The 7th ‘Closing the Gap’ Report


A response to the Federal Government’s 7th Closing The Gap Prime Minister’s Speech 2015 By Richard Trudgen


After 7 bad reports, where the whole nation at government level has been trying to Close the Gap of disadvantage for Aboriginal people in the areas of health, education and employment, you would think it was time to call in the parents.

But who are the parents? Well it is the Australian Government. ‘The parents’ in this case will just continue to blame their ‘children’ again, not in public of course, but behind their hands in private settings. We’ve been doing that for 200 years now and it has become very habitual.

We need to remember that in 1819:     

A fourteen‑year‑old Aboriginal girl from Governor Macquarie’s Native Institute won first prize in the public examination and her defeat of the white children of the colony was widely admired.

                             One Blood, John Harris 1990.

So since 1819 we have known that Aboriginal People had the intellectual ability to achieve the same academic levels as European children. This has also been my experience with Yolŋu people here in Arnhem. They are very fast learners and soak up academic knowledge at an extremely fast rate when it is in their own very efficient and very effective teaching language. So let’s put the excuse of blaming the students for their intellectual inability aside as it does not stack up and is quite disgusting in this day and age.

So maybe it’s time for us to ask some deeper questions. It’s clear that doing more of the same old same old does not work, despite the tens of millions of dollars thrown at it. If the programs are flawed, then spending more money on them will not deliver good outcomes and in fact they will only make the problem worse. Maybe there’s some other very basic things here that are not being considered or is it we are approaching this subject with some big blind spots and not really sure of what will work?

The major problem

I don’t think this is the case. It seems to me that one of the main problems is that the dominant Australian mainstream community seems to think they have all the answers for the Original Australians. In fact, they are absolutely sure of it. If the Aboriginal People just did things the same way that they, mainstream Australians, do them then everything would be okay, the Gap will close.

I want to suggest that this ethnocentric blindness is the Major Problem as to why we have 7 bad report cards and lots and lots of wasted money and lives.

New ideas really old ideas

One thing I’ve seen over the 40 years of working in the area of Aboriginal Affairs is that the mainstream Australian community and its governments just keep doing the same old things over and over again. Each new generation of public servants think they have got the answers and they can’t understand why others didn’t do what they’re going to do to solve the problem years ago. Sadly, if they had any history in this area they would quickly discover that their ‘new ideas’ are really just old hat regurgitations of what has been tried many times before they were even born.

These new ideas and programs apply no basic community development or capacity building principles to the ‘problems’ they are trying to solve. What they do is just run out the same old colonial response that Captain Philip rolled out when he first arrived here in Australia. What do these programs look like? They are no different now as they were then; just force them (Aboriginal People) to be like us as though ‘us’ is the ultimate answer for all humankind.

Aussies don’t like being told what to do

The general Australian public doesn’t like being told what to do and when to do it and some politicians make great mileage out of this but it seems okay for mainstream Australians to continually tell Aboriginal People how they should live their lives and how they should think.

Let’s just take 2 issues.

Since colonisation Australian Governments at Territory, State and Federal level have continually told Aboriginal People that they should, “Just learn English”, and yet they never provide any English learning programs for them to learn. They just force them into mainstream English-speaking schooling. I understand the arguments surrounding this but sorry, it has not and will not work.

Aboriginal children all over this country today are expected to sit in classrooms and listen to instructions in English, which is a language that is as good as foreign to them, and especially at the academic English level. As I write this, Yolŋu children are being traumatised in our public schools in Arnhem Land. All they learn is that they are black and dumb, while the white kids over there, in the same classroom, seem to understand it all. Yes, there are a few that will get through this incredibly difficult system but most don’t and go on to a life of drug abuse and crime. I suggest that this is as a direct result of the very inefficient, ineffective, and dare I say disgusting education system that is applied against Aboriginal People in 2015.

This is particularly so in places like Arnhem Land where the home language is not English but Yolŋu Matha. This will also be the case for many Aboriginal children who speak Aboriginal English and not mainstream English, many tens of thousands of Aboriginal kids.

Why do we place such handicaps on the Original Australians where no such handicaps are placed on mainstream Australian children?

We spend more on truancy officers forcing Aboriginal children into school than we spend on creating the right learning environment for them to be attracted and excited about school. What does this say to Aboriginal people about mainstream Australia? Many tell me, in Yolŋu Matha, it’s like living under a dictatorship.

The government are seemingly under the illusion that if children are at least present in a classroom they will magically learn, even though the language and the education methodology used in that classroom is totally foreign to them, serving only to alienate them further.

A more practical alternative would be to have an online school entirely in language that can be easily accessed from anywhere. This program would teach Yolŋu children both Yolŋu Matha and English effectively and efficiently ready for mainstream classrooms. This is a project that I have been trying to get of the ground for over ten years now with a lot of encouragement from Yolŋu elders and parents (See example of prototypes below).

Teacher s not trained for their teaching environment

This brings me to my second point, poor teachers in the classroom who are totally culturally incompetent in dealing with children from other cultural and language groups. This is not a fault of the teacher but clearly a fault of the neo-colonial attitude that is still in play with most Australian Governments and their advisors, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal alike. How can teachers be expected to walk into a classroom full of Yolŋu or other Aboriginal children who come from a completely different historical, linguistic and cultural background and be effective? It’s like asking a Yolŋu elder, who does not speak English but is an extremely good teacher in his or her Yolŋu community, to go into a mainstream school classroom and teach all the children there. We would probably also get bad report cards if this was done and we would never hear the end of the complaints from the English First Language speaking parents of that school and rightly so.

cartoon largeThis type of teaching environment requires the teachers to have special cross-cultural and cross language communication skills. Sadly, even though Why Warriors and others like us have advocated the need for special linguistic and cultural competency training for all teachers and public servants that go into Aboriginal schools and communities, it still doesn’t happen. Even the ‘paternalistic’ missionaries in many cases did it better than this.

This is despite the fact that if this training was supplied to all teachers and public servants it would save the Government tens of millions of dollars in recruitment costs alone. But no, the colonial mind-set keeps the Australian public service and governments locked into ineffective and deficient education and training for Aboriginal People, so we will hear many more bad Closing the Gap reports, read out to the world, in parliament every year, for many years to come.

This is clearly borne out by the latest NAPLAN tests. If you go to the “My Schools” website and search any of the Aboriginal schools in Arnhem Land against another school that you know in your area you will find that the Aboriginal schools are very expensive to run and their results are pathetic to put it mildly. This is not the fault of the students but the fault of the crazy neo-colonial education system that is being applied. It is about time we did things differently.

Richard Trudgen, February 2015


The link below is a test site for a Yolŋu school that we want to develop online and make fully available to Yolŋu parents and children wherever they might live. This could be used to teach them Yolŋu Matha and English together. This might supplement their other educational endeavor’s or be used as a stand-alone school for Yolŋu to do private homeschooling when fully developed.

This prototypes is only an example and nowhere near fully developed yet. We are looking for private supporters who really want to make a difference in Aboriginal communities. If we do this 1st for Yolŋu parents we can then do it for other Aboriginal language groups across Australia. If this happened in the future we would have Aboriginal People who speak their own language fully and fluently going right through the university level without any problems.

To experience what is possible in the teaching of Yolŋu to learn to read and write their own language while learning English, see

If you visit the site, open up one of the modules and put your cursor over the top of the words. If you have the sound enabled on your computer, you will hear the sounds of the words and the syllables in both Yolŋu Matha and English. Why Warriors are trying to find a partner/s who will help us build a full school for Yolŋu people online that could be accessible to Yolŋu children everywhere.

About Richard Trudgen

Born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner, Richard went to Arnhem Land in 1973 for one year voluntary work. He stayed 37 years, learnt language and trained in community development work. He wrote “Why Warriors Lie Down and Die” in 2000 and established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He was CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) Inc for 10 years, and during this time developed discovery education methodology. He runs ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars and training workshops, and speaks at conferences and events. Richard wants to build an e-learning school for Yolŋu people using both their own language and English so Yolŋu children/adults have an easily accessible schooling system that works for them. He is currently writing his next book “When a New World Drops in on You”.