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Australia Council submission to the Closing the Gap Refresh

Jul 05, 2018


The Australia Council’s submission to the Closing the Gap Refresh (PDF 2MB) advocates for increased investment in First Nations arts and cultural expression, cultural maintenance, and First Nations-led culturally based solutions across portfolios.

It draws on the growing body of evidence showing participation in arts and culture supports outcomes across the Closing the Gap framework.

Eip Karem Beizam dance group performing at Cairns Indigenous Art Fair 2017. Credit: Lovegreen Photography

Our submission was developed in collaboration with our First Nations stakeholders. First Nations peoples’ indivisible rights to culture and self-determination are central in our submission.

For decades, First Nations peoples have advocated for the critical role of culture – as a necessary part of the solution to Indigenous disadvantage, and for the healing and strengthening of individuals and communities.

However, culture has been the missing element from the Closing the Gap framework to date. Funding for First Nations culture made up just 1% of total direct government expenditure for Indigenous Australians in 2015–16, and cultural outcomes have not featured in the measurement framework.

Now is the moment to invest in the inherent value and foundational role of strong culture in the Closing the Gap agenda.


Australia Council’s recommendations to the Closing the Gap Refresh

  • Consolidated, targeted investment in First Nations arts, culture and cultural maintenance outcomes as a strategic priority area within the Closing the Gap framework. The aims are to increase opportunities for First Nations people to directly engage in arts and cultural activity, and cultural maintenance and renewal. This requires outcome measures in the framework.
  • Simultaneous recognition of Indigenous cultures as a foundation across the framework, with investment in culturally based programs to improve outcomes in early childhood, education, employment, health and wellbeing, community safety, justice and suicide prevention.
  • A flexible, localised community development approach that empowers communities to utilise their cultural knowledge and build on their unique strengths, with prioritised funding for First Nations-led organisations and solutions that is sufficient for long-term planning.

These recommendations are in line with the holistic cultural determinants approach to First Nations health and wellbeing articulated in the 2017 My Life My Lead consultation report by the federal Department of Health.

Case study 1 of 3

Kulata Tjuta  shows the power of culturally based programs to engage, connect and strengthen communities.

The skills of spear making are shared across generations as an embodiment of intergenerational cultural knowledge transmission. Young people learn cultural responsibility from Elders, which helps them navigate their place in society.

The project demonstrates the value of cultural and artistic outcomes alongside outcomes such as employment and diversion from the justice system.



We need young people to be standing behind their culture, not behind bars


– Frank Young, Kulata Tjuta artist

Read the Australia Council’s submission to the Closing the Gap Refresh (PDF 2MB) to learn more.

Kulata Tjuta – Wati kulunypa tjukurpa (Many spears – Young fella story) by Frank Young, Anwar Young and Rhonda Dick; digital print, kangaroo tendon, kiti

Case study 2 of 3

The Australia Council’s Chosen program is an example of a culturally based program and self-determination in program design and delivery.

Chosen empowers First Nations communities to take control and plan for how they will nurture younger people from their community in the arts and/or culture.

The unmet demand for culturally based programs is immense, as is their potential to address Indigenous disadvantage in a strengths-based approach recognising the centrality of Indigenous cultures.

Read the Australia Council’s submission to the Closing the Gap Refresh (PDF 2MB) to learn more.


Case study 3 of 3

From the case study of the Australia Council’s multi-year funded organisations – and those that have sought funding from the Australia Council that we have not been able to provide – we know that there are numerous immediate unmet opportunities to invest in cultural, artistic and social outcomes.

The Australia Council supports 16 small to medium First Nations led organisations through our Four Year Funding program. These organisations are critical assets that achieve an array of outcomes for individuals and communities with limited resources.



We are talking about keeping a knowledge system alive. Not just any knowledge sysytem, the longest living culture on earth.


– Djambawa Marawili AM, ANKA Chairman


Read the Australia Council’s submission to the Closing the Gap Refresh (PDF 2MB) to learn more.

First Nations organisations receiving multi-year funding from the Australia Council

The evidence base

Our submission draws on the strength of First Nations voices, numerous inquiries and a broad research evidence base.

evidence is clear that First Nations arts and cultural participation can support:

  • the development of strong and resilient First Nations children
  • improved school attendance and engagement; higher levels of educational attainment
  • improved physical and mental health and wellbeing
  • greater social inclusion and cohesion
  • more employment, economic opportunities and meaningful work
  • safer communities with reductions in crime and improved rehabilitation
  • the prevention of suicide – fostering a secure sense of cultural identity is a powerful protective factor for young First Nations people and helps them navigate racism and being a minority group in their own country.


Art is talking about the land, the sea, about our culture, about our connection, about our kinship relationships –songs, dance, names, places, country, sacred sites. All these things are important to us.

Art is important for communities; it is a life-long journey to respect our culture and stay strong and for children to learn two-ways.

– From ANKA Value Statement

Inquiries demonstrating the importance of valuing culture

Numerous inquiries have demonstrated the link between interrupted culture and Indigenous disadvantage, and the importance of valuing culture in addressing this impact.

  • The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991) found that the history of colonisation, including destruction of culture, goes far to explain the over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody. It recommended the establishment of language and culture centres and that governments support these Indigenous initiatives (Recommendation 56).
  • The Bringing Them Home (1997) report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families concluded that a principal aim of child removal policies was to eliminate Indigenous cultures. Many witnesses spoke of their grief for the loss of their community and culture; for kinship, language, traditional knowledge, land and identity. Most suffered multiple disabling effects, communities suffered cultural disintegration, and the impacts have been intergenerational. The Inquiry recommended expanded funding for language and culture centres to ensure national coverage at a regional level (Recommendation 12a).
  • Doing Time – A Time for Doing (2011) report on the Inquiry into Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system reinforced the impact of historical processes that have disconnected First Nations people from their families, Elders, language, law and Country. This disconnection results in a loss of wellbeing, accountability and culture, as norms of appropriate social and cultural behaviour are not transferred from one generation to the next. The Inquiry recommended that the Commonwealth Government direct funding to locally led and developed programs that help young people at risk of criminal behaviour and have a strong focus on healing and culture (4.73).

Now is the time to cut through and to build on the nice words… Real change means working from the cultural strength that has been the key to our survival.

– KALACC Directors’ Statement

  • Learning from the Message Stick  (2016) reported on the Inquiry into Aboriginal Youth Suicide in Remote Areas – initiated following the suicide of a ten year old girl in the Kimberley. The Inquiry found that previous reports and inquiries had made recommendations to address the suicide crisis in remote Western Australian communities through cultural renewal and empowerment – primarily through First Nation-led culturally based programs – but that the importance of culturally based programs continues to be overlooked. The report states that the importance of culture cannot be underestimated in addressing the suicide crisis and that governments’ have failed to act on recommendations calling for culturally based solutions.

Key research links showing arts and culture support outcomes across the Closing the Gap framework

  • The Elders’ report into preventing Indigenous self-harm and youth suicide (PDF 2.7MB) (2014) – voices of Elders’ calling for action to improve Indigenous wellbeing in Australia, with foreword by Mick Gooda and introduction by Professor Pat Dudgeon. Themes include community empowerment, the strengthening of cultural identity, maintenance of Indigenous languages, culturally appropriate employment, bi-cultural education and returning to country.
  • Living Culture: First Nations arts participation and wellbeing (2017) presents arts and culture data from the ABS’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) and contributes to the growing body of evidence about the critical role of culture as the foundation of First Nations wellbeing.
  • The Interplay Project (2011–2017) – a comprehensive ‘whole of system’ project about First Nations wellbeing by the CRC-REP, led by Sheree Cairney.
  • Supporting healthy communities through arts programs (2014) – a review for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. It found benefits of participation in First Nations arts programs include improved physical and mental health and wellbeing; increased social inclusion and cohesion; improvements in school retention and attitudes towards learning; increased validation of, and connection to, culture; improved social and cognitive skills; and some evidence of crime reduction.
Mary Katatjuku Pan from Amata (SA) with Punu Kutjara. 2016. Image by Rhett Hammerton. Copyright Tjanpi Desert Weavers
  • Culture and Closing the Gap (PDF 1.4MB) (2012) – a review about culture and the Closing the Gap building blocks found that cultural participation supports: early childhood development by promoting resilience, and by supporting engagement in early childhood services and education; schooling by supporting self-esteem, attendance and academic performance; health by promoting physical and mental health and wellbeing; economic participation through employment, income from arts, and working on Country; safe communities through cultural identity as a protective factor against suicide, resilience in the face of racism, and diversion from offending; and culturally legitimate governance and leadership.
  • Indigenous Cultural Festivals: Evaluating impact on community health and wellbeing (PDF 7.4MB) (2010) – an evaluation of three First Nations festivals by researchers from RMIT. It found benefits for participants included: empowerment, capacity building, social capital, exposure to positive role models, cultural security, cultural confidence, local leadership, economic opportunities and pride in Indigenous identity.
  • Speaking an Indigenous language linked to youth wellbeing (PDF 386KB) (2011) – ABS analysis of the 2008 NATSISS found that First Nations youth who speak an Indigenous language are less likely to experience risk factors associated with poor wellbeing, including high risk alcohol consumption, illicit substance use and violence.
  • Traditional Culture and the Wellbeing of Indigenous Australians (2011) – analysis of the 2008 NATSISS found that First Nations people who participate in cultural activities have higher rates of secondary school completion, are more likely to be employed, have markedly better physical and mental health, and are less likely to abuse alcohol or be charged by the police.

International rights, treaties and obligations about culture and self-determination

All peoples have the right to participate in cultural and artistic life by virtue of their right to self-determination – the right of choice, participation and control. Self-determination is the most fundamental right for First Nations people, and is central to addressing disadvantage.

Refreshing the Closing the Gap framework to recognise the central role of culture, underpinned by First Nations decision-making supports the Australian Governments’ commitment to a range of international treaties and obligations.

The Australia Council’s First Nations arts research program

The Australia Council’s submission to the Closing the Gap refresh builds on our First Nations arts research program. Research is the foundation of our advocacy.

  •  Building Audiences (2015) – research exploring strategies for increasing audiences in the First Nations arts sector.
  • Showcasing Creativity (2016) – research examining First Nations performing arts programming in Australia’s mainstream venues and festivals.
  • Connecting Australians (2017) – results from the National Arts Participation Survey about Australian’s engagement with the arts, including increased engagement with First Nations arts.
  • Living Culture (2017) – presents arts and culture data from the NATSISS and contributes to the growing body of evidence about the critical role of culture as the foundation of First Nations wellbeing.