The unattended fire

Diminished leadership since the Voice’s defeat leaves First Nations communities in the cold

As NAIDOC Week 2024 unfolds under the theme, Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud, it’s important to question: Are the fires of treaty and truth-telling still burning inside our parliaments? Not if you ask Pat Anderson, chair of the Uluru Dialogues, who commented last week, “Nothing has changed since October 14. Change is needed. Change is urgent.”

Since the referendum defeat, Albanese has so far failed to articulate a clear path forward toward treaty and truth. His election night commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart “in full” was contingent on the referendum being successful. Last week, the Greens proposed a bill to set up a truth and justice commission, similar to the Makarrata commission outlined by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. (Makarrata is a Yolngu word meaning “coming together after a struggle”.) Nine months after the Voice’s defeat seems as good a time as any to do exactly that, right? The government is considering the Greens’ proposal, but Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney says they “are taking the time to listen and get things right.”

The latest Closing the Gap report tells a story of people who – unlike the government – do not have the luxury of time. Only five out of 19 targets are “on track,” indicting both major parties for failing to address the persistent inequalities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Albanese and Dutton have pledged to continue efforts to close the gap regardless of the referendum outcome, insisting there were other ways to address First Nations disadvantage beyond the Voice. Yet the Productivity Commission’s assessment that governments have “largely not fulfilled their commitments” call into question that resolve.

Most alarmingly, four key targets are moving in the wrong direction. The proportion of First Nations children starting school “on track” has decreased. Out-of-home care rates have increased, with First Nations children now 10.5 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-First Nations children. Adult imprisonment rates have risen, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples now comprising one-third of the adult prison population. Most tragically, suicide rates have worsened, and suicide remains the leading cause of death for First Nations people aged 15 to 44.

These reversals represent not just statistical setbacks but real human suffering, caused by systemic failures in education, child protection, justice and mental health support for First Nations peoples – some of the most sacred responsibilities of government. The Commission’s warning that without fundamental change, the entire Closing the Gap agreement “will fail and the gap will remain” highlights the urgent need for decisive action from our political leaders.

When decisiveness is needed, we should not commend hesitation. Especially given the failure of the referendum has stalled and halted progress across the states and territories too. Victoria’s treaty process faces challenges with withdrawn opposition support. Queensland’s truth-telling and treaty efforts meet conservative pushback. The Northern Territory faces opposition rejection. Western Australia and Tasmania remain locked in early consultative stages. New South Wales is reviewing its treaty commissioner appointments in response to the referendum loss. South Australia’s Voice shows promise but has not been without its setbacks. This highlights the urgent need for a unified federal framework to close the gap and advance toward treaty.

“The referendum outcome should not be used as a barrier to the nation progressing on unfinished business,” Pat Anderson said. “Our people are hurting from the silence, and there needs to be leadership”.

Don’t expect to find that leadership across the floor, Dutton has been largely silent on First Nations issues since the referendum, occasionally peppering this silence with his signature divisive rhetoric and wedges. His cynical calls for an audit of Aboriginal services and boycotts of Woolies for not selling Australian flags might grab headlines but do nothing to address the pressing concerns of First Nations communities.

The fire that this year’s NAIDOC theme speaks of is not just a symbol of Blak resilience; it should be a fire under the feet of our political establishment too. We must hold our leaders’ feet to these flames. The referendum defeat makes truth-telling and Makarrata more urgent, not less. The path forward requires a comprehensive, national approach, thankfully many of the solutions have already been proposed — our governments need only listen and enact.

The NAIDOC theme reminds us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to be “Loud and Proud,” regardless of these setbacks, and that First Nations pride burns bright and independent of the politicking of parliaments. That should be an inspiration to us all.

Jack Toohey is a writer and filmmaker.

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