The difficult conversations Australia needs to be having

EVERY year in July, NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth. Let’s work together for a shared future’.

Indigenous affairs is a national priority for Australia. Ken Wyatt’s appointment as the first Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians has brought about a shift in the national dialogue with First Nations peoples. Having an Indigenous voice in Cabinet is an important step in the right direction.

But there’s still a lot to be done. Australia has a long way to go before First Nations peoples have equal rights, opportunities, and access to services.

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The government has attempted to address this issue by committing to Closing the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians across health, education, employment, and many other sectors. Whilst the Closing the Gap framework aims to eliminate these disparities, the current state of things proves that it’s far from perfect.

For example, Indigenous incarceration and suicide rates are severely disproportionate when compared to the non-Indigenous population. Whilst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders account for 2 percent of the population, they constitute 27 percent of the national prison population.

Indigenous Australians are also two and a half times more likely to take their own lives. These statistics are deeply troubling and undeniably show that there’s more to be done.

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Aboriginal and Australian people participate in a rally which starts in front of the Old Parliament House ending at the New Parliament House on February 12, 2008 in Canberra. Source: Anoek De Groot/AFP

Even though Closing the Gap is working to reduce inequality it’s not reaching all of its goals. Most notably, when it comes to employment, the initiative is missing its target by decades. It’s estimated that it will take until 2031 to halve the unemployment gap, and until 2051 to completely close the gap.

Further, improving school attendance is a key education target for the framework. Most Indigenous students attend schools with low socio-educational advantage. This exacerbates problems as those who can afford to pay school fees receive better education.

Inequitable education quality could also be widening the gap. Moreover, whilst there has been an increase in Indigenous students enrolling in universities, the retention rates are significantly less. These are just a couple of trends that are stopping the nation from closing its educational gaps.

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Is there another way? Cultural education and two-way schooling could be key to addressing these issues whilst maintaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, languages, and teaching methods. This is just one of the conversations policymakers need to be having around Indigenous education.

In order to bring about real progress, policymakers and politicians must be starting these conversations and engaging with Indigenous communities. They must also be willing to change their ways – but progress has been slow.

Most notably, the push to change the date of Australia Day has been met with resistance from the government.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected these calls, saying that changing the date would serve to divide Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested a new national day to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples instead.

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Protesters hold placards and Aboriginal flags as they participate in what organisers were calling an ‘Invasion Day’ rally on Australia Day, which marks the arrival of Britain’s First Fleet in 1788, in central Sydney, Australia, January 26, 2018. Source: AAP/Danny Casey/via Reuters

The Uluru Statement from the Heart also called for a First Nations Voice to be a part of the Constitution. As an important political piece, the statement was a call to be heard. But it was also an invitation: an invitation to speak together, to listen to each other, and to acknowledge the different voices in the conversation.

Yet, Morrison has rejected the Statement, claiming that it would create a ‘third chamber’ of parliament that he didn’t support. However, he has promised to work alongside Indigenous communities to achieve an outcome that all Australians can agree on. With this commitment, constitutional recognition and reconciliation is still a possibility.

So, in its current state, how can the country move forward?

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On a special Reconciliation Week episode of Policy Forum Pod, Tony Dreise made some key recommendations for policymakers. Firstly, to back their Indigenous Australians’ Minister, secondly, to be courageous and bold in terms of advancing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and finally, to not hesitate in reimagining policy approaches for Indigenous affairs.

If policymakers took these three recommendations to heart, Australia might start to think outside the box, listen to Indigenous voices, and create policies that engage with Indigenous aspirations. Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike must work together to start new conversations and ensure a joint future the whole nation can be proud of.

This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. 

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