Scott Morrison close the gap
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has just delivered a Closing the Gap report that — like every single Closing the Gap report before it — shows how many key benchmarks in achieving education and health equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia are failing.

Crikey looks back at the original benchmarks, and the shifting of rhetoric around what success looks like.

The goals

1. To close the life expectancy gap within a generation (by 2031)

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In 2008 there was a difference of 17 years between the life expectancy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The report notes that between 2015 and 2017 the gap for men was still 8.6 years and for women was 7.8 years. The targets are still not on track.

2. To halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade

Probably the most harrowing statistic in is the ongoing issue of Indigenous child mortality. The rate of child mortality was two to three times higher for Indigenous children in 2008.

Briefly, reducing this was a goal that was being met — but in 2019 the numbers increased again, and while there has been a slight improvement this year, a greater improvement for non-Indigenous children means the rate is still twice as high for Indigenous children.

3. To ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities within five years

A rare good news story. The specific target of 95% enrolment of Indigenous four year olds in early childhood education by 2025 is still on track, and in fact most states are ahead of the target. There are now 86.4 % enrolled.

4. To halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade

The government will claim significant improvements here. The share of Indigenous students at or above national minimum standards has narrowed across all year levels by between three and 11 percentage points.

Still the targets overall have not been met — around 20% of indigenous students are behind the national benchmark.

5. To halve the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment rates by 2020

This is the other benchmark to have consistently been met. Sixty six per cent of Indigenous Australians between 20 and 24 had attained year 12 or higher.

6. To halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade.

This has also been missed; the Indigenous employment rate is at 49% compared to 75% for non-Indigenous Australians. Over the past decade, this is an improvement of just 0.9%.

7. Close the gap in school attendance by 2018

Some of the benchmarks have passed from failing to failed. This was one. The deadline — added by Tony Abbott in 2014 — has expired without the goal being met.

The report concedes that school attendance rates for Indigenous students have not improved for five years. Attendance rates for Indigenous students (82%) remain lower than for non-Indigenous students (92%) in 2019.

The rhetoric

During the initial development of the “close the gap” strategy, the rhetoric was optimistic and can-do.

“It’s measurable, it has got a timeline. And nothing like timelines to focus your mind in politics,” Kevin Rudd told the ABC’s 7.30 in the lead up to the 2007 election.

The rhetoric soon shifted to expectation management. By 2010 Rudd was arguing that “generations of Indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight”.

By 2011, by which time Julia Gillard had taken over, the government was warning it would be “extremely difficult” to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by the goal of 2031.

Gillard added that no one believed that target could be met sooner.

The Tony Abbott-Malcolm Turnbull years fell into a familiar pattern — sad-eyed reflections on missed targets “mixed results” and promises to redouble efforts. Abbott added the attendance gap target in 2014. Turnbull started the process of “refreshing” the program.

Morrison has decided to reframe the argument to focus on achievements rather than deficits, which Indigenous health groups have welcomed.

“The targets don’t celebrate the strengths, achievements and aspirations of Indigenous people,” his said in his speech to parliament.

Morrison says he wants an “approach that’s more locally led and more collaborative” and Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has promised that the government will work “hand in hand” with Indigenous Australians going forward.

They could be forgiven for being sceptical: as Bernard Keane writes today, that has been promised time and time again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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