Indigenous education was a key part of the Closing the Gap speech
Indigenous education was a key part of the Closing the Gap speech LUKAS COCH

OPINION: Working together is the only way forward

AT LAST year's NRL grand final, won by the Cowboys in case anyone has forgotten, I went out of my way to say g'day to our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. We made small talk and then he said, "Chris what are three things we can do in the indigenous policy space to make a difference".

It was a great question. I had an answer for him but told him it was too complex to respond to there and then.

Some weeks later I used his question as the basis of a senate lecture in I did in Canberra and he had obviously taken notice.

Last week in his Closing the Gap report to parliament he quoted directly from the speech highlighting the three points I offered to him about how to truly make a difference. The three points were as follows:

Acknowledge, embrace and celebrate the humanity of indigenous Australians.

Bring us policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair.

Do things with us, not to us.

He emphasised specifically, the final point, do things with us not to us, and described it as great wisdom.

As I have said all along, the formula to make a difference here is relatively easy to understand, but the execution of this formula in an authentic way, is actually hard work.

The overall tone of the Closing the Gap speech was precisely as I expected. In some areas we are doing okay but in other areas we have a long way to go.

For many this invoked a sense of despondency among those who seriously want to see the gap close.

As for me there were no surprises. It was the same as it was last year and I predict it will be the same next year. In some areas we will be doing okay, but in other areas we might have to consider adjusting our strategies.

For me what was dramatically different was the prime minister of our country speaking of a sense of 'love' for Aboriginal people. I've never heard a PM speak this way before. 

On hearing this I get optimistic as it signals a very clear and intelligent sense of just how important the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia is.

It also signals he knows we have humanity and power in the relationship we share.

Up until now we have seen indigenous policy executed from an ideological framework that assumes indigenous Australians are powerless, inferior and needing to be 'fixed'.

This has always been an offensive way to start the relationship and it is the fundamental reason for failure of any policy approach, regardless of how many dollars are thrown at it.

This policy approach will continue to fail even when it is designed and promoted by Aboriginal leaders selectively chosen by the political and corporate masters.

Already we've seen hundreds of millions of dollars wasted yet we continue to throw more dollars not comprehending the toxic genesis of the relationship guarantees continuing failure.

If the prime minister is serious about embracing these three key points, he can, and will see change and he can save many millions along the way.

Historically Aboriginal people have been smashed and smashed by some extremely harsh policy approaches.

We continue to survive, not by conforming to the policy intent, but simply by disengaging and withdrawing to the family, social and community networks that have sustained us for thousands of years.

It's like we say 'Yeah keep smashing us! We are used to this!' From there we survive, many of us in impoverished circumstances.

As a result all Australians are diminished. In some ways we celebrate the notion that we have survived which is good, but I want more than that. I want a society in which indigenous Australians can thrive.

If the prime minister comes to Aboriginal Australia articulating a sense of love and willingness to acknowledge and embrace the strengths we have to offer, then we really do have a chance.

This way of engaging will be the fresh breeze of hope giving us reason and desire to look up and engage with optimism, opportunities to thrive.

In my conversations with the prime minister I did not want to offer expensive solutions based on overly complex theory or ideology.

I offered simple, inexpensive and wise insights based on solid intellectual theory, but more importantly, based on what I had done with my own hands with the people around me.

When I ran Cherbourg School I imagined the children were my own and the parents were my brothers, sisters and cousins and continually asked, 'What type of education do I consider acceptable for my own family? How would I want my family to be treated?'

The answers would always guide me on how to engage the complex challenges we faced together.

The formula is very simple; the work is very hard. The challenges we face together have been created and entrenched over many decades.

They will not be unravelled within a few years. On some front we will close gaps. On other fronts we must be prepared to continue to work hard together without becoming frustrated or despondent.

Again, the formula is simple; but the work is very hard. I know this because I have done it and I have seen first hand the transformation that occurs when you remain committed to working hard and doing things with people not to them.

In this type of relationship we do better than just survive. We all thrive.

Chris Sarra is the author of Good Morning Mr Sarra (UQ Press). Follow Chris on Twitter @chrissarra

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