Closing the Gap not making a difference in child protection and the criminal legal system

VALS wants governments to take bigger steps towards Closing the Gap and establishing real Aboriginal self-determination. VALS supports many community members with child protection and legal matters every day and the Closing the Gap Agreement is not making a difference on the ground for them.

The Productivity Commission has today published its Review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap which found that “the Agreement risks becoming another broken promise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” The Commission’s criticism that “overall progress against the Priority Reforms has been slow, uncoordinated and piecemeal” certainly matches with VALS’ experience.

The current National Agreement on Closing the Gap was signed in 2020 and included two incarceration targets for the first time. The Justice Policy Partnership was also established under the agreement to help Aboriginal communities drive reform. VALS has found that the targets and the Justice Policy Partnership have not been effective at driving change yet. While there has been some flatlining and reduction of incarceration rates, this is largely due to covid lockdowns and court backlogs, rather than reforms driven by Closing the Gap.

The Productivity Commission report states that “structural reforms are required if the [Justice Policy Partnership]… [is]to be more than a forum to foster relationships and allow for open dialogue.”

We strongly believe that the initial governance structures of the Justice Policy Partnership hampered any potential impact. Victoria recently amended its bail laws in the wake of the Coronial Inquest into the passing of Veronica Nelson, but the Government’s reforms did not live up to the demands of Veronica’s family, nor the recommendations of the Coroner. Other jurisdictions have implemented punitive bail reforms that will cause tremendous damage to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Justice Policy Partnership has been ineffective at improving the involvement of Aboriginal voices in policy decision-making on bail laws, let alone Aboriginal self-determination.

VALS is also concerned that Closing the Gap and the Justice Policy Partnership have not driven a national approach to raising the age of criminal responsibility. Despite the advocacy of Aboriginal communities and VALS that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be urgently raised to at least 14 years old without exception, the Victorian Government has announced a slower, compromised reform.

The Closing the Gap child protection target shows that the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care has been increasing during the life of the current agreement. VALS continues to see the same harmful, punitive and racist, child protection system operating in Victoria. Despite promises for improving consultation, the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing continues to keep us at arm’s length, and we have seen no progress on a review of the permanency amendments that was promised by the Victorian Government in early 2023, let along the self-determined system.

The Productivity Commission report found that “ACCOs noted the problems arising from government agencies imposing models of service design and associated performance indicators that do not reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander notions of wellbeing and measures of success. Such concerns were consistently raised across jurisdictions and with respect to a broad range of services, including child protection.”

Despite signing onto the Closing the Gap agreement, governments face little accountability to deliver on these commitments. That is why VALS believes that Treaty is the best path forward to achieve self-determination and change that benefits all of our people. Local level treaties with strong oversight and accountability are the best way to close the gap.

Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

“Every government in Australia should be embarrassed and ashamed of how little progress they have made under the Closing the Gap Agreement. Politicians spent a lot of time talking about giving our people a stronger voice over the last 18 months, but the Productivity Commission report makes it clear to everyone that governments are not listening to us when we are in the room right now.”

“Self-determination is the only thing that will lead to real change and improve the lives of our people. That means giving us the authority and resources to make decisions about the things the impact our lives, not sitting us down at a table and then ignoring what we have to say.”

“Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lost faith in the Closing the Gap process because it has been far more effective at counting the gap than closing the gap. That’s why we need to progress strong treaties on the local level that have strong oversight and accountability mechanisms that ensure governments deliver what they agree to. If politicians want to close the gap, they need to start signing treaties – that is the meaningful next step on this journey.”

“Because the Closing the Gap Agreement is not working, in Victoria we have needed to spend more time trying to drive change through the courts, through the Treaty process, and through community campaigns.”

“The Victorian Government has ignored our asks for a police ombudsman, independent detention oversight, and standalone legislation for Aboriginal children in the child protection system. These are reforms that have been implemented in other countries and would meaningfully reduce the contact our people have with the child protection and criminal legal systems, but the Victorian Government will not engage in meaningful discussions on these issues.”


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