MUNGO MacCALLUM. Closing the gap.

The biggest gap that needs closing is the lack of an acknowledgement of the past by non-indigenous Australia and a determination that not only will the ignorance and denial not be repeated, but there will be genuine collaboration at every level in future.

Morrison has talked the talk; now he needs to walk the walk, and he had better get on with it if he is not to be part of the unhappy legacy of so many previous leaders.  

As usual, this year’s Closing the Gap report was a pretty depressing document – some progress in some areas, but not much, and no sign of a real turn around.

So in anticipation of the next one, Scott Morrison has moved the goalposts – we will have to be less aspirational. Not much optimism there. But the prime minister has signalled another possible change – less top-down policy from the government, and more of a partnership with Indigenous Australia.

Obviously this would be a good idea, although hardly a new one. Politicians have been promising it for decades, without any tangible result: if their Indigenous partners get too uppity, they are simply ignored.

And Morrison should know it: his contemptuous dismissal of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and its misrepresentation of its proposal for an indigenous voice as a third chamber of parliament, which it self-evidently was not, is a perfect example.

As is his current schedule for reform: it turns out that this was not developed in consultation and discussion with Aboriginals, but only with his own selected envoy, Tony Abbott. And while Abbott may often mean well, he is an unashamed paternalist: he knows better than any of the proposed partners what is to be done.

Thus the priority – his priority – is education. This is undoubtedly hugely important, but is it more important than health, housing, or the rate of imprisonment – a report on which has been mothballed by the government for more than a year??

And more crucially, is this the priority of the communities affected? We don’t know because they were not asked and while Morrison suggests that they may be in future, the signs are not promising.

His immediate response to Closing the Gap was a unilateral announcement to exempt HEC fees for graduating teachers willing to work in remote communities for four years. This lacks, as Morrison might say, nuance.

Teaching in such communities is a specialized and onerous job – it is not one that can be turned into a success with a bribe. Even those teachers motivated to take on the task seldom last for four years.

There will also be more money for scholarships and support – always welcome, but they will be far more likely to produce results if Morrison’s actually involves his putative partners rather than simply treating them as his clients or customers.

This is about respect, and that is why the big gestures – Paul Keating’s Redfern Statement, Kevin Rudd’s apology, and the movement for an indigenous voice and constitutional recognition are vital. The practical approach to reform is clearly crucial, but to make it work there needs to be the cultural, emotional, inclusive commitment to a real partnership.

The biggest gap that needs closing is the lack of an acknowledgement of the past by non-indigenous Australia and a determination that not only will the ignorance and denial not be repeated, but there will be genuine collaboration at every level in future.

Morrison has talked the talk; now he needs to walk the walk, and he had better get on with it if he is not to be part of the unhappy legacy of so many previous leaders.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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