Yes, enthusiasm for closing the gap is central to the Voice referendum. The Voice offers hope, and the facts matter, write Catherine Liddle, CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s peak, SNAICC. and Toni Wren, Executive Director of Anti-Poverty Week which runs from 15 to 27 October this year.
Warren Mundine called for those “enthusiastic about the Voice to become more enthusiastic about the hard work needed to achieve closing the gap” and lamented wasted money during his National Press Club speech last week.
Professor Fiona Stanley, a researcher into Aboriginal health for the last 50 years and former Australian of the Year and Yes supporter, recently spoke on Radio National’s Health Report on the Importance of The Voice for Aboriginal Health. She said there were two reasons why the gap in health outcomes have not closed: governments “have funded without consultation, but (or) with inappropriate consultation, programs which are not only useless but harmful, and they cost a lot of money.” She cited the Northern Territory intervention (initiated by the Howard Coalition government and continued by the Rudd Labor government) as such an example.
The Northern Territory Intervention is estimated to have cost $1 billion over 10 years, yet Aboriginal life outcomes in the Northern Territory have actually worsened. It is the most expensive policy failure by a Government.
If Aboriginal people had a voice in the decisions that led to the Intervention and its expenditure, the outcomes would very likely be very different. The second reason Professor Stanley said was “where the government does not fund or de-funds the very Aboriginal controlled programs which are working so beautifully.” She cited as “one of the most anguishing examples,” the Coalition in 2014 defunding Aboriginal community-controlled Family and Child Centres across Australia.
Mr Mundine says he wishes stakeholders would be more active in striving to achieve higher rates of school attendance for Indigenous students. Research shows that children who start school developmentally ready are more likely to succeed at it. According to the 2021 Australian Early Development Census, more than four in 10 (42.3%) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains when they started school. Yet Aboriginal community-controlled centres (the ones defunded by the Coalition) significantly help children get ready for school, for example at the Yappera Children’s Service in Victoria, as demonstrated in this video.
Mr Mundine claims “We have taken the best of our history and built a nation where everyone is equal, where any person, regardless of their origin, can aspire and achieve the highest.” Sadly, this is not true. Australians are not equal; nor do we live in the aspirational society we might like to think we do. Each year, almost 90,000 students do not meet minimum standards for reading or numeracy in NAPLAN. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students in outer regional and remote Australia, and students of parents with low educational attainment are three times more likely to fall behind than other students according to the Productivity Commission report, Review of the National School Reform Agreement. Research by the Australian Education Research Organisation states that currently very few students who start behind or fall behind, catch up.
A report released last week by ACOSS and UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership finds the gap between those with the most and those with the least has blown out over the past two decades 2003-2022, with the average wealth of the highest 20% growing at four times the rate of the lowest. In 2019-20, the wealthiest 20% held average wealth of $3.24 million – 90 times that of the lowest 20% ($36,000). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are much more likely to be in the poorest 20% of all Australians – 40% compared with 16% of non-Indigenous households, according to Australia’s Welfare 2021 published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The best analysis of poverty rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people published by academics at the ANU (and cited in Anti-Poverty Week’s Key Issues Relating to Indigenous Poverty & Disadvantage briefing paper) shows that in 2016, the Indigenous poverty rate of 31.4% was more than three times the poverty rate for all households in 2015-16 (9.1%). The analysis by region shows that even in urban areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have poverty rates of 24% and in remote areas this is over 50%. We are awaiting analysis of the 2021 census, but it is unlikely to show substantive progress. Australia’s Welfare 2021 finds that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were still much more likely to have lower incomes, with median incomes around 60% of non-Indigenous Australians using 2018-19 data.
Yet the Voice promises hope. When you look at all the investigations of the despair that we see in our communities, they all point to poverty and that poverty absolutely is rooted in a lack of self-determination.
We all deserve for this referendum to focus on the facts – especially our generous and patient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.