Some Australians Are Still More Equal Than Others: Closing The Gap Report 2017

The ninth Closing the Gap report was released on Tuesday by the Australian Government, which found that only one of the seven targets to improve health, education, and employment among the Indigenous Australian population were on track.

Whilst Aboriginal Australians make up just three percent of the 23 million population, they are vastly over-represented at the bottom of almost every economic and social indicator, and have disproportionately high rates of incarceration and suicide.

In 2008, the Federal and State governments of Australia committed to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities to close the substantial gap in living standards in order to eventually achieve equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the areas of health, education, and employment. However, besides lifting high school completion rates, the 2017 report concludes that progress towards the six Closing the Gap targets is not on track, despite longer term improvements across the board.

The annual report found that the mortality rate for Indigenous children under four years old is more than double that of the non-Indigenous population, at 165 per 100,000 from 2011-2015. Over the longer term (1998-2015), this mortality rate has declined by 33 percent and the gap by 31 percent, but the target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is not on track.

The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is also behind schedule. 2013 figures show that the average Indigenous male has a life expectancy of 10.6 years less than their non-Indigenous countrymen, whilst life expectancy for Indigenous females is 9.5 years less. According to the report, the problem of rising mortality rates due to cancer among the Indigenous community is a significant contributor to the divide.

In education, the target for 95 percent of all Indigenous four-year-olds to be enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is getting away, with 87 percent enrollment in 2015 compared with 98 percent for non-Indigenous children. The gap in school attendance between Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children is also about 10 percent (83.4 percent Indigenous and 93.1 percent non-Indigenous in 2016). The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy for Indigenous students is also behind, despite some significant improvements in specific year groups.

The only real success for the government in its report was that the target to halve the gap in Year 12 education attainment by 2020 is on track, with a rise in the proportion of Indigenous 20-24 year-olds that achieve this level of education, with 45.4 percent in 2008 to 61.5 percent in 2014-15.

When considering employment, the rate of working Indigenous people was 48.4 percent in 2014-15, compared with 72.6 percent for non-Indigenous Australians, meaning that the target to halve the employment gap by 2018 is also unlikely to be met. The report notes that the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in remote areas, where employment is less available, is an important factor towards these figures.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking to parliament, acknowledged that the government is missing key targets and announced a $38 million investment to enhance the research and evaluation behind these largely ineffectual ‘closing the gap’ policies. “Even with successive Commonwealth and state governments investing more resources, and even with tens of thousands of dedicated Australians seeks to contribute and engage, we are still not making enough progress,” he said.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who, whilst in office in 2008, made a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for centuries of historical injustice, also responded to the report, describing it as a “political disaster.” He added that Australia is at risk of a “second stolen generation” involving children being removed from their families under current child protection laws, which are often criticized as being a new form of white paternalism towards troubled Indigenous communities. “We cannot simply stand back and let the numbers of Indigenous children being removed grow year by year, without other options being tested within the wider indigenous community,” Rudd said.

With that said, almost 10 years after the historic apology, its symbolic importance seems yet to be matched by sufficient improvements in Indigenous living standards and race relations.

Lucas Hafey