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School attendance officers escort reluctant students to the school bus in Gunbalanya in West Arnhem Land. Neda Vanovac/AAP

Turnbull urges stronger partnership between government and Indigenous Australia to close the gap

The 2016 Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report shows a bleak picture on progress on Indigenous employment and little improvement in school attendance.

Australia is not on track to halve the gap in employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people by 2018, while there has been only marginal movement towards closing the school attendance gap by the end of 2018.

The attendance target was added to the original list in 2014 at the initiative of former prime minister Tony Abbott.

In mixed results, the target of halving the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track, as is that of halving the gap for Indigenous Australians attaining year 12 by 2020.

But while total Indigenous mortality rates have declined over the longer term, the target to close the gap on life expectancy is not on track.

Presented to parliament on Wednesday by Malcolm Turnbull, the report says that – as in previous years – there have been “mixed levels of success” in progress on the targets, set by the Council of Australian Governments in 2008, which focus on health, education and employment.

Turnbull called for “a more concerted effort”. “It is not until Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same opportunities for health, education and employment that we can truly say we are a country of equal opportunity,” he said in the report’s introduction.

No progress has been made against the employment target since 2008, according to the report, although there has not been new Indigenous employment data since last year’s report.

“The Indigenous employment rate fell from 53.8% in 2008 to 47.5% in 2012-13.” This was in the context of a general softening of the labour market with the overall employment rate for Australians falling from 73.4% in June 2008 to 72.1% in June 2013.

The report says that factors such as economic growth, strong Indigenous businesses and gains in Indigenous education will have an impact on employment. Employment opportunities are being generated through setting targets for government procurement, public service employment and through the efforts of corporate Australia, the report says.

In 2015 the overall attendance rate for Indigenous students nationally was 83.7%, compared with 93.1% for non-Indigenous students.

“There has been little change in the Indigenous school attendance rate from 2014 (83.5%) to 2015 (83.7%). Progress will need to accelerate from now on for this target to be met.”

Varied progress is being made on literacy and numeracy, where the target is to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018.

Across the eight areas – reading and numeracy for years 3, 5, 7 and 9 – the proportion of Indigenous students achieving national minimal standards is on track in four of them.

NAPLAN results for Indigenous students differ sharply by remoteness area and are better for girls than boys.

“Although the literacy and numeracy gap remains, the numbers required to halve the gap are within reach”, the report says. “Improving literacy and numeracy requires a twofold approach: addressing early childhood education, and accelerating learning for students currently at school.”

Turnbull said in his introduction he was heartened to see that there were some positive gains shown in the 2016 report. For example, Indigenous mortality rates were declining, especially those deaths from circulatory diseases, and the Indigenous infant mortality rate had more than halved in the past 16 years.

“But the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is still around 10 years less than non-Indigenous Australians – an unacceptably wide gap,” he said.

“In education, the report shows a 70% increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education courses over the past decade. And there is almost no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university graduates,” he said.

“The evidence shows that the Closing the Gap targets are closely interrelated. The data linking educational attainment with successful employment is unequivocal.”

Turnbull told a Closing the Gap breakfast that under successive governments of both sides, progress across the closing the gap targets had been mixed.

“But I do believe we have witnessed true commitment and collaboration and we’re seeing positive trends as a result.”

He stressed the importance of recognising the “diversity of culture across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia” and ensuring that “our policies and our programs offer a placed-based approach to reflect that diversity”.

Efforts had to be redoubled to ensure effective engagement between the government and Indigenous people to build trust and further develop a respectful relationship.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised a Labor government would commit A$9 million to combating vision loss among Indigenous people. This would deliver increased visiting services to address the gap in specialist eye health care and trachoma prevention strategies.

Labor would also set new targets to close the justice gap, tackling “the appalling incarceration rate” among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

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