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The Dichotomy Of 'Closing The Gap': Misguided Intention or Misunderstood Focus?

Date submitted: 6th June 2021

Language is an intrinsic part of life itself. Without it, groups of people are unable to work together, nor develop their sense of belonging to one another, nor find security in shared culture12,13,26. All other health and wellbeing outcomes can be seen as flowing from these morays14. So too with the power imbalance found in Australia between the seeming disparate cultures of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples36. The Close The Gap Initiative5 is seem by some as the remedy for the disproportion between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes. However, this initiative misses one key and crucial point: the development a language-driven society22,30 as the cornerstone.

The history known to us is the history which defines us26. The commonly known Australian culture currently stems in large part from ideals from our colonial and ANZAC histories; ideals such as the 'fair go' or of 'mateship' are prevalent in today's society because of their prevalence in recent history14. These ideals are still talked about, still enacted in our actions, still a part of our verbal and non-verbal ways of life. However, much of our historical ideology is not draw from our Indigenous history. This may lead one to conclude Indigenous histories, languages, and cultures are an insignificant part of Australian history16. In fact, Yap and Yu35, p.64 go so far as to say, "the ability to practice one's culture is dependant on a range of factors including your health, your knowledge, but also access to land and sea country." Yap and Yu35 say the language one uses is drawn from one's access to their cultural home. Furthermore, Eady and Keen11 identify this kind of cultural safety and security is the highest priority of an individual who seeks to belong to their historical and contemporary culture and homeland. To this end, literacy and language goes beyond the spoken; it is the source and provider of choice, opportunity, participation, enjoyment, and engagement in life, in the shared human experience6,16, especially pertaining to the Australian way of life. To use one's cultural language provides freedom in the culture one belongs to. Thus, for people with an Indigenous background who may not be able to reconcile their cultural understandings through a shared cultural language or set of linguistic norms may find hindrances which cause mental unhealthiness, which can spill over into many different areas of life9. One potential solution which has been presented and implemented by all levels of Australian Government, is the Close The Gap Initiative5. However, Close The Gap appears to not deal with the underlying loss of language and culture many Indigenous people appear to face21; the word 'language' is only used three times throughout the original Close The Gap document5. Moreover, the only instance of enacting language interactions speaks of, "[e]ngagement with Indigenous men, women and children and communities should be central to the design and delivery of programs and services. In particular, attention is to be given to ... recognising Indigenous culture, language and identity."5, p.67. To merely recognise these features may be seen as insufficient24, for people's overall wellbeings as well as keeping the languages and their associated cultures alive21. Instead, languages and their cultures should come from a body of expertise including linguists, teachers, project managers, and those with the cultural backgrounds to know the hows and whys of these languages and cultures15: those who identify as Indigenous. Without effortful collaboration, the history known to us may erase Indigenous languages and history completely.

Without careful and effortful collaboration, the future may repeat the past's wrongdoings31,33. When then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the abhorrent treatment of First Nations peoples throughout Australia's modern history, he also included a promise for all levels of government to remedy the situation through Close The Gap5. While this may be seen as a leap in the right direction, it may also be viewed as the non-Indigenous government continuing to make decisions on behalf of Indigenous peoples28. Initiatives such as Close The Gap may take the medical model approach to apparent deficits, saying society has no part to play in othering or stigmatising Indigenous people, and Indigenous people are the way they are off their own accord7. Recently, people within the government have apparently realised this stance and are seeking a remedy: in 2020, the Federal Morrison Government acknowledged Close The Gap had not been a true collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous AustraliaAppendix. This may be the main contributing factor as to how Close The Gap may appear prejudiced. Furthermore, without the aforementioned body of expertise, systematic prejudiced teaching may still occur. For example, a reading from a textbook used by pre-service teachers contains the following erroneous misnomer: "[t]alking circles were developed by the authors of this chapter ... based on a guided conversation process that was mindful of the socio-cultural developmental characteristics of children."3, p.180. This chapter from the textbook neglects to mention the yarning circles used by many Indigenous peoples around Australia11. So while one may say Indigenous peoples' language and culture is at the whim of non-Indigenous governmental policies30, to say prejudice is merely at the level of legislature may be over-simplifying the complex issue of institutional misinformation23. When educators, medical practitioners, and all other people who regularly deal with the health and wellbeing of all Australians are given published documentation which was not collaborated upon with Indigenous peoples, these professionals and their clientele perpetuate the cycle of prejudice which may unintentionally leave out Indigenous voices1. Thus, hearing Indigenous voices in professionals' documentation can be rectified through listening to and collaborating with Indigenous peoples. So for history to not repeat, these historic actions should not continue to be repeated.

As the old adage goes, history is written by the victors27. This can be broadened to include political movements and initiatives. After then-prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the treatment of the Stolen Generations and of all Indigenous peoples for all of Australia's recent history, he and the federal and state governments constructed the Close The Gap Initiative5. According to MP Paul FletcherAppendix, the government did not build nor follow through the initiative with adequate collaboration between Indigenous peoples until 2020. This should be the primary way the initiative finds its indented purpose. It should go beyond recognising Indigenous peoples, cultures, and languages to providing the fullest opportunities for Indigenous peoples themselves to act intentionally within their communities34, with non-Indigenous people collaborating with them upon Indigenous desires. An example of this may be a Sydney-based teacher graduate who moves to a rural posting. The teacher would listen to the local Indigenous community about how they would like their language, customs, and history taught in the classroom, instead of just using non-Indigenous history, or even bringing Dharug or Eora culture from Sydney as the prevalent culture. FletcherAppendix continues by saying COAG is working alongside the Coalition Of Peaks4 who are a coalition of Indigenous peoples seeking Indigenous cultures to be properly heard in the governmental process. Although this relationship may seem like more governmental manipulation, it can be seen as a good starting step for Indigenous voices to be heard. Moreover, places like Macquarie University20 have claimed to begin a push for a more inclusive course structure. However, there is still work to be done to make sure this is achieved. For example, the most common primary teaching degree of the last ten years was updated in 2021 to include new and updated subjects; however, there is still the same number of mandatory subjects dedicated to Indigenous understandings: one18,19. This can be seen as an example of lots of talk with little action. Teachers are meant to be educating our future generations; they may not be able to adequately share with future generations about Indigenous languages, cultures, or histories with such little knowledge themselves. Pholi and colleagues29, p.11 seem to put it best when they say, "If we, as a nation, feel a need to measure our performance in closing a gap, perhaps we should be attempting to measure and monitor progress in the delivery of power and control over the Indigenous affairs agenda into the hands of Indigenous Australians." Thus, it is better to look at the metrics of how well Indigenous knowledges are known, how well they are spoken, how often they are used, and how commonplace it is to hear Indigenous histories alongside non-Indigenous histories21,32. Since history is written by the victor, then Indigenous people need their languages and their voices heard.

Languages are at the core of how Indigenous understandings are conveyed. So when we see Close The Gap goals still unmet8,Appendix it can be right to assume these should be strategies of the past10. Funding should not go into attempting to fix the symptoms of the disproportion seen between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, like the Close The Gap Initiative does5; instead, funding should solve the root of the problem21: the repression of Indigenous peoples' cultures and languages29. When Indigenous languages and cultures are mandated into the school curriculum6, are celebrated17, are taught by those who are knowledgeable of them26, are a normal part of the classroom34 - which can be seen as a microcosm of society at large2 - then and only then will they be valued by society as a whole25,30. By educating children, and thus their respective families, we are providing them an opportunity to work with a knowledgeable community who may be in the process of rebuilding or reclaiming a language15. This can be seen as already happening in places around New South Wales. A formal review of Close The Gap says the plan from the New South Wales Government, "... invests in language and culture, healing, Aboriginal governance, education and employment. Implementation and evaluation takes place using a genuine co-design approach with Aboriginal communities at the centre of decision making",6, p.10 with five main hubs around the northern half of the state: Coffs Harbour, Dubbo, Lightning Ridge, Lismore, and Wilcannia. However, these hubs of information may not be seen as enough; there is still the importance of Indigenous participation35. This essay and its contents are meaningless if not first from Indigenous peoples' desires and participation26. The use of language itself is meaningless bar two reasons: for better understanding Australia's history, and for Indigenous people to feel a sense of belonging to their land and their home9. So for Indigenous understandings to be understood by all Australians, Indigenous languages should be upheld.

Language is the cornerstone of Indigenous wellbeing. Throughout recent history, Indigenous peoples of all walks of life have been taught a way of life which isn't theirs', to the point where history itself has nearly forgotten Australia's internal conflict. For Indigenous people to ever achieve the goals set out by the Close The Gap Initiative, four things need to occur. Firstly, Indigenous peoples need to be the intrinsic part of the processes for their own wellbeing now and into the future. Secondly, the reforms and initiatives need to focus on the underlying contributors to wellbeing: belonging to an Indigenous culture and language. Thirdly, the reforms and initiatives need to be local and focus on the most teachable moments and ways. And fourthly, learning history as a two-sided coin will be imperative for the future of an equal Australia where there is no gap to close either way between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health, wellbeing, cultures, languages, and understandings.

APPENDIX - Click here for the original letter.

Dear Mr Host,
Thank you for your letter regarding Indigenous Australians. I appreciate your taking the time to raise this issue with me.

In February this year the Prime Minister provided the 12th annual Closing the Gap update. The update showed Australia was only on track to meet 2 of the 7 targets that were set. Until recently, Closing the Gap was not a partnership with Indigenous people. We now know that when Indigenous people have a say in the design of programs, policies and services, the outcomes are better - and lives are changed.

With this in mind, the Government now has begun work on refreshing the Closing the Gap initiative, bringing together the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Coalition of Peaks to deliver a new Partnership Agreement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations, the Australian Government, states and territories all working together. Indigenous Australians at local, regional and national engagements are embedding knowledge and leadership, co-designing systems, policy and operational frameworks and working with government to action change.

On 9 June 2020, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon. Ken Wyatt AM MP, released a statement concerning Indigenous incarceration rates, which addresses several of the issues raised in your letter. Please find a copy of this statement enclosed.

I hope this information is of use to you.
Yours sincerely,
Paul Fletcher.

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