closing the gap
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Another prime minister, another Closing The Gap report, another acknowledgement of failure. This time it was Scott Morrison, the fifth prime minister since Kevin Rudd established annual reports to parliament on progress against the original (and later, added-to) Closing The Gap indicators.

In truth, it’s hard to be critical of any of them. All brought commitment, decency and a desire for effective change to the task of eliminating, or at least significantly reducing, key differences in outcomes for Indigenous Australians compared to non-Indigenous Australians. Morrison is no different. Go and read the excellent speech he made in delivering the report — it’s heartfelt and self-effacing and appropriately dismayed by failure and hopeful of progress.

But all have demonstrated the cliche that good intentions mean nothing. Closing The Gap, at least in its first decade, has failed to meet the ambitious targets set by the Rudd government, in concert with the states and territories via COAG, a decade ago. In the report delivered by Malcolm Turnbull last year, just three indicators were on track. This year it’s just two. 

Child mortality — the goal was halving the gap in child mortality rates (i.e. under-fives) by 2018 — was on track last year but a rise in deaths per 100,000 among Indigenous children in 2017, and the continued, more rapid than forecast, decline in deaths among non-Indigenous children, means the target will be hard to hit when the final year’s data emerge next year. That’s partly because of volatility — the thankfully small number of child deaths, either Indigenous or non-Indigenous, means the numbers can bounce around. They bounced upward in 2017 — but the broader trend is of a slower-than-expected decline. That said, there continues to be progress in contributing areas like immunisation — Indigenous kids are the best immunised in the country — low birth weight and maternal smoking.

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The other two indicators on track are the same ones as last year. The target of 95% enrolment of Indigenous four-year-olds in early childhood education by 2025 is still on track — most states are well ahead of the target. The other target is halving the gap on Year 12/equivalent attainment by 2020, but there is no new data for it, so no reason to assume it isn’t on track.

But as for the target on school attendance, the latest report suggests progress has stalled and we may even be going backwards. The 2018 data is the lowest since 2014, when the target was added. Morrison says he wants to focus on education and keeping kids in school, and has announced an incentive program for teachers in remote schools.

There’s better news on life expectancy, where the target is to close the gap by 2031. Indigenous life expectancy has improved since 2010, but not enough to stay on track. Death rates from chronic diseases among Indigenous people have finally started to fall but, alarmingly, death rates from cancers are rising.

Understandably, Morrison’s focus was on where to from here, and the outcome of the Closing The Gap “refresh” process that would establish new targets. The “refresh” process attracted some criticism over the way the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) was conducting it but, in December, COAG agreed to a new partnership-based approach, in which Indigenous communities would play a central role. The “refresh” process is supposed to be completed by mid-year, with new indicators, a new “strength-based approach” rather than a “deficit-based approach”, and a commitment to a “genuine and mutually respectful formal partnership between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.”

That partly reflects last year’s report by the Closing The Gap Steering Committee, which identified the lack of central Indigenous involvement, the lack of an effective implementation plan, and Tony Abbott’s centralisation of Indigenous programs inside PM&C as the key reasons for the failure of Closing The Gap. It’s a truism in Indigenous health and other areas that the most effective programs, indeed the only effective programs, are ones designed and implemented by or with the close involvement of Indigenous communities themselves. 

Morrison’s — and COAG’s — commitment to a “genuine partnership” with Indigenous communities, including triennial Indigenous-led reviews of the refreshed Closing The Gap project, should mean that the second decade of Closing The Gap is more successful than the first, and what limited progress has been made over the last decade can be built on. But white politicians and bureaucrats have come to this issue with goodwill and resources and generous words before, with little result. 

Look no further than the Turnbull and Morrison governments’ high-handed rejection of the proposal for an Indigenous voice to parliament — an idea backed by Indigenous leaders and conservative white jurists and commentators alike. And look no further than Morrison’s appointment of Tony Abbott as an Indigenous affairs envoy, to the fury of Indigenous communities.

Clearly the idea of a “genuine partnership” with Indigenous Australians only goes so far for many in Canberra.