Julia Gillard’s annual speech on the progress of Labor’s “Close the Gap” policy demonstrated the poisonous growth of blame the victim politics in Aboriginal Affairs.
“I see Closing the Gap as a call for changes in behaviour”, Gillard said, “[this is] a call to every person, to every family, to every community… To take a job when you find one… To send your kids to school, pay your rent, save up for a home.”
But Intervention policies are destroying employment and housing opportunities for Aboriginal people. And across the Northern Territory, the abolition of bilingual education programs has had a catastrophic impact on school attendance.
Many NT schools built up curricula based on Aboriginal languages over the past three decades. Numerous studies show the importance of teaching children literacy in their first language and engaging the community in the education process.
But in 2008, the NT government mandated teaching in English for the first four hours of each day. Then federal education minister Julia Gillard vocally supported this move.
Many Aboriginal teachers have been driven out of work, or pushed out of positions of responsibility.
Two years on, schools where bilingual programs were strongest have seen huge drops in attendance. At Yuendumu, attendance rates have halved to 30 per cent. Lajamanu, another large Warlpiri community, has seen a 23 per cent drop. The NT government has responded to these appalling figures with a still more punitive approach. The new “Every Child, Every Day” initiative is imposing fines and cuts to welfare payments on the families of children who miss school.
Aboriginal teachers have fought the policy. The school at Areyona has initiated a challenge under the NT anti-discrimination act. In Yirkala, teachers have defiantly continued with their bilingual curriculum.
In December, the NT government wrote to all NT schools saying their policy had been “misunderstood” and that Indigenous languages can still be used “from time to time… to support teaching in English”. But they are refusing to allow the return of a bilingual curriculum.
By Jean Parker