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Issue #1722      March 9, 2016

2016 Closing the Gap report

Frustration as gaps remain

With Aboriginal life expectancy still lagging behind the rest of the population by a decade, Indigenous leaders say they are frustrated with the lack of consistency from government and “sick and tired” of going to funerals.

Photo: Alice Kemble

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull presented the eighth Closing the Gap report to Parliament last month, confirming only two of its seven health, education and employment targets remain on track.

The report paints a similar overall picture to last year, while progress on some targets hasn’t changed in a decade. Indigenous leaders, including Close the Gap co-chair Mick Gooda, are calling for an overhaul of the relationship between government and their communities.

“When you work in Aboriginal affairs, frustration is a byword; we’re just used to it,” Gooda said. “But the one thing ... is this bloody resilience of our mob to just keep getting up every day and hitting the deck again and having another go.”

The 2016 report shows targets to halve child mortality by 2018 and Indigenous Year 12 attainment levels are on track. But the gap between life expectancy for Indigenous and other Australians remains at around 10 years and unlikely to close by 2031.

No progress had been made on employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians since the target was set in 2008, with the goal to halve the workforce gap still out of reach.

Reading and numeracy results are slightly better with Turnbull confident closing the education gap remains achievable. The Prime Minister conceded there had been mixed progress on several targets over the eight years since they were set.

Patrick Dodson says the biggest problem is the program doesn’t have a buy-in from Indigenous communities, and a new approach is desperately needed.

“We’re basically changing the table cloth on a table without really realising that the white ants are eating the legs out of the table,” he told ABC Radio.

But Gooda urged patience, saying effects from health initiatives would take years to filter through.

He believes reductions in child mortality rates are “really great building blocks”.

Turnbull began his parliamentary address in Ngunnawal, the language of the traditional owners of the Canberra area. Gooda and Close the Gap Campaign co-chair Jackie Huggins praised the Prime Minister for his effort.

Turnbull promised to listen to and work with Indigenous communities, rather than deliver to them – something long sought by Indigenous leaders.

“The headline statistics in this report do not recognise the diversity that exists in your culture, language and experiences,” he said.

Huggins called for far-sighted policies, saying three-year funding cycles could not improve outcomes for Indigenous Australia. “For decades government policy has failed us dismally,” she said.

“We need to have a voice in planning and implementation of programs. We can broaden engagement and get a true picture of what’s going on in our communities. The best way of working with us is to engage in meaningful dialogue, which means they have to listen.”

Huggins pointed to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) as an example of poorly implemented and planned government policy. “This is where the problem lies,” she said.

“Are they listening to our people or are they being so dogmatic about it? The government believes they have all the answers, but we know our community-owned organisations are suffering cuts to funding and programs.

“We’re getting mixed messages – we’re getting clear messages from what our community wants and a clear message that the government is running their own race, deciding what we have to have in terms of programs and service. And it’s our people who suffer the most.

“To tell you the truth, we are sick and tired of going to funerals on a very regular basis. We want that to stop for our people.”

Professor Stephen Simpson, academic director of the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and executive director of Obesity Australia, said the importance of diet and nutrition on closing the gap was being largely ignored.

“Australia must commit to system-level change processes that draw on Aboriginal communities as partners with a range of stakeholders,” he said.

“We have evidence for the success of community-based and -led programs to improve food supply and cost, promote healthy food options and improve food storage facilities.”

Koori Mail

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