Introduction by Croakey: High level talks have been underway in Adelaide on details for the Voice referendum on embedding an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution.
Rejecting reports of an impasse on the wording of the referendum question at the Referendum Working Group group meeting, Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said she wanted to make it “extraordinarily clear” there was no division and the finalised wording was “so close”.
The meeting coincided with the launch of the 2023 Close the Gap report which, as Marie McInerney reports below, is focused on young people and the cultural determinants of health.
Strong support for the Voice was expressed in the report and at the launch. Croakey will feature, in a separate article, the keynote address by Bridget Cama, a Wiradjuri woman and Co-Chair of the Uluru Youth Dialogue, who said the referendum looms as “the most significant legal reform at the front of our national agenda right now”.
Marie McInerney writes:
The 14th annual Close the Gap Campaign report, titled Strong Culture, Strong Youth: Our Legacy, Our Future, was released on Thursday, at a special launch event in La Perouse in Sydney on Bidjigal Land.
As with the previous few years, the report is not aimed as a direct response to the Federal Government’s latest reports on Closing the Gap targets as these reports once were.
Instead, it takes a strengths-based approach to show “how Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing are central to improving health outcomes”, write Close the Gap Campaign chairs June Oscar and Karl Briscoe in the report’s foreword.
“These are the principles we showcase again in this report because, in the face of painfully slow progress, it has been Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, innovation and creativity that has pushed boundaries and created opportunities for the community-controlled sectors to flourish,” they said.
As well as making recommendations for structural reform, the report features eight case studies spanning the creative arts, mentoring, justice reinvestment, climate activism, LGBTQ+SB rights, language innovations, suicide prevention, and the structural reform of mental health services.
The case studies showcase “the essential role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led decision-making and self-determination in shaping a vision of health and well-being, built upon a strong cultural foundation”, Oscar and Briscoe write.
Many, like Queensland-based Youth Verdict – who took on Clive Palmer’s massive Galilee Coal Project – highlight the leadership of a “new generation of hands-on activists” while others demonstrate how a focus on young people’s concerns and aspirations “can be powerful drivers of positive change”.
Briscoe told the launch:
This report highlights again that achieving positive, lasting change requires a formula too simple to ignore: Value our cultures, engage our leadership, share the power and let us lead decisions about matters that affect us.”
Read the Close the Gap summary report or the full report, and you can watch the launch event here.
The report calls for new policies/frameworks on culture and the climate emergency and highlights how so many important Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strategies or reports lie on shelves gathering dust. It recommends a number that need attention and accelerated work, including:
- National Agreement on Closing the Gap priorities and reform focus areas
- the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2021–2031, and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workforce Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan 2021–2031
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project
- Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar’s Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report
- Uluru Statement from the Heart
- the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), calling for it to be embedded into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, and in Australian law, regulations, policies, and administrative practices, and
- urgent action to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Australia from ten to 14, arguing that the current age is “is racially discriminatory, with much greater impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people than on their non-Indigenous peers”.
Culture and climate
The report says the Close the Gap Alliance welcomed the Australian Government’s launch in January of its National Cultural Policy—Revive: a 5-year plan to renew and revive Australia’s arts, entertainment and cultural sector that included significant support for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creative economy and languages.
It recommends now building on this foundation by developing a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural policy that promotes both culture and the cultural determinants of health, going “beyond the largely ‘creative economy’ Revive-focus” to align cultural and health policy.
It says the importance of culture is a key focus in current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health policy, particularly across national frameworks. “What is less evident is that this principle is implemented across program funding, services and delivery, particularly in those services that are non-Indigenous”, it says.
On the climate crisis, the report points to last year’s “ground-breaking international human rights law precedent” led by the Torres Strait 8, when the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Australia’s failure to adequately protect Torres Strait Islanders against adverse impacts of climate change violated their human rights.
It recommends a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander climate change framework that connects to Closing the Gap policy, looking at adaptation, mitigation, housing, emergency management, green infrastructure, and ensuring that “cultural sites, knowledge, land management and conservation practices are embedded into national climate change mitigation efforts.”
As well as the Torres Strait 8, the report features another key example of using human rights law to achieve climate justice, hailing the work of Youth Verdict, whose work lead to last year’s landmark legal decision that Clive Palmer’s plans to develop the Galilee coal project would infringe on the rights of future generations.
Youth Verdict Director and First Nations Lead Murrawah Johnson, a Wirdi woman with connections to Wangan and Jagalingou Country, Birri Gubba and Gangalou Nations, says in the report that the group believes the future that young people will inherit “is going to be defined by whether there is justice for First Nations peoples or not”.
Youth Verdict is “challenging the settler–colonial construct that separates important interconnections, and puts land rights over here, native title over here, environmental protection over here, human rights over there,” she said.
She has no doubts about the the challenges but is optimistic for change.
“The Australian legal system is still an instrument of the colonial law apparatus…it’s never going to fully work in our favour, but we’ll take the wins,” she says.
“Our case shows that the courts in this country are finally waking up to the real consequences of climate change, including the destruction and loss of our rich First Nations cultures, and this will flow through to public policy.”
“Country is our classroom”
Sovereignty and culture are at the heart of another case study in the report, on the Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School (GGFS), run by the Bularri Muurlay Nyanggan Aboriginal Corporation (BMNAC).
Coffs Harbour-based GGFS is New South Wales’ first Aboriginal bilingual school. It opened its doors in 2022 to 14 students enrolled in Kindergarten to Year 2. In 2023, student numbers will rise to at least 49, with hopes that it will soon welcome students up to Year 12.
“There’s a buzz up in our Country [about the school],” BMNAC chief operating officer Nathan Brennan told the launch event, saying its growing number of students are becoming ever more confident in dance, story telling and the revitalisation of Language through a philosophy of teaching which is based on Country.
“It’s our place, it’s where we belong, we spend lots of time out on Country, culture is a significant part of our learning” he said.
Principal Alanah Jack said students are out on Country one day a week, tapping into the local community (“we know we don’t have all the knowledge”). Classroom and Language teachers work closely alongside each other, with equal status, the Gumbaynggirr language is embedded in all key learning areas (from numeracy to geography and art), and classes are capped at 20, with plenty of support.
“It’s not uncommon to walk into classroom and see five or six people supporting our kids,” she said.
And, while it’s early days yet, the school is already seeing success, achieving 95.5 per cent attendance and exceeding expectations in numeracy.
“For us it’s still early days but you can see the difference with our kids,” she said. “[The attendance rate] tells us a lot, that our kids are happy, our kids like coming to school, it’s a safe place for them. It’s phenomenal to see what happens when we get to lead in education, it’s really special,” she said.
Establishing the school has meant facing and addressing many barriers: building Language skills among staff, finding the right site, accessing the public and philanthropic funds that sustain it, and it’s currently not allowed in NSW to meet its goal to be a “full immersion” school – that is, no English.
That restriction is “one of the things we need to challenge,” Brennan said.
“We need our educational sovereignty as Gumbaynggirr people, educating our young people on things that are valuable to us as well, he said, adding that the school sees itself as a model “for the future of education of our people in New South Wales.
“If we’re serious about passing on our culture and our Language, we’ll see that community controlled education start to come to the forefront.”
Much more than music
Culture and health are strong themes for Cairns-based siblings Naomi Wenitong and Layla Wenitong-Schrieber, who grew up in a musical family who played in bands across New South Wales and Queensland while their father Mark Wenitong was in training to become one of Australia’s first Aboriginal doctors.
Naomi went onto become one half of the popular Shakaya group in the early 2000s, playing gigs with Destiny’s Child, Public Enemy and Pink, the first single, Stop Calling Me, that she wrote when she was 16 went platinum. She went from playing in arenas, striding around in high heels, to waking up in hospital after a car accident, having to learn to walk again. See this Australian Story episode about the family.
In 2020 the two sisters launched the Naytive Mentorship program, supported by Deadly Inspiring Youth Doing Good (DIYDG), helping young people from tough backgrounds to learn the full suite of music industry skills: how to write songs and record themselves; performance and interview techniques; and understanding copyright laws and branding/business development.
But the program is about much more than music, they said.
“As a music program, we’ve recorded numerous songs and videos supporting young people to perform, upskill them on the business side of music, hook them up with jobs as stage assistants and video producers,” Wenitong-Schreiber said.
“But we’ve also taken young adults to their first doctor’s visit, helped young women escape from domestic violence, yarn about the dangers of casual drug, to use different forms of contraception…because it is more than music,” she said.
“Ten years ago, no one talked about ‘lived experience’ in suicide prevention. Now we’ve got our own National Indigenous Lived Experience Network that is also focused on the experience of our young people. I think people across all the areas are now very conscious of listening to youth, not speaking for them or browbeating them.” Leading Aboriginal psychologist and Bardi woman Professor Pat Dudgeon
“Data sovereignty has been a big part of our work, as well as how we utilise it. We might run a program for six or 12 months, say, then we measure the impact to see if it aligns with the systems change and reform and transformation work that we do. If it does, the program gets integrated into our wider service delivery. Everything gets measured against KPIs, which I refer to as ‘community expectation indicators’ – that’s code for the co-design we do as a community.” Alister Ferguson, the Executive Director and Founder of Maranguka Community Hub which, in conjunction with the Bourke Tribal Council and Just Reinvest NSW, runs the Bourke Justice Reinvestment Project (BJRP).
“At the end of the day dance is our tool, it’s all about breaking down barriers, the shame factor, all that kind of stuff, and empowering our young people to go, ‘I can be and do anything’. They really start to understand who they are and their responsibilities [as they] step into the future, with a foot in both worlds. They’re not treading on wobbly boards anymore, they’re solid and with a great foundation.’ Wulli Wulli Waka Waka man Sidney Saltner, a Bangara Dance Theatre dancer and Youth Program Director, in charge of the Rekindling Youth Program.
“We’re a minority within a minority group, and over the last few years we’ve come to realise that there’s a lack of data, research and literature around our cohort. BlaQ seeks to promote the growth of this body of knowledge to ensure our programs are evidence based when working with our LGBTQ+SB Mob.” Desiree Leha, a Birri Gubba/Wakka Wakka woman, who is Policy Officer with BlaQ , which worked with Western Sydney University on the Dalarinji Project, the first research effort in NSW dedicated to understanding and promoting the social and emotional wellbeing and mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ+SB young people.
‘We talk about how every sector, business and organisation wants more Indigenous leaders, but what are those sectors and policymakers doing to help Indigenous students get their foot in the door to have leadership opportunities? At Aurora, we build Indigenous leadership and strengthen resilience by supporting Indigenous students through high school. And if they want to go to university, we support them to get to university too.” Aurora Education Foundation CEO and Wiradjuri woman Leila Smith.
See this Twitter thread of the Close the Gap 2023 report launch.
See the media release
See Croakey’s archive of articles on the cultural determinants of health