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Several gaps revealed in Malcolm Turnbull's first foray into Indigenous affairs

There was more than one gap on display when the nation's MPs gathered to hear the Prime Minister deliver his annual Closing the Gap report on Indigenous disadvantage.

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There was the gap between Malcolm Turnbull and a section of his backbench, who chose not to take their seats in the House of Representatives to hear their leader's first substantive speech on Indigenous affairs.

"Where is everybody?" one Liberal MP asked another, as Turnbull rose to his feet to become the first Prime Minister to begin an address to the Parliament in the language of the traditional owners of the land on which it is built.

There is a convention that when the PM addresses the chamber, his troops are there in force to demonstrate solidarity. It went by the board on Wednesday morning.

There is also a convention that when a subject of national importance that goes to questions of national identity or national security is broached by the nation's leaders, all MPs take their seats. That, too, was waived on the Coalition side.


Was it lack of interest in the issue? Or lack of respect for the leader? Either way, it was conduct unbecoming.

Then there was the gap between Turnbull and the man he replaced, Tony Abbott, whose passion for this area of policy was sadly not matched by achievement during his two years in office.

Abbott was there to hear Turnbull's speech, but there was no room in the Prime Minister's remarks to acknowledge the efforts of his predecessor. That was an unfortunate oversight.

Then there was the gap between the government and the opposition, with Bill Shorten backing a referendum on recognition next year, arguing the case for a new target to reduce Indigenous incarceration and asserting: "You cannot cut your way to closing the gap."

Here, the differences were ones of emphasis, not direction, with Turnbull expressing strong support for recognition, outlining action to tackle rising imprisonment rates and determined not to "sugar-coat the enormity of the job that remains".

Finally, there was the biggest gap of all – the gap between good intentions and the reality that is reflected in the Closing the Gap report card.

Was it lack of interest in the issue? Or lack of respect for the leader? Either way, it was conduct unbecoming.

Turnbull's speech was replete with good intentions, empathy, optimism and commitments to engage with those who have devoted their lives to finding answers and improving the circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Just like Tony Abbott, and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd before him.

Ten years after the closing the gap project was conceived, the voice of country's peak Indigenous body is ignored; a landmark report on empowering communities is awaiting a considered response, 12 months after it was delivered to government; racism persists and the recognition campaign desperately needs an injection of momentum.

Turnbull made an impressive start but, when it comes to righting history's wrongs, he will be judged by the gap between his words and his actions, his intentions and what he actually delivers.

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