COAG met yesterday. The full Communique is here. I have extracted the section on Indigenous issues below:
Indigenous affairs Leaders reaffirmed that improving the lives of Indigenous Australians is a priority of COAG’s strategic forward agenda and agreed that the ‘Closing the Gap’ framework has played a significant role in driving unprecedented national effort to improve Indigenous outcomes. With the current framework approaching its 10 year anniversary and some targets due to expire in 2018, Leaders have committed to work together and with Indigenous leaders, organisations and communities to refresh this agenda with renewed emphasis on collaborative effort, evaluation and building on what works in each jurisdiction.
The Prime Minister has also extended an invitation to Premiers and Chief Ministers to join him for the 2017 ‘Closing the Gap’ statement in Canberra.
COAG noted the report on progress to improve Indigenous school attendance and attainment. Leaders agreed that individualised learning strategies for Indigenous students at risk of not achieving their full potential will be important to improving Indigenous educational outcomes and faster progress toward the critical year 3 ‘Closing the Gap’ reading target.
COAG released the Prison to Work Report, which recognises the alarming rates of Indigenous incarceration and recidivism. Leaders indicated a shared commitment to better coordinating government services, especially in-prison training and rehabilitation programs, employment and health and income support services. The report will inform consultations with Indigenous and other stakeholders as governments develop action plans to implement these important reforms.
Leaders also confirmed their commitment to supporting Indigenous economic development, recognising that governments hold significant levers to increase Indigenous employment and support Indigenous businesses through public sector employment policies, government purchasing practices and government-funded infrastructure projects. Jurisdictions agreed to consider establishing state-specific whole-of-government Indigenous procurement policies, Indigenous employment and indigenous business targets and reporting mechanisms, and making policies easier to find and understand. COAG noted the potential of the NDIS roll out to open up opportunities for Indigenous enterprise in regional and remote communities. Leaders agreed to provide progress updates at the next COAG meeting.
All jurisdictions noted the Commonwealth-led Referendum Council will begin its Regional Dialogues this month, and will report by 30 June 2017. Leaders reaffirmed their shared commitment to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Commonwealth Constitution. All jurisdictions noted the importance of nationwide activities next year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the successful 1967 Referendum.
This is all mostly positive.
On Closing the Gap, it is correct that it has driven “unprecedented national effort”, but the more fundamental question, which COAG appears not to have asked, let alone answered, is whether that effort is well directed, and is it adequate.
Indigenous incarceration is an extremely important issue, and it is terrific that COAG have turned their attention to the issue. The Prison to Work Report released by COAG originated in the Prime Minister’s 2016 Closing the Gap Statement, and was led by the Ministers for Indigenous Affairs and Employment. It is an impressive research effort over a relatively short period, and is based on extensive stakeholder engagement. I haven’t had a chance to read the report closely, but it is clear that its recommendations and findings are on their face sensible, and deserve serious attention. The Communique suggests that jurisdictions will now develop action plans.
It will be important that there be further discussion around this issue, that state, territory and the federal Governments’ action plans are tabled and considered by stakeholders, and most importantly, that actions are robust, coordinated, and actually implemented. Unfortunately, the COAG Communique gives no commitments to any such process. While the focus of the Report on employment is important, there are a range of other aspects to post-incarceration life, and these too need attention in due course.
COAG’s focus on economic development and in particular to further strengthening procurement strategies builds on what has been perhaps the Government’s most significant achievement since coming to office. It will be important that the actions at the federal level to expand Indigenous procurement are reinforced by states and territories. While there is potential for the NDIS to expand Indigenous business opportunity, it will be important that the Commonwealth actively monitor progress in this area (and publish data on take up of the opportunities), and there would be substantial merit in the development of a business support strategy to assist Indigenous businesses to take up these opportunities.
As for the shared commitment of First Ministers to seeing Indigenous peoples recognised in the Constitution, I merely note that it is approaching ten years since John Howard went to an election promising it. The issue is devilishly difficult, and appears to have lost momentum. I am not holding my breath.