In search of fairness and equal opportunity

The Northern Territory has higher levels of inequality between rich and poor than most other parts of Australia. People living in remote Aboriginal communities are among the poorest in Australia, whereas the incomes of people in Darwin and Alice Springs are among the highest in the nation.

Federal governments of both political parties have been pursuing a “Closing the Gap” policy for a number of years now but, as even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s most recent report admits, the results have been “mixed”. A more blunt assessment of Closing the Gap would be that the gap simply isn’t being closed at all in any meaningful sense. As Aboriginal leader Senator Pat Dodson recently put it: “We are basically just changing the tablecloth on a table without really realising that the white ants are eating the legs out of the table.”

More than one third of the population are Aboriginal people and many of them, especially in remote communities, experience extreme poverty and disadvantage.  Moreover, the Territory is one of Australia’s most culturally diverse regions. Its population includes people of over 100 nationalities and supports some 50 social, cultural and religious organisations. Significant numbers of migrant families, especially recent refugees from African countries, also experience significant disadvantage.

The Commonwealth Grants Commission provides the Territory with significantly higher funding (approximately four times per head that of other states) partly because of our sparse population and partly in order to allow drastic Aboriginal disadvantage to be addressed. Whether that funding is being appropriately applied has been a public controversy in the Territory for some years. Some commentators assert that Territory governments of both political parties are guilty of diverting funds from remote communities to “porkbarrel” voters in urban electorates. Whether or to what extent that may be true is a topic that will be addressed during the first two sessions on Thursday 23 February.

Quite apart from the obvious fairness/social justice aspects of Indigenous disadvantage and inequality, high levels of inequality have very real and adverse economic consequences. As this report in The Economist explains: “a one percentage point increase in the income share of the top 20% will drag down growth by 0.08 percentage points over five years, while a rise in the income share of the bottom 20% actually boosts growth.” Moreover, significant levels of inequality can lead to financial or economic instability. The Territory is one of the most unequal parts of Australia.

No doubt most of the solutions to inequality primarily involve government and private investment in health, education and training as well as initiatives by communities and families themselves. But there are governance and systemic aspects to the problem. Discussions at the Summit about the structure and control of local government, whether the Territory should have a bill or charter of rights  and what rights should be protected (e.g. rights to land, customary law and language), whether the Parliament should have an upper house or Aboriginal Representative Assembly, whether there should be some form of treaty between Territory government and First Nations, all involve consideration of issues of fairness and equal opportunity.

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