Reconciliation Australia: Closing the Gap Lecture
Thursday 9 April 2009
State Library of Victoria Theatrette, Melbourne

Mr Terry Moran AO

Closing The Gap: Forging New Partnerships To Address Indigenous Disadvantage In Australia

I acknowledge the First Australians on whose lands we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

I want to thank Reconciliation Australia for inviting me to speak today.

And I want to acknowledge the fine work Reconciliation Australia has done since its formation nine years ago in forging closer relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Among many initiatives, let me cite just three.

First, the Reconciliation Action plans, which encourage organisations to play their role in the national effort to build reconciliation and to close the gap between Indigenous and other Australians.  To date, well over 30 leading community-sector organisations have joined the RAP program, while a growing number of businesses and government departments – including my own -- have in place or are developing Reconciliation Action Plans.

Secondly, the Indigenous Governance Awards, created by Reconciliation Australia in partnership with BHP Billiton.  These awards highlight the excellent work – the good management, effective partnerships and brave, creative thinking – of the best Indigenous organisations.  Indigenous organisations that – in the words of Gary Banks, chair of the Productivity Commission and a judge on last year’s Governance Awards – “outclass most mainstream organisations and enterprises in Australia”.

Thirdly, let me read from Reconciliation Australia's ambition statement:

“As a non-profit, independent organisation, we seek to eliminate the glaring gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.  That the life of an Indigenous child is likely to end 17 years earlier than a non-Indigenous child’s is not acceptable in an affluent country like Australia.  All the work we do with our project partners is dedicated to narrowing that gap.”

Clearly, no organisation understands better than Reconciliation Australia the importance of the subject I am here to talk about today.  And that is the performance of Commonwealth, State and Territory governments in achieving one of the Australian Government's central policy objectives: to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage in health, housing, educational attainment and employment outcomes.  And in particular, to close what the Prime Minister has called the shameful gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

In my speech I shall also touch on the role of the corporate sector in the Government’s closing-the-gap strategy.  And I shall talk about the vital importance of engaging Indigenous Australians in the strategy, because we can be sure that without their engagement, this enterprise will fail.

On February 26th this year, the Prime Minister made the first of his promised annual statements to Parliament on progress in closing the gap.  It was a quiet day in Parliament; the speech attracted only moderate media attention.

Just over a year earlier, on February 13 last year, he had made a different speech.  On that day, his speech accompanied the national Apology that he made to Indigenous people.  That day, the packed public galleries of the House included many members of the Stolen Generation, who had waited a lifetime to hear a Prime Minister say sorry for the policies that separated them, sometimes forever, from their families.  Across the country, there was a surge of hope that the Apology marked a new beginning in relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

But a year later, some media commentary argued that the goodwill produced by the Apology had diminished.  That the Government’s alleged inaction in the previous year showed it had put Indigenous policy into the too-hard basket – as previous governments are also accused of doing.

I believe this commentary fundamentally fails to grasp the substantial progress that has been made in tackling one of the toughest challenges on the Government’s reform agenda.

Over the past 16 months, Commonwealth, State and Territory governments have worked behind the scenes, striking new agreements, securing new funding, accepting new responsibilities.  As a result of their efforts, I believe we are better placed than we have been for many decades to make a real difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians.  This opportunity comes at a moment of great volatility and creativity in the history of Indigenous Australia.

So much is happening: extraordinary Indigenous achievements in the realms of dance, music, art and sport; great strides among Indigenous doctors, health workers and educators; new voices of leadership in Indigenous communities and among young people.  But alongside these inspiring stories are the stubborn and grim realities of life for too many Indigenous people. 

In Australia today, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander male has a life expectancy of 59 years, 18 years less than that of a non-Indigenous male.  An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander female has a life expectancy of 65 years, 17 years less than that of a non-Indigenous female.  These are Australian Bureau of Statistics figures and are likely to be revised next month.

It may be that the life expectancy gap is not as great as initially feared; nevertheless, the size and existence of the gap cannot be tolerated.  Nor can the fact that an Indigenous infant is three times as likely to die before the age of one as a non-Indigenous infant.  Or that in Indigenous communities across Australia, chronic but treatable illnesses such as rheumatic heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer cause about two-thirds of premature deaths among Indigenous people.  Or that far too many of these deaths occur among adults aged 34 to 45 -- in the prime of life.

Turning to schooling, we see that, on average, 70 per cent of Indigenous students across years Three, Five and Seven achieve the benchmark proficiency levels for literacy and numeracy, compared to 90 per cent of all students.  In remote Indigenous communities, the gap becomes a gulf, with just 30 per cent of students in Year Three meeting minimum literacy standards.  Disadvantage compounds over the course of school, so that by the end of secondary education just 45 per cent of Indigenous students who start Year 11 attain a Year 12 certificate, compared to 86 per cent of non-Indigenous students.  And alarmingly, the gap in Year 12 attainment rates has widened over the past five years.

To reprise Reconciliation Australia's ambition statement, these figures are not acceptable in an affluent nation such as Australia.

In his Apology speech, the Prime Minister committed the Government to an all-out effort to close the gap.  A business-as-usual approach towards Indigenous Australians was not working, he said.  And I quote him:  “We need a new beginning.”

The Prime Minister was asking us all to go back to basics.  In other words, after the long struggles over land rights, native title, self-determination and reconciliation – critical and unfinished debates, all of them – some even greater problems had to be solved.

People needed houses that were fit to live in.  Pregnant mothers needed the right information about how to care for their unborn child.  Children needed the guarantee of early childhood education, and of schooling that gave them a proper start in life.  Adults needed better chances to find a proper job.

Besides health, nothing matters more than education in improving the life chances of Indigenous Australians.  A huge body of evidence shows that attaining a Year 12 qualification is critical to each of us making the most of our abilities.  Adults – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – who have finished Year 12 are healthier, happier, less likely to need welfare, less likely to be charged with crime and more likely to find rewarding jobs.

I know we can do much better in education in Australia than we have done – and most particularly, for Aboriginal students.  Too many who have the ability still lack the opportunity.

In late 2007 and early 2008 the Council of Australian Governments, or COAG – which is the regular forum of Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments -- established six ambitious targets to close the gap.

They are:

  1. To close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.
  2. To halve the mortality gap between Indigenous children and other children under age 5 within a decade.
  3. To provide access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year olds in remote communities within five years. 
  4. To halve the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and other students within a decade.
  5. To halve the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in rates of Year 12 attainment or an equivalent attainment by 2020.
  6. To halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade.

In November last year, COAG committed joint funding of $4.6 billion – nearly all of it new money – toward meeting these targets.  In particular, it allocated $1.94 billion over 10 years to address the appalling state of housing in many remote Aboriginal communities.

Houses that are regularly inhabited by an average of 10 people – and up to 17 and even 20 people.  Houses where taps and sewerage don’t work; where waste is not collected; where children cannot study; where illnesses such as trachoma and middle ear infection spread with ease.

Added to existing expenditure, the new money brings investment in remote Aboriginal housing over the next 10 years to $5.5 billion.  It is the largest single outlay Australian governments have ever made to address chronic underinvestment in remote Indigenous housing.
Last year, COAG also allocated $1.57 billion over four years to tackle the crisis in Aboriginal health, especially the prevalence of chronic disease.  It invested substantial sums in early childhood education, employment creation and a new model of service delivery to remote Indigenous communities.  I shall return to the last of these shortly.

But as large as the new expenditure is, just as important are the decisions about how the money will be spent, and the philosophy behind them.

In November COAG established a National Indigenous Reform Agreement.  It is a critical agreement.  We might call it the barometer that will measure whether COAG’s closing-the-gap strategy is succeeding or failing.

To quote from the COAG November communiqué, the agreement “captures the objectives, outcomes, outputs, performance measures and benchmarks that all governments have committed to achieving... in order to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage”.

Let me explain, via a short historical detour, why that sentence is so important.

In the 1967 referendum, Australians voted to amend the Constitution to give the Commonwealth power to legislate on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  It was a historic moment, yet the opportunity it offered was only partly taken.
The Commonwealth has certainly assumed a primary role in Indigenous affairs – from the establishment of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1972, to the Native Title legislation of 1993, to the Northern Territory Emergency Response of 2007.  Nevertheless, despite 40 years of Federal interventions and huge funding initiatives in areas such as health and education, responsibility for the delivery of mainstream services has remained largely with the States and Territories.
These services, of course, are essential for improving the lives and life chances of Indigenous people.  Over the years, however, responsibility for delivery of these services often fell between the cracks.  Over the years the core task of government -- who gives what to whom – was divided not only between two tiers of government, but between mainstream and Indigenous organisations.
The result was decades of poor accountability, duplicated programs or absent programs, buck passing and – as a result – substantial underinvestment, especially in remote Indigenous communities.  What is more, organisations responsible for service delivery to Indigenous people spent vast amounts of time and effort trying to meet the accountability demands of a plethora of government departments and programs.

I saw this myself in 2002, when as head of the Victorian public service I took part in a COAG trial involving the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-Operative near Shepparton.  The Rumbalara CEO told me that his most talented people spent the better part of their days applying for and having to acquit grants for about 76 programs from four government departments.  This represents an insane addiction by public officials to process and territory ahead of outcomes.

On coming to office, Prime Minister Rudd proposed a new approach.  He identified COAG as the principal vehicle through which Australian governments would collaborate on the closing-the-gap agenda.

In the past COAG had not played a central role in Indigenous policy.  But the Prime Minister saw an opportunity to harness the strengths of the Federal system, rather than seeing the system as an insurmountable obstacle to reform.  This was a vital insight, providing an opportunity to cut through the blockages of the past, recognising that governments had to work together.

Over the past year, Commonwealth, State and Territory governments have divided up responsibilities.  They have established – to quote the Prime Minister – “who will formulate policies, who will deliver programs, who will collect the data and who will evaluate that data”.  This is not glamorous or eye-catching work, but it is vital work.  It is also work consistent with the Government’s wider agenda of substantial reform of Commonwealth-State relations.

Under the Government’s co-operative federalism, specific purpose payments from the Commonwealth to the States and Territories have been revised, and the number of payments significantly reduced.  Instead, new National Partnership agreements give the States and Territories more flexibility and freedom to operate – but with the key proviso that funding is linked to outcomes: to each government successfully delivering the programs it promises to deliver.

For example, the new national partnership on housing establishes that while the Commonwealth provides the bulk of funds to remote Indigenous communities, the States and the Northern Territory are responsible for delivery of housing to these communities.  They must also provide standard tenancy management and support in line with the mainstream public housing programs they currently deliver.

In return, Indigenous tenants, like other public housing tenants, are expected to pay their rent on time, to cover the cost of any damage and to not disturb the peace of their neighbours.

Let me describe another initiative at the heart of the COAG agenda – the allocation of $291.2 million over 6 years to improve service delivery in about 26 communities and towns across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia.

Getting proper health, housing, welfare and education services to remote communities is one of the toughest challenges facing governments and public servants in the area of Indigenous policy.  Over years, the inherent difficulties of the task have been compounded by ad hoc and short-term programs, and a host of poorly co-ordinated service providers in the government and non-government sectors.  As a result, social and economic disadvantage has got worse.

COAG’s reforms, however, will produce fundamental changes.  The old division of responsibility among many agencies – which often meant that services did not get delivered at all – will cease.  Instead, people in remote Indigenous communities will have one point of contact with one government provider.  That provider will be responsible for all services: from land tenure to water to schools to sewerage.

To ensure the success of this model, the Government has created a new position of Coordinator General for Remote Indigenous Services.  It will be a statutory position, responsible to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.  And it will be an important position.  

The Coordinator General's job will be to ensure that government departments and agencies co-operate, to cut through red tape and bureaucratic blockages, to get services delivered.  He or she will prepare six-monthly reports to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs on progress in the delivery of services.  These reports will be publicly available.  The Coordinator General will also provide more detailed and confidential annual reports to COAG on progress in service delivery -- including lags in delivering projects.  By various means he or she will be able to put pressure on recalcitrant agencies.

I see the proposal to empower the Coordinator General as clear evidence of the Government’s intent to break down old approaches to public service delivery, to dispense with business as usual.

But while the Government is bold in aspiration, it is careful in application.  The remote service delivery model will not be rolled out in all Indigenous communities across remote Australia.  Instead, it will be introduced in about 26 communities and towns – who will also be the first to benefit from the $1.94 billion of new funding for remote housing.  Fifteen of them are in the Northern Territory and have already been identified for significant housing and infrastructure investment.  All 26 represent some of the largest Indigenous populations in remote Australia. 

The goal is to avoid spreading the funds thinly across remote Australia, but to invest substantially in these communities – in order to get the model right before it is applied elsewhere.  Every initiative will be carefully studied, all progress carefully measured – because evidence-based policy making is central to the closing-the-gap agenda.  Or, to put it simply, what counts is what works.

In his February 26 statement to Parliament, the Prime Minister described the Government’s approach as going beyond ideology to evidence.  The goal, he said, was to reject frameworks of left and right in favour of an approach in which two questions are paramount:

“What is needed to close the gap in each community?  And what works best to meet that need in each community?”

Inevitably, there has been criticism that the six closing-the-gap targets are far too ambitious; that some of them cannot possibly be achieved.  Certainly, meeting them will be extremely difficult – especially in the straitened conditions of the global economic crisis – but the criticism fails to understand the importance COAG attaches to setting explicit and measurable targets as benchmarks of performance.

As a policy tool, targets are a measure of accountability, transparency and progress.  The Council of Australian Governments Reform Council will report each year on progress against each target -- thereby providing an independent assessment of government commitment and progress.

If it becomes clear that the government is not on course, it will adjust its policies.  For example, I spoke earlier of the gap in Year 12 attainment rates between Indigenous and other students.  Halving this gap in 20 years will require an improvement in Year 12 completion rates for Indigenous students of up to 2 percent each year.
Similarly, if the life expectancy gap were 17 years, Indigenous life expectancy would need to rise by about one year for every year of the target period.  That might sound feasible, but it would require an overall reduction in Indigenous mortality of about 80 per cent.  Gains of this magnitude have taken the wider Australian population about 80 years to achieve.

But the closing-the-gap targets are not simply technical tools of measurement.  They are also a measure of the nation we want to become.  They are a measure of the patience, stamina, good ideas and goodwill that we will need to achieve change over the course of a generation.  This is not change the government can achieve alone.

In his February statement, the Prime Minister said: “Closing the gap is not merely a matter for government – important though the role of government is.  It is equally a matter for Indigenous people, for corporate Australia and for our whole community.”

Building partnerships among all these groups is a high priority for the Government.  The Prime Minister has gone to great lengths to support business and other private initiatives that seek to improve the life chances of Indigenous Australians.

They include the Clontarf Academies for young Indigenous men, the scholarships for Indigenous secondary students provided by the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, and the Australian Employment Covenant to create jobs for 50,000 Indigenous Australians.  The Covenant builds on the substantial efforts many Australian companies – including Rio Tinto, Qantas, the NAB and the ANZ -- have already made in Indigenous employment.

But the Government’s most important partnerships are with Indigenous people themselves.  It is working closely with Indigenous Australians to establish a national Indigenous representative body.

Last month the Social Justice Commissioner, Mr Tom Calma, led a three-day workshop involving 100 Indigenous men and women.  Mr Calma sought their views on the main features of the new representative body.  Their responses will inform the development of a series of preferred models that the Government will consider later this year.

The Government is also moving toward recognition of the First Australians in the Constitution.  And last week, in response to the work of a group of Indigenous leaders including Professors Lowitja O’Donoghue and Mick Dodson, the Government announced that it would support the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Finally, the Government is committed to consulting and involving Indigenous people in each stage of implementation of its closing-the-gap agenda.

Inevitably, making progress on this agenda will take time.  What is more, the global economic crisis is having a profound impact on every country.  With seven of Australia's 10 main trade partners in recession, the mining boom that so enhanced our recent economic performance is beginning to sputter.  This is likely to affect, albeit temporarily, Indigenous economic development and job creation in remote areas.  But even though the economic crisis is forcing the Government to reset its priorities, it remains committed to closing the gap.

Later this year COAG will hold a meeting with a special focus on closing the gap.  A central concern will be how to improve service delivery in urban and regional areas – where 75 per cent of Indigenous people live -- as well as in remote areas.

And in the middle of this year, the first of the new COAG partnerships come into force.  That means a start to building 4200 new houses and repairing 4800 houses in disrepair in remote communities.  It means a start to building 35 new Indigenous Children and Family Centres that will provide support to pregnant mothers and learning for young children.  It means that half the Indigenous population aged 15 to 65 will get two free health checks over the next four years.  And it underscores the Prime Minister’s statement on February 13 last year that, to be meaningful, the great symbolism of the Apology had to be accompanied by the even greater substance of practical action.

I am certain that the desire of Australians to close the gap – both revealed and rekindled by the Prime Minister’s Apology – remains as strong as ever.  Let me quote from a lecture given in August last year by the chair of today’s meeting: former Aboriginal Affairs Minister and former co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia, Fred Chaney.

In his lecture, Fred said he detected an “unprecedented breadth of engagement’” around Australia arising from the Apology.  And he added: “I have never known a time when so much attention was being given to what we should do.”
By “we”, I take Fred to mean all Australians.  A particular interest of mine is the role of public servants can play in advancing the cause of reconciliation.  In the early 1980s, as a Victorian public servant, I led the development of one of Australia’s first Indigenous Action Plans, for the Victorian Public Service Board.  The plan included measures to promote the hiring and professional development of Aboriginal public servants.  The then chairman of the Public Service Board, Ron Cullen, saw the position of Indigenous Australians as ripe for a more considered and deliberative approach to managing change and improvement. 

Looking back, I think that the plan, while it was well conceived, lacked the necessary sense of moral urgency to succeed as well as it might have done.  Some public servants were committed to it; too many others were not.

Today, Commonwealth, State and Territory public servants have the potential to play a decisive role in helping to close the gap.  Their task is to learn how to build from the community up; to get out of silos and develop an integrated approach to dealing with problems; to treat Indigenous people not as passive clients but as active partners.

And I believe this task carries with it a moral obligation – to set aside battles over territory and responsibility, to set aside a concern with unnecessary process in order to deliver the best services to Aboriginal communities, families, men, women and children.  

I also believe that we stand at a moment of extraordinary opportunity in the history of this country.  If we can harness “the unprecedented breadth of engagement” that Fred spoke about; if Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work together to close the gap and to lay down the building blocks to full Indigenous participation in Australian life, then we may well glimpse the end of our long journey towards reconciliation.

Thank you.


Last Updated: 15 April 2009