Here is a little truth we haven’t heard much about this week: We know how to close the gap.
Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people are living successful, healthy, stimulating lives. I am one of them.
A 2016 Centre for Independent Studies report that found that of 550,000 Indigenous people identified in the 2011 census, “approximately 65 per cent (350,000) are in employment and living lives not noticeably different from the rest of Australia”.
In fact, I am more privileged than most other Australians.
I wasn’t always a success story
It wasn’t always that way: much of my childhood was one of bare-bones poverty: transient; itinerant; no permanent home or consistent schooling.
To add to our poverty — if not in fact the cause of it — my family was Aboriginal, enduring a legacy of state-sanctioned discrimination and a history often marked by brutality.
Yet, neither history, nor race, nor class need be destiny: if they were, I wouldn’t be here.
Here’s another truth: All of the Indigenous leaders and political figures we have seen and heard from this week have closed the gap too.
They are remarkable examples of resilience and determination. If ever there were people who speak to the power of the “Australian dream”, it is these people, because they have paid the highest price.
There is more to Indigenous Australia
We are not good at telling this story: far more predictable and enticing is the tale of deficit and disadvantage.
Statistically it is true: Indigenous people, as a group, have the lowest life expectancy; the highest infant mortality; the highest levels of imprisonment; and the worst health, housing, education and employment outcomes.
This year’s closing the gap report reveals a failure to meet four out of seven targets and it is a measure of our low expectations that Malcolm Turnbull calls that a good result.
Clearly, there are two stories: entrenched misery and remarkable success.
The numbers tell an apparently contradictory tale. According to the Bureau of Statistics there are 11,000 Indigenous people in prison; there are around 30,000 Indigenous university graduates and about 15,000 currently enrolled.
Three times as many Aboriginal people and Torres Strait islanders have university degrees as are behind bars, yet the story of suffering appears to resonate more powerfully in the media and in the Australian imagination.
Politics is driven by narrative, and the narrative of suffering connects to a history of injustice and oppression. It is compelling because there is an undeniable historical link to contemporary misery.
There is an intergenerational transmission of trauma that can be debilitating. But it doesn’t tell the full story.
A new narrative of hope
There is an alternative narrative that is more nuanced, more hopeful and more convincing. It speaks to Indigenous people who have loosened the chains of the painful past, transformed ideas of culture, broadened and deepened questions of identity, and found a secure place in Australia.
I have written about this in a 2016 Quarterly Essay, probing the idea of Indigenous economic migration: it was the story of my family and thousands of others who made a trek from segregated missions and reserves to towns and cities in search of work.
Their journeys began on the Australian frontier of the 19th century, but accelerated in the post World War II economic boom powered by an influx of migrants from Europe and later Asia as the old White Australia policy was dismantled.
As I wrote in my essay:
“They looked at the post-war migration and hitched a ride, becoming economic migrants themselves. The meagre pay and menial work didn’t dissuade them as they … fought to provide for their families.”
They took responsibility. It is a sad sign of our times that today, to talk of the need for responsibility is too readily contorted with blaming the victim: but these Indigenous economic pioneers did not see themselves as victims.
The late Indigenous scholar Maria Lane, a decade ago, tracked the economic migration and the divergence of Aboriginal communities into what she called “open society” — opportunity, effort and outcome-oriented and an “embedded society” — risk averse, welfare and security-oriented.
Lane called the journey to the “open society” the “slow grind” founded on “universal human rights, the rights to a rigorous, standard education and equal rights to a place in the Australian economy and society”.
Lane’s study was premised on ideas of classical liberalism: freedom, progress and the rights of individuals.
Liberalism is too often missing from analysis of Indigenous affairs: the historical suffering narrative too easily drowns out the story of economic uplift.
The self-made man
African-American scholars have a richer tradition. A century ago the anti-slavery campaigner and writer, Frederick Douglass, spelled out his recipe for success underlined in capitals: “one word and that word is WORK! WORK! WORK!”
Douglass wrote a famous essay, The Self-made Man. He wrote:
“Whether professors or plowmen; whether Caucasian or Indian; whether Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-African … self-made men are entitled to a certain measure of respect for their success and for proving to the world the grandest possibilities of human nature, of whatever variety of race or colour.”
To Douglass — a man born into slavery — race was no impediment; America should be held to its promise of equality.
African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson in his book More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in Urban America argues for the need to look at cultural and structural underpinnings of poverty.
Structural often relates to historic underpinnings of poverty, while cultural goes to attitudes and societal norms.
Wilson believes that structural issues carry more weight, but it is crucial too, he says, to consider cultural factors that erode personal responsibility and distort behaviour.
His work mirrors that of Maria Lane’s “open society” and “embedded society”.
As Wilson writes:
“There is little basis for ignoring or downplaying neighbourhood effects in favour of emphasising personal attributes. Indeed, living in a ghetto neighbourhood has both structural and cultural effects that compromise life chances above and beyond personal attributes.”
Maria Lane found an explosion in high school graduation and university enrolment in the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those original indigenous economic migrants.
I am a product of it; every Indigenous leader we have heard from this week is a product of it.
The “Open Society”, is the bedrock of the growing Indigenous middle class.
Between 1996-2006 the number of educated, well-paid, Indigenous professionals grew by 75 per cent.
Academic Julie Lahn from the Australian National University mapped this in her paper Aboriginal Professionals: Work, Class and Culture.
She said: “Aboriginal professionals in urban centres remain largely overlooked”; a process of transformation, she wrote, “increasingly evident to Aboriginal people themselves”.
Balancing healing with progress
Debating closing the gap this week, Treasurer Scott Morrison had an answer: a job.
It is true even if deceptively simple: nothing in Indigenous affairs is simple.
Trying to analyse it is like looking at a shattered mirror: each shard telling its own part of the story.
There are those who remain locked out of the Australian dream: it is not as easy as telling people to move or get a job — there are concerns about preservation of culture and deep connection to place and kin.
But, as we have seen, countless Indigenous people have made that journey and maintained or strengthened their identities and cultural connections.
Clearly there is a need to create meaningful links between Indigenous communities and individuals and the mainstream Australian economy.
There is another lesson: empowering Indigenous people, allowing them to determine their lives and grasp responsibility, works.
There is a pathway: indigenous leaders need look only to the lessons of their lives.
Healing the wounds of history is crucial, and as we mark a decade from the national apology, as we never lose sight of those for whom the Australian dream remains out of reach, there are hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people who can say, we have closed the gap.
Matter of Fact is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.