2018 marks the ten year anniversary of the Australian Government’s “Closing the Gap” initiative. The initiative gained bipartisan support and yet ten years on, only three of the seven targets of the initiative are on track.

Where is the Meaningful Consultation?

This is of no big surprise to most First Nation Australians, who are well aware that they have never really been asked what they want. Sure there is a lot of box ticking going on, but where is the meaningful consultation with First Nation Australians? I remember attending conferences / forums between government bodies and First Nation Australian community members, twenty years ago, where Elders of the local First Nation Australian community became fed up with the consultation process. These Elders most likely had been participating in these types of conference / forums many years longer than I had. They very sternly requested that the recommendations from the previous conference / forum be actioned. In other words the Elders felt that these conferences / forums where going round and round in circles without any meaningful consultation be made. If the government bodies involved were fair dinkum, they would not continue ticking boxes just to do the politically correct thing, but would make greater effort to implement what the First National Australian Community Members had recommended.

Unless there is more effort to genuinely ask First Nation Australians what they would like and then appropriate measures taken to truly implement their recommendations, efforts to improve the situation for First Nation Australians will be fruitless. Why? Usually because the measures taken are culturally inappropriate or because the changes being aspired to, are changes that First Nation Australians do not want. Two issues easily dealt with if meaningful consultation with First Nation Australians is carried out.

Collaboration is Key

It has been demonstrated with the few successful programs to improve the situation of First Nation Australians, meaningful consultation had taken place and concerted efforts been made to adhere to the recommendations.

A good example of this can be seen in an agreement developed between the Broome Shire Council and its local First Nation Australian people. From what I understand, Broome’s local First Nation people, the Yawuru, were putting forward a Native Title claim for land within the Broome Shire Council boundaries. This prompted the local shire council to arrange a meeting with the Yawuru. When both parties put their cards on the table, it turned out that both had similar, if not the same desires for how the land should be managed, for example, protection of the environment, ensuring future generations will gain the same benefits from the land as the present generation, etc. On coming to the realisation that both parties wanted similar, if not the same desires, for the future of their land, an agreement was met. The Agreement has been titled: “Yawuru Area Agreement Indigenous Land Use Agreement – Broome”. This resulted in native title claims “not” being put forward for some of the parcels of land that the Yawuru people could have put forward claims for. The reason being that the Yawuru people were happy with the way these parcels of land were being managed and they were now being consulted in regards to this. You could say that all the Yawuru people wanted, was to be consulted in regards to the management of their land. This resulted in good outcomes for all involved, First Nation people and non-First Nation people alike.

To the Benefit of All

I think it was the British that said when implementing their health reforms after World War Two: “The measure of a Nation can be made by looking at how well the most disadvantaged are treated.” Unfortunately for Australia, it would be how well First Nation Australians are treated. I recently heard Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, talking on Radio National. When asked about why no real significant improvements had been made in the lives of First Nation Australians, he commented: “we are talking about people in poverty, one of the lowest socioeconomic groups in Australia and while people are living in poverty, real change is difficult.” How come there are First Nation Australians living in poverty? Are we not the lucky country where there is a fair go for all, one of the richest nations on earth?

When Europeans arrived to form a colony in 1788, First Nation Australians were living rich and healthy lives on the “Greatest Estate on Earth.” First Nation Australians, the oldest continuous surviving culture in the world, had managed for millennia, in harmony with their land, many nations within a nation, getting on with each other. Given this, surely meaningful consultation with First Nation Australians will not only be of benefit in making a difference in “Closing the Gap” for them, but will also be of benefit to all Australians, in how we should look after our land, how we can live together and treat all members of our modern communities, with respect and dignity.

Author Shayne Rawson is a proud First Nation Australian and a valued member of the PHaM’s Team at CHESS. Shayne works closely with his community to provide cross cultural awareness and to help support people living with mental health issues. We asked Shayne to share his perspective with us on National Closing the Gap Day. This is Shayne’s unedited and personal point of view.

*artwork – Cleverman Dreaming, The Rainbow Serpent is by Shayne Rawson, all rights reserved