Why ‘Closing the Gap’ Remains Valid For The Future
The need for a new target on Indigenous child removal.
An Address on the 9th Anniversary
of the National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples.
The Hon. Kevin Rudd
26th Prime Minister of Australia
Chair of the National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians
Australian National University
13 February, 2017.
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I honour the first Australians on whose land we meet and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
I honour the stolen generations whose grief, suffering and loss forever marks us all.
And I honour our Indigenous brothers and sisters who are with us today on this the ninth anniversary of the National Apology.
Closing the Gap
Someone I respect greatly, a senior Indigenous woman, said to me the other day: ‘Why did you require the Closing the Gap report be presented to Parliament every year? It is a disaster for the Government.’
The last part of her remarks are of course largely true.
It usually is a political disaster for the government of the day.
For governments of whichever political persuasion.
But that’s because it wasn’t meant to be a public relations exercise.
Nor was the Apology itself.
Both the apology and the annual closing the gap statement were intended as real, concrete exercises in public policy.
The Apology was a formal recognition, after 220 years of European settlement, of our systematic brutalisation of a proud people who had lived in these lands for millennia.
Closing the Gap was a strategic policy setting, with targets, benchmarking, data collection, and annual review, as an annual calling to account for the nation.
One without the other would have been a dead letter.
It’s like in normal life.
You cannot apologise for treating someone badly, without then changing your behaviour towards them in the future.
As I said at the time, we should have the maturity as a polity to recognise where we succeed and where we fail, in this critical area of public policy.
Particularly in an area of public policy which says everything about who we are as Australians.
And how we are seen in the world.
Successes, where they occur, should be celebrated.
Failures should be acknowledged with honesty.
And learnings should be had, so they can be applied to new approaches for the future.
I hear it said from time to time that “Closing the Gap hasn’t worked,” and we should try something new.
I would say to such critics that such an approach would represent yet another triumph of superficiality, in a faddish search for something that sounds exciting, as part of the permanent political search for “re-branding.”
Good grief. Give me a break. How puerile can we get?
The essence of closing the gap is the cold, hard business of measurement.
It is about agreed targets in critical areas of Indigenous health, education, employment, and longevity.
It is about collecting the data, where in so many areas, either at the Federal or the State level, it just didn’t exist.
Often because we didn’t care.
Or because we were too embarrassed, either as National or State governments, to collect it, for fear of the actual story of Indigenous disadvantage it would tell.
It’s about assembling the data into an intelligible picture for policy makers and the public.
And yes it’s also about drawing all the above together to prick our national conscience.
But with the intention of adjusting policies where we need to, or to continue policies where they are demonstrably working.
That is what “Closing the Gap” is all about, and why it should be preserved as our national framework for the future for Indigenous policy.
What “Closing the Gap” is not about is the prescription of detailed policy for each of the five sectors it seeks to measure.
Policy solutions will vary from state to state, from city to city, and from community to community.
This is as it should be. Conditions differ. Warranting different responses.
So when people say “closing the gap” is not working, what they may mean is that various individual policy settings in different parts of the country may not be working,
But that does not mean the overall framework of measurement that we have spent years now creating under “Closing the Gap” should be replaced.
What it does mean is we need to work harder on the hard stuff of policy and program delivery.
The intergovernmental mechanism we agreed upon between the Commonwealth and the States was the COAG Agreement of December 2008.
This was the first time in the history of the Federation we managed to bring the Commonwealth and the States together into a united national strategic policy framework, and critically with a unified set of measurements of success or failure.
Indigenous Australia is not all that concerned which State they may be living in.
What they want to know is whether their lot is improving locally, and whether it’s improving nationally.
So these are the three arms of government strategy that go to the heart of the matter:
- The Apology itself;
- Closing the Gap as a strategic policy framework, and;
- The COAG strategy of combined national funding, individual policy settings and program delivery
And I am proud that this structured approach was set in concrete by my government.
Failure is not an Option
Friends, failing to close the gap is not an option.
This year’s report I am told, will be handed down tomorrow.
It will, I imagine, be a mixture of success and failure.
But better that we know.
And I recommend it to you all, as essential reading.
Permit me to remind you of the Closing the Gap targets:
- Close the life expectancy gap within a generation
- Halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade
- Ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities within five years
- Halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade
- Close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by the end of 2018.
- Halve the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment rates by 2020
- Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade
Well, the first decade is fast drawing to a close.
And for the past few years I have been calling – and I have not been alone – for other targets to be added to the original seven– to be measured – to become part of a candid national conversation.
In previous speeches on this anniversary I have argued for an additional target on Indigenous higher education rates.
I have also argued that COAG needs to consider a target to reduce the nation’s appalling Indigenous incarceration rates.
Those targets have not yet been added.
Perhaps the Prime Minister will announce them tomorrow.
But for the last few years, on this anniversary, I have also raised the alarum on the emergence of what some are calling a second stolen generation.
That is, the growing number of Indigenous children being removed not just from their parents – but removed from their community and removed from their culture.
And I promised, in the National Apology nine years ago, that that, would never happen again.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle
The removal of any Aboriginal child must be a last resort.
Let me repeat.
The removal of any Aboriginal child must be a last resort.
That is how the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle begins.
Removal of any Aboriginal child must be a last resort.
It goes on: If, after consultation with a community-controlled Aboriginal welfare organisation, removal of a child from its family is unavoidable, then the authorities must have regard to the direction of the Aboriginal welfare organisation.
If such a removal is necessary, then the child must be placed within the extended family, or if this is not possible, the child may be placed within the Aboriginal community within close proximity to the child’s natural family.
If there is not an Aboriginal placement available, then in consultation with Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agencies, the child may be placed with a non-Aboriginal family on the assurance that the child’s culture, identity and contact with the Aboriginal community are maintained.
This Principle was not a product of The Apology nine years ago. It is older than that.
In fact The Principle was developed 30 years ago in response to the terrible legacy of Stolen Generations.
It is now enshrined in legislation and policy in all states and territories:
In WA the Principle was ratified by the Department for Community Services in October 1985. From that time, Aboriginal children in Western Australia could not be placed with non-Aboriginal carers without the approval of the Director General – and it entered legislation in The Children and Community Services Act 2004 WA.
In the Northern Territory it was incorporated into legislation in the Community Welfare Act 1983 and subsequently in the Adoption of Children Act 1994.
In South Australia the Principle became the official policy of the South Australian government in 1983. And included in South Australian legislation from 1988.
In the ACT it is reflected in the Children and Young People Act 2008.
In Victoria it was first incorporated into legislation in 1989.
In Queensland you will find it in the Child Protection Act 1999.
And in NSW, it became part of law with the Children (Care and Protection) Act 1987, the Community Welfare Act 1987 and the Adoption Information Act 1990.
I mention all this to make it clear for all, that it is more than a policy; more than a guideline; more than a good intention; more than an idea.
It is the law.
And while protecting children is a state responsibility, it is everybody’s business, and that was reflected in 2009 when the Council of Australian Governments – COAG – endorsed The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020.
Once again, I am proud of the fact that this was legislated under my government.
The National Framework is for Commonwealth, State and Territory governments, non-government organisations, service providers and individuals with an interest in ensuring all Australia’s children, black and white, are safe and well.
So what does it say?
It says Indigenous children need to be supported and safe in their families and communities.
For this reason, I am disappointed by the current ‘third action plan’ 2015-2018 for the Framework.
It contains a lot of ‘business as usual’ activity by the Commonwealth.
And a lot of ‘not much at all’ by the States.
I understand there is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Working Group that supports the National Framework process – COAG needs to listen to it, and make sure it is not lost in bureaucratic processes.
Call me harsh.
But COAG needs to do better.
As does the implementation of the National Standards of Out Of Home Care – of which Standard Number 3 is : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities participate in decisions concerning the care and placement of their children and young people.
This isn’t just about bureaucracy.
It’s about young lives.
How they are raised will be both our legacy, and their future.
In this context, I must also mention the good work of SNAICC, the Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Childcare, and their national campaign “Family Matters,” which is seeking to work in every state and territory to change the story.
Because the uncomfortable truth is that the story of Indigenous child removal is bad.
And it is getting worse.
As you may know, I’m much given to “programmatic specificity.”
What ‘programmatic specificity’ means is simple: I like to have the numbers.
But on this subject, the numbers are chilling.
In 2006 – 6,497 Aboriginal children were in out-of-home care nationally.
Then there was the Little Children Are Sacred Inquiry which increased the focus on Indigenous child welfare.
By the end of June 2007 it had jumped by one and half thousand to 7,917.
Since then, the number has grown by about an additional thousand kids a year, so that by mid 2015, the most recent year of recorded data, it stood at 15,432.
And of those 15,432, 32.9 per cent or 4,955 children were not placed in accordance with the Child Placement Principle.
That is, no Indigenous organisation was consulted, no extended family carer was found, no community carer was found.
These kids were taken away.
We all know this is a difficult, delicate, complex area.
The rights of the child, and our responsibilities for the safety of the child, must always come first.
Furthermore, we cannot today, in the time we have, dissect the various assumptions that these figures rest on.
But what is patently clear is that the focus across the board is not on early intervention.
It is not based on prevention, obviating the need for a family to be broken up.
And when the removal of a child must occur, we also know that a third such cases occur without recourse to a local Indigenous community organisation to identify alternative placement options within the wider family, clan, or culture.
What is also clear is that the $500 million in cuts to Indigenous programs and frontline services is also extremely unhelpful.
I will never condemn anyone for removing a child from harm.
But it can be done in consultation, with Indigenous authority, with Indigenous responsibility, and with Indigenous support.
Or it can be done with total disregard of community, culture and family.
Even better, let’s do all that is possible to prevent the harm, rather than just react to it.
A Second Stolen Generation?
Let me be clear.
Our growing challenges with child removal today are of a different order of magnitude entirely to what we saw over more than a three quarters of a century with the brutality of the Stolen Generations.
In Queensland, for instance, Queensland’s Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act 1865 allowed neglected or destitute children to be removed from the care of their families and placed in a range of institutions available at that time.
Under this legislation, any child of Aboriginal descent was – by definition – ‘neglected’.
The Stolen Generations were not the result of under-funded child services.
It was not the result of poorly implemented policy.
It was policy.
According to the Bringing Them Home Report, there was no Indigenous family unaffected.
The Stolen Generations were not removed from their families to keep them safe.
They were removed because they were Aboriginal.
And some would argue, for current kids that is still true, that racism plays a part in the terrible rates of out of home care we have today.
I’m not so sure of that.
But what I am sure of is that we cannot simply stand back and let the numbers of Indigenous children being removed grow year by year, without other options being tested within the wider Indigenous community.
We do not want another generation of young Aboriginal children unnecessarily separated from their culture.
We do not want to see the emergence of a second stolen generation, not by design, but by default.
Under current arrangements between the Commonwealth and the States, the removal of Indigenous children is fundamentally a State and Territory responsibility.
And they are responding.
In NSW, as the result of the alarm raised in no small part by the hard work and effort of Grandmothers Against Removals, a review was announced late last year into the case of every Aboriginal child taken into out of home care during 2016.
The NSW Government is also investing $90 million over four years for new family preservation and restoration services, with 50 per cent of the new intensive family preservation places for Aboriginal children and families.
In NSW by the way, Indigenous people make up 3 percent of the population – but 37 percent of the kids in out of home care.
In WA, which is also around 3 percent Indigenous, Aboriginal kids in out of home care make up a staggering 52 percent, with only 64 percent of those placed in other forms of care in accordance with The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.
Last year WA saw the release of an Early Intervention and Support Strategy. It is sorely needed and needs to be just the beginning.
In Queensland, my home state, the rate of kids placed in accordance to the Principle has dropped to around 56 per cent.
In 2015 3,512 Indigenous kids were in out of home care, and in a state where Indigenous people make up 3.6 percent of the population, they make up 42 per cent of the kids in the care.
But work is underway, in conjunction with Indigenous elders and organisations, to develop a whole-of-government action plan.
The Northern Territory has the worst rate, bar none, for compliance with the Child Placement Principle, with only 34.8 percent of Indigenous kids in out of home care placed in accordance with the policy.
A few years ago, they had a Magistrate who said she thought the Principle was getting in the way of ensuring a child’s wellbeing.
Well given what we have recently seen with Indigenous youth incarceration in the Territory, I don’t think ignoring the Principle appears to be working.
Moving an Indigenous child into a non-Indigenous family is not dropping them into the lap of luxury, with unheard of opportunities and a better start.
Speaking to foster carers in the NT, by ignoring community, by not engaging the Indigenous organisations and the extended families, it’s not unusual to see Aboriginal kids shunted around five foster families in a year.
They are not only losing culture.
These children are losing stability and any sense of home and security.
Add to that the harm a change of Government can do to long-term planning and strategy.
This happened with the incoming CLP Government in 2012 scrapping all that was learnt in the 2010 Growing Them Strong, Together report on child safety in the NT.
I hope this report is a priority for the new Territory Labor Government.
Perhaps they could take inspiration from Victoria.
In Victoria in 2014 a systemic inquiry was launched – The Taskforce 1000 – to investigate how to stem the rapidly rising numbers of Aboriginal children in out of home care, then totalling 922.
In the course of the two year inquiry, their numbers rose by nearly 60 per cent to 1,700.
Aboriginal children represent 20 per cent of all children in State care in Victoria despite Aboriginal people representing less than 1 percent cent of the State’s population.
They are nearly 12 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be put in out-of-home care.
The findings of Taskforce 1000 was released at the same time as a review into compliance with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle was released, in October last year.
The Child Placement Principle review found that not one aboriginal child experienced complete compliance with the Principal. Not one.
While the Taskforce found more than 86 per cent were case-managed by a non-Aboriginal agency, 60 per cent placed with a non-Aboriginal carer, 42 per cent away from their extended family, and more than 40 per cent separated from brothers and sisters.
Tellingly the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People Andrew Jackomos said: “We had child protection officials tell us they had been unable to trace a child’s Aboriginal family for years when we were able to track them down on Facebook within minutes.”
Thankfully in Victoria, rather than responding to reviews by ditching The Principle and the policy, they have instead looked at improving delivery.
And better yet, they are actively making Aboriginal organisations decision-makers, not just under-consulted advisers.
They are also investing in that essential component, early intervention.
Because keeping kids safe from harm; keeping families together; helping before it becomes a crisis where out of home care is the only option; is what everyone wants.
Read the Taskforce 1000 report if you can – Always was; Always Will Be Koori Children – but be prepared for some heartbreaking case studies.
Finally I must mention South Australia.
Across the board it would seem everyone agrees that Indigenous-developed, managed and delivered services, with family services built on local needs, will lead to better outcomes.
Except in South Australia, where it appears the department is looking to abandon the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.
Like Victoria – they started their review in 2014.
In South Australia’s case it was a Royal Commission into the Child Protection System – and in August last year, it handed down its findings.
It was broader than Indigenous kids in out of home care – but they made at least ten recommendations directly related to Indigenous children.
They were recommendation such as placing local Aboriginal support services within child and family assessment and referral networks to promote service coordination ; adopting culturally appropriate assessment tools to assess kinship carers in the community; reviewing practice guidance, funding arrangements and the range of declared agencies to ensure that a recognised Aboriginal agency is consulted on all placement decisions involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, in accordance with the provisions of section 5 of the Children’s Protection Act 1993.
Promising you might think.
But part of the South Australian Government’s response has been the release of a draft Child and Young People (Saftey) Bill 2016.
And in that Draft Bill, I am sorry to say, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle is gone.
In the old bill of 1993 we have : “No decision or order may be made under this Act as to where or with whom an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child will reside unless consultation has first been had with a recognised Aboriginal organisation, or a recognised Torres Strait Islander organisation, as the case may require.”
The Royal Commission suggested reviewing funding of agencies to make sure that happened.
Instead the Government has rewritten the act, weakening Indigenous engagement to suggesting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should participate in the care and protection of their children and young people with as much self-determination as is reasonable in the circumstances.
In South Australia by the way, 30 percent of the children in out of home care are Indigenous where they only make up 1.9 percent of the state.
I would request the South Australian government to review the approach taken in the draft bill.
So work is underway.
The alarm has been raised.
The results of each state’s efforts are not yet known, often not yet implemented.
So this is not the time to slacken attention, but rather to redouble the call.
There must be more than press releases, reviews and action plans.
There must be action.
So why not commit to a target?
Let each State share what is working and what is not.
Let’s see 100 per cent of Indigenous kids placed within their wider family or Indigenous community in accordance with the provisions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle.
Let’s see the number of kids needing to be removed drop for the first time in a decade.
Let’s live up to the promise I made in the Apology that this would never ever happen again.
Because it is not enough to all agree it shouldn’t happen.
All States and Territories need to be held to account.
It’s complex; it’s going to require immense co-ordination across government departments; it’s going to require Aboriginal organisations being given responsibility for child welfare; it’s also going to require those same Indigenous organisations to perform; and yes it’s going to take money.
I’ve never been in the business of the blame game.
That’s just dumb politics.
I am in the business of finding real solutions to entrenched problems.
That’s smart government.
That’s what Closing The Gap is about.
That’s what the National Apology is about.
That’s what the National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians is about.
And that’s also why I have great pleasure today in announcing another personal gift to the Foundation of a further $100,000.
Because I for one want to make a difference in closing the gap.