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Uplifting words were spoken, now what will be done to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage?

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New indigenous school attendance target

Tony Abbott adds school attendance to the 'closing the gap' goals for indigenous Australians, even as Australia falls behind on key targets including employment, education and life expectancy.

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The reality check came after one of those fleetingly rare but uplifting moments of unity in the national Parliament.

Tony Abbott had just delivered the most powerful speech of his short prime ministership, crediting Paul Keating with providing a "watershed moment" in his life with the Redfern address of 1992, and confessing that, for him, Aboriginal policy has become personal rather than just political .

Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivering the Closing the Gap report to Parliament.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivering the Closing the Gap report to Parliament. Photo: Andrew Meares

Bill Shorten had replied with a vow to be constructively bipartisan in addressing profound indigenous disadvantage, and a prediction that setbacks and stumbles would be outshone by moments of joy and healing.

Then, after the debate was adjourned, there was an opportunity for the two leaders to seriously connect, either by meaningfully engaging across the despatch box or, better still, by walking to each other and shaking on the sentiments just expressed.

It didn't happen and, given the toxic nature of national political debate in recent years, and when Parliament resumed on Tuesday, it was probably naive to expect that it might.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott shakes hands with Labor MP Jenny Macklin after delivering the Closing the Gap report.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott shakes hands with Labor MP Jenny Macklin after delivering the Closing the Gap report. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Two prominent Labor figures with a keen interest in the area, Jenny Macklin and Gary Gray, did make a point of shaking Abbott's hand, but the lingering impression was of an opportunity lost.

The sixth annual Closing the Gap report is a reminder that, in Abbott's words, the politicians will not have to await history's judgment on their performance in this area.

It is now measured as clinically and as annually as a child's school report card – and the document tabled on Wednesday is a reminder that it will be harsh unless a lot more political will, or horsepower, is applied to reaching the agreed targets.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten delivers his response to the Closing the Gap report.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten delivers his response to the Closing the Gap report. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Just two targets – halving the infant mortality gap within a decade and halving the gap in year-12 attainment rates by 2020 – are on track to be achieved.

Much more progress will be needed to achieve the number one priority of closing the gap on life expectancy by 2031; no progress has been made on the employment target; and little improvement has been recorded in reading, writing and numeracy.

To inject more urgency into the project, Abbott has added a new target: to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous school attendance within five years. He has also summed up the task in his own words. "Our job is to break the tyranny of low expectations," he declared.

Abbott's connection with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia is real, longstanding and evolving, but, as he concedes, this in no way makes him more worthy or less fallible than any of his predecessors when it comes to indigenous policy.

Saying that closing the gap is as important to him as stopping the boats, fixing the budget or building the roads of the 21st century was a genuine statement of Abbott's commitment, but it was the only sentence of his speech that jarred. It, after all, was a three-word slogan that barely rated a mention in the election campaign.

No area is more complex, challenging or capable of being sabotaged by overlapping jurisdictions or conflicting state, federal and local government agendas. And none is more prone to slip down the list of priorities because others are seen as more pressing, and more likely to deliver a political dividend.

Abbott's pledge is personal, including the commitment to spend a week in East Arnhem Land later this year, but, as Shorten's address made plain, many specifics are unclear. What will be the nature of constitutional recognition that will be proposed? Will the money be made available to teach those who go to school? What will be done to address increasing grog-related violence in the Northern Territory?

For all the unanswered questions, the overwhelming reason for optimism was underscored by Abbott, who said: "There is probably no aspect of public policy on which there is more unity of purpose and readiness to give others the benefit of the doubt."

He's right, and the onus is now on all the players to act on it.

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