Closing the Gap

Dr James Haughton, Social Policy

Key issues
It has been a decade since they were announced, and most of the Closing the Gap targets have not been met.
What happened, and what are the prospects for the refreshed targets?

The origins of Closing the Gap

In the Social Justice Report 2005, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma urged Australian governments to commit to achieving equality of health status and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people within 25 years. At the time, the life expectancy gap was thought to be 17 years; better 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 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) then committed to six (later seven) Closing the Gap targets in the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, four of which were to be met by 2018. The Prime Minister reports annually to Parliament on progress towards the targets. The Human Rights Commission also issues its own annual Close the Gap reports.

Outcomes of Closing the Gap

Only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets were on track to be met in the 2019 report to Parliament. These two targets are:

  • to have 95 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 and
  • to halve the Year 12 attainment gap by 2020.

Four targets due to expire in 2018 were not on track, and were unlikely to be met (final data for 2018 is not yet available); and the 2031 life expectancy target was not on track. The targets and their status are:

  • halve the gap in child mortality rates by 2018—there has been a modest improvement of 10 per cent in child mortality, but non-Indigenous rates have improved by 35 per cent, leading to a slightly wider gap
  • close the gap in school attendance by 2018—attendance has worsened slightly
  • close the gap in life expectancy by 2031—there has been a slight improvement of 2.5 years for men and 1.9 years for women, but this is too slow to meet the target
  • halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018—there have been gains in reading and numeracy, particularly at younger ages, but not enough to meet the target and
  • halve the gap in employment by 2018—the gap has widened by 1.5 percentage points, partly driven by the abolition of the former Community Development Employment Projects program and the mining boom wind down).

Why were the targets not met?

Lack of partnership with Indigenous people

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested in his 2019 Closing the Gap speech, the original Closing the Gap targets and policies were devised without significant partnership from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and with limited input from state and territory governments. The available evidence is that policies designed and delivered by, or in cooperation with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders achieve better results. Many issues of most concern to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and which contribute to disadvantage (such as high rates of incarceration and child removal) are primarily state responsibilities, so were not included in the original Closing the Gap framework. Lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices may have contributed to a ‘deficit approach’ that focused on ‘gaps’, instead of on targets and programs that leveraged strengths—like culture and connection to country.

Lack of evaluation and monitoring

Reviews by the Productivity Commission, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) and non-government bodies have shown that as few as eight per cent of Indigenous programs have been evaluated for effectiveness or on cost-benefit grounds. A Productivity Commission roundtable concluded:

The lack of assessment or evaluation has not only resulted in significant gaps in the Australian evidence base, but has also contributed to ‘a litany of poor policies being recycled’.

In 2014 the Coalition Government abolished or defunded several governance, monitoring and evaluation agencies including the COAG Working Group on Indigenous Reform, the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, the Australian National Preventative Health Agency and the Coordinator-General for Remote Indigenous Services. As a result, according to the ANAO, the Closing the Gap strategy was not effectively monitored or evaluated after 2014.

Unrealistic expectations or timescales

From the beginning of the Closing the Gap period, demographers warned that the necessary improvements in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and socio-economic outcomes represented a major break from the existing trends of slow improvement. They would therefore require fundamental changes in policy and/or funding levels if they were to be realised.

Furthermore, policymakers may not have considered that health and wellbeing policies usually take several years to produce effects visible in health statistics; for example, a sustained anti-smoking campaign starting today will only show measurable population health outcomes after several years. Results over multi-year timescales can be difficult to reconcile with political and election cycles.

Inadequate and skewed investment

The Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, an umbrella group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies, has argued that the lack of partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples combined with a lack of knowledge of what works has led to poor investment and persisting gaps:

... expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is heavily skewed toward the costs of reacting to the outcomes of disadvantage rather than investments to reduce or overcome disadvantage. Furthermore, the 2017 Indigenous Expenditure Report states that to ‘know the direct impact of expenditure on the outcomes requires a cost benefit analysis’. The Close the Gap Campaign agrees and believes that far greater effort should be spent on working with First Peoples on the approaches that can be shown to work, especially those that address the root causes of poor health, and direct investment to them.

Meeting the Closing the Gap targets implied a significant increase in the rate of improvement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and socio-economic indicators, not just matching but exceeding the ongoing improvements in non-Indigenous health and socio-economic outcomes. This would imply a commensurate increase in funding for Indigenous-specific programs.

However, available evidence from the Parliamentary Library and the Indigenous Expenditure Reports indicates that spending on Indigenous-specific programs has been approximately constant in real terms since 2003, apart from a one-off increase during the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Indigenous-specific spending has declined as a percentage of Commonwealth spending or of GDP, and on a per-capita basis, owing to the increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. From 2008–09 to 2015–16, Commonwealth Indigenous-specific per capita funding declined from $7,216 to $6,987. The Labor Governments’ Closing the Gap programs were largely paid for by redirecting funding.

In the absence of significant funding increases, better targeting of existing funding might have produced better results. However, as the Closing the Gap Campaign stated, spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is skewed towards reacting to disadvantage rather than investing in overcoming it. Examples of skewed expenditure include:

  • governments spend $3.9 billion annually (2016 figure) on incarcerating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with overall economic costs of $7.9 billion, and
  • In 2013–14, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rates of potentially preventable hospitalisations were three times higher than non-Indigenous rates, and expenditure on secondary and tertiary care (chiefly hospitals) was 42 per cent higher per capita, at $4539 vs $3200 for non-Indigenous Australians, yet the rate of avoidable deaths was 328 per cent higher, suggesting insufficient expenditure in primary and preventative care.

This situation of under-or poorly-directed funding may have been exacerbated by the incoming Coalition Government’s decisions in 2014 to let the National Partnership Agreements on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes ($1.58 billion) and on Indigenous Early Childhood Development ($564 million) lapse (including the associated anti-smoking programs); and to cancel $369.7 million in spending on the National Partnership Agreement on Preventative Health. The National Strategic Framework on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing also lapsed under the Labor Government in 2009. These lapses meant both a loss of funding and a loss of overall strategic direction.

Steps towards future change

A longer-term view

Despite not meeting many of the Closing the Gap targets, it is important to recognise that there have been drastic improvements in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and socio-economic status since the Commonwealth first became involved in Indigenous Affairs in 1967. Subsequent years saw the dismantling of policies such as segregated hospitals and race-based child removals (‘the Stolen Generations’) and the funding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled health, legal and other services, leading to significant improvements. For example, Aboriginal infant mortality in the Northern Territory declined by 97 per cent. The health improvements have mainly come from addressing communicable diseases (before 1967, Aboriginal children were not included in government vaccination programs); nutrition; and maternal and infant care.

Policymakers should therefore consider that, although there are still unique, medically treatable problems such as trachoma, many of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health have already been addressed, leaving more intractable factors that require greater, targeted and sustained investment.

More than half of the remaining health gap is now driven by social and behavioural factors that produce chronic disease—factors which in turn are driven by social, economic and cultural disadvantages in areas such as education, employment and housing. Closing the remaining gaps, therefore, requires addressing many different aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage in combination; and, in the health sector, prioritising preventative, public and primary health care programs that can address the social and behavioural factors.

Current policy framework

The Coalition Government devised a new Closing the Gap target framework in collaboration with the National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations and relevant state and territory ministers. The new framework includes targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land and culture; child protection; and incarceration.

Major parties have committed to an increased voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in decision making, with the Coalition focussed upon local and regional decisions and the ALP on a constitutionally entrenched Voice to Parliament.

In 2017, following critical reports from the ANAO, former Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion committed to spending $10 million a year on evaluating Indigenous programs. The Government legislated for a new Indigenous Evaluation Commissioner at the Productivity Commission, who is devising an Indigenous Evaluation Strategy. The experience of the last decade has also provided a greater evidence base on the key drivers of disadvantage, particularly social and behavioural drivers.

The Coalition Government has also recommenced the National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing—which is guiding investments in youth suicide prevention—and made new commitments to ongoing investment in preventative health and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

These policies may address many of the key problems of the Closing the Gap period, if the knowledge gained from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and better evidence is matched with appropriately funded and targeted programs.

Further reading

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Closing the Gap targets: 2017 analysis of progress and key drivers of change, AIHW, Canberra, April 2018.

C Holland for the Close the Gap Steering Committee, Close the Gap 2018 – A ten year review, Close the Gap Steering Committee for Indigenous Health Equity, February 2018.

J Haughton, ‘Indigenous affairs overview’, Budget Review 2019–20, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, April 2019.


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