No political gap in righting nation's wrongs
Prime Minister Julia Gillard joins children in painting, during a morning tea for Closing the Gap representatives at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
MIND THE gap.
The monumental gap, that is, between indigenous Australians and the rest.
And then mind the gap - the information gap that stands between voters and the policy devoid horse race that passes for coverage of national debate.
Last Wednesday Federal Parliament demonstrated how it could work - regardless of the fierce partisanship that defines inter, and intra, party relations - towards outcomes of profound national importance. That is, improving the shameful life standards experienced by Aborigines compared with the rest.
Those standards are a pitiful indictment of a wealthy country that prides itself on an egalitarian character that has been fashioned on the white fella pioneering stories of the colonial frontier and its twin, the ANZAC myth. The standards of life experienced by our indigenes today and what they say about our country's dark but little acknowledged past, reflect profoundly on our national character.
But for whatever reason - the discomfort of post-colonial guilt or its twin, the staunch, stubborn refusal to acknowledge let alone atone, publicly or privately, for the wrongs of the past - it's not something that we, as a nation, spend nearly enough time pondering.
Others, not least the United States, for all its manifold human rights faults, and our neighbour, New Zealand, are among those that have made a much better fist of it.
So, on the occasions when our national leaders do so, it would seem appropriate to spend just a little more time pondering not just the terrible inequity of it all - but also the practical and spiritual solutions.
But if you blinked last Wednesday you'd have probably missed what went on, drowned out in most papers and electronic news programs, as it was, by the frisson surrounding the court appearance of Craig Thomson and his quirky lawyer, the latest chapter of the NSW Inc/ICAC scandal and the breathless nonsense about the level of Kevin Rudd's caucus support (It's 41; no it's 45 - heck, well, not even the hard boys who do his numbers know so how can we?).
The 43rd Parliament has been characterised by the dearth of what we call "leadership". We see far more of the political trevails and character traits of prominent politicians - Gillard and Abbott, Hockey and Swan, Turnbull and Shorten - than we do of the Parliament's capacity to light the path ahead.
That's why I'd urge those of you who have not to read the speeches of Gillard and Abbott on "Closing the Gap" to do so.
Devoid of the bitter, rancorous, sometimes sickening party political partisanship that has defined this Parliament's debates on other matters of acute national interest such as asylum seekers and carbon abatement, Closing the Gap was notable for a tone that says "this is a problem bigger than all of us as individuals and it is only as a collective that we can hope to fix it".
Read the speeches, firstly to familiarise yourself with how terrible The Gap is - in terms, among other things, of life expectancy, literacy, employment rates and childhood mortality. And then take note of the inch-by-inch progress that is being made and the expressions of cautious optimism that eventually the improvement targets can be met.
Gillard spoke of the "two decades of annual reckoning until we bridge the gulf that stands between us".
"Few if any of the men and women who sit in this Parliament today will still be here when a future prime minister delivers the final Closing the Gap statement in 2031. A short walk to this dispatch box that we hope will mark the end of a monumental journey. Wherever we are on that day, the people of this land will want to hear one thing. That we have, at last, accorded indigenous Australians the health care, education, job opportunities and community services they deserve. Above all, the opportunity unknown to many indigenous people today - the chance to grow old. These goals require us to raise our eyes and lift our expectations - to invest, plan and think for the future. It is the work of an entire generation and work that has begun with us. So I account to the Parliament and people of Australia today."
Abbott's leadership has been characterised by his fierce, politically effective partisanship.
But it always has been the moments when he has stood back from brinkmanship, when he has publicly, honestly reflected on human condition and identity, that he's shown a capacity for broader national appeal. His speech on Wednesday demonstrated this.
"Former prime minister Paul Keating was right: as long as there is serious indigenous disadvantage in our country, it constitutes a stain on our nation's soul. Until the first Australians can fully participate in the life of our country, we are diminished as a nation and as a people," Abbott said.
"The Prime Minister (Gillard) talked about proud Labor traditions - and that is fair enough. But I do want to point out that reconciliation is also a proud Coalition tradition. The 1967 referendum, such a landmark in our nation's life, was a Coalition initiative. This current project, this vital Closing the Gap project, is not a Labor project. It is not a Liberal project. If it is to succeed, it must be a national project … It flows from that great day in our nation's life and in our Parliament's life when the historic apology was made by the former prime minister, Mr Rudd, in this building just on five years ago. The former prime minister, Mr Rudd, made a resonant declaration on that day: '… unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong'."
Beyond the practical, Gillard spoke of that "great piece of unfinished national business" - constitutional recognition of Australia's first peoples.
"I want this constitutional amendment to be equally unifying, so I am determined that the referendum will be held only when the nation is ready."
But there is another significant precursor to constitutional recognition - an official acknowledgment by government, reflected through our cultural institutions such as the Australian War Memorial, of "Frontier War" between Aborigines and colonial settlers, of the murder of the original inhabitants and the dispossession that followed.
For that is, of course, where The Gap really begins.