ANDY HAMILTON SJ reflects on the approaches needed to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The National Close the Gap Day is held each year to express the need to reduce the gap in health and other indicators between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian population. This gap is marked and shameful. It has also proved difficult to shift. Indeed, in the separation of children from their parents it threatens to grow strongly.

This suggests that new approaches are needed. In 2022, the theme of the Day is Transforming Power. It echoes the recent shift of emphasis in the 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap from the yearly setting and reviewing of targets in a range of aspects of well-being to setting priority reforms for improving health and establishing 10-year targets by which progress can be measured.

In perhaps a more important decision, the Agreement set out the broader reforms in attitudes, policy and administration that are needed if specific programs and goals are to be achieved. The relationships of power between government and administrators with Indigenous communities need to be transformed to embody more participation and agency of communities themselves in the making and administering of policy.  These priorities all have to do with relationships between Governments and Indigenous bodies in a way that emphasises partnerships and shared decision making, builds the Indigenous community-controlled sector, reforms government organisations, and improves access to data on which communities can make informed decisions.

These changes suggest that closing the gap will not be done by finding technological solutions or by increased expenditure on Indigenous health alone, though these things are necessary. It depends on changing a culture that regards Indigenous wellbeing as a problem for which governments must devise a solution that will then be imposed on Indigenous communities.

This approach takes away agency from the people affected, imports into programs the assumptions that governments and their agents know best what works for Indigenous communities and that they have the skills to implement solutions rather than Indigenous people and communities themselves, and inevitably fails to recognise aspects of Indigenous cultures and situations that are crucial to effectual change. It is lacking in respect.

Jesuit Social Services welcomes this day and its recognition of the dignity and the rightful demands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must have a voice and control over addressing issues that affect them, and have opportunities to strengthen their families and communities through greater connection to culture and tradition.

We stand in support of our Indigenous staff and the Indigenous people and communities we work with through our programs – their experiences and insights are critical as we continue to work towards our vision of building a just society. Today’s National Day to Close the Gap summons us to self-reflection as it does all Australians.