This year the Australian public has twice engaged in the ritual of considering where we stand in relation to the targets enshrined in the Closing the Gap framework. In early February Tony Abbott released a set of reports that showed only modest progress on two of these targets and on 19 March, there was National Closing the Gap Day, an awareness-raising exercise spearheaded by Oxfam Australia. Both events passed by with hardly a mention in the political mainstream. Knighting Sir Philip, a ‘holocaust of jobs’ and skolling a beer all gained more attention.
The targets enshrined in Closing the Gap are laudable as are many of the programs devised to address them. Despite this there is a lack of considered debate. Moreover, it is problematic that the collective lamentations and solemn platitudes that surround the annual release of Closing the Gap reports mask a relative dearth of meaningful reflection. What are the normative assumptions that underpin the Closing the Gap framework? By leaving them unquestioned are we neutering the possibility that we might imagine alternative or complementary ways of working towards equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians? Are we mistaking the Closing the Gap framework to be representative of the totality of complex and diverse Indigenous development aspirations?
In responding to these questions, I will begin by considering the normative underpinnings of the Closing the Gap framework. These spring from what Tim Rowse has called a ‘neo-liberal or contractualist ontology’ in which society is conceived as atomised and amoral; an ‘aggregate of individuals who contract with one another to give effect to their common purposes.’ For Rowse, the product of this ontology is that the vision of social justice for Indigenous peoples is conceived strictly in terms of ‘individuals and households within an Australian population categorised by self-assigned ‘race’ or ‘ethnic identity” who will experience equality when statistical disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations are bridged.
This neoliberal, individualist ontology is coupled with an epistemological approach that assumes that individuals act rationally and predictably, where they respond to information and incentives in order to further their own interests. On the supply side of Indigenous policy, Tess Lea suggests that the ‘western intellectual subjects’ who make up the policy machinery of government have been ‘trained to see our ordained products as secular, rational actions.’ These actions are ‘prosaic, logical and evidence-based.’ In other words, those who have devised and implemented the Closing the Gap framework assume that their policies and programs are based on objective evidence – policy documents are littered with references to ‘success factors’ and ‘things that work.’ To policy makers, evidence stands alone, devoid of context, interpretability and ideology. Thus, the possibility that such policies and programs may be received differently by dispossessed, colonised Indigenous peoples is not considered.
This brings me to a key point: the ontological and epistemological assumptions underpinning the Closing the Gap framework leave aside questions of collective being, belonging and solidarity. It fails to conceive, using the words of Emma Kowal, Indigenous peoples as a ‘complex political artifact’ and a ‘dense texture of kinship.’ Instead, they are reduced to an agglomeration of individuals whose Indigeneity can be ascertained via a tick-box on a form, and whose lived experience of inequality can be remedied through the elimination of statistical disparities.
Closing the Gap relies on indicators of life expectancy, child mortality, educational attainment and others within a framework of ostensibly evidence-based value neutrality. This, neglects to take into account the complexity and diversity of the development aspirations of Indigenous peoples. It simultaneously reinforces the idea that these aspirations are homogenous. Questions of the standing of Indigenous peoples vis-a-vis the settler-colonial state are left either uninterrogated or given token recognition. Rowse puts it well when he states that ‘it is not possible to pose the question that confronts many Indigenous people: on what terms are peoples within a nation-state to live together?’
Closing the Gap can yield useful outcomes. However, it should not be considered the prime means through which equality and justice can be achieved for Indigenous peoples. We should stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples in their manifold struggles for collective political and social justice – land rights, access to essential services in remote communities, a treaty, and reparations that acknowledge materially the genocide carried out against them.
We must continue to agitate against the farcical approach of the current government, where front-line-services have been slashed and poor thinking has reduced connections to country to ‘lifestyle choices.’ We should also be mindful of the fact that the odious ideas sublated within these words and actions reflect ongoing relations of oppression and domination. These relations require us to go beyond Closing the Gap in statistical inequality towards Closing the Gap in collective justice.