Did you notice the release of the ACT government's Closing the Gap implementation plan in the days before we were plunged into lockdown? Perhaps not. But this plan is critical to the more than 6500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the territory. Its release is a commitment the ACT government, along with other jurisdictions and the Coalition of Peak Aboriginal Organisations, made in the 10-year National Agreement on Closing the Gap released last July.
Priority reforms in the national agreement commit all governments in Australia to sharing decision-making with First Nation communities, to strengthening their own community-controlled organisations, to addressing racism, and to sharing information and data with First Nations organisations to enable shared decision-making. All good stuff.
The government argues that First Nations have a strong voice in the ACT already through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body (ATSIEB), the United Ngunnawal Elders Council, the ACT Reconciliation Council and others. Outcomes in the ACT, however, suggest that their voices are not always acted upon. For example, First Nations leaders recently called for an inquiry with the powers of a royal commission into what's going on in the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the territory's prison, following deaths in custody, recent riots and revelations of the strip-searching of many Aboriginal women. The government is stalling, arguing that funds would be better spent on the reform actions needed. If they got on with reform, they might win the argument. But change in the prison, and elsewhere, is way too slow.
The government has come under intense criticism in recent years both about the high rates of First Nations incarceration and the "new stolen generations" - children in out-of-home care. One of the admirable commitments in the Closing the Gap plan is to achieve parity between First Nations people and the non-Indigenous population in the rates of incarceration by 2031 - only nine years away. Achieving that requires an urgent, co-ordinated government effort to reduce the very high rates of recidivism and tackle the mental health, drug and alcohol, intergenerational trauma and housing problems that often drive people into the justice system.
The out-of-home care system is sadly another pathway to the jail. The ACT's rates of First Nations children in the child-protection system are among the highest in the country, and First Nations leaders overseeing implementation of the 2019 Our Booris, Our Way report believe the response, while transparent, is slow. The new plan's commitment to reduce the rate of overrepresentation of First Nations in the child protection system by 45 per cent by 2031 is a less ambitious target. Expanding successful programs that support families before they hit crises could make strong inroads; prevention is less costly for all concerned.
Although the ACT government has long claimed to support self-determination, most of its services to First Nations people, with the notable exception of health and youth services, are through mainstream government departments. There is not a broad First Nations community-controlled sector in the ACT. Even the now-renovated Boomanulla Oval - the home of First Nations sport - remains controlled by the government. That situation is set to change, with commitments to support the development of First Nations child and family, housing, justice and disability organisations; return Boomanulla and possibly other bodies to First Nations control; and support a language centre. Such structural changes are welcome and must be given high priority. Some have been talked about for years, so here, too, action is needed.
Institutional racism also needs to be tackled. Vigorous efforts to transform the ACT public service to make it culturally safe for First Nations staff and clients is critical. This includes combating racism in schools and local sports, where incidences of racism are far too frequent. According to the plan, a framework for addressing systemic racism is being developed. Yet again, not a day too soon! Let's hope it's developed quickly and implemented with some urgency.
The ACT Implementation Plan at this stage is vague in its response to the nationally agreed target to increase Indigenous land rights by 15 per cent. The 2001 agreement to co-manage Namadgi National Park never came to fruition. Incredibly, the ACT remains the only jurisdiction where there are no land rights or interests granted. In the context of emerging treaty discussions, land must be a high priority. As my colleague, Ed Wensing, recently wrote, local traditional owners never consented to the takeover of their land, and "the issues of sovereignty, land rights, self-determination and the need for a settlement in the ACT can no longer be ignored or denied".
ATSIEB represents ACT First Nations people in the Closing the Gap Coalition, while other organisations are also represented by their peak bodies. The ACT government has a pre-existing agreement with ATSIEB, so its response to the national agreement combines existing commitments with new ones. Let's hope the newly elected ATSIEB members can hold the government accountable on all its commitments.
Having a plan is a start. Putting it into action is the real test. It's important for the government, which has had more than 20 years in office, to improve the situation of First Nations and give these issues high priority right now.
- Dr Janet Hunt is an honorary associate professor at the ANU's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research and a former president of ANTaR National.