It has been a historic week for all Australians as we consider progress against The Closing The Gap Strategy, launched to address Indigenous disadvantage in 2008. Though for many Australian Christians (including our own Campaign Director, Matt Darvas) the week has pricked something deep within us. An uncomfortable truth that perhaps rings true for many of us.
I've been privileged to visit more than 30 countries across six of the world’s seven continents. I’ve been immersed in the rich tapestries of their unique cultures and traditions. From Karen tribes in the hills of Thailand, to Maasai villages on the savannah of Kenya.
I've picked up the cause of justice in advocating for child workers in India’s brick kilns, desperate mothers fleeing for their lives as refugees escaping the Congo and a more robust Australian aid program.
But in the nation I call ‘home’, I'm ashamed to say I've hardly lifted a finger.
Or perhaps more importantly, turned a proper listening ear.
When it comes to my understanding of the culture, traditions and struggles our First Nation’s people continue to face today, what I know could be described as 'surface level' at best… but I don’t think I’m alone.
Why is that?
Why is it that in many of our churches, we have pin boards highlighting our great work abroad (along with reasonable budgets, committees and in some denominations even entire months given over to focus on overseas missions) but have by-and-large eschewed the work of reconciliation, justice and closing the gap of disadvantage that exists between Indigenous Australians and other Australians?
I ask this question not as one looking to bring accusation or judgement (as I find myself completely found wanting when it comes to this matter), but as one who himself feels acutely the very real and present tension during a week such as the one we find ourselves in.
A week where once again we have been painfully reminded of the gap that exists between Indigenous Australians and other Australians, and our collective failure as a nation to rectify it.
Last Tuesday, leaders of The Close the Gap Campaign, declared the strategic efforts of both Federal and State Governments over the past 10 years to address the huge disparities that exist between Indigenous Australians and other Australians across seven key targets - related to health, education, employment and community security - had “all but fallen apart”, the government having “effectively abandoned” the strategy in recent years.
This Monday, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull then used his own report to try and highlight the three targets that were on track (child mortality, school enrolment and year twelve completion), but did not avoid the reality that critical targets for school attendance, literacy and numeracy, employment and life expectancy (the target that most spurred the campaign on back in 2008) were all still off track. Most of them devastatingly so.
So what is behind my own, and the wider church’s, low understanding, poor awareness and lack of a concerted effort to recognise and speak up on the issues of disadvantage facing our Indigenous brothers and sisters?
For me personally - and I’d hazard a guess for a good many deal of you reading this – my relative ignorance has not come out of any heinous dislike or disregard for our First Nations people. Far from it.
The causes of my own ignorance are better credited to apathy versus indignation.
Perhaps it was the education system I was raised in. One which focused more on the origins of the first fleet, and the ‘discovery’ of Australia, as opposed to its invasion and subsequent colonisation.
Or the depictions of Indigenous Australians and their communities in the media as communities of brokenness and despair.
But really, it’s on me, as it is on all of us who call this blessed nation home, to listen, learn and step into the story of our First Australians.
To first seek humbly an understanding of the situation from an Indigenous perspective, through their stories and retellings, not those given to us by the media or in textbooks (Australians Together have some great resources and advice on how to do this!).
It’s a somewhat strange and odd time for me personally to be reflecting on the issues facing Indigenous Australians. I’ve just taken the reigns as Campaign Director for Micah Australia, a movement known best throughout Australian, in churches and political parties for its voice on global poverty and justice issues.
But how loath I am, to get up and stand under the banner of the prophet Micah’s command from God to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly’, and proclaim that as a call to assist those facing disadvantage and marginalisation in other nations, when I can’t even say I have done that for my own.
This week many people far smarter and more deeply involved in this issue than I am, will continue to debate and put forward arguments as to what the right mix of funding and programmatic support is that's required to work towards renewing our nation’s efforts to close the gap.
So I won't attempt to comment on that.
What I do want to challenge you to do however, is to respond to that prick in all of our consciences that happens during a week like this, the prick that says,
I don’t know enough about this. Haven’t learned. Haven’t sought to understand enough in order to speak up, or at least stand in proper solidarity.
And let us start by simply turning a listening ear.
These recommendations come from an Indigenous brother, Clayton Cruse, who uses the following recommendations when asked, ‘What can I do?’
- Watch something (ABC series First Footprints, SBS series First Australians, The Tall Man, Utopia)
- Read something (Start with The Koori Mail, Blood on the Wattle, The Biggest Estate on Earth)
- Do something (contact your Local Aboriginal Land Council, Aboriginal Health Service, Aboriginal Youth Service) and volunteer some of your time.
A longer and more detailed version of this list by Clayton can be found along with the article he co-wrote with Narrara Valley Baptist Pastor, Phil Pallas, over on my blog, ‘How can White Australians engage in Indigenous Justice? It’s pretty black and white’.
 Australian Human Rights Comissions, Close the Gap – 10 Year Review (2018), https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/CTG_2018_FINAL_WEB.pdf