Last Thursday February 13th 2014, marked the sixth anniversary of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The apology was received by many as a genuine attempt towards healing of the damage caused to Australia’s first peoples over the last 200 years. Mr Rudd acknowledged this past harm and resolved a future that promised that such injustice would never occur again and that we would all work together to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’. In that same year, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to a broad policy to help address the disadvantage gap faced by Aboriginal Australians in life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment. The specific targets set were to
- To close the life-expectancy gap within a generation
- To halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade
- To ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four years olds in remote communities within five years
- To halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade
- To halve the gap in Indigenous Year 12 achievement by 2020
- To halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade.
Coincidentally to the anniversary of the Apology, the 2014 Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s report was released. The latest report concludes that while some good progress has been made towards these targets with small improvements in life expectancy and reduction in child mortality rates, “in too many areas, people’s lives are not improving or not improving fast enough.” Tellingly the report goes on to say “There is also a need to engage Indigenous people more in solving their own problems. We have to stop pretending that a government policy or programme on its own can overcome Indigenous disadvantage.” Fair enough comment, but the current thrust of Government policy is publically focussed towards ensuring that Aboriginal children attend school and getting the data to prove that the policy is successful. In the introduction to the report, Prime Minister Abbott comments “Future Closing the Gap reports will provide more data that better answer the questions we have about what is happening to Indigenous people across our country.” While there is no denying that education is the key to prosperity and wellbeing for all Australians, it is perhaps that focus on collection of data to prove reduction in statistical disadvantage rather than working towards genuine reconciliation that should concern us all.
In the opinion of Michael Mullins, in this process of focussing on statistical disadvantage we are in danger of repeating the injustices of the past by objectifying our relationship with Aboriginal Australians rather than developing the personalised relationship that genuine reconciliation demands. We are in danger of being seduced by the numbers according to Queensland University Lecturer Elizabeth Strakosch. The government is setting new targets in measuring school attendance and then employing truancy officers to ensure that those numbers are reduced. But more significantly is that “statistical disadvantage is now the dominant way of framing the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia, and of directing our efforts to change this relationship. … It is worth asking deeper questions about what ‘Closing the Gap’ brings to the political conversation and what it leaves out.”
So what is left out? Certainly the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment is still climbing; the rate in Western Australia is now 20 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians and there is still ongoing systemic discrimination that prevents Aboriginal Australians from accessing safe, secure and appropriate housing and from access to many of the other public services taken for granted be non-Indigenous Australians. But most tellingly, the latest Government policy seems to leave out genuine reconciliation.
While at a basic level, reconciliation is the act of establishing or reestablishing relations between people. At secular level the elements of genuine reconciliation must include the acknowledgement of past wrongs, an apology for that wrong doing and a guarantee against any repetition, as Prime Minister Rudd offered on behalf of all Australians six years ago, but it must also include rehabilitation and some form of financial compensation for what has been lost. Its meaning in Christian theology is slightly different, due to the fact that reconciliation is linked to conversion, penance, repentance, change of behavior, and the forgiveness of sin. The Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church says that forgiveness is the key to reconciliation which leads to peace, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12). Perhaps then forgiveness is the key to genuine reconciliation. While high imprisonment rates, poor housing and lack of resources don’t seem to reflect forgiveness, campaigns like the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples in Australian constitution could go towards building forgiveness and then reflect our nation’s desire for genuine reconciliation.
“Reconciliation is about far deeper things – to do with nation, soul and spirit. Reconciliation is about the blood and flesh of the lives we must lead together not the nuts and bolts of the entitlements as citizens we should all enjoy.
Dr Mick Dodson when speaking at the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000