Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Reflections on the Changing the Gap report

The release of the latest Closing the Gap report (summary here), the ninth in the series,  has received widespread coverage. It suggests that the gap between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the Australian community as measured by selected indicators remains stubbornly wide, with attempts to close the gap failing to meet many of the targets set. 

By way of background especially for international readers, the disparity in conditions, education, health and living standards between Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the broader Australian community has been an issue for many years.

In his Social justice report 2005, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma urged Australian governments to commit to achieving equality for Indigenous people in health and life expectancy within 25 years. Non-government agencies responded to Calma’s appeal, developing a National Indigenous Health Equality Campaign in 2006, and launching a Close the Gap campaign in 2007. This rights-based awareness campaign later gave rise to a National Close the Gap Day, which helped inspire cross-government action.

In December 2007, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) pledged to close key gaps. Then in March 2008, government and non-government delegates to a National Indigenous Health Equality Summit signed a statement of intent.

In July 2008, the Rudd Government established the National Indigenous Health Equality Council, and in November of that year COAG approved the National Indigenous Reform Agreement which set out six Closing the Gap targets:

  • to close the life expectancy gap within a generation
  • to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade
  • to ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities within five years
  • to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade
  • to halve the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment rates by 2020 and
  • to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade.
A number of building-blocks with sub-targets were identified to contribute to the achievement of these objectives.

In my response to the initiative (July 2008), I quoted a research report prepared by an ANU team that warned the Government that "a degree of policy realism and caution is required" and that its use of statistical benchmarks might lead to perceptions of policy failure in coming years. I noted that we needed to exercise great care in using statistical averages in setting aspirations and as performance benchmarks.

That post followed attempts over several years to articulate the reasons for consistent failure in the Aboriginal policy space looking at it from both a policy and historical perspective. Towards the end of this period came the 2007 Howard/Brough Northern Territory Intervention, something I wrote on quite extensively at the time. I don't want to revisit the whole discussion beyond noting that key cause of policy failure included:

  • failure to recognise diversity within Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • failure to properly distinguish those elements of problems that were Aboriginal specific as compared to subsets of broader problems of which the Aboriginal experience was a part
  • failure to consider historical issues including the effects of previous policies
  • misuse of statistics in policy analysis and development, leading to inappropriate policies including targets 
  • a tendency towards interventionist, sometimes paternalistsic often inconsistent and unstable policies with a bad-aid element.
One side-effect of the policy approaches adopted has been a tendency to focus on problems and failures overshadowing the successes that have occurred.

In the week leading  up to the Closing the Gap report, my train reading has been Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians: A history since 1788. In trying to write my history of New England I am including segments that tell the Aboriginal story both pre and post 1788. It's a complicated story, one that I am still working my way through. I read Broome's book to give me a broader context.

It's a very good if sometimes depressing book. One quote stuck in my mind. "In 1948 only 21 per cent of the Aboriginal population in New South Wales were living on reserves and 96 per cent of Aboriginal were in full employment." According to the latest Closing the Gap Report, in 2014-15 53.1 per cent of working age Aboriginal people were employed (this includes part time employment), up from 47.3 per cent in 2008.

So how did we go from a situation where 96 per cent of Aboriginal men at least were in full employment in 1948 to the current position?

The first part of the answer lies in the structural changes that swept Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. The agricultural jobs including timber milling that had been a major source of Aboriginal employment in regional New England declined, while employment opportunities in towns themselves also declined. The manufacturing and railway jobs that had attracted Aboriginal people to places like Redfern or Newcastle vanished.

Non-Aboriginal Australians suffered too. This brings us to the second part of the answer, the standard of education. For a variety of reasons, the education received by Aboriginal people in New England had been less in length and lower in quality than that received by non-Aboriginal Australians. While un and under-employment rose in the non-Aboriginal community, lack of education as well as geographic location (a higher proportion of Aboriginal people lived in country areas) created especial difficulties for Aboriginal people in competing in the new environment.As unskilled or semi-skilled jobs vanished, social problems increased, as did welfare dependence. Again, the same thing happened in the non-Aboriginal community, but the impact on Aboriginal people was greater for they were more vulnerable.

This structural change was, of course, only one of the forces working on Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Here Broome's book is very good because it traces the Aboriginal response to problems over time, drawing out the fact that they were not just passive victims but people who responded as best they could to the changing problems they faced over time, working out the best solutions from their viewpoint. Most recently, a revolution has been underway.

In his response to the Closing the Gap report, the ABC's Stan Grant (he is indigenous) among others including Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Member of the House of Representatives and now the first Indigenous Minister to be appointed in a Commonwealth Government,  pointed to the explosion in Indigenous university graduates.

Charles Perkins, the first Aboriginal university graduate, graduated in 1966. Today, there are 30,000 Indigenous graduates, with the number growing all the time. That's a huge change in 51 years. To put the number in further perspective, even though the Aboriginal jail population at 10,000 is disproportionately high, there are now 3 graduates for every Aboriginal prisoner. I know this comparison may sound bizarre and Aboriginal incarceration rates are far too high, but it is a marker of change.    

The growth in university numbers is just one sign of the revolution. In November 2009, my Aboriginal mentee, a women from whom I have learned much, put it this way: "our culture must change, but we want to control the change." The younger Aboriginal activists, many now well educated across multiple fields and with increasing access to resources, are pushing the change. Some of their arguments actually make me quite uncomfortable even though I know where they are coming from!

Reflecting the variety in Aboriginal communities across a geographically large nation, the pattern of change is patchy, flowing in many directions. The divisions within the Indigenous community are as least as great as those between the Indigenous community and the rest of the nation. However, there is a pattern of advancement, of profound change.

I was trying to work out how to illustrate all this in a simple way that might make sense, that might personalise it. This is from my old school website:
.Minimbah Aboriginal School 
What started as a grass-roots program whereby senior English students from TAS would visit Minimbah to read and play with their boys and girls at Minimbah has grown into something of much greater significance. TAS Junior School and Minimbah now have a combined athletics carnival; during  summer terms Minimbah students have learn to swim lessons in the TAS pool, and combined National Day of Healing and NAIDOC Week activities are also  held. 
As a result of this growing relationship, TAS is able to support the students and staff at Minimbah while at the same time deepening the understanding of our own staff and students about the contemporary Aboriginal experience.  
Partially as a consequence of the Minimbah connection, TAS now has an active indigenous program. This is an picture of the Indigenous kids at the school.

Growing up in Armidale, I knew some Aboriginal kids at primary school, but there were none at TAS. Now they are active at the school, are key in sports and especially Rugby (that's important!), with an increasing number in the OBU. Woops, I should have said Old Armidalians since the school has recently gone co-ed! I find about their activities from feeds, know who at least some of them are.

I said that I wanted to personalise it. The point about the TAS story as with the university graduate numbers is that it's an example of what is happening underneath the Closing the Gap report, of the change processes taking place. Raw statistics never tell a whole story.


2 tanners said...

I looked at the summaries of the report. Nearly all gaps not closing BUT outcomes for Aborigines better than before (by and large). Didn't get reported.

And then the ALP recommends a Department of Aboriginal Affairs to solve the problem. Dunno why we never thought of that before! If we'd only set one up a few decades ago, surely all these problems would have been solved by now.

Jim Belshaw said...

Morning 2t. Outcomes have improved, I think. As you know, I'm very cautious about the stats because I don't quite know what the averages mean. I have a strong feeling that
outcomes in the most disadvantaged groups haven't improved much, something concealed by the use of averages.

On the second, tsk, tsk, although I see the point of the sarcasm! A related question; has mainstreaming worked?

2 tanners said...

I'd argue that mainstreaming has worked, but I note that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, while demanding this for other Departments, made itself into a ghetto by insisting that all (or nearly all) positions be filled by Aboriginal people (there was a set of codewords which I've long since forgotten).

The problem today is that Aboriginals are far less likely to have the honours degree or double degree required for entrance into the public service. The 'filtering' (I couldn't think of a more accurate term) starts in school, not at the public service doorway.

Jim Belshaw said...

Morning, 2t. Working back to front.

The chain effect from improved education takes time to work through. The first known Aboriginal graduate was in 66. Initial expansion in graduate numbers was limited by the then school base. With twelve years schooling, the potential university entrance cohort initially grew quite slowly. Then you have to add time at university, say four years minimum, making a sixteen year pipeline. It takes a minimum of six additional years to train as a medical specialist under current arrangements, so you now have a minimum 22 year pipeline.

The first Aboriginal medical graduate was, I think, in 1983. In 1999, there were around 41 GPs, rising to 82 in 2006 In 2009, there were only some seven Fellows in the specialist medical colleges outside the RACGP (http://www.limenetwork.net.au/files/lime/Ewen%202010%20CPMC.pdf) So you can see the impact of lags. It will be many years before the work being done now at pre and primary school levels feeds through into improvement in other indicators. In all this, 30,000 current Indigenous university graduates is a considerable achievement.

I spoke of the variety in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. I would like to see more statistical data that focuses on that variation, not just the state based data nor the very crude geographic indicators provided by the use of the very remote/remote/outer regional/inner regional/major city classifications. Without going into details, I think that there are some important lessons to be learned, including some reality checks.

My comment on mainstreaming was based on my own observations having worked within or on the periphery of the Aboriginal policy and organisation space. Mainstreaming was introduced partly for ideological reasons, partly because of perceived failures in the previous approach. I think that it's created a disconnect between service delivery and those intended to be helped and has also made it harder to track what is happening. In a way, it another example of the dreaded policy instability that has marked Aboriginal policy.

I think you correctly point to a problem with Aboriginal specific policy bodies. The growing number of Aboriginal university graduates means that the skill issue is not quite the problem that was a few years' ago. However, the use of designated or targeted positions has its disadvantages in choking off other talent. At the extreme, it can have its own ghettoing effect. Its not always comfortable being a non-Aboriginal staff member in an Aboriginal organisation, especially given attitudes within the Aboriginal community. There is a balance question here.