February 6, 2024

This deal was meant to be a game-changer for Indigenous people. It hasn’t moved the dial

By Natassia Chrysanthos and Jack Latimore
February 7, 2024 — 12.15am
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Federal and state governments have not shared decision-making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or trusted they know what is best for their communities, despite promising to transform the way public servants and politicians work with Indigenous Australians.

The first major review of the revamped Closing the Gap agreement – which was heralded as a game-changer when it was forged in 2020 – has delivered a blistering assessment of Australia’s failure to improve outcomes for Indigenous people by giving them more control over their affairs.

The Productivity Commission says governments have not grasped the scale of the changes needed to deliver on their commitment.Credit: Jason South

The Productivity Commission review, published on Wednesday, said governments were making only “slow, uncoordinated and piecemeal” progress, and had not grasped the scale of the changes required to deliver on their commitment.

“The disparate actions and ad hoc changes have not led to improvements that are noticeable and meaningful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” commissioners Romlie Mokak and Natalie Siegel-Brown wrote.

“Without this change, the objective of the agreement – to overcome the entrenched inequality faced by too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so that their life outcomes are equal to all Australians – is unlikely to be achieved.”


The commissioners called for Indigenous-led audits of racism and unconscious bias in government departments as well as a new bureau of Indigenous data, in recommendations that will intensify scrutiny over Labor’s Indigenous affairs policies following last year’s Voice referendum defeat.

Social justice campaigner Tom Calma said the review gave all levels of government a clear message about what they needed to do.

“One of the ironies is that had the Voice referendum got up, these were the key planks,” he said.


Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday avoided answering questions about whether his government still planned to pursue the truth and treaty elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was crafted by Indigenous leaders to chart a pathway for reform.

“What we’re committed to is what we said during the referendum. What the Voice to parliament was about, was making a practical difference on housing, on health, in education, in all of those measures. We’re looking at ways in which we can advance those,” Albanese said.

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney admitted that progress towards reform has not met expectations.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney said the government would give more detail on its plans next Tuesday.

“We agree that progress by all partners in implementing the priority reforms so far has not led to the extent of change needed,” she said.

But independent senator Lidia Thorpe accused the government of running scared.


“I think they’re hiding under their desks somewhere in this building because they won’t answer questions about truth-telling, and they won’t answer questions about treaty,” she said.

Greens senator Dorinda Cox, the party’s spokeswoman on First Nations policy, welcomed the Albanese government’s focus on the recommendations in the independent commission’s report.

“This isn’t about a broken promise or any of the politics. This is about life and death for First Nations people across the country. That’s what we’re dealing with. This is an issue we can’t play politics with,” Cox said.

The Productivity Commission said power-sharing, trust and self-determination – which would have been enabled by a Voice, but could be achieved outside it – would be the bedrock for delivering practical improvements.

“Real change does not mean multiplying or renaming business-as-usual actions. It means looking deeply to get to the heart of the way systems, departments and public servants work,” it said.

Senator Lidia Thorpe on Tuesday accused the government of “hiding under their desks” from tough questions.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“Most critically, the agreement requires government decision-makers to accept that they do not know what is best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

The commission said government departments should be subjected to Indigenous-led assessments of institutional racism and unconscious bias in their agencies.

“Once this assessment has been undertaken, each department should develop and execute a transformation strategy to address identified issues.”


Cabinet and budget submissions should demonstrate how policy proposals will affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while performance assessments of top public servants should include how they improved cultural capabilities and relationships with Indigenous people.

Every government department’s annual report should also include a statement about how they worked towards the agreement.

Ken Wyatt, a former Coalition minister for Indigenous Australians, said the report highlighted the need to train public servants about how to share power and partner with Indigenous communities.

“This is an agreement that has had national cabinet sign-off. It is akin to a legal agreement between all the parties to make every endeavour to make a difference in the lives of Indigenous people and to lift them out of the levels of disparity they currently face,” he said.


“If governments fail to act or implement these recommendations, I think the consequences further down the track will be significant for them.”

Indigenous leader Marcia Langton said the Commonwealth’s top priority should be training public servants in roundtable and joint decision-making processes, followed by states and territories.

“That will take time and resources,” she said.

“Both non-Indigenous and Indigenous public servants need to be trained, as well as the client organisations.”

Catherine Liddle, the acting lead convener of the Coalition of Peaks, which signed the agreement on behalf of Indigenous Australians, said governments were “still not meaningfully giving us a voice in the decisions that affect our lives”.

“When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are given ownership over the decisions that affect their lives, the resources they need, and the opportunity to partner with government, we see better outcomes.”

The commissioners said they had not identified a single government organisation that had a vision for transforming its relationships with Indigenous people and a plan to achieve it. Nor was there enough accountability.

“The existing mechanisms lack ‘bite’ – they are not sufficiently independent, do not contain timely and appropriate consequences for failure, obscure the individual responsibilities of each party and are not informed by high-quality evaluation,” the commission said.

Natassia Chrysanthos is the federal health reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.Connect via Twitter or email.
Jack Latimore is the Indigenous affairs journalist at The Age.
He is a Birpai man with family ties to Thungutti and Gumbaynggirr nations.Connect via email.


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