Closing the Gap, very slowly

By Marius Smith

Today was Close the Gap day in Australia as not one but two key reports were released. The first is the Commonwealth Government’s official Closing the Gap report and the second is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Close the Gap – Progress and priorities report. The Commission’s document is effectively a “shadow report” put together by its Closing the Gap Campaign Steering Committee and focuses predominantly on health issues.

The Government report

The Government report is the seventh since the Rudd Government set targets in 2008 for closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in a number of areas, notably health, education and employment. Today’s report charts the progress being made against each of the seven targets, and it’s not pretty reading.

The report found that only two targets are on track to be met:

  • Halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018.
  • Halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20-24 in Year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates by 2018.

Another three targets are not on track:

  • Close the gap in life expectancy by 2031.
  • Halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018.
  • Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018.

In the case of employment outcomes, the report found that they have declined since 2008 and the GFC is not to blame:  the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment has increased. Progress on reading, writing and numeracy has been fitful, with some improvements in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia, “significant declines” in the ACT, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania and no progress in the Northern Territory.

There were two further targets set out in 2008. The first was to ensure access to early childhood education for all four year olds in remote communities by 2013. The target was not met – as of 2013 85% of students were enrolled, short of the 95% target. Data is not yet available for 2014, according to the report.

The final target is to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by 2018, but because the Council of Australian Governments agreed to change the baseline for this target to 2014 due to a lack of transparency relating to past attendance statistics, next year will be the first time we can monitor how progress is going. Nevertheless, the report notes that Indigenous attendance rates were above 90% in 44% of schools in 2014 while also stating that “limited progress has been made in recent years” and “the gap in school attendance rates…widens as children age and tends to be significantly greater in remote and very remote areas.”

Progress on Constitutional recognition?

The Prime Minister has flagged 27 May 2017 as a possible date for a referendum to recognise Indigenous peoples in the constitution. That date is significant – it is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that removed discriminatory provisions relating to Indigenous peoples.

There is no mention, however, of what the referendum question might be – that will become clearer when a joint Parliamentary committee reports in June of this year.

The Commission’s shadow report

The Human Rights Commission’s report, which is part of its campaign to close the gap on indigenous health equality, focuses on the health elements of the Closing the Gap targets. It’s worth reading because it helps to put the targets into greater context.

The campaign’s Steering Committee, which authored the report, highlights some of the more encouraging health outcomes over the past five years. In particular, it welcomes the small increase in life expectancy of 1.6 years for males (non-Indigenous men have seen an increase of .8 years) and .6 of a year for females (.5 of a year for non-Indigenous women). Worryingly, however, the Committee stated that the small “relative gains” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy were “within the margin for error and could in fact be non-existent.”

Because it’s very early to expect huge increases, the Committee states that it is encouraged by reduced rates of smoking (10% over the last decade), improved maternal and child health outcomes and “demonstrated inroads into the impact of chronic diseases” such as cardiovascular disease.

The authors highlight the importance of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Measures Survey. It is the largest biomedical survey of Indigenous people ever undertaken and has, according to the report, identified large numbers of Indigenous people with “treatable and preventable chronic conditions”. This data will make it easier to target future efforts to improve life expectancy.

The committee is highly critical of health cuts in the last Federal Budget, and in particular cuts to the “Tackling Indigenous Smoking” program.

Some of the Committee’s key recommendations are:

  • Reverse the government’s decision to discontinue the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee.
  • Increase funding for the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program.
  • Reduce imprisonment and violence rates by funding justice reinvestment measures (read the Castan Centre’s detailed 2013 submission to the federal parliament on justice reinvestment approaches).
  • Better target health policies to deal with chronic conditions, particularly by using primary health care as the front line.
  • Synchronise the Closing the Gap Strategy with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which focuses on getting children to school, getting adults to work and building safer Indigenous communities.
  • Better coordinate the various mental health, suicide and drug prevention strategies.

The recommendations also include a list of elements that the Committee believes should be included in the Implementation Plan for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan. These include “mapping regions with relatively poor health outcomes and inadequate services”, identifying and eradicating “systematic racism within the health system” and ensuring that all programs take account of cultural factors.

If there is an upside to be gleaned from all of this, we can perhaps look at the example of New Zealand . The Committee notes that Maori life expectancy in New Zealand increased by four years over the decade to 2012 but that this increase was the result of “two decades of sustained national effort”. It is reasonable to expect that even a well-run campaign to close the gap will start slowly and show its most promising results in later years.

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Marius Smith

Manager of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. www.twitter.com/mariussmith

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