Closing the Gap

James Haughton, Social Policy

Key Issues
It has been eight years since the Closing the Gap framework was established, but only half the Closing the Gap targets are on track to be met. The Productivity Commission has expressed concern that we do not know which policies are effective. In response to high levels of Indigenous incarceration, there is strong stakeholder pressure to add an Indigenous Justice target.

The origins of Closing the Gap

In his Social Justice Report 2005, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma urged Australian governments to commit to Indigenous health and life expectancy equality within 25 years. At the time, the gap was thought to be 17 years; better data has since shown it was approximately 11 years. Health and non-government organisations (NGOs) responded with a Close the Gap campaign in 2007, including the annual National Close the Gap Day. The Human Rights Commission issued its own Close the Gap reports.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson committed to the goal in 2008. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) then committed to the six (now seven) Closing the Gap targets in the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA). The Prime Minister reports annually to Parliament on its progress.

Close the gap in life expectancy within a generation (by 2031)

This target is not on track to be met.  Indigenous life expectancy is improving, and mortality rates are decreasing, but progress is slow.

Figure 1: Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy: actual, projected and target rates

Overall mortality rates by Indigenous status: NSW, Qld, WA, SA and the NT combined 1998-2031

Source: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2016, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra 2016.

Halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018

This target is on track to be met. Since 1998, the Indigenous child mortality rate has more than halved from 13.5 per 1,000 live births in 1998, to 6.4 in 2014. The gap had narrowed by 34% as at 2014. The recent National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey found that Indigenous infant and maternal health has been improving.

Ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013

This target was not met. In 2013, 85% of Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities were enrolled in early childhood education. This was a higher rate than in major cities (67%) and regional areas (74%). The new COAG target is 95% preschool enrolment for Indigenous four-year-olds by 2025.

Close the gap in school attendance by the end of 2018

This target is not on track to be met. All of the states and territories reported changes in Indigenous attendance rates between 2014 and 2015 of less than 1%, with the exception of the ACT (1.3% rise) and Victoria (1% rise).

Halve the gap in children’s reading, writing and numeracy by 2018

Progress on this target has been mixed, with half the targets on track to be met and half unmet. Outcomes are worse for male students and decline drastically with remoteness. Most measures are improving, but some are not improving fast enough.

Halve the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment rates by 2020

This target is on track to be met, with an increase in year 12 attainment levels from 45.4% in 2008 to 58.5% in 2012–13. The number of students attaining year 12 was higher in urban and regional areas. The gap narrowed by 11.6% between 2008 and 2013.

Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians by 2018

This target is not on track to be met. While Indigenous employment rates are increasing, the gap has not reduced since 2008. The Prime Minister’s report notes that employment is closely tied to educational outcomes.

Are government programs effective?

The Productivity Commission has expressed concern that ‘we need to know more about what works and why’. Although Closing the Gap reports measure Indigenous outcomes, and the Indigenous Expenditure Report measures inputs, little is known about which programs are producing outcomes. Few programs are evaluated and evaluations rarely consider cost-effectiveness.

An Indigenous Justice target?

Indigenous people make up 2% of the population, but over a quarter of adult prisoners (27%) and more than half of young detainees (54%). High imprisonment rates drive Indigenous deaths in custody and are associated with other poor outcomes. Indigenous organisations are calling for a target of equal Indigenous imprisonment rates by 2040 through Justice Reinvestment. ¬†This is an approach which emphasises reduced spending on corrections, with savings reinvested in preventive strategies. This was supported by a House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs committee report, Doing Time—Time for Doing. A Justice Reinvestment trial in Bourke (NSW) is showing good results.

Further reading

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), Closing the Gap—Prime Minister’s report, PM&C, Canberra (issued annually).

Productivity Commission (PC),  Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: key indicators, PC, Canberra.


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