The Prime Minister is to be commended for his energy and commitment to indigenous affairs, but there is a disappointing sense of deja vu about the latest report. Until the well-intentioned talk of “closing the gap” is translated into sound policy, backed up by adequate resources and effective services that produce outcomes on the ground, indigenous Australians will continue to struggle to compete on the same footing as non-indigenous Australians.
A glaring and urgent example lies in support for early childhood development. What society refuses to support our very youngest to get the best start they can?
ANGELA WEBB is deputy chief executive of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care.
YESTERDAY, Tony Abbott delivered yet another mixed report on closing-the-gap initiatives, noting that a greater focus must be placed on lifting the school participation rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
It is further compelling evidence that to achieve real and sustainable improvements in the lives of indigenous Australians, and to avoid the policy failures of the past, governments must invest more faith and funding in indigenous community-controlled organisations.
In recent years, researchers have made significant advances in understanding the development of the brain in the early years before a child even begins school. Evidence demonstrates that 95 per cent of children from disadvantaged communities that attend an effective early childhood service between birth and three years realise an IQ within the normal range. However, only 45 per cent of children who don’t attend such a service reach this level.
The message could hardly be clearer: invest in early childhood education and reap the rewards later in life. Children experiencing disadvantage – black or white – who have the benefit of early childhood education from birth to three years are more likely to have better outcomes in health, education and employment; and are less likely to have contact with the child-protection system or to be imprisoned.
So beyond the motivation of improving lives, there is also a persuasive economic argument, whereby children who are supported during the early years are more likely to get and retain jobs.
If governments are genuine about closing the gap then maximum effort must be applied at the time when the gap first appears. Otherwise, disadvantage quickly becomes entrenched and further limits the capacity of these young children to get a fair go in life.
At the time of greatest potential to reverse the disadvantage that many indigenous children face, we are letting them down. Funding for indigenous early childhood services, already lagging far behind that for other children, will be cut in June.
Indigenous children already remain under-represented in early-years services. Yet there are currently only about 300 indigenous community-controlled early-years services across Australia, servicing a population of 146,714 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from birth to eight years old. This is manifestly inadequate, yet the conversation is not about redressing the vast gap in service coverage but the ongoing survival of the few existing services.
These services provide accessible, affordable and integrated early childhood and family support services, generate employment opportunities and generally build the capacity of communities. Most importantly, they nurture children by preparing them for the education that will maximise their life chances. These services are at the cutting edge of our efforts to close the gap in indigenous education and health outcomes.Yet for some, their funding ends in June, and the rest are under review, with the aim being to rationalise the program.
Community control is a critical factor in the successful operation of indigenous services, with those running the service being a part of the community and understanding community needs.
Aboriginal people have long endured criticism for being passive recipients of services rather than agents of their own advancement. We are now imploring governments to give us the opportunity to design and run early years services in our communities.
These services are successfully helping to prepare our children for school and provide a range of support to families suffering from intergenerational disadvantage. The service models are in place. The relationships with families are strong. The foundations are there for lasting and significant change to see different pathways for our children in the next generation.
The time has come for the federal government to avoid the policy failures of the past by trusting indigenous communities and investing in a long-term indigenous-specific federal program for indigenous early childhood development.
This is not a dewy-eyed plea for more money to be thrown at indigenous Australia to assuage residual guilt about the long history of mistreatment of indigenous Australians at the hands of Europeans – it is an evidenced-based call for governments to expand a successful service model, and to provide certainty of funding so that Aboriginal communities can best equip their children to face the challenges that lie ahead.
Angela Webb is deputy chief executive of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care.
Closer to closing the gap by: PATRICIA KARVELAS
from THE AUSTRALIAN
Many believed the government would add a target to address the shockingly high rate of indigenous incarceration.
The idea seemed to have had bipartisan support last year. In August, then-indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin committed Labor to developing the target. Opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Nigel Scullion indicated he too supported the inclusion of new targets, telling The Australian it “needed to be considered”.
Even before this burst of bipartisanship, a 2011 parliamentary inquiry also found support for the idea, reporting “these targets should then be monitored and reported against”.
But there was nothing in Abbott’s speech. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten reminded the PM of Labor’s commitment to an incarceration target, urging the government to work with state governments to implement a new target. He also accused the government of inconsistency, saying: “Since the election, the government has sent a spectrum of signals on these new targets.”
Julie Perkins, regional manager of the ACT/NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, agrees the government has sent out mixed signals. The ALS had expected the new government to implement justice targets, taking into consideration the comments of both sides of Parliament in the run-up to the election.
“We took a lot from last year in 2013. We all know both sides of government expressed commitment to incorporate a justice target. No one has come to us and said it would not be included. We were hopeful from last year that whoever got power that they would look at putting these targets in the report,” she said.
Imprisonment rates for indigenous Australians are around 12 times that of the general population. And, despite a fall in overall rates of juvenile detention, the rate of indigenous juveniles in detention has remained steady. One in every two juveniles in detention is indigenous.
“We all know about the high incarceration rates,” Perkins told Crikey. “It’s quite a shock to us that something as critical as this was not put in there and there was no real discussion.”
Stuart Ross, director and senior researcher at the Melbourne Centre for Criminological Research and Evaluation, is similarly bemused. A justice target help lower the number of Aboriginal people being incarcerated while tackling Aboriginal victimisation. “The victimisation rates in indigenous communities are high as well,” he said.
The report goes some way to addressing victimisation, detailing law enforcement targets under the section “Safer Communities”. According to Ross, better addressing vicitmisation rates will lead to gains in other targets around health.
It’s a message that proponents of the justice target have been pushing now for some years: that without progress on Aboriginal justice, other targets will stall. Including, Perkins points out, the Prime Minister’s pet target of school attendance.
“Once they [juveniles] are released that will affect their school attendance,” she said. “They’re very much hand-in-hand. We have to have the justice target — if we don’t have those it will affect the outcomes of the school target.”
Then there are health targets. Kirstie Parker, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, draws a direct line between the two. “The over-representation of our peoples in the criminal justice system … is both cause and effect for the poor state of health, education and employment of so many of our families and communities,” she said.
Stuart Ross agreed: “I think one of the big issues for indigenous disadvantage is where you have communities with large numbers of people being imprisoned; that in turn has significant impact on child development, it has an impact on economic participation, on health and so on.”
The need for action is critical, advocates say, because of the high numbers of juvenile Aboriginals in detention. “Our young people make up 5% of the general population, but 53% of the population in detention centres. Fifty-two per cent of those are unsentenced; 91% are young boys,” Perkins said.