Beyond closing the gap: valuing diversity in Indigenous Australia

23 Mar 2009

In his Apology speech the Prime Minister attempted to balance the symbolic with the practical while emphasising that ‘business as usual’ is not working. Ultimately though, the 'Closing the Gap' approach is business as usual that fails to value Indigenous difference and fails to accommodate Indigenous aspirations in all their diversity. Unless we get beyond CTG, the next phase in Indigenous policy making and program investments is as ‘destined to fail’ as previous approaches.

This paper advocates for the pendulum to swing back, to accommodate and value diversity and difference rather than just statistical equality. In doing so, the author provides some reflexive comment as an academic on these policy swings. In 2005, Tim Rowse and Jon Altman wrote a piece on Indigenous policy that contrasted the contending approaches of economics and anthropology to Indigenous affairs policy: the first emphasising equality of socioeconomic outcomes, the second the facilitation of choice and self-determination. The former implies integration, the latter adherence to different and diverse life worlds. Over time, the author has used economics and official statistics to highlight socioeconomic disadvantage and neglect, while at the same time using anthropology to critique any approach that uses mainstream social indicators that only reflect the dominant society’s social norms. This paper will continue in the same vein using a dual disciplinary approach. However, without being over-reflexive, as an anthropologist of development he is clearly uncomfortable with the current dominance of the 'Closing the Gap' framework.

This paper was presented at the Centre for Public Policy's 'Values & Public Policy' conference in February 2009.

Jon Altman is Professor and the inaugural Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research established in 1990. He is currently researching Indigenous development and economic hybridity as ARC Australian Professorial Fellow.


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