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As governments continue to disappoint, new report celebrates Blak excellence, activism and leadership

Introduction by Croakey: In yet another week of “tough on crime” politics, the Victorian Government has announced it will drop plans to make the state’s bail laws fairer for children.

In a widely criticised step, the State Government will introduce a trial to electronically monitor young people who have been charged with serious offences.

Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, said “this decision will impact on the great work Aboriginal communities have been doing to stem the tide of over-policing and over-incarceration of their youth. This is a betrayal of the promises they have made under the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and the National Agreement for Closing the Gap. It is a senseless decision.”

In NSW, the Minns Government is under fire over changes to bail laws that experts warned in an open letter on 18 March will “be disastrous for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people”.

Meanwhile, the 15th annual Close the Gap Campaign Report released this week celebrates Blak excellence while lamenting “the continued failure by governments to meet their commitments on Closing the Gap”.

The report – prepared by Lowitja Institute for the Close the Gap Campaign Alliance Group, and launched ahead of Close the Gap Day on 21 March – also makes detailed recommendations to governments and the wider community, reports Alison Barrett.

At the report’s launch on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country, Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler said a meeting of Health Ministers in Canberra this Friday would attend a roundtable with Indigenous organisations to discuss cultural safety and healthcare in prisons which is “long outstanding business identified in the Royal Commission more than three decades ago – one that I’m determined we do better on.”


Alison Barrett writes:

All levels of government – federal, state, territory and local – should deliver the objectives of the Uluru Statement from the Heart by advancing Voice, Treaty and Truth mechanisms in their jurisdictions, according to recommendations in the latest Close the Gap Campaign report.

“This includes establishing representative structures that can facilitate agreement-making and progress cooperation and collaboration between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments,” it says.

The report also calls on Australians to “take the initiative to act on truth-telling by undertaking their own processes in their organisations, institutions, professions, and communities to enact the objectives of the Uluru Statement”.

It says the movement to progress the principles of the Uluru Statement of the Heart remains “thriving and strong”, despite the devastating outcome of the Voice to Parliament Referendum. Victoria is “leading the way”, according to the Campaign report, with negotiations for a state-wide Treaty progressing.

Polls closed in South Australia’s inaugural First Nations Voice to Parliament election last week, with counting to commence next week.

Queensland is on a path to Treaty, although the state Liberal National Party withdrew their support following the national Voice Referendum last year.

Calls for action

Another of the report’s 22 recommendations is for the Australian Government to fully implement and monitor the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) through enacting the 2023 recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Inquiry into the application of the UNDRIP in Australia.

The report calls for “a culturally safe Australian healthcare system that is responsive to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, where institutional racism is acknowledged, measured, and addressed; cultural safety training is undertaken regularly and valued as an important step in Closing the Gap; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are integral and valued members of the health workforce”.

The report also makes a series of recommendations about the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy 2020–24, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, the establishment of a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Coalition on Climate and Health, the development of a standalone National Plan for First Nations Family Safety, and full implementation of the 2021–2031 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan and other supporting plans.

The report supports the First People’s Disability Network’s call for greater inclusion of disability in the National Agreement, and embed cultural safety standards in the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

It urges the Australian Government to support development and expansion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander international trade opportunities and to ensure the 2024 review of the Indigenous Procurement Policy increases opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses

Blak excellence

The themes of this year’s report are Progressing Voice, Treaty, and Truth; Leadership and Governance; and Building our Economies – these “speak to economic, social, political and cultural determinants of health that are crucial to commitments by Australian governments to closing the gap”.

The report “pays tribute to our peoples’ strong leadership and legacy, our entrepreneurial thinking and innovation, and our continued fight to ‘take our rightful place in this country’ and to improve health and wellbeing outcomes for our peoples”.

“It marks and celebrates the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to pursue self-determination and exercise power and decision-making.

“This is despite a gruelling year that saw racism and misinformation unleashed in response to the campaign for a Voice, the devastating outcome of the Voice Referendum, and the continued failure by governments to meet their commitments on Closing the Gap.”

The report presents nine case studies as exemplars of Blak excellence, demonstrating “the work of visionaries and pioneers, teachers and advocates, trailblazers and entrepreneurs dedicated to lifting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities”.

“They elevate First Nations voices and perspectives and centre First Nations leadership, culture and learning, and in doing so, provide tangible evidence of how to close the gap.”

At the report’s launch, Chair of the Lowitja Institute Selwyn Button said that “while reflecting on the referendum, [the report] doesn’t linger on the political body machinations…This is about focusing on the strength of the things that we know happen in our community that we see every day”.

The case studies include:

  • A smart and efficient campaign strategy that engaged with state and federal MPs as well as upskilled staff, empowered and enabled the Wungening Aboriginal Corporation in Boorloo/Perth to deliver a Voice to Parliament Referendum campaign.
  • The Central Land Council in Northern Territory utilised social, local and national media to deliver a multi-language Referendum information campaign demonstrating how strongly the Voice was supported in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
  • VACCHO – the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation – mobilised communities to campaign for the Yes vote and conducted a survey of 1,600 Victorian health workers showing that most health professionals supported a Voice to Parliament.
  • Culturally safe support and mentoring through the Specialist Trainee Support Program offered by the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association has been instrumental to growing the workforce of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical specialists.
  • Applying a health promotion lens to the ‘merch with a message’ business, Clothing the Gaps, has started conversations, challenged stereotypes and helped “build strong economic participation and development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities”, according to the Report.

    Report cover, featuring: Professor Megan Davis, June Oscar AO, Pat Anderson AO, Sally Scales and Irene Davey at
    First Nations National Constitutional Convention (Mutitjulu), May 2017. © Jimmy Widders Hunt 2017.

Shared journey

Writing in the foreword, Co-Chairs of the Close the Gap Campaign June Oscar AO and Karl Briscoe say that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ activism, continual fight for genuine partnership, shared agreement making, recognition and survival “has moulded our peoples, formed part of our identities, and shaped the social and political progress of this country”.

“This is an important part of our story, of our truth telling; but it is also the story of our shared journey as a nation,” they say.

“It is with great pride that we recognise, when we fight for self-determination for ourselves and our communities, we extend that principle to others.

“When we fight for large-scale structural reform to build and embed economic development, that knowledge and reform benefits everyone.”

Briscoe says that, “when we talk about progressing Voice, Treaty, Truth, we build a broader understanding of how history, activism, leadership and compassion are inextricably linked and necessary to building socio-economic and political equity”.

Launch

The report was launched at Parliament House on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country on Wednesday, at an event attended by Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler, MP for Dunkley Jodie Belyea, Greens Senator Dorinda Cox and Liberal Senator Kerrynne Liddle.

Despite setbacks over the past 12 months, the report says it “refocuses the narrative on our peoples’ strengths and successes”.

Echoing her own comments from the previous night at the launch of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute and Change Agenda for First Nations Gender Justice Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney applauded the Report’s focus on the positives.

“It is celebrating excellence in innovation and it’s focusing on strengths and successes…Congratulations on putting that in front of us and shining a light on examples of working communities,” Burney said.

She reiterated the Labor Party’s commitment to closing the gap and announced that the Albanese Government will contribute $3.5 million to support the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation’s scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

At the launch, Co-Chair and CEO of National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Practitioners Karl Briscoe said: “The pursuit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition, rights, justice and equity is our cause. And this journey can be difficult, sometimes even painful, but it remains a worthy pursuit, because embedding social justice benefits us all.”

In a Public Health Association of Australia statement issued in response to the report, Dr Alana Gall, Palawa woman and researcher, and PHAA Vice President (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander), said it “reinforces the need for genuine shifts in power from the top down”.

“First Nations knowledges encompass over 65,000 years of knowing, being and doing,” she said. “This needs to be legislatively protected and harnessed for the benefit of all human and planetary health.

“A practical way we can achieve this is by applying a ‘First Nations in All Policy’ approach nationally.”


See Croakey’s archive of articles on the cultural determinants of health