Closing the Gap Statement – Smoke and Mirrors

Posted on February 16, 2012


Response to the Prime Ministerial Statement “Closing the Gap”

Graeme Mundine- Executive Officer Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Sydney Archdiocese 16th February 2012

The Prime Minister must be congratulated for recognising in her ‘Closing the Gap 2012’ statement  that while some gaps have been narrowed, there is much to be done before Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples can be assured of the same opportunities to live healthy, educated and productive lives as do other Australians.

Despite the positive nature of the Prime Minister’s statement I am left wondering what exactly has improved since 2008, when the COAG National Indigenous Reform Agreement, or Closing the Gap, agenda began. I am concerned that many of the improvements referred to by the Prime Minister in her statement were relying on old data and were improvements made since the 1990s, well before Closing the Gap.

I recognize that it is difficult to measure progress from year to year especially when much of it is reliant on census data which is only collected every five years. But let’s be honest about what has been achieved and not get too self-congratulatory about improvements that were made in the 20 years before Closing the Gap. What we need to know now are the outcomes of the past four years. For example, in this statement the Prime Minister reported that Indigenous mortality rates have declined 36 % from 1991 to 2010. However, according to the 2011 COAG report on the Indigenous reform agenda between 2007 and 2009, during the life of Closing the Gap, there was no statistically significant change in Indigenous mortality rates.

This latest statement is part of the increasing tendency of the Federal Government to produce reports which are full of positive spin, but lack substantive evidence to support claims of improvements. The multiple reports about the Northern Territory Intervention are other examples.

I don’t want to always be dwelling on the negatives but equally it is wrong to create an impression that the Government is achieving things it is not.  The message that the media and the public hear is that things are going well and that gaps are decreasing thanks to this Government and the Closing the Gap program. The media reporting of yesterday’s statement was overwhelmingly positive, shallow and generally did not question what has actually improved under this agenda and this Government.

These are not academic questions, they are literally life and death issues for many. When life expectancy is still significantly lower for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and in some age groups the differences are vast, we should not let the Government fob us off with smoke and mirrors in their reports. Indigenous 35-44 year olds are 4 times more likely to die than non-Indigenous Australians and Indigenous 15-24 year olds are 3 times more likely to die. These aren’t just statistics they are real people in real families.

There is despair out there; suicide rates are increasing, particularly in the Northern Territory where they have doubled since the Intervention and where more girls under 17 kill themselves than anywhere else in the world. Another area of grave concern is deaths in custody as well as the serious over representation of Aboriginal people in prisons. Young Aboriginal people are 26 times more likely to be in detention. In some states it’s worse, for example in WA young Indigenous people are 50 times more likely to be in detention.

This Government has said they want to ‘reset’ their relationship with Aboriginal Peoples, yesterday the Prime Minister said that she wants a relationship based on “listening to each other properly”. A good place to start listening is to hear what Aboriginal people are saying about the NT Intervention and its replacement Stronger Futures which is currently being examined by the Senate Committee Affairs committee. This legislation has been rushed through the Lower House despite a lack of evidence to indicate the Intervention’s effectiveness. It restricts Indigenous rights and most importantly the wishes of NT Aboriginal leaders have been consistently ignored.  The Government cannot claim to be genuinely listening to Aboriginal people while at the same time moving forward with this legislation.

The Prime Minister mentioned some good days that we should cherish over the past 200 odd years. Personally, I am looking forward to a time when we don’t have to cherish a few good days but can cherish everyday knowing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are afforded every opportunity that Australia has to offer.