Critics of the federal government’s plan to ‘refresh’ the Closing the Gap strategy have argued that the new focus on economic development and prosperity is misguided and will impede improvements in health and education.
The scheme, which 10 years ago set several key targets aimed at addressing the severe disparities faced by Indigenous Australians, has so far failed to make a significant impact. In February it was announced that three out of the four objectives expiring this year will not be met, while another one of the three set to expire in the coming years is not on track to succeed.
The clear struggle of the policy to effect change makes the recent criticisms frustrating to hear. Of the seven targets set in 2008, only one — to halve employment gap by 2018 — was focussed on economic development. The remaining six were all health and education focussed.
If anything, the lessons from the past decade suggest we need more focus on prosperity, not less. Prosperity will be the single most important factor for closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and will have a direct impact on education and health outcomes.
While the previous approach has been program heavy and based primarily on government interventions, an economic development approach shifts the focus to respect and agency — something Indigenous leaders have been seeking for generations.
Prosperity comes in many forms. For Indigenous people, home ownership and self-employment would be a good place to start. Even in cities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people own homes at half the rate of the rest of the population. Owning a home is one of the most important pillars of our society, bringing stability and autonomy. A target to close the gap in home ownership is therefore essential.
Meanwhile, Indigenous self-employment levels are less than a third of the rate of all Australians. Self-employment and entrepreneurship are key to overcoming socio-economic disparities. They can allow people to navigate around barriers to economic participation, such as low education and stigmas. A self-employment target is consequentially pivotal.
While there will always be critics, expect Indigenous leaders and the government to place prosperity high on the agenda when new targets are set later in the year. To do otherwise would risk repeating the failures of the past decade.
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