The gap isn’t closing – latest report reveals few gains

Image from Prime Minister's Office.

Australia is failing to meet its targets for improvement in six of seven key areas in Indigenous health, education and employment, according to the annual Closing the Gap report tabled in Federal Parliament today by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Closing the Gap is a yearly report card on efforts to remove disadvantages in Indigenous Australia.

This year’s report showed the nation was not on track to halving the gap in child mortality rates by next year, to closing the gap in life expectancy by 2031 or to having Indigenous children attend school at the same rates as non-Indigenous children by next year.

Targets to have Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education at the same rates as other children by 2025 were also not on track.

Goals for school attendance, reading and numeracy and employment, which had all been set for next year, were falling short.

Secondary education offered a rare ray of hope. The number of Indigenous Australians aged from 20 to 24 years who had completed Year 12 or an equivalent rose from 45.4 percent in 2008 to 61.5 percent in 2014-15, meaning the nation was on course to halve the gap in Year 12 graduates by 2020.

In delivering the report, Mr Turnbull said an Indigenous commissioner would be appointed to the Productivity Commission to evaluate programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

Some Indigenous leaders were dismayed by today’s report.

“We’re at the crisis point now,” National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Rod Little said. “We’ve been saying that for the last two years.

“The last two Closing the Gap reports seem to say ‘We’ve made little success but it will be okay’. That’s government’s view of the world.

“We need to make some massive changes to build the confidence of our people and in the Australian community that we’re serious about changing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.”

Mr Little said a lack of clear processes for government funding decisions and policy changes hampered efforts for improvement.

Professor Tom Calma, a former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, said results were linked to funding.

His 2005 Social Justice Report called for the life expectancy gap to be closed within a generation and spearheaded the original campaign.

“I thought that whilst the figures (today) were not identifying that we’re achieving and that we are below in all the areas, we can say we are trending in the right direction, but we need to have a much more sustainable effort by government,” Professor Calma said.

“To have consistent policy direction and funding based on needs is what we called for in the 2005 Social Justice Report. It is still important today.

“We are seeing some real good gains in some areas in the past and that’s when money was invested. When we keep the money stagnated, we just have the status quo and there is no change.

“That’s what we need to look at.”

Professor Calma, now the national coordinator for Tackling Indigenous Smoking, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities were giving up smoking, but 2018 targets still wouldn’t be attained because of inconsistent funding and policies.

“Big tick for the community and the way they have gotten behind the Tackling Indigenous Smoking campaign. Small tick for government – they are still funding it which is good, but to get the big tick they need to look at increased funding and some policy stability,” he said.

Reconciliation Australia chief executive officer Justin Mohamed said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations found it difficult to plan for the medium to long-term because of funding uncertainty.

He said more than $500 million was removed from the Indigenous Affairs budget in 2014 and there was no funding strategy for the National Congress of Australia’s First People, an organisation set up to give Indigenous Australia a voice in Canberra.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed Australia wasn’t making enough progress.

“We will continue to focus on key priorities – from preconception and the early years through school, providing a positive start to life, which of course opens opportunities for further study and employment,” he said.

“The high rates of suicide and disproportionately high rates of incarceration among our First Australians are issues that all governments, in partnership with community, need to work tirelessly to resolve.

“We have listened to calls from the community. We will not shy away from our goal of supporting equal opportunity for First Australians. This is our national responsibility. Our commitment to the end goal will not waiver, but we must do things differently. We must build on what is working and change what isn’t working.”

In June last year the National Congress of Australia’s First People and other peak Indigenous organisations released their Redfern Statement, which provided a blueprint for change.

CLOSING THE GAP 2017 — KEY FINDINGS

CHILD MORTALITY. By next year it was hoped Australia would have halved the gap in mortality rates for children under five, but this year’s report fell short. The 2015 Indigenous child mortality rate was just outside the range for the target. Low birthweight babies still cause concern. In 2014 the low birthweight rate among babies born to Indigenous mothers was still more than twice that of babies with non-Indigenous mothers –10.5 percent compared to 4.7 percent. Smoking during pregnancy was a major factor.

LIFE EXPECTANCY. While deaths from circulatory disease in Indigenous Australians have declined, the rate of deaths from cancer have risen. Between 1998 and 2015 there was a 21 per cent increase in the cancer mortality rate for Indigenous Australians and a 13 per cent decline for non-Indigenous Australians. Recent declines in smoking rates in Indigenous Australia are expected to contribute to improvements in the future.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION. In 2015, 87 per cent of all Indigenous children were enrolled in early childhood education in the year before full-time school, compared with 98 per cent of non-Indigenous children. South Australia, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory are showing 100 per cent enrolment rates for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. The target is 95 percent by 2025.

SCHOOL ATTENDANCE. The attendance rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in 2016 was 83.4 per cent. The attendance rate for non-Indigenous students was 93.1 per cent.

READING AND NUMERACY. Of eight areas measured — reading and numeracy for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 — only Year 9 numeracy was on track. However half of the eight areas showed improvements in the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at or above the national minimum standard between 2008 and 2016. The four areas were Years 3 and 5 reading and Years 5 and 9 numeracy. The goal had been to halve the gap in literacy and numeracy by next year.

YEAR 12. Bucking the trend was the goal of halving the gap in Indigenous Year 12 graduates by 2020. This area is on track.

EMPLOYMENT. While there was an increase in the Indigenous employment rate since 1994, there was a decline since 2008. In 2014-15, the Indigenous employment rate was 48.4 per cent, compared with 72.6 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. Geography was cited as a factor. In 2014-15, only 35.1 per cent of Indigenous people of working age in very remote areas were employed, compared with 57.5 per cent of those in major cities. The target was to halve the gap by next year.

By Wendy Caccetta

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