The Closing the Gap policy is a 2008 arrangement by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) that aims to develop the living conditions of indigenous people within Australia. It is a policy aiming to reform standards of housing, health, and education among indigenous communities (Australian Government, 2012). As the name itself implies, it aims to “close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities” (Altman, 2009, p. 2). It bears the main objective of removing the problem of indigenous disadvantage by imposing efficient systems of service delivery to indigenous people with adequate funding. As the policy targets to create a closer connection between government and indigenous people, it includes a set of programs spearheaded by various sectors (nongovernment, corporate and philanthropic organizations) tasked to assist several indigenous communities (Australian Government, 2012). In effect, the policy plans to bring government closer to indigenous people to mitigate and eventually remove all of the disadvantages that they experience through attaining statistical equality in life expectancy and health between Australia’s indigenous and non-indigenous population before the year 2030 (Pholi, Black & Richards, 2009, p. 2).
Given that the purpose of the Closing the Gap policy is to place Australia’s indigenous people at an equal footing with its non-indigenous people in terms of health and opportunity benefits, it has key strengths that seek to improve the years-old problem of reaching statistical equality within Australia’s mixed populace. The idea presented in the policy is not a brand-new one, but rather it aims to place improved emphasis on achieving statistical equality. The policy has its roots from previous ones that have the similar idea. All of those policies met transformations during regime changes, with policies from past regimes encountering condemnation from incumbent ones – a notable example being the “practical reconciliation” approach introduced under the Howard government (Pholi, Black & Richards, 2009, p. 3). The objective of the government to make amends to the Stolen Generations met efforts from as early as the Hawke government in 1983 (Altman, 2009, pp. 3-4), but the idea of equalizing the status of indigenous and non-indigenous Australian remained the same throughout succeeding policies.
The Close the Gap policy is the latest incarnation of those policies, and it has received positive acclaim from both governments and communities due to its straightforward approach. Pholi, Black and Richards noted that the “clarity and simplicity, political neutrality and promise of measurable progressgives the Close [sic] the Gap approach tremendous appeal across government and community sectors” (2009, p.3). Said policy clearly embodies the vision of unity among indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, particularly in terms of “working together to achieve a common goal (Pholi, Black & Richards, 2009, p. 3).
It is maintained that the Closing the Gap policy embodies the noble intention of improving the standards of Australia’s indigenous people by way of attaining statistical equality with non-indigenous people made possible by suitable programs. Yet, it has a slew of criticisms that mostly target its conceptual framework and the adequacy of statistical equality in improving the conditions of the indigenous people. Kowal (as cited in Altman, 2009, p. 6) asserted that the policy’s lenience towards attaining statistical equality (remedialism) leads to an outright disregarding of the equality-difference conflict (orientalism). In other words, the policy leans towards imposing statistical equality but discounts tolerance of the difference of indigenous groups. Another problem tackles the conflict between the governmental approaches of mainstreaming as empowered by the policy and existing institutions of indigenous Australians. Altman (as cited in Altman & Hinkson, 2009, pp.6-7) takes into account the argument that the policy in question is a threat to the lifestyles of indigenous Australians, which are rooted in incentives that are highly dissimilar to non-indigenous ones.
Watson (as cited in Ingamells, 2010, p. 10), noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have clamored for increased participation within the policy level and in the incorporation of rights and services within their own communal systems. In support of such argument, Bailey and Hunt (2012, p. 50) recognize that in promoting progressive actions aimed at raising the standards of healthcare provision to Aboriginal people, a healthy partnership between those people and the government must ensue, and that all actors within such partnership must involve themselves in making decisions. Yet, the formulation of goals sought for implementation under the policy, all of which harbor the purpose of instilling normalization among indigenous communities to meet statistical equality, did not involve the consensus of those communities (Cooper, 2011, p. 31). Such reflects a top-down approach, presented by the postdevelopment theoretical paradigm that lacks consultation and real coordination between government and the indigenous Australians who are the supposed beneficiaries of the policy (Altman as cited in Ingamells, 2010, pp. 9-10).
Theoretical Underpinnings of the Policy
The attainment of statistical equality stands as the main objective of the Closing the Gap policy. Government intervention in the affairs of indigenous people appears as a requisite to meeting such objective, but in order for such to be effective, the government must avoid imposing an approach based on a “one-size fits all” paradigm, as it is important to take note of cultural distinctions when seeking to assist indigenous people (Altman, 2009, p. 13). As mentioned earlier, indigenous people derive incentives different to non-indigenous people, and thus it is important to create an atmosphere of cooperation between them and the government in order to make effective service delivery possible (Altman, 2009, pp. 6-7). Yet, studies have shown that such has not been the real case in the implementation of the policy; that its one-sidedness on the part of the government coupled with inadequate consideration of the needs of indigenous people in the transition process towards normalization has produced rather negative results inimical to the goal of removing indigenous disadvantage (Cooper, 2011, p. 31).
Highly noticeable from the foregoing is the fact that the Closing the Gap policy does not employ a theoretical basis. Its non-inclusion of contexts pertaining to society, culture and history (as seen in the apparent primacy of remedialism over orientalism) has led it to rely mostly on evidence provided by empirical data, as reflected in its main goal of attaining statistical equality (Pholi, Black & Richards, 2009, p. 7; Kowal as cited in Altman, 2009, p. 6). The policy has incorporated statistical data as “both the means and ends” in reaching its goals, contrary to the general notion on public policy goals which integrate theory with such data. Statistical data functions both as a gauge of the “gaps” targeted to be “closed” by the policy and as evidence to determine whether the policy is successful in closing those gaps (Pholi, Black & Richards, 2009, p. 7).
The pragmatism of the Closing the Gap policy further encourages “individual responsibility, opportunity and redemption” – all of which being key factors of the neoliberal school of thought. In this wise, government, as the policy enforcer, leaves unto indigenous people and communities the responsibility of countering their vulnerability through capacity-building and addressing particular social and economic demands. Within this purview, the vulnerability of indigenous people and communities traces its roots from their nonconformist standards in health, housing, education and the like. The government, taking off from said policy, introduces normalizing programs to empower indigenous people and communities in coming up with resolutions to counter their vulnerable state brought about by their unorthodoxy (Pholi, Black & Richards, 2009, p. 8).
Gaps between Policy/Program Developers and Policy Targets
Verily, the Closing the Gap policy has several gaps between the government side (policy and program developers, in particular) and the indigenous people and communities (purported targets of the policy). Central to those gaps is the lack of involvement from the indigenous side. While the participation of the indigenous people and communities in the policy and program-making process is highly encouraged for the sake of forming a constructive relationship with the government side (Bailey and Hunt, 2012, p. 50), findings show that there is lack of involvement on their part, which poses the danger of maintaining one-sidedness on the part of the government that might create the tendency of harmful or excessive remedialism rooting from top-down approaches (Altman as cited in Ingamells, 2010, pp. 9-10) that might overlook the compelling factor of tolerance for indigenous difference (Kowal as cited in Altman, 2009, p. 6). With the policy favoring normalization to reach statistical equality among indigenous and non-indigenous people, it is thus inevitable that said policy might run counter to the context-based interests coming from the indigenous side. The policy’s evidence-based approach, being devoid of theory, could potentially dispute the need of the indigenous side to have their differences – historically, culturally and socially defined, tolerated especially by the government. Such is an important area of the policy in question that renders an effective resolution.
The introduction of mechanisms that will resolve such problem in favor of a constructive partnership between government and the indigenous side can be made possible through analytical frameworks such as the Indigeneity-Grounded Analysis (IGA) (Carson & Koster, 2012, p. 117). The IGA harbors principles that are centered on the welfare of indigenous people and communities in bringing forth a better sense of understanding in establishing government-indigenous side partnerships, taking into consideration the convergence of indigenous and normative (Western) practices to avoid running counter to any virtues upholding tolerance of indigenous differences. In this wise, the participation of the indigenous side in the research process and relevant policy affairs is of great importance. In that way, the policy in question could truly fulfill its objective of removing indigenous disadvantage in the most optimal way possible (Carson & Koster, 2012, p.110, 117).
Altman, J., 2009. Beyond Closing the Gap: Valuing Diversity in Indigenous Australia. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research working paper series no. 54. Canberra: CAEPR/ANU
Australian Government – Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, 2012. Closing the Gap. [online] Available at:
Bailey, S. and Hunt, J., 2012. Successful partnerships are the key to improving Aboriginal health. NSW Public Health Bulletin, 23(3-4), pp. 48-51.
Carson, D. and Koster, R., 2012. Addressing the problem of indigenous disadvantage in remote areas of developing nations: A plea for more comparative research. Journal of Rural and Community Development, 7(1), pp. 110-125.
Cooper, D., 2011. Closing the gap in cultural understanding: social determinants of health in Indigenous policy in Australia. Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT), pp. 1-45.
Ingamells, A., 2010. Closing the Gap: Some unsettling assumptions. Journal of Social Inclusion, 1(1), pp. 7-22.
Pholi, K., Black, D. and Richards, C., 2009. Is ‘Close the Gap’ a useful approach to improving the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians? Australian Review of Public Affairs, 9(2), pp. 1-13.