On Feb 10 2016, Prime Minister Turnbull addressed parliament on the annual Closing the Gap report. It was the eighth such report given by four Prime Ministers since 2009 as part of a bipartisan commitment forged during the historic apology by then Prime Minister Rudd in 2008.
The current Prime distinguished himself from his predecessors by commencing the address in Ngunnawal, the language of the traditional owners of the land that Parliament House sits on. However, there are some who contend that there was little to differentiate the current offering from what has gone before. At the same time, others are lauding a change in language with greater emphasis on partnerships and engagement.
Apart from their inherent messages, these statements are of interest because, at least in principle, they are about realising the same policy commitment. As part of the Westminster tradition, Ministers have always provided the policy direction to the public service. However, in an era characterised by increasing politicisation of the public sector and responsiveness to Ministers, these kinds of public statements provide policy makers with important strategic direction for future work. This is particularly the case with Closing the Gap which, despite superficial appearances, is less of a policy framework than a performance framework, which is silent on the detail of how it will be realised. Variations in language therefore can provide indications of shifts in emphasis within the broader framework.
Rather than rely on impressions, I looked at the top 100 words used in Turnbull’s speech and compared them to those used by Abbott in 2014 and Rudd in 2009. These speeches were chosen because they were the first speeches for their party and were an opportunity to set the tone for their government’s engagement in the area. The analysis revealed some interesting differences.
Firstly, it is interesting to note the different ways that they referred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Abbott used the word “Australians” much less than both Turnbull and Rudd, who were similar. Including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Australians suggests a shift from the “them” and “us” mindset which mitigates against inclusive policy.
Interestingly, Turnbull is the only Prime Minister who used the term “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” or “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians”, with Abbott preferring “Aboriginal” and Rudd “Indigenous”. In Australian public discourse there is no accepted terminology for referring to the first Australians (and indeed even that term is contested), but “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders” is the terminology used in many Aboriginal publications. The Prime Minister’s use of this term suggests greater efforts towards respect, a vital pre-requisite for meaningful involvement in the kind of contextualised policy development required to make a real difference.
Secondly, four of Turnbull’s top 25 words were completely absent from Abbott’s top 100. They were “today”, “opportunity”, “cultures” and “respect”. Putting aside the much cited tendency for Turnbull to talk optimistically about opportunities, all words also featured strongly in Rudd’s address. Again, these words hint at a more inclusive and contextualised approach, which might be expected to be less prominent under the Abbott government. Recognising cultural difference and acknowledging the need for respect provides hope that the never-ending rhetoric of “partnership” might be afforded more than lip-service. This would certainly be more consistent with the approach suggested by Aboriginal educator Chris Sarra to Turnbull, and cautiously endorsed by other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders such as Mick Gooda, to “Do things with us, not to us”.
Thirdly, one word is noticeable by its absence from Turnbull’s speech. That is “remote” which featured strongly in the speeches given by both Abbott and Rudd. Australian governments have historically focussed on remote areas, rather than the more populated urban and regional areas. Turnbull seems to be resisting this and is on record as stating that more needs to be done for the 75% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in urban and regional centres. Finding appropriate policy responses to meet the needs of this growing population has been challenging for governments, so it is good to see it apparently back on the policy agenda.
Politicians are expert at saying one thing and doing another, and the public service has long talked about “new ways of working” without concomitant change. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have cautiously welcomed a (re-)commitment to partnerships and doing things “with not to” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, however the experience over the last 50 years has shown us that there is a strong resistance within the bureaucracy to making this occur. The desire to “get runs on the board”, neatly illustrated by Shorten in his reply as Opposition Leader where he “pledged $9 million for vision loss services to stamp out trachoma”, usually trumps the less visible and painstaking development approach when it comes to implementation.
The current Prime Minister has had eight months to walk the talk, with little change evident. Was the cautious optimism for a more inclusive approach to this complex and important policy area premature?