Chapter 13 - Indigenous Australians
It is etched on the collective psyche of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people today that social and economic exclusion was
arbitrarily enforced upon us. The ramifications of this exclusion has set the
platform for the tragic circumstances experienced by [Indigenous] people in Australia.
Some continue to live in absolute forms of poverty.
Australians remain the most disadvantaged and marginalised group in Australia. On
all the standard indicators of poverty and disadvantage, Indigenous people emerge
as the most socially and economically deprived.
Although poverty in Australia is evident among all ethnic
groups, it is Indigenous Australians who appear most profoundly affected by
poverty. Research has shown, over the past thirty years since the Henderson
Inquiry into poverty, that Indigenous Australians are significantly worse off
than non-Indigenous Australians, according to all social indicators...Not only is
poverty deeply entrenched, the causes are complex...despite government policies
directed towards achieving economic equality for Indigenous Australians, there
has been little improvement to their relative socioeconomic status, according
to standard social indicators.
13.2 This chapter
discusses the nature and extent of poverty among Indigenous people and
strategies to improve the social and economic outcomes for Indigenous
Measuring Indigenous poverty
13.3 There are
significant difficulties in defining and measuring Indigenous poverty. There is
both a lack of data and the available data is often unreliable. In addition,
measures of poverty tend to be culturally-specific as well as subjective.
13.4 In the case of
income distribution statistics several issues have been highlighted. One is the
inappropriate use of the nuclear family as the income unit in which income is
assumed to be shared – Aboriginal culture places considerable emphasis on the
extended rather than the nuclear family and there are strong cultural
obligations to share resources. In addition, the non-material poverty, in terms
of dispossession from the land, and absolute material deprivation suffered by
Aboriginal people suggest a different order of poverty from that experienced by
the rest of the population. One study noted that given the depth and
multi-faceted nature of Aboriginal poverty it was questionable whether
comparative studies of income poverty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous
Australians are relevant.
Nature and extent of Indigenous poverty and disadvantage
13.5 Submissions to
this inquiry and numerous reports and studies have outlined the nature and
extent of poverty among Indigenous Australians.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) also noted that
whereas commentators have indicated that most poverty in Australia is relative poverty,
some Indigenous communities also face absolute poverty which is reflected in
high infant mortality rates and severe malnutrition.
ATSIC stated that the poverty among Indigenous can be illustrated through a
number of key points.
- Most indicators of poverty and related disadvantage show that
Indigenous people are between two and three times worse off than non-Indigenous
people in Australia.
- About 30 per cent of Indigenous households are in income poverty,
which indicates that over 120,000 Indigenous people are living below the
- Indigenous unemployment rates, which are affected by Community
Development Employment Projects (CDEP) participation, are well over twice that
of non-Indigenous people in cities and regional centres and are much higher in
- Being fully engaged in either employment or education decreases
the likelihood of poverty. Indigenous people in full-time employment or
education is around 30 per cent of each age cohort, compared to at least 50 per
cent of non-Indigenous people in each age cohort.
- The proportion of Indigenous teenagers (aged 15 to 19 years) not
fully engaged in work or education is three times that of non-Indigenous
- Approximately 70 per cent of young Indigenous adults (aged 20-24
years), are not fully engaged with work or education.
- Approximately 50 per cent of Indigenous adults are reliant on
some form of welfare payment and for young people (aged 15 to 24 years) the
proportion is only slightly lower.
- As sole parents are vulnerable to poverty, it is of concern that
a relatively high proportion of young Indigenous are currently receiving the
single Parenting Payment – upwards of 15 per cent of young Indigenous women
(compared with around 4 per cent of non-Indigenous women).
- Indigenous people suffer ill-health and disability at greater
rates than non-Indigenous people. This leads to life expectancy rates for
Indigenous people being around 20 years less than non-Indigenous rates. Ill-health
impacts significantly on work opportunities and places a burden of care on
individuals and communities.
Families relying on public or private rent are more vulnerable to
poverty. For Indigenous people nearly 70 per cent are housed in some form of
- Some remote Indigenous communities live in absolute poverty,
measured by poor infrastructure with associated diseases that are largely
eradicated in other parts of Australia.
13.6 The data show
that as a group Indigenous people experience levels of disadvantage and
associated risk of poverty at much greater rates than non-Indigenous people.
This is partly associated with the geographic distribution of the population.
As a higher proportion of Indigenous people live in remote areas and are on low
incomes, they are at greater risk of poverty due to poor service delivery and
lack of opportunities. The fact that indigenous people experience high poverty
rates in cities and regional centres, where a full range of services and
facilities exist, shows, however, that Indigenous people do not yet experience
the same access to, or outcomes from, these services as do other Australians.
13.7 Studies have
found that indigenous poverty appears to be similar to other forms of poverty –
with low income being associated with poor outcomes in other spheres of life,
such as high arrest rates, poor health and inadequate housing. Studies have
also found that a distinguishing feature of Indigenous poverty is the depth of poverty
experienced across a range of welfare indicators. One study found that
relatively high income Indigenous households also experienced such factors as
long-term health problems and high incarceration rates, suggesting that the
nature of poverty and deprivation and the correlation between socioeconomic
status, income and health outcomes may be quite different for Indigenous and
Addressing social and economic disadvantage
Tackling Indigenous poverty is a fundamental issue facing all
Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, if the nation is to meet its
obligations to ensure fair and equitable social, economic and cultural living
standards for its citizens.
13.8 A number of
major issues of social and economic disadvantage affecting Indigenous people
were highlighted during the inquiry. These include unemployment; housing and infrastructure;
education; health, child poverty, youth issues and treatment in the criminal
justice system. These issues are discussed below.
commented on the high rates of unemployment, the lack of engagement by
Indigenous people with the labour market, and concerns over welfare dependency.
ATSIC stated that the employment situation of Indigenous people is
'unsatisfactory and in many situations worsening. In fact, the rapid growth of
the working age Indigenous population means that the task of achieving
improvements in the rates of Indigenous employment, or even maintaining current
levels of engagement, is great'.
13.10 ATSIC emphasised
the need for economic development and self sufficiency as the principal means
of overcoming welfare dependency and concomitant social problems in Indigenous
Mr John Boersig of the Coalition of Aboriginal Legal Services NSW (COALS)
noted that 'none of the people I speak with want to be dependent on welfare;
they want to develop a sense of self-determination'.
highlighted a number of issues that need to be considered in improving the
employment opportunities of Indigenous people:
- Greater emphasise needs to be given to the notion of meaningful
jobs, that is, full-time salaried and sustainable employment, as well as
on-going part-time employment in communities drawing on the unique
circumstances, skills and resources of Indigenous people.
- The ‘demand side’ problems of generating sufficient jobs where
Indigenous people live are significant. Relying on the traditional rural
industries will not be sufficient given their decline and reduced demand for
labour as a result of mechanisation. Accordingly, a concerted and proactive
approach will be required by Indigenous representatives, government and
industry to identify market opportunities, meet niche demands and respond to
new technologies wherever possible.
- Various forms of assistance to help enterprises and industries
establish on or near Indigenous land and to see them through to viability may need
to be considered. Examples may include tax exemptions and tax holidays as
incentives, seed funding, wage subsidies and marketing support.
- Management of national parks, sustainable wild life harvesting,
protection and rehabilitation of lands and seas, and aquaculture all have
considerable potential given the comparative advantage that Indigenous people
have in these areas and their consistency with cultural values.
- Major established service industries such as health, education,
administration, financial services and stores can all provide sustainable
sources of employment in remote and regional centres.
- Indigenous art and culture are already significant generators of
employment and income for Indigenous people. Often associated with art and
culture, tourism is also a key sector for Indigenous people.
- There are significant ‘supply side’ problems in relation to
Indigenous employment, with low levels of general education and literacy, work
experience, and health standards often characterising the Indigenous workforce.
Significant effort and resources must be applied in assisting Aboriginal people
to be ‘employment ready’.
- Partnerships with the private sector is a key concept in the
context of Indigenous economic development. For example, the non-Government organisation,
Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships (IEP), operating principally in Cape York at
this stage, aims to foster partnerships that are ‘a dynamic two way mechanism’
that enable philanthropic and corporate Australia to work with Indigenous
communities and organisations in a range of areas concerned with economic
development and economic and financial management, including at the family
- The idea of partnerships is also fundamental to the development
of ‘whole of government’ service delivery model currently being negotiated with
people living in Indigenous communities. This approach, arising from a Council
of Australian Governments (COAG) decision to trial a number of
whole-of-government arrangements with Indigenous communities, aims to develop a
different form of engagement between government and the Indigenous community on
the basis of negotiations as equal parties and with tangible outcomes as the
13.12 ATSIC emphasised
that there is a pressing need for governments and the private sector to
establish partnerships with ATSI communities to develop ways to improve local
economic growth and social participation in both remote and urban environments.
In addition, governments need to collaborate to provide a range of incentives
to stimulate the growth of industries and employment to benefit ATSI
13.13 That the
Commonwealth, in conjunction with State Governments, provide a range of
incentives to stimulate the growth of industries and employment in Indigenous
13.14 That the
Commonwealth and State Governments, in co-operation with the private sector, establish
partnerships with Indigenous communities to promote employment opportunities.
Community Development Employment
13.15 The Community
Development Employment Projects (CDEP) is designed to provide meaningful
employment opportunities for Indigenous people as well as enabling Indigenous
communities to manage their own affairs and to gain economic and social equity.
To participate in the scheme, unemployed members of a community give up their
current entitlements with Centrelink. In turn, ATSIC offers a grant to the
CDEP community organisation to enable it to undertake community-managed
activities and pay wages to participants. Community organisations responsible
for projects also receive funding to cover the costs of administration and
capital items required to conduct work projects. The primary objective of the
CDEP scheme is to provide work in community managed activities that assist
individuals to acquire skills that benefit the community, develop business
enterprises and/or lead to unsubsidised employment.
13.16 CDEP attempts to
provide a bridge or compromise between the welfare economy and the opportunities
normally provided by a large labour market. The CDEP has been significant in
providing a base for Indigenous people to acquire greater skills, employment
and enterprise development. While CDEP aims to promote the transition to
mainstream employment, 65 per cent of CDEPs operate in remote Australia where
labour market opportunities and Job Network coverage are limited and access to
training providers and facilities is problematic. The scheme has the dual
outcomes of helping to maintain the socio-cultural base in communities and
increasing Indigenous participation in the labour market.
13.17 ATSIC noted that
while CDEP has been successful in improving the employment prospects for
Indigenous people, it has not necessarily addressed poverty levels and
financial hardship circumstances as income levels for participants remain low. Others,
such as Anglicare NT, were more critical, saying that CDEP 'does not offer
people strong pathways to move into skilled development and then into other
sorts of employment. ...in some cases it actually replaces appropriately paid
participants forgo their rights to social security entitlements and are paid
wages by CDEP organisations that are roughly equivalent to welfare income
entitlements. CDEP does, however, provide the opportunity for some participants
to earn additional income from top-up wages, from income generating activities
and from part-time work with external employers. Further, CDEP tends to provide
temporary employment opportunities in low skilled and low paid jobs. CDEP
grantee organisations receive oncost funding from ATSIC, however this is often
not sufficient to provide adequate training, supervision and employment
13.19 ATSIC argued
that outcomes, and income levels, from CDEP could be significantly improved
through program enhancements, increased funding and equity with other government
programs, particularly with the Work for the Dole Scheme, which attracts
approximately twice the level of on-costs than the CDEP program.
13.20 ATSIC noted that
a number of the benefits and strategies of the Australians Working Together
package (AWT) are likewise not available to CDEP participants. ATSIC argued
that the removal of these barriers to CDEP participants would be advantageous
to individuals, increase the effectiveness and coverage of AWT measures and
diminish poverty and financial hardship for Indigenous people. Examples of
provisions under AWT not applicable to all or some CDEPs include Working
Credit, Training Credits, Job Search Training, Transition to Work, and the
Personal Support Program.
13.21 That Community
Development Employment Projects participants have access to the full range of
assistance available under the Australians Working Together package in
order to increase social and economic participation of Indigenous people.
Housing and infrastructure
13.22 Many Indigenous
people are not able to fully access adequate, appropriate or affordable
housing. Australian Bureau of Statistics census and other data indicate that
Indigenous rates of home-ownership are around half that for other Australians
(31 per cent, as against 70 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians);
Indigenous families are more reliant on community and public rental housing
than other Australians (34 per cent, as against 5 per cent for
non-Indigenous Australians); Indigenous households are, in general, about twice
as likely as other Australian households to be in need of housing assistance;
and Indigenous households experience much higher rates of overcrowding than non-Indigenous
households, and this problem is particularly acute in rural and remote areas.
Mr Bernard Valadian referred to the problems of Indigenous people living in
fringe camps in Darwin and the need to provide appropriate housing for these
Current housing arrangements remain so substandard that ATSIC estimated that it
would require $3 billion to provide housing of an adequate standard in
13.23 In recognition
of the specific housing disadvantage of Indigenous people, in addition to
housing assistance provided under other programs, dedicated Indigenous housing
funds are provided for public and community housing by ATSIC’s Community
Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP). As well as housing and
infrastructure, CHIP covers municipal services and the National Aboriginal
Health Strategy (NAHS) component provides capital funding for housing and
related infrastructure to improve environmental living conditions in rural and
remote Indigenous communities.
13.24 Homelessness is
a key indicator of poverty. The 2001 Census indicated that Indigenous people
are much more likely to experience homelessness than other Australians. ATSIC
noted that there are a number of issues that require further consideration in
respect of Indigenous homelessness, including aspects of the Supported
Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). Research has revealed that Indigenous
people are overrepresented among the number of homeless persons not
accommodated by SAAP (that is, not receiving this form of assistance). It has
also been acknowledged that the level of unmet need among Indigenous people may
be under-identified in official ABS and other statistics. ATSIC stated that the
current ABS definition of homelessness is culturally reflective of the
non-Indigenous population and may not capture the true nature or extent of
Indigenous homelessness. Aspects of homelessness specific to Indigenous people
that need to be taken into account may include forms of 'spiritual
homelessness' relating to separation from traditional land and family and the
impact of this on individuals, groups and communities.
13.25 A number of gaps
in service provision were identified as requiring further action including:
- an increase in SAAP services for under-serviced homeless and at
risk Indigenous people in rural and remote locations;
- targeted programs for homeless Indigenous people with complex
needs that will continue beyond a brief stay in SAAP accommodation;
- an increase in the availability of SAAP accommodation suitable
- crisis support accommodation for women and children escaping
family violence that supports all family members;
- increased cultural awareness amongst SAAP staff and programs; and
- improved data collection and reporting.
13.26 ATSIC argued
that there needs to be increased resources provided to Aboriginal communities
to reduce homelessness and overcrowding by making available suitable housing,
essential services and local infrastructure, particularly where poverty is most
13.27 That the Commonwealth
provide additional funding for Indigenous-specific housing programs.
people are greatly disadvantaged in the education system. At the time of the
1996 census, nearly half of Indigenous people of working age had no formal education
at all, and only two per cent held a bachelor degree or above, compared with
over 10 per cent of the non-Indigenous population.
The Queensland Government stated:
Nowhere are the impacts of poverty greater than among Indigenous
Australians. Poverty is a major factor impeding Indigenous people’s access to
quality learning experiences and education outcomes. Indigenous people
typically experience rates of school attendance, achievement, retention, and
completion well below those of the general population. In turn, this
contributes to higher unemployment, lower family incomes and higher incidence
of poverty. It is therefore paramount that education initiatives are responsive
to the needs, interests and aspirations of Indigenous people.
disadvantage for Indigenous students begins before schooling starts: extreme
poverty in many Indigenous communities lays the foundations for poor health,
drug dependency, school failure, welfare dependency and antisocial behaviour.
While early childhood education is universally acknowledged as being a major
benefit in overcoming disadvantage, only a minority of Indigenous children
13.30 The extent of
Indigenous disadvantage in education is also seen in poor school completion
rates and measures of literacy and numeracy. About 10 to 20 per cent of
Indigenous students leave school before year 10. The national apparent
retention rate for Indigenous students for year 10 in 2002 was 86.4 per cent or
11.7 per cent lower than for all students in Australia. Indigenous retention
from year 10 to year 12 for all schools in 2002 was 45.8 per cent or 31.2
percentage points lower than for all students in Australia. The retention rates
range from 78.8 per cent in the ACT to 29.0 per cent in Western Australia.
These retention rates increased between 1998 and 2002 in all jurisdictions
except the ACT which remained relatively stable.
13.31 Literacy and
numeracy rates are also much lower for Indigenous students and adults. The
literacy national benchmark results in 2001 revealed the gap between all
Indigenous students and all students: in year 3, 72.0 per cent of Indigenous
students achieved minimum reading standards compared with 90.3 per cent of all
year 3 students and in year 5, 66.9 per cent of Indigenous students compared to
89.8 per cent of all year 5 students achieved the national reading standards.
Similar results were achieved in numeracy standards.
13.32 While literacy
and numeracy results have improved ATSIC commented:
These are not good. A particularly disturbing factor is the
widening gap between Indigenous outcomes and overall outcomes that occurs as
students progress through their school life. With the share of the school age
population of Indigenous growing, it can be expected that this issue will only
be compounded without appropriate and timely action.
13.33 The Australian
Council for Educational Research (ACER) stated that ‘without success in
literacy and numeracy, young Indigenous Australians will continue to face
difficulty in remaining at school to complete year 12, entering university and
other post-school education and training, and making transitions to stable,
13.34 The benefits of
completing school are significant for Indigenous students: by completing year
10 or 11, chances of employment increase by 40 per cent. Completing year 12
improves the prospect of employment by a further 13 per cent and having a
post-secondary qualification increases employment by between 13 and 23 per
13.35 In response to
the poor literacy and numeracy skills of Indigenous students, the Ministerial
Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA)
established the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy
(NIELNS) in 2000. The strategy aims to achieve levels comparable to those
achieved by other young Australians. There are six key elements in the strategy
including improving attendance, overcoming hearing, health and nutrition
problems and targeting preschooling experiences.
13.36 In addition to
NIELNS, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy
contains 21 national goals for bringing about equity in education for
students also remain severely under-represented in higher education. Indigenous
participation in higher education increased between 1990 and 1998. The National
Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU) stated that since 1998 there has been
a decline in participation. In 1999, completions decreased by 9.9 per cent on
the previous year. In 2000, the overall number of Indigenous students declined
by 8.14 per cent, while the number commencing higher education declined by 15.2
per cent. Indigenous students comprise only 1.2 per cent of the domestic
13.38 ACOSS also noted
that from 2000 to the 2001 school year, the number of school student ABSTUDY
recipients fell from 31,734 to 27,200 – a decline of nearly 15 per cent.
13.39 The Government's
Backing Australia's Future package introduced initiatives aimed at
lifting Indigenous participation. The package increases the Indigenous Support
Fund (ISF), creates an indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council, allocates
five scholarships per year for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic
and support staff and provides for new Commonwealth Learning Scholarships for
full-time undergraduates from low socio-economic backgrounds and/or Indigenous
13.40 The 2003 Senate
Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee's inquiry
into the Government's higher education package noted that witnesses saw the
initiatives as 'tokenism' and the additional incentives would not compensate
for the increase in education costs. The Committee also noted that the changes
to ABSTUDY had resulted in a drop in participation and the merit-based Equity
Scholarship Scheme, which granted HECS exemption to some Indigenous students
has been discontinued.
13.41 ATSIC concluded
that Indigenous education outcomes can be improved. To do so, will take an
education system that:
- genuinely involves Indigenous families in decision-making;
- acknowledges that formal schooling is only one part of a child’s
- delivers curricula that recognises Indigenous history and
- invests in Indigenous teachers and education workers;
- provides appropriate facilities and support to students where
they live; and
- views education as an element of a holistic approach to community
and economic development.
13.42 ATSIC pointed to
a number of barriers to successfully improving outcomes for Indigenous
students, including that goals under the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Education policy are being pursued in an ad hoc fashion on a
jurisdictional basis. In addition, many are dependent on supplementary
Indigenous-specific funding rather than being an important factor in mainstream
education program and policy design.
13.43 Problems also
arise from the continued jurisdictional debate between the Commonwealth and
States and Territories over responsibility for the delivery of education
services and the delivery of services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
13.44 ATSIC concluded
that ‘education is fundamental to addressing Indigenous disadvantage and
requires a continuing high level commitment from governments to provide
resources and leadership in this key area’. ATSIC recommended that a National
Indigenous Education Advisory Body be established to examine the National
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy to ensure that
appropriate cooperative strategies are in place to improve the educational
outcomes of Indigenous people.
13.45 The Australian
Education Union (AEU) argued that another factor contributing to Indigenous
students leaving school early is the CDEP program. CDEPs operate in rural and
remote areas and participants receive an income payment above that of those who
are unemployed or not in the workforce. This makes CDEPs more attractive than
staying in the education system. However, ‘the socioeconomic outcomes for the
Indigenous workforce would be enhanced if Indigenous youth [were] encouraged to
complete school rather than move straight on to a CDEP scheme’.
13.46 While noting
that there are a number of initiatives aimed at improving Indigenous school
completion rates, the AEU stated that:
- initiatives were ‘occurring in an ad hoc manner, with little
opportunity for the systematization of effective strategies which produce
worthwhile educational and employment outcomes, which lead to the amelioration
- the $6 million of funding to address retention rates through the
Working Together for Indigenous Youth Strategy was inadequate ‘to redress this
appalling indicator of inequity’; and
- as well as appropriate infrastructure, there needs to be a focus
on development of incentives to keep Indigenous youth at school, present them
with a range of career options and support them through the attainment of
13.47 The AEU made a
number of recommendations regarding Indigenous education including that:
- a National Forum on Indigenous Education be established to
provide an opportunity for Indigenous educators and community members to input
in to Federal Government decisions at a strategic level;
- an investigation be conducted into the impact of CDEP on school
retention rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and develop
strategies to ensure that CDEP is not creating an adverse impact on school
retention and completion rates. These strategies should be developed and
implemented to ensure that the CDEP scheme becomes a true labour-market
program, with opportunities and incentives for education, training and economic
development built in;
- the Commonwealth provide immediate assistance to the Northern
Territory Government to explore the unmet demand in relation to Aboriginal
Education in the Territory, to determine the exact number of Aboriginal
students (currently estimated at 5000) who have no access to the education
system, and to develop strategies, including the immediate training of
Assistant Teachers, to alleviate this national crisis; and
- a national audit be conducted in relation to Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples’ access to educational infrastructure and that
strategies, such as the establishment of Government-run boarding schools, be
explored in the context of ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
students have access to equitable educational infrastructure.
13.48 The Committee
considers that an improvement in Indigenous education and training is
fundamental to overcoming disadvantage for Indigenous people. While there has
been some improvement in literacy and numeracy and retention rates of
Indigenous students, they still lag significantly behind all other Australian
13.49 For Indigenous
people, educational disadvantage starts at an early age and is a major barrier
to completing school and entering higher education and training. The causes are
multi dimensional and cannot be addressed in isolation: improvements in health
will lead to higher levels of student's attendance and a decrease in hearing
and sight problems; lifting attendance rates will require the work of all in
communities; more indigenous teachers and education workers will provide
culturally appropriate and relevant learning experiences; and greater
consultation with higher education institutions to improve participation.
13.50 That the
Commonwealth work with the States and Territories to develop strategies to
improve access of Indigenous children to early childhood education facilities.
13.51 That the
Commonwealth provide additional funds specifically for improving Indigenous
literacy and numeracy.
13.52 That the
Commonwealth investigate the impact of the changes to ABSTUDY on the
participation of Indigenous students and implement changes to improve ABSTUDY
assistance to Indigenous students.
13.53 Evidence to the
inquiry, confirmed by numerous studies, indicates that Indigenous people suffer
a greater burden of ill-health than other Australians.
The health status of Indigenous Australians is poor in comparison with other
Australians. Indigenous people are more likely to suffer reduced quality of
life due to ill-health, to experience disability and to die at much younger
ages than the non-Indigenous population. As noted previously, life expectancy
for Indigenous people is approximately 20 years less than the life expectancy
of other Australians.
13.54 The Indigenous
population is disadvantaged across a range of socio-economic factors, such as
employment, education and housing, and these factors have an impact on health
outcomes. However, socio-economic status alone does not explain the variations
in health status that exist between Indigenous and other Australians. Health
risk factors (for example, smoking, alcohol misuse) and other risk factors (for
example, poor housing, exposure to violence) also play a part in explaining the
differential burden of disease between population groups. Evidence also
suggests that the social environment partially explains health outcomes,
including the immediate local environment, social connections with family and the
community and control or perceived control in the workplace and the wider
society. Indigenous people are disadvantaged in this respect and are often
characterised by a sense of hopelessness and a perceived loss of 'control' over
13.55 In relation to
health service provision, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW)
estimated that in 1998-99, $1 245 million was spent on health services by,
and for, ATSI people. This amount represented 2.6 per cent of total health
expenditure by Commonwealth, State and local governments as well as expenditure
from private sources such as private health insurance and out-of-pocket
expenses. Indigenous people, however, experienced lower levels of access to
health services than the general population, even though they were twice as
likely to be hospitalised. This is due to a number of factors, including the
fact that Indigenous people are more likely than other Australians to live
outside urban areas and therefore lack ready access to a range of urban-centred
health services and facilities. Other factors limiting access include the
availability of transport, the ability to speak English, and cultural factors
such as the availability of same-sex Indigenous health workers.
13.56 Patterns of
expenditure indicate differences between Indigenous and the non-Indigenous
population in the way that funds are spent on health services. Greater amounts
were spent on ATSI people in relation to community and public health services,
patient transport, public hospital care (both admitted and non-admitted patient
services), and mental health institutions. Lesser amounts were spent through
Medicare, the PBS, high-level residential aged care and private health services
than for other Australians.
13.57 That the
Commonwealth and the States continue to implement programs and strategies to
improve access to health care services for Indigenous people.
13.58 About 40 per
cent of the Indigenous population is aged less than 15 years and Indigenous
children have the highest rates of poverty of any group in Australia. A
Brotherhood of St Laurence study noted that the extent of indigenous poverty
has been difficult to determine, though estimates based on earlier research
- in 1991 on average, 50 per cent of Indigenous families with
children had incomes below the Henderson poverty line compared with 21 per cent
of non-indigenous families; and
- Indigenous children represented 2.7 per cent of all Australian
children in 1991, but constituted 7 per cent of all Australian children living
13.59 One of the main
factors associated with Indigenous child poverty is the lack of employment
opportunities for parents, with over half of all Indigenous families with
children having no employed adult in the family unit in 1991. However, almost a
quarter (23.7 per cent) of indigenous couples with children and one adult
employed had incomes below the Henderson poverty line. In non-indigenous
families only 5.5 per cent were in this situation.
13.60 Another factor
contributing to child poverty is the prevalence of sole parent families.
Indigenous sole parent families:
- have larger numbers of children;
- are less likely to live in major urban areas;
- are more reliant on public housing and more likely to have
- are younger and more likely to be never married; and
- have lower levels of education and employment and lower incomes.
13.61 ATSIC also
commented on the relatively high proportion of young Indigenous women (15 to 24
year olds) who are currently receiving the single Parenting Payment.
Preliminary information suggests this is upwards of 15 per cent of young
Indigenous women (compared with around 2 per cent of non-Indigenous women). This
suggests that about 10 per cent of the total of 15 to 64 year olds are
receiving the single Parenting Payment compared with around 3 per cent of
non-Indigenous 15 to 64 year olds.
13.62 For Indigenous
children, poverty is reflected in infant statistics: babies born to Indigenous
mothers are twice as likely to be of low birth weight compared with
non-Indigenous mothers; and Indigenous infant mortality rates are 2.5 times
that of non-Indigenous infant mortality.
Indigenous children have high rates of illness, greater risk of injures
resulting from accidents, child abuse or neglect, higher risk of asthma and
lower developmental achievement.
13.63 ATSIC stated
The profound effect that poverty can have on child health is one
of the most important social issues faced by communities and governments. The
long term and ongoing effect of poverty on the health of all Indigenous
peoples, men, women and children, remains one of the major obstacles to
achieving a vastly improved and acceptable level of Indigenous health and
13.64 Many submissions
highlighted the importance of early childhood education for Indigenous
communities. ATSIC stated that ‘many of the most pressing social problems faced
by Indigenous people have their beginnings in early childhood. The foundations
of poor health, drug dependency, school failure, welfare dependency, poverty
and criminal behaviour can often be associated with a child’s early years.’
13.65 One way of
improving early childhood experiences of Indigenous children is the provision
of professional child care. However, QCOSS noted the nonpayment of child care fees
in Indigenous communities is a problem. Many indigenous families experience
competing demands on funds and experience problems such as substance abuse,
which may drain finances. In such circumstances, child care is not necessarily
seen as a priority. QCOSS recommended greater support to ensure that childcare
services remained viable in these communities. QCOSS also endorsed the
expansion and development of Multifunctional Aboriginal Children Services
(MACS) and other early childhood services to ensure all indigenous children
have access to quality childcare, family support and early intervention
13.66 That the
Commonwealth provide additional funding to improve the affordability of child
care for Indigenous children.
Indigenous youth issues
13.67 ATSIC provided
data on the employment and education of young Indigenous people. ATSIC found
that the proportion of Indigenous teenagers (aged 15 to 19) not fully engaged
in work or education is three times that of non-Indigenous people, meaning that
Indigenous teenagers are at more risk of not accumulating the necessary
experience and qualifications needed to ensure employment and higher paid work
in the future. The risk increases by remoteness: from 38 per cent in major cities
to 52 per cent in remote areas and 70 per cent in very remote areas.
13.68 For young
Indigenous adults (aged 20 to 24 years), close to 70 per cent are not fully
engaged with work or education compared to 30 per cent of the non-Indigenous
workforce. This means that young Indigenous adults are three times as likely to
be unemployed or not in the labour force.
While Indigenous young adults constituted 2.8 per cent of the total young adult
population in 2001, they formed only one per cent of those in full-time education,
1.4 per cent of full-time workers, 3.7 per cent of part-time workers and 7.6
per cent of those unemployed or not in the labour force.
Again those in the most remote areas of Australia are at greatest risk with 73
per cent in remote areas being at risk and 83 per cent in very remote areas
being at risk.
13.69 ATSIC estimated
that about 60 per cent of Indigenous young adults are receiving an income
support payment (total Centrelink plus those on CDEP but not on Newstart
Allowance). This compares to 23 per cent of non-Indigenous youth. If ABSTUDY is
excluded, about 45 per cent are on income support. ASTIC stated that some
double counting was expected when incorporating CDEP participants.
13.70 An analysis by
the Dussledorp Skills Forum on the education and labour market status of
teenagers (15-19 years) and young adults (20-24 years) between 1996 and 2001
found some improvements for Indigenous young people:
- there was a 4 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous
teenagers in full time education;
- there was a 3 per cent decrease in Indigenous teenagers in
part-time work and/or education, unemployed or not in the labour force; and
- there was a slight increase Indigenous young adults undertaking
full-time study, accompanied by a decline in the proportion in full-time work
and increase in the proportion in part-time work and/or education (14.5 per
cent to 16.6 per cent).
13.71 The Dussledorp
Skills Forum suggested that 'early connection to full-time work or education
for young people is crucial to long-term labour market success, leading to a
need for renewed emphasis on improving education and employment outcomes for
young Indigenous people'.
The criminal justice system
people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. While
Indigenous people comprise only 1 in 40 of the Australian population as a
whole, they comprise 1 in 5 of the prisoner population. The imprisonment rate
for Indigenous offenders is more than 15 times higher than the rate for
The Coalition of Aboriginal Legal Services NSW (COALS) noted that on average
the NSW Department of Juvenile Justice had 300 juveniles in custody and contact
and over 9000 juveniles were before the courts. During 2001-02, Indigenous
juveniles comprised 34 per cent of juveniles on remand, 43 per cent under the
department's control and 22 per cent in youth conferencing in NSW.
Such high levels of contact with the criminal justice system are exacerbated
by, and inherently linked to, the low socio-economic status of Indigenous people.
13.73 The level of
imprisonment of Indigenous people is increasing. The cost to the community of
maintaining the justice system (police, courts and corrections) is also high
and is increasing. ATSIC stated that disruption occurs to both the lives of the
prisoner and of his/her family with incarceration for any length of time. The
family unit may break down when there is no breadwinner, and this can lead to
violence, homelessness and drug addiction.
13.74 Once contact
with the criminal justice system occurs, poverty again becomes a factor in
terms of affordable access to legal assistance and just sentencing. Most
Indigenous peoples, because of poverty, require legal aid for access to legal
13.75 COALS stated
that there is increasing demand on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal
Services (ATSILS) resources by Indigenous clients who require legal
advice/representation for civil, family and child-related matters. COALS noted
that in relation to Aboriginal Legal Services 'there has been virtually nil
increase in funding over the last five years'.
COALS argued that additional funding should be provided.
Any increase in the number of solicitors and field officers for
the ATSILS would facilitate earlier contact and representation with Indigenous
clients, while a better understanding of Indigenous clients' circumstances
would most likely result in lowering imprisonment rates for Indigenous people.
13.76 Indigenous women
are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to accessing legal aid, as the
priority for service delivery in this area lies in criminal matters, where the
offenders are often male. While women's access to services has improved in
recent years, further action is needed to reach a level of equality for all
Indigenous people. ATSIC noted that a disturbing trend is the increasing rate of
Indigenous women in prison. The number of Indigenous women incarcerated has
risen by 255 per cent over the past decade, although in absolute terms the
numbers are relatively small.
13.77 ATSIC argued
that there is an urgent need to significantly increase the scope of prisoner
support services to encompass greater assistance with housing, childcare, and
financial concerns. In addition, there is a critical lack of expenditure on
post-release support services for prisoners, and this is compounded where
immediate poverty is a factor increasing the risk of re-offending. While
$55 000 a year is spent to keep one person incarcerated, only $300 a year
is invested in post prisoner release. The Commission stated that assistance
with training, employment, housing, and family care is essential at this stage,
and the failure to invest in these social needs inevitably leads to a greater
degree of social dysfunction and recidivism.
13.78 That the Commonwealth
provide additional funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal
13.79 That the States
provide additional assistance for programs that address recidivism and
post-prison release support services for Indigenous people.
13.80 This inquiry has
highlighted the alarming and distressing picture of poverty and disadvantage
amongst Indigenous communities across Australia. However, the inquiry has only
touched the edges of the absolute poverty and disadvantage of Indigenous
Australians that many previous inquiries and detailed studies have revealed.
The social and economic disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians has
many forms including high levels of unemployment, extremely poor health outcomes,
far shorter life expectancy than other Australians and high levels of
incarceration. The situation represents a serious national problem, and
requires a concerted effort at all levels of government to address the
13.81 The Committee
believes that a concerted national approach to address the problem of
Indigenous poverty requires that agencies within and across governments
collaborate with Indigenous communities as well as with other community and
private sector agencies. The Committee firmly believes that solutions to the
problem of Indigenous poverty must involve extensive consultation with
Aboriginal communities to be at all effective.
13.82 Poverty and
disadvantage are multi-dimensional and there is a degree of circularity whereby
an effect of poverty in turn becomes a cause, and so, for instance, poor
housing itself an outcome of poverty, militates against improved health,
educational and other outcomes. The implication of this situation is that
programs to address Indigenous poverty and disadvantage must be multi-faceted,
and resourced to a significant degree, commensurate with the scale of the
poverty appears to be deeply entrenched and persistent. This implies that
improvement in Indigenous economic and social status will require long-term
government intervention and innovative service models that ensure a high degree
of Indigenous involvement in the development and implementation of programs. As
one submission noted:
A future challenge for governments will involve implementing
approaches that recognise the heterogeneity of Indigenous life influenced by
the decisions made by Indigenous people in terms of how and where they want to
live. These factors in turn affect how rapidly any progress might be made in
improving the economic outlook for Indigenous people. The multi-faceted and
complex nature of Indigenous poverty suggests that approaches that merely
mirror those for mainstream society, or advocate immediate outcomes, may risk
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