Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Pious Action: the Closing the Gap Refresh

               With devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1

The Government has launched a public consultation process related to the projected refresh of the Closing the Gap targets adopted by COAG in 2008. A new web site (link here) provides access to relevant background resource materials, and invites submissions which are due by 31 March 2018.

The webpage provides access to a Discussion Paper (link here) and outlines a proposed framework built around the notion of ‘prosperity’ which identifies four components: economic, individual, community, environment (link here). This framework is implicitly contrasted with the existing framework which is allegedly deficit based, and thus fails to acknowledge adequately the success and achievements of First Australians.

The current targets were always designed to be milestones along a longer pathway:  the mortality target is aimed at 2031, and the education and employment targets are aimed at halving, not entirely closing, the gap in those particular metrics. The Closing the Gap targets thus implicitly recognised that achieving structural equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians would be a long term process.

Notwithstanding the attempt to make the targets realistic and long term, Australian governments have been unable to meet the targets originally set. The Discussion Paper admits that of the seven high level targets, only one is on track.

The adoption and utilisation of targets as a policy tool is not entirely straightforward. By definition it focusses attention on a select number of measureable criteria. It runs the risk that governments will focus on these to the exclusion of other important issues. And to the extent that the targets are poorly specified it can allow governments to claim success where it is not warranted, or lead to resource misallocations which might not otherwise occur.

On the other hand, the case for targets is that it creates a specific focus on issues which are for one reason or another considered to be important and deserving of explicit attention or which might otherwise be neglected. Targets can assist governments to sustain policy attention on issues beyond the normal electoral and policy attention spans determined by legislated electoral terms, and/or the tenure of particular ministers or governments. This has been particularly the case with the Closing the Gap process as the requirement for the Prime Minister to publish a progress report at the start of each Parliamentary year has meant that the high level issue of continuing Indigenous disadvantage has received significant attention above and beyond what would have occurred without the targets. The symbolic importance of this Prime Ministerial involvement has been particularly significant.

The Closing the Gap process has always had its critics, with some commentators arguing that it was effectively based on assimilationist assumptions that all Indigenous citizens aspired to be like most other Australians. One can argue that such assumptions underpin much government policy in the Indigenous affairs domain. In my view, an alternative interpretation is that driving for longer Indigenous lifespans, improved health, educational and employment outcomes is fundamentally ‘choice enhancing’ policy. Longer lifespans, better education, improved health, and employment all enhance Indigenous choices. The radical critique of Closing the Gap as inherently assimilationist is in my view difficult to sustain.

However a second critique, with much more force, is that the Closing the Gap framework suffers from a serious flaw, namely that there is no explicit program logic which links the design and delivery of specific program interventions to particular targets. Instead, the Closing the Gap targets are unattached to particular program activities, and it was always unclear which levels of government were responsible for progress against particular targets. That said, governments are able to make informed decisions when considering particular programs and their funding allocations linked to the annual progress on particular targets. Thus education initiatives aimed at improving outcomes are no doubt informed by the metrics associated with the relevant Closing the Gap framework, and similarly for some other targets. But to maximise the effectiveness of targets, something more than a loose connection between programs and outcomes is required.

There is thus clearly a case for strengthening the effectiveness of the current Closing the Gap framework. Unfortunately, the current refresh proposals appear designed to weaken the framework, not strengthen it.

Minister Scullion in his media release (link here) announcing the refresh discussion paper merely asserts that a refreshed process will lead to better outcomes:

However, it is clear that the Closing the Gap agenda can be better designed and more effectively delivered. This is a view shared among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, governments and the broader community.
In 2008, the original Closing the Gap targets were developed without consultation from Indigenous Australians and without the direct involvement of state and territory governments – which meant targets were not as effective or as well directed as they should have been.
Apart from the fact that he is prejudging the consultation process, he offers no evidence for these assertions, and only his point about consultation with Indigenous Australians is unequivocally correct. He then goes on to state:
A new approach to Closing the Gap must value the aspirations, strengths and successes of First Australians. Importantly, it must be built on meaningful conversations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
New Closing the Gap targets will drive better outcomes for Indigenous communities because, for the first time, state and territory governments will establish targets in areas for which they are responsible and all targets will be designed to drive change, with specific action plans to support targets.
The problem with this argument is that the Minister is conflating the Closing the Gap targets with the policies which underpin it. It is the policies which ought to be built on meaningful engagement. The gaps implicit in each target will continue to exist whether or not there is a target, and these gaps cannot be fixed by focussing on Indigenous strengths (important as such a focus is). And shifting policy focus and responsibilities to state and territory governments is, in my humble opinion, a recipe for non-delivery and non-accountability. The Minister’s proposals provide no indication that either COAG or the Commonwealth itself will hold governments to account for lack of progress against the targets. The current Government has overseen the dismantlement of the COAG reform council which monitored progress against COAG targets across the board, replacing it with a ‘dashboard’ and a suggestion that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would have ‘interim responsibility’ for monitoring the performance of governments (link here).

If the Government wished to focus on Indigenous aspirations and strengths, there is nothing to stop it establishing a policy framework, resourcing it, and pursuing it enthusiastically. But using this rationale as a cover for dismantling the Closing the Gap framework, is in my view not only retrograde, but involves an attempt at deliberate policy deception.

To cut to the chase, the Closing the Gap process is an embarrassment for the Federal Government. It provides regular and tangible evidence the Government’s Indigenous affairs policies are not working; that its policy rhetoric is not aligned with the reality of its actions on the ground; and that Indigenous citizens, particularly in remote regions, remain severely disadvantaged in comparison to most other Australians.

Instead of re-evaluating its underlying policy settings (including funding allocations), the Government appears to have decided that it is better to shift the goalposts. It would prefer to muddy the policy waters rather than improve its own performance.

There may well be a case for ‘refreshing’ particular targets, and there is a case for strengthening the link between the Closing the Gap framework and the underlying programs. However the Government’s proposed consultations are based around an extremely vague and rhetorically slanted discussion paper, with no indication of the sorts of targets it is considering, no commitment to providing information on the specific feedback it is receiving in the consultations to date, no recognition that there needs to be a stronger link between targets and programs, and no acknowledgment that the independent oversight arrangements for COAG activities has been abolished.

The bottom line is that at its core, Closing the Gap is not about the Indigenous community, but is about the commitment of the wider Australian community to support policies which remove structural disadvantage.

Rather than leading a national debate on removing structural disadvantage, and supporting policies which would facilitate such outcomes, the Government appears to be pursuing a policy of focussing on the rhetorical aspiration of ‘prosperity’ (who can object to that?), and shifting the policy focus from the Commonwealth Government to the states.

Add to this a sustained attempt to argue that the problem of continuing Indigenous disadvantage is largely down to a lack of good program evaluation and lack of access to Indigenous data by Indigenous citizens (links here, here and here) and the strategy confection is complete.

The deeply cynical strategy appears to be to direct the spotlight onto the legitimate aspirations of Indigenous citizens for their successes and achievements to be recognised while using the shadows outside of the glare of the spotlight to mischievously shift the Closing the Gap goalposts to avoid the necessity to make substantive policy and program commitments (like resourcing remote housing: link here) which will underpin and drive improved Indigenous life opportunities.