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Stop undermining self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, governments told

Alison Barrett writes:

When the Prime Minister addresses Federal Parliament next week to mark the anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations want to hear that the Government will significantly lift its investment in Closing the Gap.

“We are calling for a dedicated Closing the Gap fund, enshrined in legislation, and directed to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and our organisations to support our self-determination,” said the Coalition of Peaks this week.

The Coalition is a partner to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and represents more than 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations. It noted that next week’s address will be the first time the PM has addressed the nation in a significant way following the referendum on a Voice to Parliament.

Meanwhile, all governments are on notice to change the way they work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and people following the release this week of a major Productivity Commission review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

Governments were failing in their commitments under the National Agreement, did not fully grasp the nature and scale of the changes required, and urgently needed to “close the gap between words and action”, the review found.

The Productivity Commission review noted the persistence of “government knows best” thinking when designing and implementing services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Persistent barriers to progressing the Agreement’s Priority Reforms are the lack of power sharing needed for joint decision-making, and the failure of governments to acknowledge and act on the reality that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know what is best for their communities, the review found.

“Unless governments address the power imbalance in their systems, policies and ways of working, the Agreement risks becoming another broken promise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” it said.

Sector responses

Acting Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks, Catherine Liddle, said the review involved extensive community consultation, and confirmed “what our own countless conversations have told us – that governments still don’t understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know what is best for our communities”.

“When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are given ownership over the decisions that affect their lives, the resources they need, and the opportunity to partner with government, we see better outcomes,” she said.

Liddle said more funding was needed to deliver the Closing the Gap reforms, noting there had been no significant injection of funding since 2008.

The Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association commended the Commission’s analysis and recommendations calling for the government to share power with the Aboriginal Community Controlled sector and embed accountability to drive positive change.

Donna Burns, CEO of AIDA, said in a statement that the report’s findings reinforce the urgent need for transformative action within all levels of government.

Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council Acting CEO Paula Arnol said in a statement that stronger involvement from Community Controlled Organisations is needed.

“Our members live and work in our communities and regions, their strength is in building solutions for mob. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partnerships and collaborations are essential to achieve real change,” Arnol said.

Echoing Arnol’s sentiments, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Jill Gallagher AO said “community knows community best”.

“It’s time for governments to release the shackles and create transformative policies that empower Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, and their dedicated staff continue to apply Aboriginal ways of being, knowing, and doing to support thriving, healthy Communities,” Gallagher said.

Recommendations were made in the review for governments to strengthen the capability of ACCOs, increase the number of programs and services designed and delivered by them, and provide dedicated, reliable and consistent funding.

Self-determination

The review found that the commitment to shared decision-making is “rarely achieved in practice”, and recommends that the National Agreement should be changed to recognise that self-determination is the “ultimate goal” of Priority Reform One.

Commissioners Romlie Mokak and Natalie Siegel-Brown wrote that real change “means looking deeply to get to the heart of the way systems, departments and public servants work. Most critically, the Agreement requires government decision-makers to accept that they do not know what is best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

“Business-as-usual must be a thing of the past” in order to see substantial change in the Priority Reform areas of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, according to Mokak and Siegel-Brown.

“The gap is not a natural phenomenon. It is a direct result of the ways in which governments have used their power over many decades. In particular, it stems from a disregard for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s knowledges and solutions,” Mokak and Siegel-Brown wrote.

CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service Nerita Waight said in a statement:

Self-determination is the only thing that will lead to real change and improve the lives of our people. That means giving us the authority and resources to make decisions about the things the impact our lives, not sitting us down at a table and then ignoring what we have to say.”

Minimal progress

Following the release of a draft report last year – read more from Croakey here – the Productivity Commission sought additional feedback from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations, governments and the broader community before finalising the report, which was released this week.

The review team held 235 meetings, including 136 with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, received 101 submissions including 51 from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, and held seven virtual roundtables to gather feedback.

While small tweaks and changes have been made in “attempts to give effect to the Agreement”, the review made clear that only minimal change has been made on the Agreement Priority Reforms.

A review of three socio-economic outcome areas – youth justice, child protection and family safety – shows that some governments “have been willing to change their approach and to adopt policies championed for decades by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”, including government partnerships and commitments to improving data in these areas.

However, governments still haven’t reformed mainstream systems and institutions and still retain power over decision-making in partnerships.

“In many ways the review reaffirms that despite the best intentions, governments are still sticking with the status quo, by failing to take concrete steps to put Aboriginal health in Aboriginal hands,” said VACCHO’s Jill Gallagher.

Speaking in her role as CEO of SNAICC – National Voice for our Children, Catherine Liddle said in a statement that the final report “makes it clear that governments and their decision-makers do not know best when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

“We know what works best for us,” she said.

Voice to Parliament

The review acknowledged that some governments have more recently “stepped up their efforts to improve how they work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to design policies that affect their lives” including the Federal Government’s commitment to holding a referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.

The review did not elaborate on the impact of the unsuccessful referendum on Priority Reform areas – however, it said that “regardless of the outcomes of these processes, governments still have a responsibility to implement what they committed to in the Agreement”.

Transforming government organisations

The review said that the lack of progress on Priority Reform Three – transforming government organisations – “is putting the other Priority Reforms and the Agreement as a whole at risk”, echoing comments made by Lowitja Institute CEO Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed following the release of the draft report last year.

Mohamed said “the Coalition of Peaks made it clear to governments that the socioeconomic targets will only be achieved if governments transform the way they work. What is needed is whole-of-system understanding and effort to embrace every opportunity to embed Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing”.

The Commissioners recommend that every government department develops a clear, documented strategy for its portfolio to undertake the transformation required under the Agreement.

The transformation strategy should be underpinned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led assessment of the government department’s history with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Data governance and sovereignty

The Commission found that while some jurisdictions are taking steps to embed Indigenous Data Governance to support Indigenous Data Sovereignty, significant change on Priority Reform Four has not occurred.

The review recommends amending the agreement to “explicitly” include Indigenous Data Sovereignty as part of the outcome statement for Priority Reform Four.

Overall, tracking the Agreement’s progress is hampered by a lack of data and unclear indicators and information, the review found.

The Commission also recommends establishing a Bureau of Indigenous Data to coordinate and oversee data development work under the Agreement, and to support governments to embed Indigenous Data Governance into data systems and practices. It would also invest in the data capability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities.

Accountability

Finally, the review found that the accountability mechanisms in the Agreement are not “enough to drive change”. Governments continue to act in ways that don’t align with the Agreement.

The Productivity Commission recommends establishing an “independent mechanism without further delay” that should have an expanded role and powers, a legislative basis and guaranteed funding.

Social and emotional wellbeing

Statement from Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia – added in post-publication: 

Following today’s release of the Productivity Commission’s Review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia is calling for urgent implementation of the Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Declaration within Australia’s mental health system.

While the objective of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) is to overcome the entrenched inequality faced by too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so that their life outcomes are equal to all Australians, the Review of the National Agreement (the Review) found that governments have not fully grasped the scale of change required to their systems, culture, operations, and ways of working to deliver the unprecedented shift they have committed to.

“Those of us working in the community controlled sector are not surprised by this Review’s outcome”, said CEO of Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia, Ms Rachel Fishlock. “This Review is a clear example of why the Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Declaration needs to be implemented in full and embedded into Australia’s mental health system.

“We have an implementation plan drafted and ready to go. It was developed by a National Governance Committee and an Expert Advisory Committee of key government officials across jurisdictions and tested with community members with a lived experience of mental health and social and emotional wellbeing services, but we’re waiting for the government to endorse it.”

The Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Declaration focuses on a ‘best of both worlds’ approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health, social and emotional wellbeing, and suicide prevention; promoting an appropriate balance of clinical and culturally-informed mental health system responses.

“Those of us working in the Australian mental health system know how important Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence and leadership is to attaining the highest standard of social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, and suicide prevention outcomes for our people”, said Professor Helen Millroy, Chair of Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia.

“Full implementation of the Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Declaration would reflect a fundamentally new way of providing mental health, social and emotional wellbeing, and suicide prevention services to our people – a commitment Australian governments made when signing the National Agreement.

“As the Review found, we can’t keep making small tweaks to business as usual processes – we need to make substantive and systemic changes. Implementation of the Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Declaration is a great place to start”.

From X/Twitter

Additional support

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
beyondblue: 1300 224 636
13Yarn: 13 92 76
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
QLife: 1800 184 527
Check-In (VMIAC, Victoria): 1800 845 109
Lived Experience Telephone Line Service: 1800 013 755

Brother to Brother crisis line: 1800 435 799


See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on Indigenous health and wellbeing.

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