Garma 2019 – Pat Turner Presentation

Joe KobierFeature, News, Press Release, Speech

Garma 2019

There is a long way to go yet before we get agreement.  Governments, particularly the Commonwealth, remain determined to pursue draft targets agreed to by COAG last December whereas we want to get the focus on the reform priorities and their implementation.  

Of most concern is that no government has so far been prepared to put new funding on the table.  We need new funding from all Governments to support the new Agreement and supports the reform priorities in particular. 

Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that we can achieve our goal and I seek the support of everyone here today for our mission.   More than anything that is to turn Closing the Gap from a negative feature of our politics of the day to a positive one.

Pat Turner CEO NACCHO

I want to thank Yothi Yindi for inviting me to this great event on Gumatj land and to start by acknowledging their elders, past and present. 

In particular, can I pay my respects to Galarrwuy who has led his people for nearly a generation and has been able to achieve a number of important outcomes.  They include agreements for the Gumatj to mine bauxite themselves and even to build a rocket launching pad!

Us Arrernte people have just agreed to a US multinational building a ground station to receive data from satellites on the site of the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs. 

It makes me proud that it is Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory leading the way in developing a space industry in Australia. 

This is very relevant to the politics of the day which is meant to shape the discussion in this session.  I think all would agree that Closing the Gap is an important feature of the politics of the day as far as Indigenous issues are concerned. 

Unfortunately, however, it is largely a negative feature.   Every year, since Closing the Gap started in 2008, successive Prime Ministers have reported to Parliament on how most of the Closing the Gap targets are not on track to be achieved. 

We have all become used to this negative narrative, so much so that our achievements, such as in the space industry are being overlooked. 

The negative narrative has made an almost an obsessive focus on the targets by successive governments highly problematic for our people. 

It is this obsession with the targets which is the cause and has led to Closing the Gap being a negative feature of the politics of the day for us. 

I don’t discount the need for targets, but we need to get a much greater focus on what we know will work to make much more progress against them.    If we had a much greater focus on how to achieve the targets, I think the story of Closing the Gap would be a positive one instead of a tale of woe!

This is a good backdrop for me to brief you on the strategy of the Coalition of Peaks.  Made up of some 40 national and state/territory peak organisations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it is determined to turn Closing the Gap into a positive feature of the politics of the day.  

In October last year, a group of us wrote to the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers to ask that the Council of Australian Governments not agree to a new Closing the Gap framework and instead enter into a genuine partnership with us.  

To our great surprise, the Prime Minister did ultimately agree to meet us and he agreed to our proposition that COAG and the Peaks, on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, enter into a formal partnership for the next phase of Closing the Gap. 

The mainstream politics of the day at that time was dominated by the nearing Federal election and the prospect that there would be a change of government.  Some said that the motive for the Prime Minister to agree was to make sure that Indigenous Affairs was not a negative issue for the Coalition in the lead up to the Election. 

However, after a surprise win, the Prime Minister has kept his word and as far as we know remains committed to the formal partnership.  I don’t think his agreement to a formal partnership with us was about politics and I think he should be given credit. 

We have made historic progress since the COAG meeting of December 2018 which announced that a formal partnership was to be entered into with representatives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to finalise the next phase of Closing the Gap. 

Of great importance is that for the first time, initiated by us, COAG has signed up to a formal partnership agreement with the peaks to share decision making in the next phase of Closing the Gap.  This is the first time that COAG has done such a thing and if you haven’t seen the Partnership Agreement, I invite you to review it on the COAG website. 

The Agreement sets up a Joint Council on Closing the Gap which comprises 12 representatives of the Peaks and 9 government representatives to share decision making.  This is also the first time that a COAG ministerial council has included non-government members. It is co-chaired by Minister Wyatt and I and it has already had a successful meeting. 

A secretariat for the Peaks has also been funded for 3 years to enable us to participate equally in implementing the Partnership Agreement and I also want to thank the Federal Government for making this commitment. 

With this architecture that we have put in place, we want to find a way to achieve a real partnership in the next phase of Closing the Gap which accelerates improvements in life outcomes for our peoples.  In particular our goal is to stop this tale of woe around the targets. 

Why we are doing this goes to 3 simple propositions that all stakeholders publicly endorse:

1.        When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are included and have a real say in the design and delivery of services that impact on them, the outcomes are far better;

2.        Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to be at the centre of Closing the Gap policy: the gap won’t close without our full involvement; and

3.        The Council of Australian Governments cannot expect us to take responsibility and work constructively with them to improve outcomes if we are excluded from the decision making.

To achieve this, we have already secured agreement to negotiating a new COAG Agreement to replace the National Indigenous Reform Agreement.   This Agreement, signed by governments in 2008 as a result of the leadership of the Commonwealth, was ground-breaking. 

It committed all of the governments to working together to closing the gap and included an integrated strategy and agreed roles and responsibilities and of course the targets.  Importantly, NIRA as it is called, was accompanied by a new investment of $4.6 billion dollars in programs and services to help achieve the targets. 

NIRA, however, had one significant failing and this was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the beneficiaries of Closing the Gap, were not parties.  It also fell away in time as all Governments, in the absence of any mechanism to ensure they fulfilled the commitments, slowly forgot about NIRA.  That was a great shame and I believe COAG failed us in allowing NIRA, despite still being in existence, to slowly be disregarded except for those targets. 

The Coalition of Peaks believe we need a COAG Agreement to take us forward for the next 10 years but this time around we need to be parties, not just governments, we need to find a way to ensure compliance, through national legislation, and we need to take the focus away from targets. 

There is no evidence that the targets drive change, and particularly in Closing the Gap.  Despite every year the annual report from the Prime Minister reporting that most targets are not on track to be achieved, I am still certain that COAG would have gone ahead and approved a new Closing the Gap framework in December 2018, excluding us again, without the intervention of the Coalition of Peaks.   

Instead of targets, we have put to the government representatives on the Joint Council that the new Agreement should be underpinned by 3 reform priorities that we think will accelerate the achievement of much better life outcomes for our peoples. 

Those 3 reform priorities are

  1. Supporting the full involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in shared decision making at the national, state and regional level; particularly embedding regional ownership, responsibility and expertise to close the gap;
  2. Building the formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled services sector in priority areas to deliver closing the gap services and programs; and
  3. Undertaking systemic and structural reform to mainstream institutions delivering services to Indigenous peoples to provide much better services to our people.

So far, I can advise that Governments have agreed to negotiating a new Agreement on Closing the Gap to replace Closing the Gap by December this year and to also examining the possibility of national legislation.  They have also agreed in principle to the reform priorities.

The Coalition of Peaks also put to the Governments that we should lead an engagement process to build support for the reform priorities and they have agreed to this also.  Starting in September, leaders of the Peaks rather than public servants on behalf of governments will be running a series of engagements across Australia and this is the first time that Aboriginal people have been in the driver’s seat on engaging our people on government policy.

However, there is a long way to go yet before we get agreement.  Governments, particularly the Commonwealth, remain determined to pursue draft targets agreed to by COAG last December whereas we want to get the focus on the reform priorities and their implementation.  

Of most concern is that no government has so far been prepared to put new funding on the table.  We need new funding from all Governments to support the new Agreement and supports the reform priorities in particular. 

Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that we can achieve our goal and I seek the support of everyone here today for our mission.   More than anything that is to turn Closing the Gap from a negative feature of our politics of the day to a positive one. Thank you