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Issue #1904      February 24, 2020

Closing the Gap

More than rhetoric required

The government’s annual Closing the Gap report was released on 12th February 2020. It provides alarming data on the failure of governments to meet targets set in 2008 to reduce inequality between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and non-Indigenous Australians. The Coalition government is now using the outcomes as a reason to “refresh” the framework, in particular to abolish the use of targets towards achieving equality.

Closing the Gap was introduced by the Rudd Labor government with the ultimate aim of achieving equality by 2031 and meeting specific targets on a number of critical social indicators on the way. Five out of seven of the set targets have not been met or are not on track according to the report:

1. Close the life expectancy gap by 2031 – not on track. In 2015-17 life expectancy gaps at birth were 8.6 years for males and 7.8 years for females.

2. Child mortality rate target 94 per 100,000 by 2018 – not met. It was 141 per 100,000 – twice the rate for non-Indigenous children at 67 per 100,000. In the Northern Territory it was a shocking and incredible 305 per 100,000 over the period 2014-18.

3. Ninety-five per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 – on track except for Northern Territory.

4. Halve the gap for Indigenous children in school attendance by 2018 – not met. A gap of ten per cent remains. The attendance rate has declined under the Coalition government.

5. Halve the gap in the share of Indigenous children at or above national minimum standards in reading and numeracy by 2018 – not met although the gap has narrowed.

6. Halve the gap in employment outcomes by 2018 – not met. The employment rate over the ten years has risen slightly by 0.9 per cent. It is around forty-nine per cent compared to around seventy-five per cent for non-Indigenous Australians.

7. Halve the gap in Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020 – on track. The gap has narrowed by fifteen percentage points – from around forty per cent in 2008 to twenty-five per cent points in 2018–19.

There are huge differences in the progress or lack of between urban, remote, and very remote areas, where the gap is far wider for the latter two.

An Epiphany?

In his speech tabling the report in Parliament, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Closing the Gap as, “A tale of good intentions. Indeed, good faith.

“But the results are not good enough. The four “expiring” targets that were supposed to be met by 2018 were not met.

“Over decades, our top-down, ‘government knows best’ approach has not delivered the improvements we all need.

“Today I make the final report of an old approach, as well as the first report of a new era,” Morrison said.

He added that “despite the best intentions” Closing the Gap has never really been a partnership with Indigenous people.

“We perpetuated an ingrained way of thinking passed down over two centuries and more. And it was the belief that we knew better than our Indigenous peoples. We don’t,” he said.

In his foreword to the government report, Morrison speaks of a new Closing the Gap framework, still to be put in place. “A process that is truthful, strengths-based, community-led, and that puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the centre.”

Morrison was not short on rhetoric, but can he be believed? Will the new approach of “partnership” with Indigenous Australians be any different?

“Together we are setting out towards a goal we all share: that is, for every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child to grow up with at least the same opportunities in life as every other Australian,” Morrison said in his foreword to the report.

Refreshing the Gap

“This Closing the Gap report points to the future, a new path where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share ownership to improve life outcomes for current and future generations. It closes off on an era of reporting against targets set by governments,” the report states.

The refusal to set targets has a familiar ring to it (remember climate change?).

“I look forward to honouring our commitment to partnership. I want to make sure Indigenous Australians are genuinely positioned to make informed choices, forge their own pathways and reach their goals.”

There is a significant difference between Morrison’s “same opportunities” and “equality” as used in the aims of Closing the Gap.

There is no recognition of the cuts in funding to essential Indigenous services and other funding shortages. Instead the PM’s speech gives the impression that more money is being poured into Indigenous programs.

So, it is no targets, no benchmark to measure any progress, opportunities replacing equality, and no doubt blame the victim if Indigenous Australians fail to lift themselves out of poverty and unemployment.

The report describes this as the “Gap Refresh Process.” Words that might unfortunately be the true agenda.


There has been a systematic defunding of Indigenous-controlled community organisations since the Abbott government.

In 2014 the Coalition axed the funding of the most democratically elected and representative peak body of Indigenous organisations – the National Congress of Australia’s First People. Last year it entered into voluntary administration due to lack of funds.

The Abbott government set up its own hand-picked Indigenous Advisory Council in 2014. If Morrison is serious about and “community-led,” approach “that puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the centre,” then he should immediately restore funding to the National Congress of Australia’s First People; close his hand-picked outfit down; and restore funding to Indigenous-controlled community organisations.

The government would end the Intervention and abolish the cashless debit card, policies that have further impoverished and stigmatised those on the receiving end, let alone serving to close the gap.

The Coalition would also reopen the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme that it closed in 2015, driving thousands of people into unemployment and sending Indigenous businesses to the wall.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for real change. Real change requires a real change in government – a government of a new type. One that puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders first before the profits of the big mining corporations, and cattle and sheep station owners.

Next article – Editor – “Freedom of discussion, unity of action”

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