Scott Morrison today became the fifth prime minister to deliver a Closing the Gap report to parliament – the 11th since the strategy began in 2008. Closing the Gap has aimed to reduce disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with particular respect to life expectancy, child mortality, access to early childhood education, educational achievement and employment outcomes.
Almost every time a prime minister delivers the report, he or she states the need to move on from a deficits approach. Which is exactly what Morrison did this time. But he also did something different. Four of the seven targets set in 2008 were due to expire in 2018. So last year, the government developed the Closing the Gap Refresh – where targets would be updated in partnership with Indigenous people.
The current report and the work leading up to it has led to new targets, such as a “significant and sustained progress to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care” and old targets framed differently. For example, the headline new outcome for families, children and youth is that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children thrive in their early years”. This is on top of more specific targets such as having 95% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-years-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 – which this year is on track.
Looking back on the past 11 years, there are several things we’ve learned. This includes those targets that seem easiest to meet, as well changes in the demographics of the population that complicate the measuring of the targets. Below are three lessons from the last decade of the policy.
1. Some targets are easier than others
The targets where there has been some success tend to be those where government has more direct control. Consider the Year 12 attainment compared to the employment targets. To increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians completing year 12, the Commonwealth government can change the income support system to create incentives to not leave school, while state and territory governments can adjust the school leaving age.
That is not to downplay the efforts of parents, teachers, community leaders, and the students themselves. But, there are some direct policy levers.
To improve employment outcomes, on the other hand, discrimination among employers needs to be reduced, human capital levels increased, jobs need to be in areas where Indigenous people live and to match the skills and experiences of the Indigenous population. These are solvable policy problems with the right settings and community engagement. But, they are substantially more complex.
2. The life-expectancy measure is unpredictable
The main target has always been related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy. The 2019 report shows the target of closing the gap by 2031 is not on track.
Unfortunately, the life expectancy target is one of the more difficult to measure, as it uses multiple datasets that are potentially affected by different ways Indigenous people are counted in the census and changing levels of identification. The most recent estimates, based on data for 2015-17, are that life expectancy at birth is 71.6 years for Indigenous males and 75.6 years for Indigenous females.
While the gaps with the non-Indigenous population of 8.6 years and 7.8 years respectively are smaller than they were in 2010-12 (the previous estimates) the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and most demographers suggest extreme caution around the interpretation of this change. The ABS writes:
While the estimates in this release show a small improvement in life expectancy estimates and a reduction in the gap between 2010-2012 and 2015-2017, this improvement should be interpreted with considerable caution as the population composition has changed during this period.
More people have been identifying as being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander over recent years. What’s more, the newly identified Indigenous people tend to have better outcomes on average (across health, education, and labour market outcomes) than those who were identified previously. This biases our estimates, making it appear there is more rapid progress than there might otherwise be.
The Closing the Gap framework was implicitly designed around improving the circumstances of the 2008 Indigenous population relative to the 2008 non-Indigenous population. However, both populations have changed substantially over the intervening years. There has been a growth of the non-Indigenous population due to international migration. It is hard to measure and track differences in changing populations.
3. On-track one year, off-track the next
There is also the yearly reporting cycle. The target of child mortality, for instance, no longer appears to be on track. This is despite it being on track in previous years. Yearly fluctuations make it hard to gauge the effectiveness of long-term policy settings.
For other indicators, such as employment, the data is available far less frequently than it could be, and we are less able to judge the effect of individual policies and interventions. Having said that, in my view, the sophistication and nuance with which data in the Closing the Gap reports has been presented has improved considerably.
4. Indigenous Australians in the city and country have different needs
This isn’t always reflected in policy settings. The current report shows many outcomes are worse in remote compared to non-remote Australia. It also makes the point (though less frequently), that the vast majority of Indigenous Australians live in regional areas and major cities. This creates a tension between relative and absolute need. Unfortunately, the policy responses of government often don’t get that balance right.
Take the signature policy proposal announced with the current report - a suspension or cancelling of HECS debt for teachers who work in remote schools. What the policy ignores is that the vast majority of Indigenous students live outside remote Australia, that outcomes for Indigenous students in non-remote areas are well behind those of non-Indigenous students, and that the schools Indigenous students attend in non-remote areas tend to be very different from those of non-Indigenous students.
Attracting and keeping more high quality teachers in remote areas is a worthwhile policy aim. Alone, it is not sufficient.
The current report and speech by the prime minister states that “genuine partnerships are required to drive sustainable, systemic change” and that the government needs “to support initiatives led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to address the priorities identified by those communities”.
These are admirable goals. But, they require significant resources, a genuine engagement with the evidence (even if it isn’t positive), taking the Uluru Statement from the Heart seriously, and real ceding of control to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.