Battle against disadvantage and inequality

Victoria Laurie

Despite repeated government attempts to lift Aboriginal peoples out of poverty, by many indicators the gap between them and the rest of Australian society seems still to be widening.

‘Closing the Gap’ has been a catchword of successive Australian governments, in their efforts to breach the socio-economic divide separating Aboriginal people from non-indigenous Australians. 

The nation’s indigenous population, estimated at 575,600, or less than 3 percent of Australia’s 21 million people, is small and comparatively young. According to the 2006 census, 38 percent of indigenous Australians are aged 14 years and under, compared to just 19 percent of the non-indigenous population. Even so, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders suffer worse health, endure poorer housing, have lower-paid jobs and die younger than most other Australians. 

Oft-cited reasons for Aboriginal disadvantage include an enduring legacy of dispossession since British colonial settlement in the 1780s, racial discrimination, and policies that split indigenous families and banned native languages lasting well into the 20th century. Their poor situation is also seen as rooted in a fundamental clash of values – materialistic European culture versus the unique world view of Dreamtime hunter-gatherers. 

In April 2002, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) initiated a series of reports to measure the impact of government policies on indigenous disadvantage. Leaders from community, welfare and government sectors vowed to ‘close the gap’ so that Aboriginal peoples could “enjoy a similar standard of living to that of other Australians, without losing their cultural identity”. 

In March 2008, COAG launched ‘Closing the Gap’ as a policy; state and federal leaders promised to work together to achieve parity for all Australian citizens in health status and life expectancy by 2030.

Specifically, the leaders set six ambitious goals, which Julia Gillard’s Labor government is still striving to achieve. Some goals tackle life and death issues, while others seek to establish basic fairness. 

So what are the six goals? First, the gap in life expectancy between black and white Australians must be halved within one generation – on average, Aboriginal Australians die ten years earlier than non-Aboriginal citizens. Second, the difference in black-white mortality rates in children under five must be halved in a decade. Third, all indigenous children under four years in remote communities should have access to good early childhood programmes within five years. Fourth, the gap in reading, writing and numeracy skills among children must be cut by 50 percent. Fifth, the disparity in achievement between black and white high-school students must be halved by 2020. And sixth, the gap in employment rates must also be halved in ten years time. 

So, nearly a decade after the COAG’s first report, and three years on from ‘Closing the Gap’, what has been achieved? The news is not good, according to Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2011, released in August by the Australian Productivity Commission. The report noted that, of 45 indicators used to measure disadvantage, only 13 had improved, ten had seen no change and another seven had actually deteriorated, among them the rates of child abuse and neglect, hospitalisations from preventable diseases, and the number of Aboriginal people in jail – the Commission found 14 times as many indigenous as non-indigenous Australians were imprisoned last year (see Leading Light left/below). 

On the positive side, mortality rates for indigenous people dropped by 27 percent between 1991 and 2009, and child deaths have declined by over 45 percent. Home ownership among Aboriginal people has risen, and small gains have also been made in levels of higher education and employment.

In his report, Productivity Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald laments the fact that child abuse rates have risen over ten years, from 15 to 37 per 1,000 indigenous children (contrasted with a rate of 4 to 5 per 1,000 for non-indigenous children). “We’ve got two things – better reporting and better investigation leading to increased numbers. But there does seem to be a genuine increase in the level of child abuse in indigenous communities across Australia.” 

It’s not as if most Aboriginal peoples live in far-flung outposts or desert communities, away from basic services. Over three quarters live in cities or regional towns, yet proximity to hospitals, schools and welfare services seems unrelated to improved quality of life. But, says Fitzgerald, success stories can be found in some communities “where there is local involvement, participation in programme development [and] a sense of empowerment”. 

Listed as ‘things that work’, the report identifies inspirational models like Cape York Institute’s Higher Expectations Program, where indigenous children are educated in Queensland’s academically successful boarding schools; Swinburne University’s Bert Williams Aboriginal Youth Service, where unemployed youth can take up pre-university study; or The Cross Borders Remote Area Program in harsh Central Australia, where physical and psychological harm to women and children is reduced by running anger-management courses for men. 

“Over time,” concludes the report, “editions of this report are tracking where governments have had an impact on indigenous disadvantage – and where work still needs to be done.”

About the author:

Victoria Laurie is a Perth-based journalist and author who writes for several national publications


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International