It was Jesus who said “the poor will always be with you”. Theologians discuss the religious and practical implications of these words. In everyday use they’re often an expression of resignation, even cynicism; that no matter how much we try we can never really eliminate disadvantage.
I suspect this mindset is common in relation to Indigenous disadvantage. For at least 40 years, governments have been working to help lift Indigenous Australians out of poverty and “close the gap”. So has much of corporate Australia in the last decade. Most major companies in Australia today have Reconciliation Action Plans and the private sector has put large sums of money and in-kind resources towards helping Indigenous Australians.
Yet the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians continues.
Earlier this month, the Productivity Commission released a Performance Assessment Report on the Closing the Gap targets which have been adopted by all Australian governments. The Report found that, apart from improvements in Year 12 attainment and child mortality, “little or no progress has been made in closing gaps for life expectancy and reading and numeracy. And employment gaps have increased rather than narrowed.” This is “despite considerable effort and investment”. The Report recommended a much stronger “evaluation culture” in Indigenous policy which properly considers the effectiveness of the services being provided.
Almost exactly 3 years ago in an article in the Australian Financial Review I ruffled more than a few feathers by saying that governments and the private sector treat Indigenous disadvantage as a problem that will never actually be solved.
But it was just a logical deduction. Normally when governments and corporate Australia set out to deliver a transformation or fix a problem, they develop a plan with a business case, a budget, clear measurable outcomes and benefits and deadlines for delivery. Progress and success are monitored against the plan and the budget and the team moves on to another challenge when it’s done.
The private sector is particularly rigorous on accountability. Going over time or over budget - or failing to deliver - can get people fired. But even government projects need to deliver and conclude. The National Broadband Network, for example, is over-time and over-budget and the eventual outcomes will be less than originally envisaged. But it will come to an end. And when it does there’ll be an operating broadband network. The government is not planning to fund an NBN rollout for 40 years without actually rolling out a network.
Yet this is happening in Indigenous affairs. Teams of people have permanent jobs, ongoing budgets and indefinite terms and focus on activities rather than outcomes and continue to be funded for decades without delivering much at all. How do I know this? Because the gap is not closing. So clearly meaningful outcomes are not being achieved. And we see this approach across government, not-for-profit and private sectors alike.
The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can be measured in many ways. The Closing the Gap initiative looks at long range statistics and compares percentages for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in areas like employment, health and education.
Another approach is to set parity targets. Indigenous Australians make up 3% of the population, so achieving parity in some key professions and occupations would require around:
1400 extra Indigenous solicitors (there are 560 currently)
7000 Indigenous accountants (the current number is below 50).
8000 Indigenous engineers
2900 Indigenous doctors (currently there are 204 plus another 310 medical students).
10,000 Indigenous nurses and midwives (currently there are 1745 Indigenous enrolled nurses)
9000 teaching staff
50,000 technicians and trades workers and 22,000 machinery operators and drivers
60,000 small and medium enterprises owned by Indigenous people
The great thing about parity targets is it’s very clear if the outcome has or hasn’t been achieved. They provide a defined goal that people can work towards and there are leading indicators to identify the level of progress along the way (eg the number of students enrolled in these fields less typical dropout rates).
Industry groups and businesses who really want to make a difference for Indigenous people would develop plans to achieve parity in their organisations and professions – plans that set out how long will it take, who they need to work with (eg Indigenous education and mentoring support services), how much funding is required and who will be accountable for delivering.
Committing to deliver parity requires courage because the progress (or lack of it) is there for all to see; there’s very little wriggle room. Parity commitments are a test of how much governments and the private sector believe their own spin; a test of how fair dinkum they really are.
Parity must be achievable if the gap is really going to close. If not, then Indigenous poverty will always be with us. I’m not prepared to concede that. Are you?
This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 22 December 2015
This is what Indigenous parity looks like
23 December 2015
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine