Closing the Gap: time for traction on the ground

After almost a decade of updates we look at what really needs to change to Close the Gap

Gabrielle Murphy, University of Melbourne

Published 14 February 2017

In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a set of targets for Indigenous health, education and social participation. It was a significant moment in the history of the Federation.

Closing the Gap committed Australian governments to a timetable for change and laid down seven targets. The 2017 progress report was tabled by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Parliament on Tuesday 14 February.

Here, five University of Melbourne experts assess the progress being made and where the focus needs to be.

Professor Ian Anderson, the Pro Vice-Chancellor Engagement, argues that after nearly a decade of annual Closing the Gap reports being tabled to Federal Parliament, it’s time to take stock and, moreover, that the focus needs to be on gaining traction on the ground.

Indigenous secondary school students touring the University of Melbourne in 2016 as guests of Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development. Picture: John Henry for University of Melbourne

Professor Marcia Langton maintains the challenge of educating and finding employment for young Indigenous people demands a more rigorous reporting framework than provided by the Closing the Gap reports.

Associate Professor Sarah Maddison argues for a move away from deficit thinking in setting targets to build on the strengths, resilience and capacity in Indigenous communities.

Dr Nikki Moodie says a paradigm shift is needed for education targets for policy development models based on local needs, change drivers and leadership.

Finally, Dr Sana Nakata argues that new policy making in relation to Indigenous children is urgently needed to realise the ambitions of existing targets.

Closing the Gap Targets
Close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation (by 2031).
Halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade (by 2018).
Having 95 per cent of all Indigenous four year-olds enrolled in early childhood education (by 2025).
Close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years (by 2018).
Halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade (by 2018).
Halve the gap in Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 attaining Year 12 or equivalent (by 2020).
Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade (by 2018).

Professor ian anderson, pro vice-chancellor (engagement)

The Closing the Gap report has been significant in charting a direction for change and repositioning Indigenous affairs to a central position in the nation’s policy agenda. And while a network of non-government and grassroots organisations drove the Close the Gap agenda, more could be done to build traction on the ground.

Closing the Gap’s annual report card outcomes are mixed, with most of the commentary focusing on targets that are not on track. Target setting requires a mixture of science and politics and it’s important to get the balance right – otherwise the result will be unrealistic ambitions.”

Ian Anderson is Palawa Trowunna with kin ties to north-east Tasmanian clans such as Trawlwoolway, Plairmairrenner and Pairebenne.

Professor marcia langton, chair of australian indigenous studies

Education standards are the determinants of employment outcomes, and geographical location is significant – Indigenous employment rates are considerably higher in the major cities than in remote areas.

Education and employment data are vital for tracking improvements, because, for those who attain a high level of education, there is no employment gap.

In 2016, the Closing the Gap Report informed us that employment outcomes that came about due to new Commonwealth Public Service Indigenous employment targets and Indigenous procurement policy arrangements will be reported in 2017.

That report could not provide data for the previous year on its employment target, but nevertheless observed ‘This target is not on track.’ It also observed that, although no progress had been made against the target since 2008, Indigenous employment rates are considerably higher now than they were in the early 1990s.

The private sector contributed a significant proportion of the growth in Indigenous employment data, and yet the Closing the Gap Report doesn’t split the employment data by sector to illustrate this contribution.

Indigenous people turn to the Indigenous not-for-profit sector for employment, with the health sector being the largest employer of Indigenous Australians. But it is difficult to see the value of past Closing the Gap reports because itsdata doesn’t distinguish between private sector and not-for-profit sector employment.

There is a further issue – data should be collected from employers as opposed to the Australian Bureau of Statistics social surveys. This would provide a more accurate picture of Indigenous employment trends.

Indigenous workers carry out running repairs on giant machinery as part of their daily work at Christmas Creek mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia. Picture supplied

Substitution of social security as work-for-the-dole payments should not have been counted in employment data, and yet this has been the case throughout the scheme. The steep decline in Indigenous employment since 2008 is significantly attributed to the demise of the Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP) scheme, as well a softening of the labour market.

The 2016 Report noted the government’s new Indigenous Affairs employment programs, including the Vocational Training and Employment Centres (VTEC), the Community Development Program, and the Employment Parity Initiative. If they are a success they should help boost Indigenous employment.

The Closing the Gap report is confusing on Indigenous employment rates, and has been misinterpreted in the media.

The most significant finding on progress in closing the gap in Indigenous employment in the 2016 report makes the point that ‘there is a strong link between education and employment – at high levels of education there is virtually no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.’

Andrew Forrest’s Creating Parity provides an analysis of the enormity of the challenge:

“Some 60% of all first Australian 17-to-24-year-olds are not engaged in work or further education (compared to only 26% of other young Australians). The employment rate for working-age first Australians is 46%, 30 percentage points below that of other Australians. In remote and very remote areas the story is much worse, with only around 35% of the first Australian population of working age employed compared to 83% of other people.’’

The challenge of educating and finding employment for the imminent surge of young Indigenous people into the labour market demands a much more rigorous and comprehensive data collection and reporting framework than the Closing the Gap reports have provided to date.”

Professor Marcia Langton is a descendant of the Iman people.

Associate professor sarah maddison, school of social and political sciences

The Federal Government’s Closing the Gap program addressing Indigenous disadvantage has, at best, met with only mixed success. There are many reasons for this, all – to a greater or lesser extent – rooted in the colonial history of Australia and the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian state.

This relationship, in which Indigenous people are seen as a problem to be solved by the state, produces what is known as ‘deficit thinking’. In other words, the ‘gaps’ being addressed by Closing the Gap are understood to be the result of deficits within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, communities, and lifestyles.

The idea that Indigenous people need to be helped by the state, rather than act as agents of their own destiny, has framed the Closing the Gap program since its inception.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and Indigenous disadvantage, are framed as a problem to be acted on by the state rather than through the co-creation of policy and programs by the state with Indigenous people.

Over several decades, international research including the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona point us in a dramatically different direction and document factors producing a turnaround in precisely the outcomes that are the focus of Closing the Gap.

It’s time for government to get out the way and put Indigenous communities in the driving seat, argues Associate Professor Sarah Maddison. Picture: Ryan Wick/Flick

In essence, what the research tells us is that the most effective way to ‘close the gap’ for native nations is for government to get out of the way and enable tribal governments to take control of their own health, education, welfare, and justice services. Or, as the Harvard Project website argues, “when Native nations make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform those of external decision makers”.

Australia has pursued a deficit-based approach for far too long.

Rooted in colonialism and paternalism, Closing the Gap has understood government as the key agent of change in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives. As Close the Gap enters its second decade, it’s time for a new approach.

It’s time for government to get out of the way, get rid of deficit thinking, and build on the strengths, resilience and capacity that is evident in Indigenous communities throughout Australia.

Associate Professor Sarah Maddison is a non-Indigenous person who lives and works on the unceded territories of the Kulin Nation.

Dr nikki moodie, melbourne graduate school of education

The call for more ‘evidence-based policy’ in Indigenous education has led to extensive data harmonisation across jurisdictions. However, there are few indicators which identify the quality of engagement between students, families and schools or universities.

The focus on things we can easily measure (attendance and enrolment rates, retention, completion and NAPLAN results) has recently been supplemented by data on educational workforce development and the number of Indigenous children who have been taught Indigenous culture at school.

These newer indicators get closer to measuring the things we know are important to Indigenous wellbeing, but don’t formalise a critical component of Indigenous success – relationships.

A number of jurisdictions, including New South Wales and Victoria, have recently reformulated their Indigenous education policies to focus on relational factors, like school-community partnerships (a strategy long adopted in the tertiary sector), increased support for local Indigenous education consultative groups, and language revival.

Indicators such as these identify the degree to which relationships between students, families, schools and communities are supported but, moreover, the role educational institutions play as community hubs, employers, and places of safety and learning.

School attendance, NAPLAN results and Year 12 attainment are easy to measure, but that doesn’t mean they are the right – or the only – things to measure.

Mapping the prevalence of high quality Indigenous curriculum content for all Australian children, or Indigenous university completions for example, might be other ways to understand how well our education system is working on these issues, but a genuinely evidence-based approach to Indigenous education will always respond to the diversity and needs of local communities.

Despite some changes and refinements over the past decade, Closing the Gap targets don’t take into account the best research we have on improving educational outcomes.

A paradigm shift is required – towards new policy development models based on local needs and leadership – to ensure that learning conversations happen both ways over the decade to come.

Dr Nikki Moodie is Gamilaraay.

Dr sana nakata, school of social and political sciences

Four of the seven Closing the Gap targets explicitly concern the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The other three, focused on halving the gap in Year 12 attainment among 20-24 year olds, halving the gap in employment outcomes and closing the gap in life expectancy, are highly dependent on realisation of the other four targets for health and education during early childhood and school years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Halving the gap in child mortality rates by 2018 will positively impact the life expectancy gap overall, but as can be inferred from the 2016 report, we are not on track to close the life expectancy gap entirely by 2031.

Targets almost entirely predicated on what happens in childhood are challenging because achieving them demands a set of strategies and policies that intervene in family life. Against an historical background of population management, strategies that ultimately created Stolen Generations, this is difficult terrain on which to pursue such important and urgent reform.

As such, Closing the Gap targets and policies seeking to deliver on those targets, need to be developed in relation to Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The 2012 UN committee on the Rights of the Child specifically observed the ‘serious and widespread discrimination faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, including in terms of provision of and accessibility to basic services and significant over-representation in the criminal justice system and in out-of-home care.’

In June 2015, over 15,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were in out-of-home care. This represents more than a five-fold increase in the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care since the 1997 Bringing Them Home report.

With the mistreatment of Dylan Voller at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre bringing much needed attention to the continued overrepresentation and widespread mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the youth justice system, Australia’s failure to protect children’s rights – particularly the rights of Indigenous children – is as acute as ever.

Urgent and radical rethinking of how we account for all children – especially Indigenous Australian children – in politics and policy-making is needed.

Failure to do so will see these gaps remain for many generations to come.”

Dr Sana Nakata is a Torres Strait Islander.

Banner Image: Members of the Gumatj clan perform ceremonial dances at opening of the Garma Festival 2016. Picture: Melanie Faith Dove, Yothu Yindi Foundation

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