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Closing the Gap still a distant dream

After a decade of government initiatives, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still struggling to find work, dying younger and their children are still falling behind when it comes to attending school.

The annual Closing the Gap report, tabled in Federal Parliament by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week, delivered another sobering snapshot of the disparities that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Only half of seven goals set by Australian governments in 2008 – in areas ranging from health to education and employment – are on track.

In some areas, the gaps have actually widened.

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In terms of unemployment, the report showed more than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are now without a job. The Indigenous employment rate fell from 48 percent a decade ago to 46.6 percent in 2016, while the employment rate for non-Indigenous Australians remained at about 72 percent.

That means more than half of Indigenous people of working age — 53.4 percent — are without work.

The Federal, State and Territory governments had been working to halve the gap in employment by this year.

But the report said a change in remote employment programs was masking any progress. Without that, it said, the employment rate would have improved by 4.2 percent over 10 years.

Younger people were hard hit, with 15-19-years-olds increasingly not in employment, education or training. Employment rates for Indigenous women were rising, but for men they were falling.

New South Wales was the only state on track to meet the employment target. Victoria and the ACT have improved, but Indigenous employment rates fell in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

In the area of health, improvements in the number of people dying from chronic diseases have been offset by rising mortality rates from cancer – and the gap is widening.

The report said the target to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by the year 2031 was not set to be met.

Indigenous males born between 2010 and 2012 currently have a life expectancy of 69.1 years — 10.6 years less than other males.

Indigenous females have a life expectancy of 73.7 years — 9.5 years less than other females.

In 2016, the last available figures, nearly three in four Indigenous deaths were from chronic diseases, which accounted for 79 percent of the gap in mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

The NT had the highest Indigenous mortality rate (1478 for every 100,000 people) as well as the largest gap with non-Indigenous Australians, followed by WA (1225 per 100,000), the report said.

In education, the target to close the gap in school attendance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children will not make the grade.

Last year, the attendance rate for Indigenous students across Australia was 83.2 percent compared to 93 percent for non-Indigenous students.

“There has been no meaningful improvement in any of the states and territories,” the report said.

“In the Northern Territory, the Indigenous attendance rate fell from 2014 (70.2 per cent) to 2017 (66.2 per cent).”

The report said Indigenous children in remote areas attended schools at a lower rate than children in other areas — 86.8 percent for inner regional areas last year compared to 64.6 percent in very remote areas.

Girls were more likely to attend school than boys.

In schools, the target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by this year has fallen short, though the gap has narrowed since 2008, particularly in reading in years 3 and 5 and numeracy in years 5 and 9.

The proportion of Indigenous students achieving national minimum standards in NAPLAN was on track in only year 9 numeracy.

The ACT was the only state or territory on track in all of the eight areas that are assessed, while Tasmania was on track in six.

The NT has consistently had the lowest proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards for each of the eight areas, the report said.

But there was good news in the bid to halve the gap in students graduating from year 12. The report said the target to halve the gap by 2020 was on course.

Nationally, the proportion of Indigenous 20-24 year-olds who had achieved year 12 or equivalent rose from 47.4 per cent in 2006 to 65.3 per cent in 2016.

While the attainment rates for non-Indigenous Australians also improved, the gap has narrowed by 12.6 percentage points over the past decade (from 36.4 percentage points in 2006 to 23.8 percentage points in 2016), it said.

The greatest increases over the past decade were in SA, WA and the NT.

Efforts to halve the gap in child mortality by this year will also be achieved.

From 1998 to 2016, the Indigenous child mortality rate has declined from 217 deaths per 100,000 children to 146 deaths per 100,000, a drop of around 35 per cent, the report said.

The single biggest cause of Indigenous child mortality were perinatal conditions, or conditions just before or after a child was born.

These accounted for 43.5 per cent of Indigenous child deaths between 2012 and 2016 and 42.7 per cent of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous child mortality.

From 2012 to 2016, NSW had the lowest Indigenous child mortality rate (110 per 100,000 population) and the smallest gap with non-Indigenous children (at 35 per 100,000).

The NT had the highest Indigenous child mortality rate (332 per 100,000) and the largest gap (245 per 100,000).

Another goal that is set to be met is to have 95 percent of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025.

In 2016, there were about 14,700 Indigenous children in Australia enrolled in early childhood education programs – 91 per cent of the estimated population.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the latest report delivered the most promising results since 2011.

But he said the gap would not be closed until there was equal participation in the economy.

“One of the most effective ways to tackle disadvantage is by ensuring that everyone is included and shares in its benefits,” he said.

“Now, on this side of the chamber we are determined to build a strong economy, where everyone who can work, is able to find employment.”

Wendy Caccetta

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