Closing The Gap – In This Together During A Pandemic?

Aboriginal voices are leading the way in a changed approach to Closing the Gap, community leader Pat Turner has told an audience attending the first online Reconciliation Week Breakfast. Pat Turner, Arrente and Gurdanji woman, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and the Lead Convener of the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community-Controlled Peak organisations (Coalition of Peaks) delivered the annual Reconciliation week keynote speech via video conference. The annual Reconciliation SA hosted event usually sees an audience of over 1,000 people gather at the Adelaide Convention Centre.Ms Turner explained in her address that Aboriginal peak organisations had been working with Australian governments to create a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap which ‘will be a platform to address the structural inequalities Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face arising from years of unmet need’.Under the previous arrangements with governments on Closing the Gap planning “to be frank … we did not consider we were ‘In This Together’ with them” Ms Turner said.Over four thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia had been consulted by the Peaks about their ideas for the new National Agreement. Having Aboriginal organisations leading the consultation was a significant change to the way governments worked with Indigenous groups on Closing the Gap, Ms Turner said.“While the rhetoric was about partnership, there was no real commitment to it and the refresh was proceeding on the basis that COAG would make all the decisions” she explained.The Coalition of Peaks insisted on changes, arguing for the effectiveness of self-determination Ms Turner said in her address.“When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are included and have a real say in the design and delivery of services that impact on them, the outcomes are far better” she said.A special COAG Council, the Joint Council on Closing the Gap, gave Aboriginal Peaks a strong voice to create a new way forward according to Ms Turner. However COAG has been dismantled recently and replaced with a new ‘National Cabinet’. Shortly after the replacement of COAG with the new National Cabinet, the Coalition of Peaks announced that it been advised by the Commonwealth that National Cabinet remain committed to the implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap is expected to be released by July 2020 and will be based on four priorities, Ms Turner explained. These are:

  • establishing formal partnerships between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives across the country on closing the gap
  • building and strengthening our community-controlled organisations to deliver the services we need
  • transforming mainstream agencies and institutions of governments, such as the police and universities, to make a much bigger contribution to Closing the Gap; and
  • ensuring government data and information is shared with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities to support us being able to make good decisions about our lives.

 It has been agreed that the new Agreement will be signed by the Coalition of Peaks on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people along with First Ministers.

“That is incredibly significant for our people and for Australia.” Ms Turner said.COVID-19 responseIn her Reconciliation Week address, Ms Turner also spoke about Aboriginal community controlled health organisations’ rapid and effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.“The Aboriginal Community Controlled Health sector began actively preparing to respond to a possible COVID-19 outbreak in January 2020, in advance of the public response by the government. As a result, many of our ACCHOs had a level of preparedness prior to the pandemic which many general practices could not match.“Before the first case of coronavirus in Australia our communities were preparing to close borders, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health experts were discussing measures needed to protect our mob across the nation.“This is despite Aboriginal community-controlled organisations having borne the brunt of repeated funding cuts and a roller coaster of policy and administration changes” she said.The quick response had been very effective in protecting people’s health, Ms Turner said.“Up to now, as a sector, together, we have done exceptionally well, keeping infections out of our communities. As of 3 May 2020, only fifty-five cases (have been people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander). There have been absolutely no cases in our remote or very remote communities.”However, Ms Turner said there is still a long way to go to address the health issues raised by the pandemic.“The pandemic has highlighted the fault lines of disadvantage endured by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for generations, from health and education to housing.”“Also as we know, there will be long term social, economic, health and cultural costs of the pandemic.“NACCHO continues to advocate for greater federal, state and territory investment in housing for our people, and for housing initiatives to be developed in genuine partnership with us”“COVID-19 has been a whole new stark reminder to us all just how vulnerable the health of our people is” she said.To conclude her Reconciliation Week speech, Ms Turner called on Australian Governments to maintain their commitment to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, despite the many challenges that the pandemic has created.“This pandemic cannot and should not be used by anyone as a reason to delay the finalisation of the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap. (It) has disrupted governments, but it has disrupted us also. Nevertheless, we have continued to work to finalise the National Agreement and we expect governments to do the same.“Our response to the pandemic can and must galvanise our collective efforts and sharpen our focus to the task of Closing the Gap” said Ms Turner.

Read Pat Turner’s speech in full here

Visit the Coalition of Peaks Facebook page for more information on the National Agreement and Closing the Gap