This ninth Closing the Gap report showcases real successes being achieved at a local level across the country—by individuals, communities, organisations and government.
However, at a national level, progress needs to accelerate. Over the long term there are improvements across a number of the targets, however these improvements are not enough to meet the majority of the outcomes set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
This is a report card on how we, as a nation, are meeting our responsibilities in improving outcomes for our First Australians. This report recognises changes are underway and successes are being achieved, however, progress overall nationally, is too slow.
The Closing the Gap targets address the areas of health, education and employment, and provide an important snapshot of where progress is being made and where further efforts are needed. We know we will not make the necessary gains across any of these areas if we don’t work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is only once we establish effective mechanisms for working together, for supporting decision-making at the community level, that we are likely to see the gains needed to meet the targets.
The importance of culture cannot be underestimated in working to close the gap. The connection to land, family and culture is fundamental to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are the world’s oldest continuous cultures—they have stood the test of time. We must continue to preserve and respect Indigenous cultures for this generation and the future and we must acknowledge the impact of past policies on our First Australians, and work to heal the wounds of the past.
We need to look at what the evidence tells us will work and, where needed, invest in better understanding the most effective solutions. Our ambitious reform agenda, with COAG and Indigenous leaders, will consider learnings over the last decade under Closing the Gap and where we need to change course to deliver sustainable change.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up three per cent of Australia’s population with almost 80 per cent living in regional and metropolitan areas. While only 14 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in very remote areas, they make up 45 per cent of Australians living in these areas.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is quite young compared to the general population. In 2011, 36 per cent of Indigenous Australians were aged 0-14 years compared to 18 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. However, the Indigenous population is getting older and by 2026 the proportion of the Indigenous population aged over 65 is projected to almost double from the proportion in 2011 (from 3.4 per cent in 2011 to 6.4 per cent in 2026).
PROGRESS AGAINST THE TARGETS
The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is not on track this year. The 2015 Indigenous child mortality rate is just outside the range for the target. Over the longer-term (1998 to 2015), the Indigenous child mortality rate declined by 33 per cent. The child mortality gap narrowed (by 31 per cent) over the same period. Continued improvements in key factors which influence the health of Indigenous children, such as access to antenatal care and rates of smoking during pregnancy, have the potential to support the achievement of this target by 2018.
The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track based on data since the 2006 baseline. Over the longer term, the total Indigenous mortality rate declined by 15 per cent between 1998 and 2015, with the largest decline from circulatory disease (the leading cause of Indigenous deaths). However, the Indigenous mortality rate from cancer (the second leading cause of death) is rising and the gap is widening. The recent declines in smoking rates will contribute to improvements in health outcomes into the future. There has been a 9 percentage point decline in Indigenous smoking rates for those aged 15 years and over between 2002 and 2014-15.
In December 2015, COAG renewed the early childhood education target, aiming for 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. The baseline data for this new target is for 2015. The data shows that in 2015, 87 per cent of all Indigenous children were enrolled in early childhood education in the year before full-time school, compared with 98 per cent of their non-Indigenous counterparts. South Australia, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory are showing 100 per cent enrolment rates for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.
In May 2014, COAG agreed to a new target to close the gap in school attendance by the end of 2018. The attendance rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in 2016 was 83.4 per cent, similar to 2014 (83.5 per cent). The attendance rate for non-Indigenous students remained steady at 93.1 per cent. Progress will need to accelerate for this target to be met.
The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy for Indigenous students by 2018 is not on track. The latest data show of the eight areas measured (reading and numeracy for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9), only one (Year 9 numeracy) is on track. That being said, half of the eight areas showed statistically significant improvements in the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at or above the national minimum standard between 2008 and 2016. The four areas with significant improvement were Years 3 and 5 reading, and Years 5 and 9 numeracy.
Nationally the proportion of Indigenous 20-24 year-olds who had achieved Year 12 or equivalent increased from 45.4 per cent in 2008 to 61.5 per cent in 2014-15. Over the same period, the rates for non-Indigenous attainment did not change significantly. This means the target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020 is on track.
The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is not on track. While there has been an increase in the Indigenous employment rate since 1994, there has been a decline since 2008. However, the rate of non-CDEP employment has remained steady since 2008. In 2014-15, the Indigenous employment rate was 48.4 per cent, compared with 72.6 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. Geography is an important factor in Indigenous employment – in 2014-15, only 35.1 per cent of Indigenous people of working age in very remote areas were employed, compared with 57.5 per cent of those living in major cities.
HOW ARE WE RESPONDING?
COAG has reaffirmed that improving the lives of Indigenous Australians is a priority of its strategic forward agenda and agreed that the Closing the Gap framework has played a significant role in driving unprecedented national effort to improve Indigenous outcomes. With the framework approaching its 10-year anniversary and some targets due to expire in 2018, governments have agreed to work together with Indigenous leaders and communities, establishing opportunities for collaboration and partnerships. Together, we will reflect on what needs to change and replicate areas that have shown success.
We will continue to focus on the long-term priorities of education, employment, health and wellbeing and safety. These priorities need the wrap-around services that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout life, from pre-conception through to old age.
We have continued to grow the number of Indigenous specific mothers and babies services, delivering antenatal and postnatal care to families, providing children with a positive start to life. Early childhood is an important time in a person’s development – by the age of three a child’s brain has reached 90 per cent of its adult size and many neural pathways have developed. Our investment in the early years is providing better access to the right services, by improving integration across the spectrum of health, child care and school. In addition, we are targeting intensive support for those in the community who need it most or are at risk of falling behind.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have higher rates of chronic disease than non-Indigenous Australians, and the continued focus on prevention and management of chronic disease is crucial to close the gap in life expectancy. The Aboriginal community controlled health sector is a critical provider of primary health care to Indigenous Australians.
Success in education, from early childhood, through schooling and into higher education remains critical. Education sets the foundation for success and opens doors to opportunities later in life. We know that regular school attendance leads to better educational outcomes and are continuing to encourage all children to regularly attend school, particularly in remote areas where attendance is lowest. All governments have committed to individualised learnings strategies, for students at risk of not achieving their full potential. And we have implemented strategies to support Indigenous students to succeed in pursuit of higher education.
Employment programs continue to link Indigenous Australians with jobs and help build the skills required for sustainable employment. The Commonwealth has implemented Indigenous employment targets across the public sector and into a number of our large infrastructure contracts, and state and territory governments are looking to do the same.
In economic development the Indigenous Procurement Policy has shown great success, with $284.2 million in contracts awarded to 493 Indigenous businesses in the first year. We are also working on how to better support communities to leverage their land for mainstream economic development. And we have established a new fund for Indigenous entrepreneurs in regional and remote areas who are starting or growing a business, which is providing targeted financial and business assistance.
Community safety remains a priority for all governments—reducing substance abuse and harm, preventing crime, reducing violence and supporting victims, particularly women and children—an acknowledgement that the rates of family and domestic violence for Indigenous women far outweigh that of their non-Indigenous counterparts.