Efforts to Close the Gap must be accelerated, not slackened, if small gains are to be built upon and early investment realised, according to the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative body.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said it was also vital to have independent, reliable data that tells us if we’re making real progress towards targets in health and life expectancy, education, employment and more.
The COAG Council of Reform Report on Indigenous Reform 2012-13, released overnight, shows progress over the past five years has been mixed. There’ve been improvements in some areas – childhood mortality, numeracy and literacy, and Year 12 attainment – but little progress in the areas of health and life expectancy and school attendance. Unfortunately, the gap is widening in employment outcomes.
“Our people continue to experience high levels of unemployment despite some improvement in education levels and boom times in key states, especially through mining and other development,” said Congress Co-Chair Kirstie Parker.
“We call on State, Territory and Federal Governments to ensure Australia’s natural resources wealth is fairly shared amongst all Australians. We implore them not to put First Australians last.
“Our unemployment rate is four times that of the general population. In 2012-13, our people were unemployed at a ratio of 4 to 1 or 21.6% compared to non-Indigenous rate at 5.1%, creating a gap of 16.5%. This is a step backwards over the past five years.
“The rate of employment fell hardest in WA where it dropped by 10.7%, and Qld dropped by 8.2%. The NT dropped by 6.8% since the Federal Intervention and subsequent Stronger Futures policy, which created hundreds of jobs for public servants but appear to have left our people passively unemployed.”
Added to this pressure, the COAG Reform Council report found there’d been little change to life expectancy and the level of obesity amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was double that of other Australians.
“Obesity is a major precursor to chronic disease such as diabetes and disability, which can only further impair our ability to participate in education and work,” Ms Parker said.
“And the Budget cut to anti-smoking initiatives at a time when we’re beginning to get some traction in reducing smoking rates also sits with pronouncements of commitment to help Close the Gap. It makes little sense.”
Ms Parker said the gap in school attendance rates over the past five years widened in SA, Tasmania, the ACT and NT.
“Despite the gap in school attendance rates, there was an increase in Year 12 attainment in most states. Yet this was counter to negative employment numbers, indicating improvements in education are not translating into jobs,” she said.
“We believe the NT result, in particular, indicates that coercive approaches to increasing school attendance since the Intervention will fail in the long run.”
Ms Parker said another telling point was the exclusion of key facts in the report. “Rates of incarceration continue to escalate unabated, particularly amongst our women and young people,” she said.
“Congress has called, and calls again, for a justice target to focus resources on strategies to break this cycle. We also renew our call for a further target to ensure equality for our people in accessing services under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Addressing both of these is vital if we are to Close the Gap.”
The COAG Reform Council is one of the Government agencies to be scrapped under the Federal Budget – making this its final report.
“It’s unclear whether this form of reporting will continue, and if so by whom,” Ms Parker said. “Budget papers suggest it may become the responsibility of Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C) to report on themselves but this would continue a concerning trend in the diminution of transparency and accountability.
“There must continue to be an independent mechanism of reporting and it is crucial that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and Congress as the national representative body are able to participate in analysis of the data previously collated by COAG Reform Council. We need a genuine partnership that recognises our unique expertise on issues that directly affect us. We need a seat at the table.”
Ms Parker said the Budget cut to the COAG Reform Council could be viewed in a similar way to the cut to Congress – a devaluing of independent voices. “Fortunately for Congress, we’re an independent organisation owned by our members who support the continuation of review and analysis as a vital requirement to Close the Gap.”
For more information, contact Chris Bonney on 02 8070 3100