• 'Maybe it was too much to expect something radical': Myles Morgan. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
COMMENT | Malcolm Turnbull scrapes through with a pass mark after his first in-depth speech on Indigenous affairs, writes Myles Morgan.
Myles Morgan

10 Feb 2016 - 4:08 PM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2016 - 7:46 PM

Last year, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott described progress in his closing the gap statement as “profoundly disappointing”.

I found myself saying the same thing today, except I was shaking my head at Malcolm Turnbull’s speech.

For the man who sells himself as a 'disruptive, progressive, risk taking Prime Minister', his first chance to sell his Indigenous Affairs strategy was disappointingly bland.

“Yanggu gulanyin ngalawiri, dhunayi, Ngunawal dhawra. Wanggarra lijinyin mariny bulan bugarabang.”

That’s how the PM opened the annual Close the Gap address, in the Ngunnawal language of the traditional owners of the Canberra region.

Interesting start.

But, what followed was 18 minutes of peak Turnbullesque optimism, filled with buzzwords and rallying cries for innovation, but lacking any substantive political agenda.

Maybe it was too much to expect something radical. Maybe expecting fundamental policy shifts on a day when Indigenous politics is at the fore is a fantasy. Maybe expecting one to pack the same punch as a Keating-Redfern speech or Rudd-apology is folly.

But this is the 'Ideas Prime Minister' who had all eyes on him for his first in-depth Indigenous policy address on Australia’s biggest political stage.

A man who had the evening before invited 21 young Indigenous entrepreneurs to the Prime Minister’s Courtyard for a networking event, a man who sold his push to the top job as being 'a man of dangerous and disruptive thinking.'

Instead, we were given a history lesson in colonisation, a spruiking of constitutional recognition, and a shopping list of existing government policies (most introduced by the Abbott Government).

And, one election pledge.

The Prime Minister announced a $20 million funding injection for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra.

From what I’ve heard, AIATSIS was as surprised by the funding as everyone else. And, I should point out, that I am a non-active member of AIATSIS.

Politically, it makes sense. The tech-obsessed Prime Minister gives a funding boost to an institute in the midst of digitising its collection. But logically, what is the use of that funding on Close the Gap day? A day where the focus is on seven very specific targets aiming to keep Indigenous people in schools, workplaces, out of prisons and living longer?

It was a political sweetener on a bittersweet day.

With the Close the Gap Steering Committee writing to the Prime Minister (as they have since 2013) that it’s time for a justice target, the Prime Minister could only offer one sentence in his address saying that employment was the key.

With calls for urgent reform of certain policies, like the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, the Prime Minister humbly promised that a new partnership based on mutual trust and respect was imminent (though blackfellas have made those calls for decades).

And, with the Committee asking for a senate inquiry into institutional racism, and how it is affecting the health of First Nations peoples, the Prime Minister said nothing about racism at all. Unless you count the feel-good argument that constitutional recognition will eliminate such problems.

All told, a $20 million spending spree on AIATSIS smells like a political free kick; like seeing a Ferrari out in the bush. Looks good, sounds good, but what the hell is it doing here?

And, how about that big black elephant in the room: treaties?

The day before the Close the Gap breakfast, Reconciliation Australia held its own breakfast to mark 25 years since the start of a formal recognition movement.

Treaties were discussed candidly by Bill Shorten, Rachel Siewert and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion. Of course, there was no clarity, but at least treaties were spoken about freely.

But, not a word from Malcolm Turnbull in his address. I’m sure he couldn’t deny that he’s at least aware of treaty calls, that have become increasingly common since the start of the Recognition movement.

All these small inconsistencies form a Closing the Gap narrative that has already been set - the government will help blackfellas in a politically safe, sterile fashion where risky ideas have already been deemed unwelcome.

I’m not saying Malcolm Turnbull failed in his first Close the Gap address. He neither dazzled, nor offended. He took the safe middle road. But, for a man who is all about unconventional thinking, he showed none of it during that speech.

Frankly, ten years after the Close the Gap campaign began and the billions upon billions of dollars that has been spent on reducing the disadvantage, the lack of progress is scandalous.

The blame game isn’t helpful, it just diminishes the debate and causes further harm. It’s not a whitefella or a blackfella problem, it’s an Australian problem, one that could use some disruptive thinking to overcome.

Myles Morgan is NITV’s political reporter based in Parliament House. His mother and grandmother are strong Wodi Wodi women.

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