Speaking in parliament about his Closing the Gap Report 2015, Tony Abbott called for bipartisan support when it comes to improving the situation of Indigenous Australians.
When opposition leader Bill Shorten raised the half-a-billion dollars’ worth of cuts to Indigenous welfare programs by the government in his response, several Coalition MPs stood and walked out in protest. Personally, I wish to congratulate those members of parliament as it was probably the most honest representation of the government’s approach to Indigenous affairs I have seen since they took power 17 months ago.
The findings of the report came as little surprise to many Indigenous people. While it was noted that two initiatives – the halving of the gap in infant mortality rates within a decade and the halving of the gap in year 12 completions – were on track to meet their targets by 2018 and 2020 respectively, little gains have been made in most other areas. Things have actually gone backwards in the goal to halve the employment gap by 2018. In short, the 2015 Closing the Gap report card was almost an exact replica of the 2014 report card.
These findings come as little surprise to Indigenous people because we have, for the past 12 months, been witnessing the “efforts” of the federal government and they have given us little ground for optimism. Take, for example, the allegedly non-discriminatory “work for the dole” programs being implemented in remote communities this coming July.
Despite the government believing there is enough work for 30,000 people to be engaged in work 25 hours per week, and acknowledging that there are services which need to be provisioned, they do not seem to think providing these services is worth an actual wage and benefits for the workers. Many of these roles will be situated within councils, schools and aged care facilities. The ACTU has called upon the government to provide at least a minimum wage and benefits for work which, anywhere else, would be undertaken by actual employees. They have also called on the government to work with communities and ensure these workers have real long-term outcomes. If the government is truly committed to improving employment outcomes, properly employing Aboriginal workers providing essential public services in their communities, rather than making unpaid work a part of their unemployment benefits, might be a good start.
The gaps in life expectancy and health have barely shifted. The rate of suicide for Indigenous men is four times what the rate is for other Australian men. For Indigenous women, it is five times. Aboriginal boys between the ages of 10 and 14 are most at risk of taking their own lives. We may have more kids making it to the age of 5, according to the report, but we are also seeing many more choosing to end their own lives tragically.
While the rates of deaths from chronic disease declined, it was noted in the report that mortality rates from cancer had increased. Last year’s budget cuts included $534m worth of cuts to Indigenous programs. Of the funds cut, over a quarter were from Indigenous-specific health programs including targeted smoking cessation programs, mental health support and chronic disease initiatives. There have been calls to have this funding reinstated, but it remains to be seen whether the government will heed these calls.
Then there are the indicators regarding education. While more Indigenous students may be completing year 12, they are apparently doing so with little improvement in literacy and numeracy rates. Beyond school attendance officers, flexible literacy programs and some sports in education programs, the report doesn’t identify ways in which the government is improving the curriculum to make it more engaging and inclusive to the students. It appears we’re merely pushing more kids through a system which does not have adequate educational support systems in place. Only last week it was announced that the Fountain of Youth Charity was being forced into liquidation due to governmental budget cuts. It’s a charity that has delivered remarkable results in Indigenous children’s health and literacy since 2000. Without such services, I worry for the future destinations of Indigenous students.
Abbott and his government have many questions to answer when it comes to their real commitments to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, yet it comes as no surprise that they leave the chamber when called upon to answer these questions. If the government truly wishes to change the situation for Indigenous people then perhaps they need to look at their attitudes almost as much as their exorbitant funding cuts to Indigenous programs. If they don’t then we’re destined to be back here in 12 months’ time having this exact same conversation.