Progress on meeting the stated goals of the Closing the Gap initiative has been mixed, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a speech. The PM praised Indigenous leaders and the other major parties for their collaborative approach to the project, citing several instances where the health and education standards of Indigenous Australians has improved.
"Indigenous infant mortality rates have more than halved over the past 16 years," Turnbull said. "Immunisation rates for Indigenous children are high and by the age of 5, more Indigenous children are immunised compared with the overall Australian population. As parents, universally, we want more for our children than was afforded to us by our own parents and society. That is a natural ambition. We want our children to have opportunities that we didn't have.
"Now this grassroots movement has shaped and will continue to shape policy across governments and you should be so proud of that. But, more importantly, it ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies born today live longer, are healthier, and have more opportunities to live and achieve their full potential."
The official Closing the Gap program started in 2006 and took its name from the National Indigenous Health Equality Campaign, which had been using the name as a guiding principle for some years beforehand. Its stated goals are to close the life expenctancy gap within 25 years, halve the infant mortality rate within a decade, provide early education in remote areas, improve high school finishing rates and employment outcomes and improve literacy and numeracy skills.
In his remarks, Turnbull noted that this initiative had the support of opposition leader Bill Shorten and Greens leader Richard Di Natale, both of whom were in attendance. Also at the Parliament House breakfast function were members of the local Ngunnawal people, custodians of the land in and around Canberra for thousands of years.
Turnbull said the government must work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a relationship based on mutual respect, echoing Mick Gooda's calls for greater consultation with, and trust in, Indigenous people on advancing Closing the Gap ideals.
"We need to listen to and draw on the wisdom, the ingenuity, the insights of Indigenous people across the nation from the cities to remote communities," Turnbull said. "I can't stress enough how important it is to allow decisions to be made closer to the people and the communities those policies affect. So we have to emphasise the key priorities of health, education, employment and economic empowerment will not change."
Carmen Parter, a descendent of the Darumbal and Juru clans of the Birra Gubba Nations of Queensland, and vice-president of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Health at the Public Health Association of Australia, said more needed to be done.
“After 10 years, the government needs to refocus efforts to close the life expectancy gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” Parter said. “The government has made a good start but harder hitting goals are needed to reach health equality in 2030. The government needs to set aside appropriate funding for the Implementation Plan in the 2016 federal Budget.
"Ambitious goals need to be set to make a real difference to the life expectancy among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If we keep going at this rate it could add another 10 years to the plan.”
Associate professor Catriona Elder, from the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Sydney University, labelled Closing the Gap a "failure" and said the lack of Indigenous input into the design was why it was falling short.
"What tends to happen in programs designed mostly by non-Indigenous people is that the solutions focus on what non-Indigenous people think are the best outcomes," Elder said. "And more and more frequently, these goals are driven by statistics – an increase in life expectancy or a decrease in the number of Indigenous people smoking.
“For most non-Indigenous Australians, especially those who have committed themselves to Indigenous social justice, these goals seem self-explanatory and unquestionably good. However, what is left out of this equation is Indigenous people themselves. Indigenous people need to be at the heart of the Closing the Gap discussion.”
Professor Ian Anderson from the University of Melbourne has researched health and education interventions involving Indigenous Australians. He agreed with the political classes that the result was mixed.
"Some of the positive trends we have seen in the report are around child mortality," he said. "It's nice to see, for the first time, some gap reduction in literacy and numeracy for Indigenous students and I am pleased to see some of the positive trends in education. There are some challenges around the ways in which we set a target in life expectancy. I think we may be looking at a longer time frame: 25–30 years. The gap in employment remains troubling. I do want to acknowledge some of the improvements we have seen but we need to focus more on those areas where we are not getting traction."
The most strident criticism of Closing the Gap's 2016 report appears to be centred around how much influence Indigenous Australians are having in the process. Anderson has said this has some basis in fact, though he did not wholly agree.
"It's not as if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have not been in the conversation," he said. "I have no doubt that issues like life expectancy and schooling are important to the majority of Indigenous Australians, however, I guess a legitimate question is 'What's not there? Are there areas of priority that are missing from the conversations that were had?' For example, issues of great concern such as suicide rates or high levels of incarceration – those issues are of deep and considerable concern to Indigenous Australians."
The Australian Education Union linked Closing the Gap's underperformance to the lack of funding for schools. “The Turnbull Government’s decision not to fund the last two years of the Gonski agreements will cost schools $4.5 billion and deny resources to the disadvantaged schools, which educate the majority of Indigenous students," AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe said. “Gonski funding includes an extra loading for Indigenous students, because it recognises the extra needs they have and the importance of education in addressing Indigenous disadvantage."
Turnbull concluded his speech by reaffirming his government's commitment to Closing the Gap.
Afterwards, Turnbull tabled the report to Parliament.
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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tabled the Close the Gap report pic.twitter.com/o2jtS0h5J3
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