“Many of us have been on a long journey. I can’t say that I have always been where I am now. The further this journey has gone, the more, for me, Aboriginal policy has become personal rather than just political.” — Tony Abbott, February 12.

The Prime Minister is to be commended for the attention he has given to indigenous affairs, as shown in his speech to Parliament this morning on the release of the latest Closing the Gap report. And for his honesty in admitting our ongoing failure to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people on key indicators. Here’s the scorecard:

  • Lifting life expectancy: a little progress but not enough
  • Reducing infant mortality: on track
  • Educating four-year-olds: almost on track
  • Improving reading, writing and numeracy among school kids: a little progress but not enough
  • More young people with Year 12 or equivalent: ahead of the target
  • More people in employment: has become worse.

This last indicator is alarming. The proportion of Aboriginal adults in work fell from 53.8% to 47.8% in the last five years, while employment among non-indigenous people rose to 75.6%. It’s partly because there are fewer people in a particular government scheme, but however you cut the figures fewer indigenous Australians have a job. We’re not closing the gap, we’re widening it.

Businesspeople like Twiggy Forrest have launched ambitious schemes to boost indigenous employment and the government has appointed Forrest (and academic Marcia Langton) to write a review on it.

But this problem cannot be entirely outsourced to the private sector and mining companies. The government must do better. Before the election, Abbott vowed to be “a prime minister for Aboriginal affairs”. Later this year he’ll take his regular trip to help remote indigenous communities. But bipartisan rhetoric and symbolism will only take Abbott so far. He has made a personal promise to make a difference and he must find a way to deliver.

Peter Fray

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