Indigenous school attendance could be the most important gap

In his Closing the Gap speech to the House of Representatives on Tuesday, Malcolm Turnbull said that “acknowledging past wrongs” concerning indigenous Australians “enables healing to begin”.

The Prime Minister added: “It is that acknowledgment that, 50 years ago, saw the Australian people vote overwhelmingly to change our Constitution so that the commonwealth could assume powers in relation to our First ­Australians.” It’s certainly true that successive governments since the constitutional referendum of May 27, 1967 have worked hard at what is now termed “closing the gap” ­between indigenous Australians (many of whom have one or more Anglo-Celtic, Asian or European ancestors) and those Australians who have no Aboriginal ancestry.

This applies to governments headed by Harold Holt, John Gorton, William McMahon, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull.

The commonwealth now spends $30 billion a year on indigenous affairs. Even so, on Tuesday the Prime Minister reported that “we are only on track to meet one of the seven Closing the Gap targets this year”. The targets that were not achieved include such areas as student literacy along with school attendance.

There is more downside to the Closing the Gap report. For example, the employment target is not on track. However, there has been some success as 58 per cent of Aborigines and Torres Strait ­Islanders living in major cities are employed. More significantly, there is no employment gap ­be­tween indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians who have a university degree. This is highly significant since the ­enrol­ment of indigenous Australians at tertiary institutions is ­increasing.

Perhaps the most disturbing statistic of the Closing the Gap ­report turns on the high rates of ­indigenous incarceration and the need for child protection in indigenous areas. The Prime Minister was honest when commenting on this controversial area. He pointed out that “63 per cent of ­indigenous people incarcerated last year were in prison for violent offences and offences that cause harm”. Many of these crimes were committed against fellow indigenous Australians — children, women and men alike.

When, half a century ago, Australians voted by referendum to give the federal government legislative power to make laws with ­respect to Aborigines and to ­ensure that all indigenous Australians were counted in the census, there was a widespread view that past wrongs should be righted. This was reflected in the campaign and in the ultimate vote.

In fact, going into the May 1967 referendum there was not much debate about the rights and wrongs on what was question 2. In their book The 1967 Referendum (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997), authors Bain Attwood and ­Andrew Markus wrote that the Holt government’s campaigning on question 2 “was lacklustre”.

True, but not because of any lack of interest on the then prime minister’s behalf. It was simply ­assumed that question 2 would receive a majority of votes in a ­majority of states. And it did. All up, a stunning 91 per cent of Australians voted “yes”. The highest “yes” vote was in Victoria (94.7 per cent) and the lowest in Western Australia (80.1 per cent).

There was little campaigning on question 2 because there was little to rail about. No federal politician opposed question 2. Consequently, there was an official “yes” case but no official “no” case.

Virtually all the debate before May 27, 1967 turned on question 1. This involved the proposal of the Coalition government, supported by the Whitlam-led Labor opposition, to break the nexus between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Put simply, Holt and Whitlam wanted it to be possible to increase the number of members of the house without increasing the number of senators.

There was an official “no” case concerning question 1. The campaign was led by some rebel Liberal Party senators (including the Tasmanian Reg Wright) and the Democratic Labor Party (led by Queensland senator Vince Gair).

Wright’s position turned on his view that the Senate was the states’ house and he did not want its authority reduced vis-a-vis the House of Representatives. Gair’s position was not dissimilar. He believed the Senate provided a significant role for minor parties like the DLP and did not want its role diminished. Question 1 received a total vote of 40.3 per cent and went down in all states except NSW.

The lack of debate over question 2 reflected the goodwill ­towards indigenous Australians a half-century ago. At times this had a counterproductive ­effect. The decision of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in July 1965 to place all Aboriginal stockmen under the cattle station award was made with the best of intentions. But it proved disastrous.

Before 1965, Aborigines in the Northern Territory received a minimum wage below the award rate for non-indigenous Australians. But station owners were obliged to provide a clothing ­allowance plus rations and accommodation.

It wasn’t utopia but it worked well enough. As the historian Ann McGrath wrote: “Stockwork was a far cry from plantation slavery as it allowed a certain ­mobility and sense of freedom.”

In the event, many Aborigines were not employable at the award rate. They lost not only employment but traditional accommodation on cattle stations and drifted into towns with inferior housing, scant employment opportunities and resultant health problems.

The widespread feeling five decades ago that Aborigines had been denied their rights had a ­positive outcome in the 1967 referendum but a negative outcome in the cattle industry award ­decision.

As Stan Grant, the ABC’s indigenous editor, pointed out in an address to the Sydney Institute this month, the success of indigenous Australians turns on good families encouraging education that will lead to employment.

Grant is a case study in the ­importance of this route to success. Born in 1963, today Grant looks at his fellow indigenous Australians and highlights the many successes that have occurred since the early 1960s, especially with ­regard to education. His achievements, despite poverty as a child, demonstrate why school attendance is perhaps the most important gap to close.

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