Wyatt signals new approach to Closing the Gap

By Shannon Jenkins

February 12, 2020

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt poses for a photo with Kaurna Country performers at the meeting of the Joint Council on Closing the Gap at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, Friday, August 23, 2019. AAP/David Mariuz

Failures and achievements in improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians have been highlighted in the lead up to the release of the annual Closing the Gap report.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has taken to The Australian to argue a good education can help close the gap for Indigenous Australians.

Responding to the 2020 Closing the Gap report — set to be released on Wednesday — he said the past decade has not delivered the results needed to close the gap, and called for a new approach.

He said 2020 would mark the next stage in an “unprecedented partnership” between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations, the federal government, states and territories, where “shared accountability and shared responsibility” would be key.

“We must also continue to encourage conversations across the nation — so we become more comfortable with each other, our shared past, present and future. This has often led to local action to realise positive change,” he wrote.

This year’s Closing the Gap report detailed various failed attempts to improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians, but there was small progress in some areas.

The report found that in 2018, roughly one in four Indigenous students in Years 5, 7 and 9, and one in five in Year 3, were below national minimum standards in reading.

In the same year, Indigenous employment rates sat at 49%, compared to 75% for non-Indigenous Australians. While major cities had an employment rate of 59%, remote areas only hit 35%. However, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians has actually increased by 0.9% over the past decade, while it fell by 0.4% for non-Indigenous Australians.

There was no gap in the 2016 employment rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with a Bachelor degree or above, according to Wyatt. Also that year, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians aged 18-29 who had completed Year 12 was between 1.5 and three times the rate for those without Year 12 qualification, depending on gender and location.

The report found life expectancy at birth sits at 71.6 years for Indigenous males — 8.6 years less than non-Indigenous males. Meanwhile, Indigenous females have a life expectancy of 75.6 years — 7.8 years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Despite the negatives, the government’s target of having 95% of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 has become feasible, with 86.4% currently enrolled. There have also been improvements in literacy and numeracy targets across all year levels.

Wyatt said he would develop a new whole of government Indigenous early childhood strategy in collaboration with experts, families, frontline service providers and communities, to improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

In the lead up to the release of the report, CEO of NACCHO and Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks Pat Turner said governments must “front up” to the policy failings that have allowed the gap to become “a gaping wound on the soul of our nation”.

While Turner noted achievements including more Indigenous Australians in Australian parliaments than ever before, as well as a formal structure that puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders at the negotiating table with governments (the Coalition of Peaks), she argued that “having a position in Cabinet or a seat at the negotiating table is not the end game”.

Read more: New Closing the Gap agreement due mid 2020

“What we heard overwhelmingly through our comprehensive community engagement process is that structural reform is far more critical than targets,” she wrote.

“We must ensure the full involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in shared decision-making at national, state, local and regional levels. We must also support Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people to control and deliver the programs and services our communities need. And finally, we need Australian governments to contribute through structural changes to mainstream and government-funded services, such as universities, hospitals and policing and courts.

“Change is never easy but with the right leadership it is possible. So, if our leaders step up and deliver, we may finally begin a new cycle success and a fair go for First Nations people.”

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