Closing the Gap: Six of seven targets 'not on track', life expectancy gap unchanged

National Congress of Australia's First People's co-chairs Dr Jackie Huggins and Rod Little present the Redfern Statement to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
National Congress of Australia's First People's co-chairs Dr Jackie Huggins and Rod Little present the Redfern Statement to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Australia is not on track to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with the divide widening and deaths increasing when it comes to cancer, the ninth annual Closing the Gap report has found.

State and federal governments are on track to meet just one of seven targets in the strategy, according the annual stocktake on progress, with setbacks in the areas of employment and child mortality and desired improvement only in the number of Indigenous students finishing year 12.

While Indigenous mortality rates have declined by 15 per cent since 1998, simultaneous declines in non-Indigenous mortality mean the gap has persisted and the goal of eliminating the life expectancy gap by 2031 is not considered to be on track.

Since 1998, Indigenous mortality rates have not changed in NSW and South Australia, while Western Australia has experienced a 30 per cent decline.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during the Redfern Statement breakfast.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during the Redfern Statement breakfast. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Between 1998 and 2015, the mortality rate from cancer – the second leading cause of death – increased 21 per cent among Indigenous Australians while declining 13 per cent for others.

Dr Fadwa Al-Yaman, an Indigenous health expert at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, said the high cancer mortality rates were largely a result of more prevalent risk factors such as smoking, cancer not being detected until later stages, inadequate education about health risks and issues with access to healthcare.

"When Indigenous people are diagnosed with cancer, it's usually late stage cancer, which means survival rates are lower. Screening rates are a lot lower for Indigenous people," Dr Al-Yaman told Fairfax Media.

Lung, neck and head cancers, linked to far higher rates of smoking, and liver cancer, linked to alcohol consumption and hepatitis B infections, are the most disproportionately widespread cancers in Indigenous communities.

According to the most recent life expectancy figures, the lives of Indigenous men are 10.6 years shorter than for their non-Indigenous counterparts. For women, it is 9.5 years.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Redfern Statement breakfast. Photo: Andrew Meares

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Redfern Statement breakfast. Photo: Andrew Meares

The report also outlines the deeply mixed progress across the other target areas, which cover child mortality, early childhood education, school attendance, students' reading and numeracy, employment and year 12 attainment.

While gaps have narrowed in some of these areas, only the last – aiming to halve the difference by 2020 – is on target. Nationally in 2014-15, 61.5 per cent of Indigenous 20-24 year olds had achieved year 12 or equivalent. This is up from 45.4 per cent in 2008.

In other areas:

  • The aim of halving the gap in child mortality rates is not on track even though Indigenous mortality rates have declined 33 per cent since 1998.
  • A new target established in 2014, aiming to close the gap in school attendance by 2018, has not substantively improved between 2015 and 2016. The overall attendance rate for Indigenous students is 83.4 per cent compared with 93.1 per cent for non-Indigenous students.
  • In literacy and numeracy across school years three, five, seven and nine, Indigenous students are achieving minimum NAPLAN standard in only category, year nine numeracy.
  • Indigenous employment is stronger than it was in the 1990s but has fallen from 53.8 per cent in 2008 to 48.4 per cent in 2014-15

The stark results have been met with dismay but not surprise, as calls intensify for improved government engagement with Indigenous communities.

"[The Closing the Gap report] demonstrates that all Australian governments have much more work to do," Mr Turnbull said in his address to Parliament when tabling the report. He told MPs that he was "very saddened and disappointed" by the lack of progress in child mortality.

"I firmly believe that people must be involved in the process in order to be engaged in the outcomes. It has to be a shared endeavour. Greater empowerment of local communities will deliver the shared outcomes we all seek."

Mr Turnbull also revealed the government would expand the Productivity Commission to include a new Indigenous commissioner, who will lead evaluation of policies in Aboriginal affairs.

In his response, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Parliament should agree this year on a path to Indigenous recognition in the constitution. He said a "meaningful proposition" should be drawn up once the Referendum Council's community consultations are finished.

Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Health and Aged Care, said the results were not something to be proud of and called for local successes to be emulated nationally through more responsive bureaucracies.

"I think we've got examples of where there are outstanding community-controlled health services who are trying to do a whole raft of programs within their communities, but they're stretched," he said.

Jackie Huggins, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, called the report "extremely disappointing" and said community consultation and government funding need to be boosted.

"How we need to close the gap is through holistic, co-ordinated, co-developed, co-designed implementation, and that is how we're going to close the gap in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," she told the ABC.

After the Turnbull government's recent "refresh" of its Indigenous advisory council, the Redfern Statement – a document outlining a series of recommendations from Aboriginal organisations spearheaded by the National Congress – was presented to Mr Turnbull on Tuesday morning.

First released last year, the Redfern Statement has struggled to gain traction in Parliament and Congress has previously had a hostile relationship with the Coalition government. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister greeted the Redfern Statement by saying the vision "aligns with the government's commitment to do things with Indigenous Australians, not do things to them".

But some of the demands contained in the document face an uphill battle. None more so than the call for more than $500 million in Abbott-era Indigenous funding cuts to be reversed and the creation of a new Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.