The Federal and State Governments have pledged $73.8 million to support Closing the Gap in an initiative that some say has the possibility of creating real change.

The Joint Council on Closing the Gap, made up of representatives from the Coalition of Peaks, State and Federal Governments, and the Australian Local Government Association met on Tuesday for the first time since the National Agreement on Closing the Gap came into effect on July 27.

Pledged by State and Federal governments, the Council allocated $73.8 million to develop the capacity of Aboriginal organisations to provide services to their people.

Pat Turner AM, Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks and Joint Council Co-Chair, said the National Agreement represented a new way for governments to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The focus is on employment opportunities and self-determination.

“Better outcomes are achieved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when the services we need are delivered by our own people, from our own community-controlled organisations,” Turner said.

“We want to make sure there are more jobs for our people in the communities in which they live and we are pleased that the governments have agreed to invest in this.”

Early childhood care and development, housing, health, and disability are the National Agreement’s focus areas for the first three years.

Tuesday’s meeting saw funding allocated to developing Aboriginal community-controlled housing and early childhood care and development sectors.

Health and disability will be addressed at the Joint Council’s next meeting in February 2021.

The CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA), Muriel Bamblett AO, said although the importance of early childhood development is well known, there are not enough early childhood services in Aboriginal communities.

“We know that we need early years workers in our Aboriginal health centres looking at child health and talking to young mums about pregnancy, about the importance of taking your child to health service and protecting maternal and child health,” Bamblett said.

“We also need Aboriginal people that are in early childhood settings, that are working in [those] playgroups, talking to young mums about developmental milestones and making sure that children are meeting those.”

Money will be invested in building an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce for the early childhood sector, as well as assisting Aboriginal peak bodies to develop the capacity of the community-controlled sector to advise on policy and provide such services.

Capacity building will also be a focus of the community-controlled housing sector.

Katrina Fanning PSM, Chair of the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elected body, said creating a national peak body for the community-controlled housing sector is the next step.

“[A national peak body] is so that across the States and Territories, we’re able to learn from each other and develop best practice and a consistent approach in how our community housing is delivered,” Fanning said.

“We’re trying to ensure that we’re able to provide housing outcomes directly for our people, rather than them being filtered through either mainstream NGOs or through government programs.”

The Joint Council has also endorsed a set of indicators that will be used to measure the progress of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which will be available online.

Fanning said greater transparency will build more trust in governments.

“To have a portal through [the] Productivity Commission that brings all of the information into one place at a Commonwealth level, so that people can see for themselves what progress has been made, just gives a lot more accountability and transparency, right down to the grassroots level,” she said.

For Bamblett, the Joint Council is a radical departure from previous work in this area.

“Having been working in Aboriginal organisations for 40 years, I’ve never seen something that has these tightening and tightening commitments and is holding government to account,” she said.

Bamblett said a common experience in previous working groups targeting Indigenous issues was to see high-level working groups without any Aboriginal organisations involved.

She is hopeful this new initiative will create real, long-lasting change.

“We’re really hopeful. We’re at the early stages, and there’s teething, but we’re already seeing changes.”

By Sarah Smit