Urgent power shift needed to achieve Indigenous equity

Rudi Maxwell |

The Productivity Commission has released a review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.
The Productivity Commission has released a review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

NSW has announced a major shake-up in its approach to Aboriginal affairs in the wake of landmark criticism of the way governments conduct business with First Nations people.

The Productivity Commission’s first review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap calls for a radical shift by all governments because they’ve failed to fully grasp the nature and scale of change required to meet their obligations.

The agreement was signed by all states and territories and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations in 2020 to address entrenched inequality.

However the heart of the commission’s review says more still needs to be done to involve Indigenous people, communities and organisations at every stage in decisions affecting them rather than the business-as-usual approach of ‘government knows best’.

“It’s really that power story and the power of knowledge and the power of data,” commissioner Romlie Mokak said.

“And that power being wrested, in some ways, from governments – it might sound too optimistic but that has to happen.

“And there’s got to be a change in mindset and culture in this structural change, in this reform approach, otherwise we’re not going to get any closer to Closing the Gap.” 

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney
Minister Linda Burney will present the 2023 Closing the Gap to parliament. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Harris says his government will work with the NSW Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations and Aboriginal communities to design new policies and programs that will make a difference.

“But this is a long game,” he said on Wednesday.

“The gap we seek to close has been created over many decades and the solutions will take time.”

The Productivity Commission found Indigenous organisations and people are still facing the same bureaucratic and systemic barriers Closing the Gap was supposed to help address.

“My heart ached when I had to hear time and time again how much elders on boards of our organisations felt like they were over a barrel on some some minute level of funding from a government department,” Mr Mokak said. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney agree progress has not led to enough change.

“We’re talking about how do you build housing in remote Australia, how do you increase the use of justice reinvestment, how do you create employment through Indigenous rangers programs … how do you improve health outcomes for Indigenous Australians?” Mr Albanese said.

“All governments need to do better, the report today is a reminder of that.”

Ms Burney said the Commonwealth would work with the Coalition of Peaks and state and territory government colleagues to consider the findings and she would present the 2023 Closing the Gap and 2024 implementation plan to parliament next Tuesday.

Coalition of Peaks spokeswoman Catherine Liddle
Coalition of Peaks’ Catherine Liddle called on governments to fulfil their commitments. (HANDOUT/SNAICC)

The report makes four recommendations to government: share power; recognise and support Indigenous data sovereignty; fundamentally rethink mainstream government systems and culture; and implement stronger accountability.

The commission proposes amending the Closing the Gap agreement to better emphasise power sharing, and having governments recognise the expertise of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations in what works for their communities.

“This is what First Peoples have long been calling for, it is what Yoorrook (Justice Commission) recommended and it is what the Productivity Commission is highlighting in its report today.”

It also received overwhelming support in engagements and submissions for amendments to support Indigenous data sovereignty and establishing a bureau of Indigenous data. 

Victoria is already working on power-sharing arrangements as part of its truth-telling and treaty process, Yoorrook chair Professor Eleanor Bourke said.  

“The evidence is clear that when First Peoples are engaged with and have control over decisions that affect their lives, the result is better outcomes,” she said.