Sally McNicol, Social Policy
Closing the Gap started as a collective commitment of Australian federal, state and territory governments to address ‘the fundamental divide between the health outcomes and life expectancy of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia and non-Indigenous Australians’. The current commitment has evolved beyond its initial scope to a focus on systemic changes that, if achieved, will support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to thrive.
An agreement signed in 2008 between the Australian and state and territory governments, the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA), fell short in meeting agreed targets. The National Agreement on Closing the Gap was subsequently negotiated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives, commencing on 30 July 2020. The Australian Local Government Association is also a party to the National Agreement (unlike the NIRA).
The National Agreement is complex and has new priority reforms and implementation measures that must be co-designed and delivered by all parties. Its outcomes will not be achieved quickly or easily, and adequate resourcing and continuing bipartisan commitment will be critical to its success.
Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) commenced
on 30 July 2020, superseding the commitment to the Closing the Gap
targets that were set out in the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA) (p. 8).
The National Agreement is ongoing (until replaced by a future agreement).
Unlike the NIRA, the National Agreement includes Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander representatives as signatories, through the Coalition of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations (the Coalition of Peaks),
and commits all levels of government to a new way of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples. Crucial to this ‘new way’ are 4 Priority Reform
areas, which focus on changing the relationship between governments and
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The National Agreement also
contains an expanded set of socioeconomic outcome areas, a number of which are
the responsibility of state and territory governments.
The National Agreement is highly complex. It addresses deficiencies
of the previous Closing the Gap strategy through commitments to significantly
greater involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the design
and delivery of policy and services, all jurisdictions taking greater
responsibility to achieve the goals and targets set out in the National
Agreement, and enhanced, more consistent monitoring and review processes.
Commitments to actions that will occur during the
47th Parliament range across:
- key policy areas, including justice and housing
- specific locations (including Western Sydney and the Kimberley
region, as well as others not announced at the time of writing)
- greater resourcing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
- regular monitoring and evaluation.
These are discussed in greater detail below.
What is meant by ‘Closing the Gap’?
Closing the Gap refers, broadly, to the collective
commitment of Australian federal, state and territory governments to
addressing ‘the fundamental divide between the health outcomes and life
expectancy of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia
and non-Indigenous Australians’.
In the Social
justice report 2005, the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, urged Australian
governments to ‘commit to achieving equality of health status and life expectation
between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people within
25 years’ (Recommendation
1, p. 69). At the time, the life expectancy gap was thought to be 17 years;
data has since shown it was approximately 11 years. Health and Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander non-government organisations responded with a Close
the Gap campaign, including the annual National Close the Gap Day. Prime
Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson committed to the goal in 2008.
The first 10 years (2008–2018)
The Closing the Gap framework was formalised by the
Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2008. Under
the NIRA, the Australian Government and all state and
territory governments committed to specific goals to lessen Indigenous
disadvantage. The Closing the Gap strategy (Schedule A of the NIRA) recognised
that closing the gap in Indigenous disadvantage was ambitious and would require
a long-term, generational commitment focussing on health, education and
Under the NIRA, 6 Closing the Gap targets were agreed in 2008. An additional
target, on school attendance, was agreed in 2014, and a
revised version of the 2008 early childhood education target was agreed in 2015
2018, p. 2). The prime minister reported
annually to Parliament on progress towards the targets. The Australian Human Rights Commission also issued annual Close
the Gap reports.
None of the 4 targets that expired in 2018 were
met, and only 2 (early childhood
education and Year
12 attainment) of the remaining 3 were on track when the
Closing the Gap report 2020 was tabled in Parliament.
Why were the targets not met?
Many reviews and analyses of various aspects of the NIRA and the Closing the Gap strategy were prepared over the course of the NIRA, including a 10-year review by the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, a 2019 briefing paper to the Joint Council on Closing the Gap and a 2021 analysis of the NIRA’s effectiveness.
Factors identified as contributing to the targets not being met include:
• a lack of significant partnering with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (both in deciding the targets, and in their ongoing implementation)
• ambitious (as opposed to realistic) targets
• a focus on achieving the targets without a consistent focus to improve service delivery
• a lack of evidence as to whether the actions taken actually made a difference
• the non-renewal of associated National Partnership Agreements when these expired in 2013, and the subsequent decrease in involvement by the states and territories
• a change in government in 2013, giving rise to ‘policy drift’ from the original objectives of the Closing the Gap strategy.
‘Refreshing’ Closing the Gap and a more inclusive
In 2016, ahead of 4 of the targets expiring in
agreed to refresh the Closing the Gap framework and work more closely with
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to do this.
2018, a special gathering of prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Australians presented COAG with a statement
setting out priorities for a new Closing the Gap agenda and calling for governments
to partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the agreement’s
In March 2019, a formal Partnership
Agreement on Closing the Gap was established between the Australian
Government, state and territory governments, the Coalition of Peaks and the
Australian Local Government Association. Over the following 16 months,
the first nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown period, the partnership negotiated
a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap.
The National Agreement on Closing the Gap
The National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National
Agreement) commenced on 30 July 2020, superseding the
commitment to the Closing the Gap targets set out under the NIRA. The National Agreement commits all levels of
government to a new way of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
While the National Agreement contains socioeconomic outcomes and
targets (building on those in the NIRA), at its centre are 4 Priority Reform areas. These are intended to be tools
to change the way governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples in order to help ‘accelerate improvements’ in their lives (clause 25):
Priority Reform 1
Formal Partnerships and Shared Decision Making
The intention of Priority Reform 1 is ‘to accelerate policy and place-based progress against Closing the Gap’ through sharing decision-making authority with governments (clause 28). Commitments under this priority reform include developing 5 policy partnerships by 2022, and 6 place-based partnerships by 2024 (clauses 30–31 and 38–39). Government parties have also agreed to ‘undertake a stocktake of partnership arrangements already in place’ by October 2022 with a view to ‘review[ing] and strengthen[ing] existing partnerships’ by October 2023 (clause 36).
The first policy partnership, the Justice Policy Partnership, was established in September 2021, with an initial focus on children aged under 14 (p. 4). Funding was committed in the 2022–23 Budget (p. 110) to develop a Social and Emotional Wellbeing Policy Partnership. The remaining 3 policy partnerships will be in the areas of housing, early childhood care and development, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
Priority Reform 2
Building the Community-Controlled Sector
The target for this priority reform is to ‘Increase the amount of government funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and services going through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations’ (clause 81a.ii). The key commitment under this priority reform is to build ‘formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sectors to deliver services to support Closing the Gap’ (clause 42). Elements needed for a strong sector are described in 4 ‘streams’: workforce, capital infrastructure, service provision, and governance (clause 45). Sector Strengthening Plans develop actions against each of these streams for agreed community sectors, with the first 4 being early childhood care and development, health, housing, and disability (clauses 50–53). (At the time of writing, the housing and disability plans were not publicly available- see the Implementation Tracker webpage.) There is scope to agree on additional sectors in 2023 (clause 53).
Priority Reform 3
Transforming Government Organisations
The aim of Priority Reform 3 is ‘to improve accountability and respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’ (clause 58). The target for this priority reform is a ‘decrease in the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have experiences of racism’. All government parties have committed to implement 6 ‘transformation elements’ (clause 59) and report publicly on their progress by October 2023 (clause 67d).
Priority Reform 4
Shared Access to Data and Information at a Regional Level
The intent of this priority reform is to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities ‘to obtain a comprehensive picture of what is happening in their communities and make decisions about their futures’ (clause 70). This priority reform supports the achievement of the first 3 priority reforms. It includes a commitment to establish data projects in up to 6 locations across Australia by 2023 (clause 74).
In addition to the Priority Reform areas, the National Agreement
contained 17 socioeconomic outcome areas (as at June 2022),
with each having at least one target, for a total of 18 targets (outcome 15, relating to land and waters, has 2 targets).
There are also targets for the 4 Priority Reform areas. Targets are ‘specific and measurable goals that
will be monitored to show how progress is being made across each of the outcome
areas’, while the outcomes are ‘the desired result for Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people’.
A further 2 socio-economic targets were yet to be
finalised. Targets may be varied, and new targets added, with
the agreement of parties to the National Agreement. These targets are
‘refreshed’ and expanded from the previous Closing the Gap strategy.
Funding and implementation of the National
The National Agreement emphasises that accountability rests with all governments. This is
particularly important for the socioeconomic outcome areas relating to justice
(outcomes 10 and 11) and child protection (outcome 12) where the states and territories hold many of
the legislative levers.
All parties have agreed to develop implementation
plans that set out how policies and programs are aligned to
the National Agreement and what actions will be taken to achieve the Priority
Reforms and outcomes, including information on funding and timeframes for
actions. These will be reported against annually, with the first reports due in
Clauses 112 to114 of the National Agreement provide
a high level acknowledgement of the resourcing necessary for implementation.
This includes an agreement that by July 2022 government parties will ‘review
and identify current spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs
and services to identify reprioritisation opportunities to Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander organisations, particularly to community-controlled
organisations’. These reviews will be ‘discussed at Joint Council in the second
half of 2022, where consideration will be given to whether additional joint budget
work is needed to meet the activities under the Agreement’.
‘The risk of inadequate funding’ was considered in a recent Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research discussion
paper (pp. 10–11). The paper proposed
several additional reforms to mitigate against this (and other) risks,
including (pp. 13–14):
- an assessment of the costs of closing the gap by the Productivity
- that the triennial reviews (both Productivity Commission and
Indigenous-led) assess the adequacy of the levels of investment
- establishing an ‘Indigenous managed public spreadsheet of government
investments in closing the gap’.
In anticipation of all parties to the National Agreement developing implementation plans within 12 months, minimal funding was committed at the time of signing.
The Australian Government’s implementation plan was released on 5 August 2021. New funding commitments
were also detailed in the 2021–22
Mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (2021–22 MYEFO, pp.
214- 216). The Morrison Government’s commitment had included more than
$1 billion of new funding, of which $378.6 million was committed to the Territories
Stolen Generations Redress Scheme that provides support to Stolen Generations survivors who were removed from their communities
in the Northern Territory, ACT and Jervis Bay. An
amount of $254.4 million was allocated towards health infrastructure (2021–22 MYEFO, p. 214) of
which $100 million was provided under the already existing Indigenous
Australians’ Health Program (Commonwealth Closing the Gap Implementation Plan, p.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP) affirmed its commitment to Closing the Gap in its 2022 election platform. Relevant funding announcements
from the ALP during the campaign include those relating to justice reinvestment, remote housing and infrastructure, women’s safety, management of land and waters, health, and First Nations languages in schools.
The Australian Greens’ 2022
party platform included commitments relating to First Nations
health, justice, women’s safety, a national compensation scheme for the Stolen Generations,
Birthing on Country projects, Caring for Country and Sea Country.
Monitoring progress of the National Agreement
Progress against every Closing the Gap target is tracked by the
Productivity Commission and displayed on the Closing
the Gap Dashboard. Baseline data is available for the
socio-economic targets. At the time of writing, data was not yet available for
the Priority Reform targets. The information is to be updated regularly (at
least once a year) as more data becomes available. At the time of writing, 8 of
the socio-economic targets had updated information available.
An Implementation Tracker monitors the implementation
status of commitments made under the National Agreement, including any delays
in implementation. Commitments are classified as ‘complete’, ‘delayed’, or ‘not
All parties are required to prepare publicly available annual
reports. Additionally, the Productivity Commission prepares an annual data compilation report.
Every 3 years, the Productivity Commission will review progress
under the National Agreement (clauses 121–124). In April 2022, the Morrison Government requested a first review of the agreement, which is due to be completed
by December 2023.
There will also be triennial independent Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander-led reviews conducted within 12 months of each Productivity
Commission review (clauses 125–128). The first review is to be completed
by July 2024.
Working towards closing the gap in health, economic
and other opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a critical
challenge for the 47th Parliament. The policy landscape is complex, but
long-term attention that seeks to lessen the negative impacts of historical
Indigenous disadvantage is needed. The current National Agreement is highly
complex. Its desired outcomes are ambitious, and it is broadly acknowledged that its targets will not be
achieved quickly or easily. Significant resourcing and continued
bipartisan support at all jurisdictional levels is needed over the longer term.
Governments will need to divest some control to Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples, with shared decision-making acknowledged as one of the
Priority Reform areas under the National Agreement. These commitments are
taking place at a critical juncture for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
in Australia, including in relation to cultural heritage reform and constitutional
recognition (for further
information, see the related articles elsewhere in this Briefing book). The alternative to effective and sustained bipartisan action will be continuing and widening socioeconomic disparities felt by Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Closing the Gap website.
M. C. Dillon, The New Policy Architecture for Closing the Gap: Innovation and regression, Discussion Paper no. 299/2021, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, (Canberra: Australian National University, 2021).
ABSTARR Consulting Pty Ltd, Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap: Partnership Health Check 2021, (Melbourne: ABSTARR, 2021).
Joint Council on Closing the Gap, Joint Council Response to the 2021 Partnership Health Check, 2021.
Joint Council on Closing the Gap Partnership Working Group, Lessons Learned from the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, document released under Freedom of
Information 23 November 2020, NIAA FOI Disclosure Log FOI/1920/023/IR, 23 August 2019.
Chris Holland, A Ten-Year Review: The Closing the Gap Strategy and Recommendations for Reset, (Canberra: Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, 2018).
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Closing the Gap Targets: 2017 Analysis of Progress and Key Drivers of Change, (Canberra: AIHW, 2018).
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