Indigenous disadvantage and Indigenous policy was much debated in the media when the eighth Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report was released back in February. One issue that was raised as important but not deeply addressed was that of history. Both Stan Grant and Justin Mohammad have suggested that knowing and understanding Australia’s history is important for Indigenous justice. This issue tends to get overlooked in debates about the Closing the Gap policy with its focus on future targets and responsibility rhetoric.
Despite the limited public, government and media engagement with history, it is present and visible in the Closing the Gap policy discourse. A closer look at the policy germination reveals that the Closing the Gap policy was carefully constructed as about addressing past injustices. There is a strong connection between the Closing the Gap policy and the Prime Minister’s apology to the Stolen Generations, illustrated in this excerpt from the apology:
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future … A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
The idea of history is not absent here, but it is also not neutral. It is quietly doing some important work. Through acknowledging that wrong was done in the past the policy discourse tends to cleave the past from the present. This allows the present to be imagined in contrast to the past: the past is when injustices were committed; the present is when those injustices are being redressed. This creates a blinkering effect: we fail to see the ways in which history remains in the present, despite some significant efforts to redress past injustices.
We don’t have to look far into the past to find important insights that raise some ethical questions about the Closing the Gap discourse and its political effects (with a focus here on the educational targets). For example, in August 1967 a conference on ‘Aborigines and Education’ was held at Monash University. While this period is remembered for its commitment to justice and equality through various social movements, the discourse related to Indigenous equality that dominated was still one of ‘uplift’ (brought from the 1930s) that can be seen to have assimilationist tendencies that result in a focus on Indigenous deficiencies. The prevalence of this discourse is evident even in the words of long-time supporter and advocate of Indigenous people, Professor Colin Tatz (born in South Africa, gaining a PhD from ANU and heavily involved in Aboriginal politics as a non-Indigenous person) who talks of ‘uplift’ and ‘merging’ of the Aboriginal population with the non-Aboriginal population. An excerpt from his conference paper states:
One point is the acceptance by many that the merging of Aboriginal children into the Australian educational mainstream is the desired objective, and one that will lead to educational ‘success’. Another policy point is that all Australian governments now believe in encouraging pride and participation in traditional life and that it is not policy to seek the destruction of Aboriginal cultural values.
So while there was an acknowledgment of ensuring Aboriginal culture was not further destroyed, the focus of educational success remained on ‘merging’ with the mainstream. White cultural values appear then to remain central and powerful. The way in which such a dominating focus on Indigenous deficiencies reinforces a longstanding, race-based, colonially influenced binary of superior white and inferior Indigenous, is significant. The way in which a policy problem is conceptualised – be it as one of ‘uplift’, ‘merging’ or ‘closing the gap’ – can have political, social and psychological effects for both individuals and the societies those individuals create.
At the same conference, however, fellow participant – Aboriginal activist, writer and then secretary of the Queensland State Council for Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – Kath Walker (later known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal) offered a different perspective. She repeatedly questioned what seemed to be the unspoken binary of superior/inferior: ‘European life should not be taught as being superior, but as being an accepted and acceptable way of life,’ she stated, and then later that ‘the upholding and respect for Aboriginal legends should be encouraged, and the children taught to tell the stories of their own people.’ Aboriginal difference ‘should not be misunderstood as lack of intelligence.’
Walker declared that:
Those who lay down policy for the future education of the Aborigine must at all times remain aware of his [sic] dignity and pride, and care must be taken to see that this is upheld at all costs.
In these statements, Walker refused to allow Indigenous people, knowledge, culture or society to be placed on a lower rung in a hierarchy of significance in schools and education. Instead of ‘uplift’ to non-Indigenous standards, she advocated upholding the rights and dignity of Indigenous students.
When we hold this historical debate up alongside Closing the Gap, there are similar problems occurring. Non-Indigenous policy makers and government are typically advocating ‘uplift’ to the educational standards of non-Indigenous people, through ‘closing the gap’, while many Indigenous people are offering other ways of addressing this problem. This raises some serious ethical questions about the ways in which Indigenous people continue to be held within a colonising-like relationship in national policy discourse, while government imagines that it has moved on from that ‘dark’ period of history.
What this history reveals is that the past – like the present – involved contested ideas about how the problem of Indigenous disadvantage was understood and constructed and how solutions were proposed. This exposes a serious gap in historical knowledge and understanding on the part of government (and much of the broader public) that sees the past as a place where injustices were committed and the present as enlightened. Coming to know the past is not just a symbolic act but can offer paths towards justice – if the settler state dares to look.