Abandoned and excluded: Australia is failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
The federal government’s Closing the Gap Report paints a clear picture: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community continues to be left behind and ignored.
While the Closing the Gap targets have been in place for ten years, the current strategy for fulfilling these targets, and establishing genuine goals that address the needs of the Indigenous community, appears inherently flawed.
As we mark the ten year anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generation, Australia is not getting better in its treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Since 2008 children have been removed from their families at a drastically increased rate — an estimated 17,664 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living in out-of-home care in 2017, compared with 9,070 ten years ago.
Both in the policy making space and in mainstream media, Australia has shown a shameful lack of consideration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ voices, and little understanding of the complex nature of the issues that face them.
A look at the outcomes
A ten-year review of the Closing the Gap Strategy by the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee found that the strategy — a 25-year program — had been effectively abandoned after five years.
The structures in place to support the Closing the Gap Strategy — including a national approach, national leadership and funding agreements — had unravelled by 2014-2015.
This is evident in the federal government’s report of its achievements.
Three out of the seven targets were considered “On-Track” — but it is clear that the federal government is all too ready to give itself a tick of approval before meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples across Australia.
Even by its own standards — none of the targets have been met in every state and territory.
Four states have been left behind in Year 12 attainment (considered “On- Track”) and the Northern Territory — the state or territory with the largest proportion of its population identifying as Indigenous — has been left behind in early childhood education (also considered “On- Track”).
The four targets considered off-track show abysmal progress recorded across the country in school attendance, reading and numeracy, employment and life expectancy.
Education can’t be excluded
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers experience exclusion on two fronts — while the community’s insights are left ignored by the federal government, their professional judgements as teachers are too left out of decision making processes.
IEUA-QNT member and teacher at Villanova College Barbara Dewis said the federal government was not doing enough to consult with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to genuinely address these issues.
“Teachers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need to be engaged in these discussions.
“I question why so many recommendations from the community have been ignored.”
The federal government’s rejection of the Uluru statement late last year is but one example of this — showing an unwillingness to commit to the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives at a federal level.
Even in the education sector, initiatives such as the More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teaching Initiative (MATSITI) and the national network of Indigenous Education Consultative Bodies, which were two significant drivers for educational change, have been abandoned.
Many recommendations of MATSITI have been ignored.
“To abandon these initiatives is a disgrace,” Ms Dewis said.
“Where can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators go to voice their concerns?
“I studied as a teacher through a program known as AITEP (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teaching Education Program) conducted at James Cook University in the 80s — a program that gave Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders the opportunity to become qualified teachers, so they could give back to the community they came from.
“This program provided a basis to help build the confidence of graduates to return to their communities with a renewed vigour in order to assist their peoples in progressing.”
AITEP was disbanded in 1987. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments in Education have since diminished.
Currently, only one in every three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher education students graduates.
“There needs to be an increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in schools regardless of sector.
“To do that, aspiring teachers must be supported.”
Ms Dewis said cultural awareness programs should also be compulsory for all personnel within a school environment.
“These programs lead to a better understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ learning in the context of a classroom,” Ms Dewis said.
The big picture
Ms Dewis said the federal government should be making a more concerted approach in addressing the issues holistically rather than “sugar coating” them.
“Without health and education being a top priority, employment and life expectancy will not improve — we will not address the bigger picture of closing the gap.”
Ms Dewis said in order to address health issues, an education perspective must be considered, and vice versa.
“The Murri School in Acacia Ridge is a great example of how education and health can be linked by establishing a health service at the school itself.
“The service provides a good platform for helping young students to form healthy practices through time spent at school.
“This practice will assist the students to be more alert and focussed when attending classes — and can lead to an increase in academic success.
“Furthermore, having a health service that is readily available helps educate students about how to action these appropriate practices on the spot.
“Education and informing students of different approaches to addressing poor health can lead to a positive outcome in changing poor habits of health with individuals, in the home and wider community.
“The federal government has a responsibility to address these issues across all schools in Australia,” Ms Dewis said.