Productivity Commission releases new report on Closing the Gap

Earlier this week, the Productivity Commission released a report on the first of its three-yearly reviews of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

While acknowledging the important ‘pockets of good practice’ across the country to improve self-determination and outcomes for First Nations people, the report concludes that governments are not adequately delivering on their commitments under the Agreement.

The Productivity Commission’s overall finding was that governments across Australia have not met the call-to-action to transform government systems, practices and ways of working. Instead, governments have largely continued with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach – which has not led to meaningful and noticeable improvements for First Nations people.

At the Guardian’s office, we recognise that First Nations children and young people, including those in care and youth detention, are at the heart of the Agreement and community efforts to close the gap. Given the importance to their lives and wellbeing, we’ve put together a summary of the report and our key takeaways.

Background and summary of findings

The goal of the Agreement is to overcome the entrenched inequality faced by many First Nations people, so that their life outcomes are equal to all people in Australia. Under the Agreement, all Australian governments have committed to working in full and genuine partnership with First Nations people in making policies to close the gap.

The Agreement is built around four Priority Reforms and 19 socioeconomic targets. The latter focus on measuring life experiences for First Nations people, and the Priority Reform outcomes are to:

  • Strengthen and establish formal partnerships and shared decision-making.
  • Build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector.
  • Transform government organisations so they work better for First Nations people.
  • Improve and share access to data and information to enable First Nations communities to make informed decisions.

The Productivity Commission has the task of undertaking a comprehensive review of progress every three years, to inform ongoing implementation and find areas where additional effort is required to close the gap. In this first three-year review, the Commission’s key findings include:

  • Commitment to share power and decision-making with First Nations communities and peoples is rarely achieved in practice. Government actions are largely limited to formal partnerships, and consultation practices continue to fall short of meaningful co-design approaches.
  • While governments recognise the significant potential for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Organisations to achieve better results for their communities, progress to transfer funding and decision-making power is slow.
  • The transformation of government organisations under Priority Reform 3 – to ensure they are culturally safe and responsive to the needs of First Nations people – has barely begun. Government organisations remain largely focused on individual actions like cultural capability training, rather than systemic changes to policies and practices.
  • Governments are not enabling First Nations-led data, with ongoing difficulties for First Nations organisations to access government-held data and data collection reflecting government priorities rather than matters which hold meaning for First Nations people.
  • There is a critical gap in data collection – with no data reported on the agreed targets or supporting indicators for the Priority Reforms
  • Accountability for delivering on the commitments in the Agreement is lacking.

The Commission has made four recommendations to address these matters:

  1. Power needs to be shared.
  2. Indigenous Data Sovereignty needs to be recognised and supported.
  3. Mainstream systems and culture need to be fundamentally rethought.
  4. Stronger accountability is needed to drive behaviour change.

With a detailed, 500 page-long study report there is a lot of information to get through in understanding the Commission’s findings and recommendations. The Commission has published a helpful series of factsheets that break down the report.

What does this mean for children and young people in care and youth detention?

Every one of the four Priority Reforms and 19 socioeconomic targets are centred around what government needs to do to help First Nations children thrive when they are young, and grow up well to live good, happy, connected lives. That includes supporting the adults and communities around them to have the equality, health and economic security to help children grow.

Each of the reforms and outcomes are connected, and action is needed on every single one to improve the lives of First Nations children and young people, including those in care and youth detention.

Following community consultation, the Productivity Commission decided to do a ‘deep dive’ into how governments are implementing the Priority Reforms for the two socioeconomic targets to reduce the overrepresentation of First Nations children and young people in out-of-home care and youth detention. This included a specific focus on reforms to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility and delegated authority to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations for child placement in out-of-home care.

Across these areas, the Commission found that governments have been willing to adopt approaches that have been called for by First Nations peoples for decades. However, there are still gaps in how these policies reflect the transformation that is required by governments. This includes:

  • Expecting First Nations people to fit into mainstream approaches – with most reforms being focused on targeted programs specifically for First Nations people, without engaging on reforms required for mainstream systems and institutions.
  • Government largely retaining power over key decisions, including whose voices are incorporated and how investment decisions are made.
  • Slow progress in collecting and sharing data in accordance with Indigenous Data Sovereignty principles.

Simply put, there is good work underway – but it’s too slow and not enough to achieve the intent and purpose of the Agreement in reducing the overrepresentation of First Nations children and young people in care and detention.

What now?

The Productivity Commission has set the following clear actions for what government organisations need to do to better implement the Agreement:

  • Get out of doing business-as-usual and consider the scale of what they have committed to.
  • Draw on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, organisations and communities to assess where institutional racism and unconscious bias lies within their system operations.
  • Explain what transformation looks like, how it will be achieved, and track implementation.
  • Establish an independent mechanism to improve accountability for implementation of the Agreement.

Responding to the report and what this means for the future, the Guardian, Shona Reid, told us:

“Soon we will be past the critical moment where we can actualise change. The inertia in full transformation to ‘close the gap’ and afford culturally strong safeguards for Aboriginal children and young people is something that must progress, and we must quicken pace. Our responsiveness to children’s needs must at least match our motivation to attend to the wants of adults. The guidance and solutions have been provided it is now only our collective efforts that are needed for any real substantive progress to be made”.

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