• Indigenous leaders have helped develop the new 'Closing the Gap' targets. (AAP)Source: AAP
Statistics help us check our progress towards an outcome, but we run into problems if we confuse the data with the goal.
Nikki Moodie

3 Aug 2020 - 9:01 AM  UPDATED 3 Aug 2020 - 9:01 AM

When an athlete works to get their sprint time down, it's because being faster will help them be a more effective player. When a student works to get better grades, it's often because those scores will help open doors to future opportunities. Running faster or getting more A's is a means to an end. 

The Closing the Gap (CtG) targets have become the end we're trying to achieve, rather than a means to get somewhere Indigenous. Specifically, "progress towards parity" across 11 out of 16 indicators, where non-Indigenous people - their rates of disease and death, their literacy rates and so on -  are established as the benchmark that we're aiming for.  

While few would disagree with the need to improve health outcomes or increase the number of Indigenous people with university degrees, the idea that non-Indigenous Australia embodies the pinnacle of human achievement and wellbeing is open for interpretation. Inequality, poverty and loneliness are all increasing, and likely to be exacerbated as the nation struggles to knit together the shredded pieces of our social safety net and manage the dislocation brought by the pandemic. 

But questioning if non-Indigenous population outcomes are the most appropriate benchmark leads to a much more critical problem. What is Indigenous about the targets? Of course, they are about Indigenous people, but what about these targets emerge from Indigenous values? 

Turning Indigenous values into goals is something we're familiar with in research projects, but they don't tend to translate to government policy. The racialised, extractive capitalism on which the white settler state is built can no more recognise Indigenous values than it can ignore the Murdoch press or the mining lobby. But Indigenous cultures across Australia have sophisticated philosophical, environmental and ethico-legal systems that have survived colonialism. It is these systems of thought that we are entitled to, and must, draw on when we consider outcomes for Indigenous peoples. 

An Indigenous lens

What the last decade of Closing the Gap targets have shown is that when non-Indigenous values are used to inform the benchmark we're trying to achieve, we can't get there. This reinforces the deficit narrative that we're too poor, too sick, too dysfunctional to achieve the same things as non-Indigenous people. 

But when we change the conversation and use Indigenous values to see how well we're doing, we get a different picture.

When the Yawuru people teamed up with researchers to see how their people were going according to things that were important to them, they found that people became more resilient, more hopeful, more socially connected as they got older. More than 90 per cent of all respondents said their connection to family was strong or very strong. Target number 14 on wellbeing focuses on reducing suicide, unarguably critical. This is not the same as increasing the social and cultural connections that protect against isolation and hopelessness in the first place. 

The Bourke Justice Reinvestment project prioritised local cultural values in decision-making and had more than a 30 per cent reduction in assaults, drug and driving offences. Target number 13 on safe families is a good idea. Still, it's not the same as measuring the amount of funding redirected from the criminal justice system to tribal councils to implement solutions in their communities. 

In the Gamilaraay language, my mother's tongue, the word winangay means "think", "remember", "understand" and occasionally, "love". This means that one cannot learn or understand a problem if one does not remember the past. This has profound implications for the way that young people learn, their experience of school and the kinds of citizens their families want them to become. Target number 16 on "strong languages" is a good idea, but it's not the same as supporting every Indigenous child to learn their language at school. 

We know that being married is one of the most protective factors for health and wellbeing, but even marriage doesn't offset the lifelong impacts of being removed from your family. We know that Indigenous people who have a strong sense of connection to their culture are healthier and happier, but maintaining that identity in the face of racism persistently undermines that wellbeing. Target number 12 on child protection simply aims for the same rate of removal, not strengthening the cultural ties and anti-racism strategies that we know keep people safe and well.

What we know works 

Are the Closing the Gap targets bad? Not necessarily. Few would disagree with the urgent need to close the life expectancy gap or reduce the number of children in jail. Are they international best-practice in improving outcomes for Indigenous people? There is some distance between this latest policy and what we know works. 

First, there is a risk involved in confusing "community control" with "community-controlled organisations". In the latest CtG plan, community-controlled organisations are responsible for service delivery and making agreements with the government. In other countries, Indigenous service delivery organisations operate under the banner of Indigenous tribes or nations. 

Ngai Tahu, the Seminole Tribe, the Navajo Nation or the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke are good examples of service delivery through sovereign nations. The latter is more in line with the rights recognised by the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is certainly easier for a government to negotiate with government-funded organisations than it is to negotiate with sovereign Indigenous bodies which possess the internationally-recognised right of autonomous self-government. Even the new targets, like recognising our connection to Country, assumes the current legal system is doing a good job of recognising Indigenous rights. 

Second, where Indigenous philosophies and political ideas are used to decide the targets and outcomes that are important to us, we do better. This highlights how important it is to have a high degree of cultural match between the people being governed, the systems that govern them, and the outcomes those systems are trying to achieve. This is self-determination in action. 

Finally, despite the proliferation of targets, one thing remains the same - the hunger for data. A significant aspect of this agreement is the radical expansion of indicators that can be used to check on progress towards the targets. But when those targets don't represent Indigenous cultural values, philosophies or the evidence on what we know works, we are destined to keep measuring how far behind non-Indigenous Australians we remain. Parity is fine, but it's their game.

We have our own priorities, given to us by our ancestors and by Country, and it is progress towards those we need to measure. 

Dr Nikki Moodie (Gomeroi/Kamilaroi) is a Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. Dr Moodie is an Editor for Critical Race & Whiteness Studies, and Associate Editor for Higher Education Research & Development.

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