Attending the launch of the Prime Minister’s annual Closing the Gap report is a bit like going to church. We attend regularly and talk about the eulogy, but life beyond the rituals is complicated. Like many others who are working to improve the lives of the first peoples of Australia, to ensure that we have “the right to grow old”, as Bill Shorten so rightly put it, I have lost faith in some of the theological arguments that underpin present policy stances.

There are good reasons, of course, for presenting a snapshot such as the Closing the Gap report. Targets are important, but what lies behind them? What are the approaches to achieving them?

The report focuses the attention of our political leaders and engages them in treating the stark disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians as a national priority. Bipartisanship between the major parties on this issue is essential.

Demanding the impossible is not helpful. It gets them into the media cycle for 48 hours and generates a bit of heat, but the end result is that people in the system are deterred from acting because they feel intimidated. Being the subject of juvenile accusations of “colonial oppressor” or “assimilated” is nothing more than lateral violence and lightweight political theatre.

The Closing the Gap report, while it goes some of the way in presenting some data to the public on the outcomes of the millions of dollars spent in indigenous affairs to meet specific targets, fails to present some critical information that could make policy approaches more effective. One stark absence is the statistical divide that runs along the geographical border between remote and non-remote Australia.

Part of the theological stance among leaders of the “community-controlled” indigenous sector is a reluctance to address this divide in an evidence-based way; and hence the misleading statistics on our proximity to or distance from meeting the targets.

The statistics represent a national averaging of progress, compiled from a range of data. The highly localised, and highly differentiated, picture of change on, say the number of clinic presentations of infants or hospitalisation rates for assault, are lost in the national picture.

The “one size fits all approach” cannot succeed when there are so many differences of culture, geography, history and proximity to the national service grid.

The real policy debate must hinge on questions of innovation in service delivery and the levers for behavioural change.

This will come from community empowerment. The bureaucracy is incapable of delivering these changes.

Only indigenous leadership can bring people along the path to healthy behaviours, ensuring full school attendance, adults in work and home ownership.

The economic levers that government can pull and push are critical, and this is the role of the civil servants who are presently becalmed by the failure of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to distribute funds to the indigenous organisations.

Most of the goals for a healthy indigenous population enjoying the “right to grow old” will not be reached without far greater levels of indigenous economic participation through employment and enterprise development.

Many of Australia’s corporate leaders have been generous in providing their expertise to indigenous leaders and innovators to develop economically. Moving from the “indigenous disadvantage industry” to economic development must be the main, if long term, goal of our leaders, both indigenous and non-indigenous.

Several recommendations that are critical have been made to the government and these are easy wins. The delay in delivering a government policy and program on indigenous procurement of goods and services that delivers real outcomes, as recommended in the Forrest review report on indigenous employment and training, is puzzling.

So too is the lost traction in the commonwealth’s role in hastening land title reform for home ownership and leasing. The Remote Jobs and Communities Program is an improvement on the work-for-the-dole scheme it replaced, but insisting on an even more draconian “work for the dole” will not push the high numbers of adults capable of working into the private sector. This is where innovation and commitment is required.

The “community-controlled” sector has a role to play — if its leaders can tackle these problems head-on and innovate. Many of their organisations are no longer marginal but mainstream institutions, especially in rural and remote Australia.

Their success should be noted — this is part of the future of indigenous Australia.

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