“The New Paternalism”: Professor Chelsea Bond on the Reworked Closing the Gap

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Chelsea Bond

The Morrison government released the reworked Closing the Gap on 30 July. Rebranded The National Agreement, the strategy has been broadened to encompass sixteen targets – rather the previous seven – and it also includes four new priority reform areas.

This year marks the thirteenth iteration of the social justice strategy that has consistently missed its targets since 2008.

The PM put this down to the “passion” and “dedication” of his predecessors, which had led them to be a little “too ambitious” when it came to Indigenous affairs.

Another marked difference to the new version of Closing the Gap is that it’s been developed in conjunction with the Coalition of Peaks: an alliance of 50-odd Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak bodies.

The Coalition of Peaks entered into partnership with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to develop the agreement in March last year. This saw the First Nations peak bodies play an active role in developing the targets that make up the new Closing the Gap.

Political doublespeak

However, according to Professor Chelsea Bond, despite all hype around the broadened strategy, The National Agreement doesn’t mark an improvement in the approach of government to Indigenous affairs, but rather it offers less vision than before.

“Sadly, there is nothing ‘unprecedented’ about the agreement, or the language used to sell it,” she wrote in The Conversation. “This discourse of Indigenous affairs – of promise and failure – does little more than create the illusion of Indigenous agency, racial progress and state benevolence.”

The Queensland University School of Social Science principal research fellow sets out that the announcement was shrouded in familiar buzzwords that served to conceal that there’s no longer any “parity” in the targets with “non-Indigenous Australia”, meaning there’s no longer a gap to close.

And further, one of the priority reforms is around enhanced data collection and access, which the Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman warns indicates an intensification of government monitoring of First Nations people, rather than putting the flaws in the system under any scrutiny.

Injustice to prevail

In response to the recent upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Morrison government announced that new justice targets would be part of the agreement. This has resulted in an aim to reduce the overrepresentation of First Nations youths and adults in the prison system.

But, as NATSILS pointed out on the release of the agreement, if the Coalition of Attorneys General hadn’t delayed lifting the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 earlier that same week, the number of Indigenous youths being incarcerated would have dropped by at least 17 percent.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Chelsea Bond about the lack of any clear intent the agreement contains in regard to how the targets will be met, the failure of the document to actually address systemic racism, and how she sees this as a modern day version of the mission and reserve system.

Dr Chelsea Bond

Firstly, the Morrison government has just released the reworked Closing the Gap strategy. It’s been rebranded as The National Agreement and it’s been broadened to sixteen targets and four priority reforms.

Overall, Professor Bond, what are your thoughts on the new strategy?

There is little the state has offered Indigenous people for the last two centuries that’s actually been in our interests.

Throughout this history, we can see the discourse of best intentions that we know was explicitly violent towards Indigenous peoples. This is a continuation of that.

What’s interesting here is the way in which this was framed as something we should be celebrating, and the way in which everyone seemed to buy it.

There was no interrogation of this partnership agreement in any of the media coverage when it came out. The only criticism came from blackfellas on Twitter as the leaks were coming.

We all simply read the reproduction of the federal government’s media release.

Given the more recent history of failure in Indigenous social policy under the Closing the Gap strategy, why aren’t we questioning why this failed strategy is still being rolled out?

It doesn’t make sense. And nowhere else in government would this be accepted.

One of the priority reforms is around data. There will be an enhanced focus on data collection and monitoring in relation to the targets.

But despite government promoting this as being beneficial for First Nations people, you don’t share that enthusiasm. Why is that?

When you read the data that’s to be collected and scrutinised, it’s not about the failed systems and structures that are producing these racialised inequalities. The focus is clearly on Indigenous people’s body parts and behaviours.

This is still surveilling and somehow blaming black fellas for the disadvantage that we experience.

The new strategy provides sixteen targets, instead of the seven that its previous iterations have involved.

However, rather than providing a more effective framework with this wider scope, you assert that it’s actually less beneficial as it lacks parity.

Can you explain why that’s of concern?

They said it’s ambitious because there are more targets, despite the fact that the existing targets were not being met.

We’re supposed to celebrate a doubling of the targets. Yet, when you read the targets, they’ve become less ambitious in their goals.

When Closing the Gap first came out, the goal was parity. But when you look through the targets, it’s not parity anymore. They’ve abandoned parity, yet they’re still selling this discourse, which doesn’t stack up.

Not to say that social policy framed parity across random targets that the state decides Indigenous people should adhere to with the benchmark being whiteness is the answer.

But if Closing the Gap was all about closing a gap, this partnership agreement does not have as its aspiration over the next decade closing any gap.

The overrepresentation of First Nations people in the adult and youth prison systems is stark.

The National Agreement seeks to address this by providing targets that aim to reduce the adult Indigenous prisoner population by 15 percent and the youth population by 30 percent by 2031.

What do you think about the provision of targets?

It’s very clear that we’ve known how to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people. The recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody provided that.

It’s fine to have the targets, which are certainly achievable. You just have to have the political will to actually achieve them. And we haven’t seen that.

I’m cynical about the political landscape. During the same week that the agreement was signed off on, there was a refusal to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

This doesn’t stack up, because we know that Indigenous children are disproportionately affected. We know what to do about this, yet there is a refusal to do it.

This National Agreement feels like a statement of intention of which there’s no evidence of actual intent.

Another point you make is that right now when the Black Lives Matter movement is front and centre, the 47 page National Agreement does little to address systemic racism.

Can you talk a little on this?

Racism features in this agreement. But they haven’t even conceptualised what it is.

They refer to racism of the structural and institutional kind, but in the strategy, it only relates to the reform area around government. And their solution is to put more Indigenous people on boards and in senior positions.

Now, anyone who knows anything about racism knows that this isn’t an effective strategy to undermine institutional racism. All it does is visit more violence upon black fellas who are forced to be the one black face at the table.

So, you can see that they’ve got some concepts here that they haven’t even defined. And then they’ve demonstrated that they don’t even know what they are.

How do you address structural racialised inequality if you don’t know what structural racism is?

There’s a failure of strategy here, as they focus on targets and data, and no one is looking at the fine print and asking what’s meant to be achieved apart from monitoring black people.

This is not far from the mission and reserve system that black fellas were subjected to where every aspect of our lives were controlled.

This is the new paternalism in Indigenous affairs, and yet our Indigenous community-controlled organisations are signing up to it.

Much has been made of the fact that the new Closing the Gap has been developed in partnership with the Coalition of Peaks.

You’ve warned that this arrangement doesn’t guarantee favourable outcomes. Why’s that the case?

This just means that we can now blame Indigenous organisations for the failure of Indigenous policy, knowing that such organisations are under resourced and at the mercy of the government.

ATSIC went because it was holding the state accountable. It was clear back then, when they said the pendulum had swung too far, that Indigenous peoples were starting to get too much power. And since then, our community-controlled sector has been wiped.

People forget the 90s. The community-controlled sector looked so different. And a lot of those organisations were grounded in the communities that they were accountable too. They weren’t representative peak bodies of other organisations.

That’s why we don’t see the word sovereignty featured in the National Agreement across all 47 pages.

As much as I love our community-controlled organisations and our peaks – they’re committed to affecting change – but if we look at the historical policy context of Indigenous affairs, surely, we shouldn’t be celebrating this – surely, we shouldn’t be signing off to this.

Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson talks about the politics of refusal as an exercising of Indigenous sovereignty.

And that’s the most disheartening thing about this agreement, that I can’t see an exercising of Indigenous sovereignty, despite the fact that there are Indigenous organisations signed up to it.

In fact, at the end of the press conference, as two senior Indigenous people exited, the PM didn’t thank them, he thanked Tony Abbott – “nothing but bush” Tony Abbott – for his inspiration in Indigenous affairs.

Many have criticised the Morrison government for releasing the overhauled Closing the Gap without any new funding. What are your thoughts on this?

The failing of this partnership agreement is there’s no strategy. It’s just about how the state surveils black people, so it provides this illusion of “care”.

But when you look beyond the buzzwords, where is the funding and where is the strategy. How will this be achieved?

People are focusing on the targets and assessing them critically. But there’s no strategy, and there’s no resourcing.

We have had announcements about greater funding for the peaks and the community organisations that have signed on to the agreement, but not on resourcing the strategy in those specific areas.

And lastly, the original 12 years of Closing the Gap were a failure. And as you’ve pointed out, the current one is cloaked in “political doublespeak”, with less of a focus on concrete outcomes.

What do you expect to come as a result of the new strategy? And in your opinion, how do the attempts of Closing the Gap to address Indigenous disadvantage miss the point?

What I expect to come as a result of this new strategy is a continuation of the discourse of the Aboriginal problem.

The story of failure of Indigenous affairs, which is never owing to the state that exists upon our nonexistence as black fellas here in this place.

We’ve continued to support the idea that the settlers have always cared about us, while being indifferent to our death in this place.

How do you have a failed strategy and say we’re going to do more of the same? In any other policy area, we wouldn’t accept this. And yet, we have a media that are quite prepared to not even scrutinise what’s going on here.

More broadly, Closing the Gap – whether from the past decade or the decade ahead – is premised upon the idea that if black people become like white people statistically then all will be well.

We exist here not as a problem. And there have been any number of Aboriginal women that have insisted that we’re not the problem, such as Rosalie Kunoth-Monks.

We aren’t the problem and yet, we have a whole social policy framework that exists upon the premise that we are a problem to be solved, and if we just become like white people, everything will be okay.

Now, we’ve heard that before. And we know the violence of such an ideological framework. That’s what’s so disappointing here.

I grew up as a black fella not thinking of myself as a problem – not even seeing myself as disadvantaged – yet I am subject to a policy framework that only knows me as that.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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