Changing tack, Closing the Gap report looks on the bright side

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday February 15, 2017

Just as well the Turnbull government has put considerable and unprecedented effort into the presentation of the 2017 Closing the Gap report, because the information it contains is even less encouraging than last year’s.

As for the good news, the number of young Indigenous Australians aged 20-24 finishing Year 12 continues to increase relative to the non-Indigenous population. The rate reached 61.5% for 2014-15, meaning the target to halve that particular gap by 2020 is on track.

Progress toward a “renewed” target to have 95% of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is not clear, but with only 2015 baseline data available, the figures look pretty good. Nationally, 87% of Indigenous children were in early childhood education in the year before going to school, compared to 98% of non-Indigenous children — and in South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT, the rate is 100% for both groups.

In all other areas, the gaps are not being closed — or halved, or reduced, as the case may be — in line with the targets agreed on by the Council of Australian Governments. A detailed agency-by-agency breakdown of progress towards Indigenous employment targets in the Commonwealth public sector is provided; overall Indigenous representation was 2.4% as of last June, against a target of 3%.

Mortality rates have declined significantly for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children (0-4 years) since 1998, and are now at 185 per 1000 for Indigenous children and 80 per 1000 for non-Indigenous children. That puts this year’s figure for the Indigenous population slightly out of the target range to see it halved by 2020, but there is still “potential” to meet the target, according to the new report.

Progress on life expectancy hasn’t been so good and at this point, the nation is not on track to meet the target of having similar figures for both groups by 2031. School attendance rates are steady, so that gap remains stubbornly stuck. Efforts to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 appear to be having some effect, but much more needs to be done to meet that target.

The gap in employment for 2014-15 stood at 24.2% — with the respective employment rates at 72.6% for non-Indigenous people and 48.4% for Indigenous Australians, falling to just 35.1% in very remote areas.

Showcases local success

The Commonwealth has decided to include as much positivity in the report as possible and federal ministers have united to help the public look on the bright side. The reader is promised a document that “showcases real successes being achieved at a local level across the country — by individuals, communities, organisations and government” before the news that overall progress is “too slow” from a national perspective.

In line with previous statements under Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, the report emphasises the need for governments to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities:

“It is only once we establish effective mechanisms for working together, for supporting decision-making at the community level, that we are likely to see the gains needed to meet the targets.”

Visuals and moving pictures are a prominent element of this year’s publicity blitz that matches last year’s animated video and raises the stakes with a barrage of YouTube clips from federal ministers, straining their formidable communications skills to highlight the positives and soften the negatives of long-term Indigenous disadvantage.

Minister for Indigenous Health (and Aged Care) Ken Wyatt’s special message was uploaded a couple of days early, on Friday. Today, just before Closing the Gap 2017 went live, messages went up from Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion, Attorney-General George Brandis, Minister for Health (and Sport) Greg Hunt, Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham, Minister for Employment (and Women) Michaelia Cash, Minister for Social Services Christian Porter, and the Prime Minister.

Likewise Malcolm Turnbull’s opening foreword, and his speech to parliament, were conspicuously upbeat given the content of the report — and the recent audit suggesting his department’s Indigenous affairs section fumbled implementation of its key policy.

Perhaps they are doing their best not to fuel what academics call the “deficit discourse” around Indigenous Affairs; communications that focus on the negatives and the challenges for Indigenous Australians compared to the rest of society contribute to perpetuating those unfair outcomes, according to the theory. As two researchers from the Australian National University put it last year:

“Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not consider themselves in terms of what they “lack”. But this is the dominant discourse to which many are constantly exposed.

“For example, current government policy is entitled the “Indigenous Advancement Strategy”. By its very name, this suggests that Indigenous people are in some way “behind” or “lacking”, needing to be advanced.”

One might observe that the whole Closing the Gap project is also focused on measuring how far Indigenous people lag behind other Australians in various ways, but that doesn’t make the sorry statistics any less accurate.

So, along with the unimpressive information on the targets themselves, the 100-page document is peppered with optimism in the form of nice pictures, inspiring quotes and upbeat case studies showcasing, as promised, a huge list of localised successes.

There are also flattering statements about current policies like the Empowering Communities initiative — which is ostensibly all about Indigenous agency and getting away from a deficit narrative — and the Indigenous Procurement Policy, which has rapidly increased the share of federal spending that goes to Indigenous-owned businesses.

How governments speak about the First Australians is important, and efforts to balance public discourse around Indigenous affairs policy and entrenched disadvantage with the good news from Aboriginal Australia could theoretically help improve outcomes.

But on the other hand, government communications are always at risk of being interpreted as political propaganda so any effort to put a positive spin on ultimately negative or ambiguous information is a risky venture. And in this case, the mainstream media focused on the failures, as much as it ever has.

Related: Scullion puts pedal to the metal on Indigenous Procurement Policy

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