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Closing the Gap 12 years on: little progress, high hopes

Imogen Kars -

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, released in late July, was met with mixed reactions.

Featuring 16 new socioeconomic targets and the commitment to shared decision-making between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives, it reset the original 2008 targets after little year-to-year progress.

The Coalition of Peaks, a representative body made up of approximately 50 Indigenous community-controlled organisations, believes progress on the targets over the last 12 years didn't progress as far as was hoped, as governments didn't follow through with their commitments.

Pat Turner AM, Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks and CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), said targets alone do not drive change.

"The National Agreement gives our people and the wider Australian public a birds eye view of every government's level of commitment to actually close the giant chasm of need," she said.

The most recent progress report found only two of six targets were on track: early education and Year 12 attainment.

Despite the overall lack of progress, there are high hopes for the new National Agreement. A major improvement from the Coalition of Peaks' perspective is the inclusion of safe housing and a reduction of incarceration as targets.

They believe housing issues underpin everything, and form one of the largest gaps.

"How can our people be expected to get and hold a job, go to school on time and be ready to learn, stay healthy and get a decent night's sleep when they live in overcrowded and unsafe houses?" Turner said.

Nerita Waight, Co-Chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), said despite the inclusion of an aim for a reduction in adult incarceration rates, the new target of 15 per cent is unacceptable.

"The new Closing the Gap Agreement has been a once a decade opportunity for governments to end the overincarceration of adults and children. Instead they have chosen to lock up our futures and throw away this historic chance to set things right," she said.

"Possible solutions are all on the tableâ€"like diversion, reforming bail laws, justice reinvestment, raising the age of criminal responsibility, ending mandatory sentencing. To governments, justice targets are just numbers on a page. To us they're about our lives: our family, friends, loved ones, and community."

Child mortality

In 2008, the government set forth to halve the gap in Indigenous child mortality rates within a decade (2018).

Despite Indigenous child mortality rates having improved slightly, by around seven per cent, it remains one of the largest gaps. The mortality rate for non-Indigenous children has improved further, widening the gap.

From 2014 to 2018, the main cause of Indigenous child deaths was perinatal conditions (49 per cent), including pregnancy complications and birth.

Employment

Gaps in employment have also remained largely unchanged: the original target, to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade, has fallen flat.

The last decade saw an improvement of just 0.9 per cent for Indigenous Australians.

One of the largest overall gaps, in 2018 the Indigenous employment rate sat at around 49 per cent compared to 75 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians, with the largest gaps found in remote areas.

Life Expectancy

As with employment, the gap in life expectancy also remains mostly unchanged due to an improvement in non-Indigenous statistics.

The target, to close the life expectancy gap within a generation by 2031, is not on track, and life expectancy for Indigenous Australians remains stagnant.

The 2015-2017 life expectancy was 71.6 years for Indigenous males (8.6 years less than non-Indigenous males) and 75.6 years for Indigenous females (7.8 years less than non-Indigenous females.

Education

Overall, the gaps in education have seen some improvement.

The aim for 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds to be enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is on track, with around 86.4 per cent enrolled as of 2018. This is in comparison to 91.3 per cent of non-Indigenous children.

Year 12 attainment has also seen progress, with the aim to halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20-24 on track.

Currently, two in three Indigenous students are completing Year 12 (66 per cent), with rates having increased by 21 per cent over the last decade. The gap is currently sitting at about 15 per cent, and is 6 per cent in major cities.

In contrast, the gap for school attendance has not improved at all. The original target, set in 2013, aimed to close the gap in attendance by 2018.

However, in 2019, attendance rates for Indigenous students sat at 82 per cent, compared to 92 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

Dr Melitta Hogarth, a Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, said these statistics are not surprising.

"Schools weren't set up for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studentsâ€"they've been disengaging almost as an active resistance to the factors that influence attendance like bullying, racism and the curriculum," she said.

Dr Hogarth said closing the gap in attendance rates isn't even an option until underlying factors are addressed. She called for a curriculum revision and further cultural awareness training for teachers who "have been in the system for some time".

Notably, the revised Closing the Gap 2020 targets omits school attendance as an aimâ€"despite the clear lack of progress over the years.

Introduction of priority reforms

While most gaps did not improve significantly, the Coalition of Peaks believes a renewed focus on formal partnerships and shared decision-making environments with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives will make a difference.

"The four priority reforms in the National Agreement are the real game changer," Turner said.

One of the reforms agrees to support and strengthen community-controlled services in order to deliver services that will support closing the gap.

The Coalition of Peaks believes community-controlled organisations deliver better outcomes because the Indigenous community feels the spaces are safer to access.

They believe if priority reforms are implemented in full, there will be a shift in all Closing the Gap targets.

Only time will tell if the reformed agreement will close the gaps, but one thing is for sureâ€"the onus of change needs to fall on governments, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives and organisations leading the way.

By Imogen Kars

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