President’s column – 31 July 2020

ALGA President David O'Loughlin gestures at a lectern

It is a rare privilege to have signed such an important agreement on your behalf.

The new Closing the Gap partnership, signed by the Commonwealth, the states and territories, and the Australian Local Government Association on Monday, has been hailed as a new chapter in the national effort to reduce Indigenous disadvantage.

It sets new national socio-economic targets in areas such as life expectancy, early childhood education and development, Year 12 and tertiary qualifications, employment, and incarceration rates.

Importantly, and uniquely, 51 Indigenous organisations helped write the 16 new targets in the agreement – and their representative, Pat Turner, is co-chairman of the joint council (with Federal Indigenous Australians Minister Key Wyatt) which oversees the implementation of the targets.

Those Indigenous peak bodies are not only signatories to the agreement but partners with a say in the design and delivery of the services that will (hopefully) lead to better life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

Previous Closing the Gap agreements were implemented amid great fanfare and with high hopes too, so a degree of caution is perhaps warranted, as is the suspension of belief that this is “someone else’s responsibility”.

The parties to those old agreement all faithfully declared their intention to consult widely and extensively with Indigenous groups and their representatives before setting to work.

But the results have been very ordinary. Slow and fitful improvement in health metrics, educational attainments, and employment outcomes showed that mere good intentions were not enough to pave these particular roads.

And as for efforts to reduce rates of incarceration and family violence, the less said about the old Closing the Gap agreements the better.

Where this week’s agreement differs from those of past years is the active participation of Indigenous Australians, and local government, in the planning and delivery of mechanism to bring about better outcomes.

Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage is an important ALGA objective, reflecting the fact every council would be home to some Indigenous people, and that a number of councils across Australia are responsible for the provision of municipal services to high proportions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

These services – and the provision of adequate housing – are fundamental to family and community wellbeing, and ALGA has long worked to promote improved coordination and engagement with local government, particularly Indigenous local government councils, to improve their delivery.

Similarly, ALGA maintains it is important that local governments are actively engaged in the development of the policy associated with the Local and Regional Voice and in implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

Additionally, local governments are often the major employer in many regional and remote areas.

Having access to a job and a regular wage is a foundation stone of stability and financial security for Australian society, yet so many Australians are unable to access appropriate work in their communities.

The range of employment our sector can offer is broad, and very accessible. We must play a greater role in this area if the Closing the Gap aspirations are to be met.

Unfortunately, many of the councils providing services to Indigenous communities are constrained financially. And they have been put under further pressure by the Commonwealth’s decision to end its role in funding and national coordination of essential services.

Be that as it may, I know councils are ready to further step up, to improve services, to provide employment, to mentor and nurture young people, and to take time to listen, to understand and to celebrate the enduring connection Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples have to this amazing country we all call home.

Councils also have a hugely important role to play in collecting the data that will go towards determining whether the targets are being met in timely fashion.

With reports on the actions taken by the parties to the agreement to be published every year, we as a sector must roll up our sleeves and get to work.

All parties, including local councils, must play a role and work diligently to reduce Indigenous disadvantage in all its forms.

David O’Loughlin,
National President