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Why isn't the gap closed?

20 February 2024

Readers will know that the Closing the Gap agenda is not new. In fact, it has been around for over 15 years. And many of you would know that while there have been some improvements - for the most part, they have been small.

Let's go to the numbers. They don't tell the full story - they certainly don't capture the strength and determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities fighting for change. But they do give an indication of whether things are working or not.

About six months ago, the Productivity Commission reported that only four of the 19 socio-economic outcome targets under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the Agreement) were on track to be met.

Four are getting worse, and for the remainder, there is either no progress or so little progress, that they won't be achieved by 2030.

But there is no reason things should keep going this way. The Productivity Commission's latest review on progress against the Agreement makes it clear to governments where the obstacles lie and that the ball is in their court.

When the National Agreement was signed in 2020, governments acknowledged that they could not keep doing what they have always done. Together with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations, they jointly signed up to a radically different way of working to close the gap.

In the Agreement, governments committed not just to targets, but to transforming their agencies to share decision-making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In doing so, they recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the knowledge and leadership to find solutions and make change for their own communities.

They specifically committed to strengthening the Aboriginal community controlled sector, transforming themselves as government organisations and sharing access to data and information. These are the Priority Reforms under the Agreement. They are central to influencing the direction and speed of change in the targets.

At the heart of these reforms is a central message: to close the gap, governments must share power with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This means that when governments signed the Agreement, they signed up to enabling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to determine their own solutions - and their own futures.

So, are governments living up to what they themselves committed to?

For nearly two years, the Productivity Commission has dug beneath the words on the pages of the Agreement. We spoke with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (as well as governments and people in the wider community) all over the country to assess whether governments'

actions are matching what they promised.

We are deeply grateful for the generosity of the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who gave us their time, their honesty and their insights into what needs to change and where governments' blind spots still lie.

We found that while governments have taken thousands of ‘actions' towards fulfilling their commitments, most of them are simply re-labelled business as usual.

We found as many as 70% of government actions are padded out with preexisting programs - and some of the ‘new' actions are only vaguely relevant. Some are just small tweaks to old government processes.

So how can we hold governments accountable for making the real change they committed to?

We looked at why governments are still using the same old playbook and what it would take to disrupt the status quo, so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (and indeed, all Australians) can see and feel measurable changes when we conduct our next review in three years.

We have made four recommendations, each containing specific actions that must happen in order to close the gap.

The first recommendation pervades everything: power needs to be shared. There will be no change unless governments share power with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations to design and implement their own solutions. The first action we call on governments to commit to here, is to amend the National Agreement to make it clear that selfdetermination is the purpose of the first Priority Reform.

To share power and move away from ‘government knows best' thinking, governments need to transform themselves and their organisations.

Governments are already committed to doing this in the Agreement, but our review found they have not fully grasped the scale of the change to their systems, culture, operations and ways of working that is required. We recommend governments begin the process of fundamentally rethinking their systems and culture, and propose five actions to make sure that happens.

Knowledge is power and this power must also be shared. That's why we also recommend that governments recognise and support Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Indigenous Data Governance.

Finally, progress is unlikely unless governments are held accountable for making the changes they promised. That's why our fourth recommendations calls for stronger accountability, including setting up an independent mechanism to support, monitor and report on governments'

transformations as promised in the Agreement.

Sharing power is important for its own sake: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a right to determine their future. But it also makes sense from an economic perspective.

Governments are allocating money ineffectively when they put it towards programs that disregard the knowledge, priorities and solutions of communities.

To move forward, governments and their organisations need to deeply review and change what they are doing and to share power with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when determining the purpose, design and implementation of 'solutions'.

An ever-growing number of extra actions in implementation plans will not get us there.

This article was written by Commissioners Romlie Mokak and Natalie Siegel-Brown. It was first published in the Koori Mail on 14 February 2024.