because they were glad that they were the ones that did not have to make the announcement.
In November, Premier Barnett said of these communities,

“They cannot provide education. They cannot provide health. They cannot provide employment. They are not viable. And the social outcomes and the abuse and neglect of young children are a disgrace to this state.”

The South Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, Ian Hunter, said that the closure of Remote Aboriginal Communities was a real possibility.

Mr Hunter however, decided to blame the Abbott government. Yet, his Labor government was not willing to accept the $10 million to manage the community, nor were they willing to find it in their budget – despite the fact that $10 million could maintain this particular South Australian community for three years (according to his own press release). Labor has treated these Indigenous communities as a political football, threatening their existence for three and a half million dollars a year – and they call Tony Abbott ‘insensitive’.

We have a responsibility to provide people with opportunities and equality – but we cannot give people the same opportunities no matter where they are. It is impossible to provide an indigenous community of a thousand people with the same opportunities that a person in Dubbo, Darwin, or Mount Isa, let alone, Redfern, Parramatta, or Rooty Hill and then let alone Mosman or Vaucluse.

Tony Abbott has demonstrated his commitment to Indigenous Affairs, he more than any other leader, has been pushing Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. He spends more time than any other leader in Indigenous communities. He understands the practical issues on the ground, and he also understands that there are deep cultural connections to the land in which these remote communities reside.

There is very often tension between ‘practical’ reconciliation and ‘symbolic’ reconciliation. Practically, people have to leave remote areas to go to university; they have to leave remote areas to receive world-class medical treatment, or even for relatively simple procedures such as dialysis. Abbott is attempting symbolism in the form of recognition, but he is also fighting to make a ‘real’ difference in the lives of Indigenous Australians for generations to come – he is working harder than most to ensure that the gap is closed – however the message we keep getting back, year after year is that we aren’t doing enough. We need a different approach and the government is making considerable steps to take a new approach.

Incentivising people to create areas of larger population clusters makes service delivery more viable – that is not to say that they should all live in capital cities – but if smaller communities have to amalgamate to create opportunities for children that may need to happen. Obviously, there are cultural sensitivities involved and the first option must always be to make a community viable. If the communities are unable to be viable we must ask ourselves two questions: the first being, “are we okay with subsidising this community to live in a certain way?” And secondly, “are we okay with this community living an entirely traditional lifestyle?”

I am not sure we would be comfortable answering yes to either question as a nation, and more specifically, I don’t think we are capable of answering yes to the second question. Partially, as we have taken so much from their cultures that it is reasonable to question if Indigenous communities can live viably in an entirely traditional lifestyle.

To judge Abbott, we need to ask the question; was I correct in using the term ‘lifestyle’ in the previous two paragraphs – if not, what word should I have used instead?

To judge ourselves, we must decide whether we are going to close the gap between symbolic reconciliation & practical reconciliation. If we fail to close this gap, we stand no chance of closing the real gap in this country.

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