What is the so-called ‘gap’? It’s the gap in wellbeing (across factors such as income, shelter, health, lifestyle) between those Aborigines living in circumstances offering no possibility of employment and everyone else. To present the gap as a difference between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians seriously mischaracterises the problem. And I suspect deliberately so. The Yes campaign depends on giving an impression that most indigenous people – if we can overcome the difficulty of sorting out who is and who isn’t indigenous – suffer disadvantage. In other words, it’s built on a lie.
But there is a gap, properly defined, and one central question is what closing it would look like. Roughly speaking there are two views. The one that I favour would be shared, I think, by most Australians. It is to produce an assimilated outcome, in a relatively short span of time, in which the lot of someone with Aboriginal ancestry is on the whole indistinguishable from the lot of a non-Aboriginal Australian. No worse, no better. The same range, from disadvantage to plenty. Life is unkind to lots of non-indigenous people, lest we forget.
Once the disproportionate disadvantage of Aboriginal people is gone, all of the apparatus of the state, at all levels, directed to improve their circumstances, as a separate body of people, could and should be then dismantled, and Section 51xxvi of the Constitution repealed. Almost by definition, this would leave few, if any, Aborigines living in remote communities.
And, er, what about native title? Collective ownership is a blight and seldom works for the good. But it’s hard to see how we can ever now put the ‘goblin’ back in the bottle; restitute Pandora’s box; or whatever metaphor for an irrevocable disaster takes your fancy. It seems we are stuck with it, like long Covid.
There is another view on what closing the gap looks like. Those holding it see a treaty, reparations and partitioning Australia as the desirable outcome. A number of prominent activists appear to subscribe to this view or to something like it. It would be instructive to know what people like Julian Leeser, George Williams and Chris Kenny think. Those who apparently believe that we can have the Voice without its baggage.
There is one outcome that no one of good intentions would want. That is to keep a segment of Aboriginal Australians, Gary Johns (The Burden of Culture) estimates 20 percent, always in a state of distress and mendicancy. Why would anyone want that? They might, I suppose, if they were morally bankrupt and their power and livelihood depended on it. However, I’m hopeful enough to believe that this motivation is not an issue and can be safely ignored.
Clearly, closing the gap is a problem in search of a doable solution, as it has been for decades. And while there are such starkly different views on what closing the gap would look like, no solution seems remotely possible.