Closing the Gap: Indigenous health, education, employment ‘not on track’

Indigenous Australians have had a difficult history with Australian governments.

Indigenous Australians have had a difficult history with Australian governments. Photo: Getty

The latest Closing the Gap report has painted a bleak picture of government efforts to improve the lives of Australia’s indigenous communities, including the startling statistic that more than half of all Aboriginal Australians are unemployed.

Community leaders and experts called for an overhaul of Aboriginal affairs policies after the ninth annual report, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, showed Australia was not on track to meet six of the seven targets in health, education and employment.

The target of closing the life-expectancy gap by 2031 was not on track to be met, the report found, despite a decline in the total indigenous mortality rate between 1998 and 2015.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion told parliament a target to close the life expectancy gap for indigenous Australians by 2031 was “unrealistic”.

“This target, let’s be frank, was ambitious and unrealistic in such a short time frame,” he said, hours after the prime minister handed down the ninth annual Closing the Gap report on Tuesday.

The report also showed the indigenous mortality rate from cancer, the second-leading cause of death, was rising and the gap widening.

Efforts to halve the child mortality disparity are also lagging following a recorded increase in the rate of indigenous child mortality between 2014-15.

The goal to halve the employment gap is also not on track, with the indigenous employment rate falling to 48.4 per cent from to 53.8 in 2008.

And although the target to halve the Year 12 attainment gap is on track, experts warned many indigenous school students were still significantly behind their peers.

The report showed reading and numeracy outcomes, and school attendance results also lagging behind.

“The reality is, of those students that complete Year 12, less than half here in New South Wales, complete with an ATAR,” said Professor Shane Houston, University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services).

Professor Houston, a former Aboriginal Policy executive director in the Northern Territory government, told The New Daily a more coordinated response to educational and employment disadvantages was needed.

“Given the Prime Minister made such an important point that Aboriginal university graduates have the same employment rates as non-indigenous Australians, we’ve got to think more carefully about how we connect up the various efforts to ensure they deliver the best result,” he said.

“I think that is one of the failings that is holding back the delivery on these very important targets.”

Professor Houston warned that unless governments changed their approach, “we’re going to be talking about these same types of results 10 years from now”.

There is evidence that one-sized programs designed in Canberra are being rolled out. That doesn’t work.

“There’s no way you could defend the results that we’ve got. It’s a national challenge that requires a willingness to take a new approach.

“If we don’t do that, the disappointment that people have will soon become apathy, and then I think Australia as a nation will go, ‘We don’t need to worry about that because it’s too intractable’.

“We have to be prepared to bleed a little. In the absence of that, we’re not going to go anywhere.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Parliament on Tuesday the report showed “we are still not making enough progress”.

Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull speaks to indigenous Labor MP Linda Burney ahead of delivering the Closing the Gap report on Tuesday. Photo: AAP

He said the government would expand the Productivity Commission to include a new indigenous commissioner and invest $50 million for indigenous policy research.

“Even with successive Commonwealth and state governments investing more resources, and even with tens of thousands of dedicated Australians seeking to contribute and engage, we are still not making enough progress.”

But Mr Turnbull said one positive from the report was that it showed “no employment gap between indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians with a university degree”.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner has called for the federal government to refresh the Closing the Gap targets in order to properly combat Aboriginal disadvantage.

“The targets need revising to include youth justice and incarceration targets, as well as housing and economic participation targets,” Mr Gunner said.

“These are key indicators that affect almost all of the existing Closing the Gap targets.”

Earlier, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples urged politicians to support the Redfern Statement, which calls for a new relationship between indigenous communities and policymakers.

That includes a Closing the Gap target aimed at reducing imprisonment rates, establishing a standalone department for indigenous affairs and a greater role for local communities.

University of Melbourne indigenous affairs expert Associate Professor Sarah Maddison told The New Daily the report’s dire results were “entirely unsurprising”.

“We’ve moved away from community development models of the 1970s which saw communities responsible for their own self-improvement, towards a very individualised model of government intervention and a set of carrots and ever-bigger sticks.”

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