On 15 March Australia 21 director Richard Eckersley gave a seminar, entitled “Indigenous wellbeing and the problems of Western benchmarks and contexts: 'closing the gap', but what gap and how?”, in a current series on Indigenous wellbeing at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
The Federal Government's report Closing the Gap notes that Indigenous Australians are at a marked disadvantage compared to non-indigenous Australians and the gap has not decreased over the past decade or more.
“Closing the Gap” is a great national challenge, but also a great national opportunity to achieve lasting change and ensure that future generations of Indigenous Australians have all the opportunities enjoyed by other Australians to live full, healthy lives and achieve their potential.'
Richard argues that the goal of “closing the gap” in indigenous health, education and employment may seem laudable from a practical, political standpoint, but at a more abstract, philosophical level, it misses important questions about the benchmarks used and the cultural contexts of health and wellbeing, including whether Australian society as a whole can learn from Indigenous cultural perspectives. Western nations like Australia don't perform as well as the dominant indicators of human development suggest; they are not the best of role models. This matters, especially when some commentators believe the consequence of “closing the gap”, whether intended or not, will be to have Indigenous Australians live like the rest of us.
The back cover of Karl-Erik Sveiby & Tex Skuthorpe's 2006 book Treading Lightly says it takes us on “a unique journey into traditional Aboriginal life and culture, and offers a powerful and original model for building sustainable organisations, communities and ecologies.” The blurb might seem to suggest the book is about the external features of sustainability, the outward manifestations of lifestyle. But it is really about the internalities, especially notions of the self and its relationships to others and to the environment.
The book is, in this sense, a parable or allegory for our times. The moral is not that we could or should adopt an indigenous lifestyle, but that we need to recognise that other, quite different, and even better, ways of making sense of the world and our lives are possible. And not only that: we need to examine our present situation at this most fundamental level if we are to have any chance of achieving a high, equitable and durable quality of life.
One important gap to close is that between the scale of our responses and the magnitude of the challenges, between policy relevance and response effectiveness. The transformation of our society requires transformation of the self and what we believe it to be. Indigenous spirituality and philosophy might help us do this (without suggesting that non-indigenous Australia could, or should, appropriate them or graft them on to Western modes of thinking and doing things).
Perhaps we cannot, or need not, confront head-on the orthodoxy of “closing the gap” in Indigenous health and wellbeing. But in this policy area, as in so many others, we need to look more closely at the wider social, economic and cultural context or framework within which policy is formulated. In his 2004 book Well & Good Richard says: “In ordinary times, it is perhaps normal for different planes of perception and understanding of the human condition to remain relatively separate and distinct, with little 'friction', or influence, occurring between them. In transitional epochs, when what it is to be human is undergoing profound evaluation and radical alteration, these planes of perception need to come together in a single, interwoven, public conversation. Ours is such a time.”
The seminars are available in PDF format here.