NACCHO Aboriginal Health #RefreshTheCTGRefresh News : Dr @mperkinsnsw #ClosingtheGap failures are firmly rooted in racism and Nicholas Biddle From @ANU_CAEPR 4 lessons from 11 years of #ClosingtheGap reports


1. Some targets are easier than others

2. The life-expectancy measure is unpredictable

3. On-track one year, off-track the next

4. Indigenous Australians in the city and country have different needs

5.Closing the Gap Failures are firmly rooted in racism

” Scott Morrison last week became the fifth prime minister to deliver a Closing the Gap report to parliament – the 11th since the strategy began in 2008. Closing the Gap has aimed to reduce disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with particular respect to life expectancy, child mortality, access to early childhood education, educational achievement and employment outcomes.

Almost every time a prime minister delivers the report, he or she states the need to move on from a deficits approach.

Which is exactly what Morrison did this time. But he also did something different. Four of the seven targets set in 2008 were due to expire in 2018.

So last year, the government developed the Closing the Gap Refresh – where targets would be updated in partnership with Indigenous people.

Nicholas Biddle ANU : Four lessons from 11 years of Closing the Gap reports : See in full Part 1 Below 

Read NACCHO Closing the Gap response and download the report

” Once again, minimal progress has been made towards closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

Racism has been mentioned as an issue, but exactly how does racism make a contribution to this “unforgivable” state of affairs ?.

The answer is in the criminal justice system. Studies have shown mass incarceration has a profoundly negative effect on the health, education, and employment of families and communities-and Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated group on Earth.

The US, the mother of all jailers imprisoned 655 people per 100,000 in 2018. Australia imprisoned 164 non Indigenous people and 2481 Indigenous people per 100,000. Western Australian imprisoned 3663 Aboriginal people per 100,000.

In 1991, when the report on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down, 14% of all prisoners were First Nations people.  By last year, the figure was 28%. ”

Lesson 5 Dr Meg Perkins is a registered psychologist, researcher and writer : See Part 2 Below

First Published in The Conversation 

The current report and the work leading up to it has led to new targets, such as a “significant and sustained progress to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care” and old targets framed differently.

For example, the headline new outcome for families, children and youth is that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children thrive in their early years”. This is on top of more specific targets such as having 95% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-years-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 – which this year is on track.

Read more: Closing the Gap is failing and needs a radical overhaul

Looking back on the past 11 years, there are several things we’ve learned. This includes those targets that seem easiest to meet, as well changes in the demographics of the population that complicate the measuring of the targets. Below are three lessons from the last decade of the policy.

1. Some targets are easier than others

The targets where there has been some success tend to be those where government has more direct control. Consider the Year 12 attainment compared to the employment targets. To increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians completing year 12, the Commonwealth government can change the income support system to create incentives to not leave school, while state and territory governments can adjust the school leaving age.

That is not to downplay the efforts of parents, teachers, community leaders, and the students themselves. But, there are some direct policy levers.

To improve employment outcomes, on the other hand, discrimination among employers needs to be reduced, human capital levels increased, jobs need to be in areas where Indigenous people live and to match the skills and experiences of the Indigenous population. These are solvable policy problems with the right settings and community engagement. But, they are substantially more complex.

Read more: Three reasons why the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians aren’t closing

2. The life-expectancy measure is unpredictable

The main target has always been related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy. The 2019 report shows the target of closing the gap by 2031 is not on track.

Unfortunately, the life expectancy target is one of the more difficult to measure, as it uses multiple datasets that are potentially affected by different ways Indigenous people are counted in the census and changing levels of identification. The most recent estimates, based on data for 2015-17, are that life expectancy at birth is 71.6 years for Indigenous males and 75.6 years for Indigenous females.

While the gaps with the non-Indigenous population of 8.6 years and 7.8 years respectively are smaller than they were in 2010-12 (the previous estimates) the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and most demographers suggest extreme caution around the interpretation of this change. The ABS writes:

While the estimates in this release show a small improvement in life expectancy estimates and a reduction in the gap between 2010-2012 and 2015-2017, this improvement should be interpreted with considerable caution as the population composition has changed during this period.

More people have been identifying as being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander over recent years. What’s more, the newly identified Indigenous people tend to have better outcomes on average (across health, education, and labour market outcomes) than those who were identified previously. This biases our estimates, making it appear there is more rapid progress than there might otherwise be.

Read more: Three charts on: the changing status of Indigenous Australians

The Closing the Gap framework was implicitly designed around improving the circumstances of the 2008 Indigenous population relative to the 2008 non-Indigenous population. However, both populations have changed substantially over the intervening years. There has been a growth of the non-Indigenous population due to international migration. It is hard to measure and track differences in changing populations.

3. On-track one year, off-track the next

There is also the yearly reporting cycle. The target of child mortality, for instance, no longer appears to be on track. This is despite it being on track in previous years. Yearly fluctuations make it hard to gauge the effectiveness of long-term policy settings.

For other indicators, such as employment, the data is available far less frequently than it could be, and we are less able to judge the effect of individual policies and interventions. Having said that, in my view, the sophistication and nuance with which data in the Closing the Gap reports has been presented has improved considerably.

It seems most policies prioritise Indigenous Australians living in remote areas than those in the city. David Clode/Unsplash

4. Indigenous Australians in the city and country have different needs

This isn’t always reflected in policy settings. The current report shows many outcomes are worse in remote compared to non-remote Australia. It also makes the point (though less frequently), that the vast majority of Indigenous Australians live in regional areas and major cities. This creates a tension between relative and absolute need. Unfortunately, the policy responses of government often don’t get that balance right.

Take the signature policy proposal announced with the current report – a suspension or cancelling of HECS debt for teachers who work in remote schools. What the policy ignores is that the vast majority of Indigenous students live outside remote Australia, that outcomes for Indigenous students in non-remote areas are well behind those of non-Indigenous students, and that the schools Indigenous students attend in non-remote areas tend to be very different from those of non-Indigenous students.

Read more: Infographic: Are we making progress on Indigenous education?

Attracting and keeping more high quality teachers in remote areas is a worthwhile policy aim. Alone, it is not sufficient.

The current report and speech by the prime minister states that “genuine partnerships are required to drive sustainable, systemic change” and that the government needs “to support initiatives led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to address the priorities identified by those communities”.

These are admirable goals. But, they require significant resources, a genuine engagement with the evidence (even if it isn’t positive), taking the Uluru Statement from the Heart seriously, and real ceding of control to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

5.Closing the Gap Failures are firmly rooted in racism

Some people think Aboriginal people must be uniquely anti-social and/or make very bad choices, but research tells us the majority of people in prison are suffering from severe cognitive impairments and/or mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

Why are we punishing people with disabilities for behaviour that may not be intentional ?.

When we look at children in school, we find three times as many Aboriginal children are suspended from school than non-Aboriginal children. Some of the special purpose schools in NSW are filled with Aboriginal children only.

Many youth detention centres in the country have 100 per cent Aboriginal inmates. Why are so many Aboriginal children being suspended from school and set on the road to crime and punishment, and what happens to white Australian children who are not able to behave appropriately in the classroom ?.

It seems mainstream Australian children are referred to health professionals when they have difficulties at school. They are seen as suffering from learning disabilities, autism, or ADHD. Speech therapists and other allied health professionals work to help them catch up with peers and stay in school.

Due to intergenerational disadvantage, Indigenous people often don’t have the resources to find a therapist to assist their child. People born before 1972 were not guaranteed a place in school, and so grand parents may not have had much education.

Parents may have left school in Year 8 or 9 and are not familiar with developmental norms or disabilities. If they know that their child is falling behind at school, they often do not have the money to pay for expensive psychological assessments, which cannot be done in Medicare. Without an assessment, and a diagnosis , the school cannot make allowances for a child with brain-based disabilities.

The racist policies of the past have left many Aboriginal people disadvantaged when it comes to dealing with the education system. If their child is having difficulties, suspensions are often the consequence. Once suspended and out on the street, racism sets in again.

Aboriginal children are searched and arrested more often. We will never close the disadvantage gap until we can offer support to the children of young people. We need to raise the age criminal responsibility from 10 to 15 years, and spend money on supporting children, not punishing them.

Dr Meg Perkins


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