Malcolm Turnbull

Closing the Gap: 10 years on, are we any closer?


SBS News looks at the targets set in 2008 to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous disadvantage, and whether any have been met.

The pressure is on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he delivers the 10th Closing the Gap report to Parliament next week.

It’s an annual update on how the federal government is progressing in reducing the significant disadvantage faced by Indigenous people in Australia. But if the last nine years are anything to go by, it's not necessarily something the government is going to want to shout about. 

Jackie Huggins, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has told SBS News the current progress is "shameful". 

What is Closing the Gap?

The current targets cover life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment, and were formally set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2008.

University of Canberra Chancellor Tom Calma was one of the driving forces behind creating the campaign during his time as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. He told SBS News this week: "Many of us in the stakeholder groups believe the targets that were set weren’t appropriately set, particularly on timeframes". 

“We don’t want to be unequal as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.

“We want to enjoy the same life expectancy outcomes as the non-Indigenous population, not die 10 years younger.

Tom Calma on Closing the Gap: 10 years on
Tom Calma on Closing the Gap: 10 years on

Most targets not on track

The annual Closing the Gap report has become sobering reading. The 2017 report found only one of the targets was on track.


On track?


Close the gap in life expectancy by 2031

Not on track

Indigenous men live, on average, 10.6 years less than non-Indigenous men. The gap for women is 9.5 years. Since 1998, the overall Indigenous mortality rate has declined by 15 per cent but it is not enough to meet the 2031 deadline.

Halve the gap in child mortality by 2018

Not on track

The infant mortality rate has declined for Indigenous children but has not improved enough to meet the target.

95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-old enrolled in early childhood education by 2025

Potentially on track

This target expired unmet in 2013 but was renewed. In 2015, 87 per cent of Indigenous children were enrolled in early education.

Close the gap in school attendance by 2018

Progress needs to accelerate

Indigenous attendance rates are 83.4 per cent, compared to 93.1 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

Halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018

Not on track

Government data measures the reading and numeracy rates for Year 3,5,7 and 9. Only Year 9 numeracy rates are on track.

Halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20-24 in Year 12 attainment by 2020

On track

The proportion of Indigenous 20-24 year olds who achieved a Year 12 or equivalent increased significantly to 61.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018

Not on track

The Indigenous employment rate has declined since 2008. In 2014-15, the rate was 48.4 per cent, compared with 72.6 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians.


"This is shameful", the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples’ Jackie Huggins told SBS News. 

"You’re on the road to nowhere. Things will fail, they will keep going backwards. So, we really do need to get fair dinkum, once again."

Jackie Huggins: This is shameful
Jackie Huggins: This is shameful

Professor Calma says, at least, the statistics are heading in the right direction.

"Short answer: no, the targets won’t be met, but the trending is very positive on all the targets,” he said.

"Things have been happening slowly but not in a coordinated way, although there have been sparks of coordination. This is why I think we need to reset the way we’ve been going about business."

Do we need new targets?

Even the prime minister has agreed a refresh of the campaign is needed. In December 2016, the government committed to a Closing the Gap refresh.

“Australian governments acknowledge they need to work differently with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians,” the Closing the Gap Refresh discussion paper noted. 

“The refreshed agenda could … be expanded to capture targets or commitments about other things that are identified as being important. Alternatively, there could be only a few targets, to focus [a] national, coordinated effort.”

Aboriginal flag outside Parliament in Canberra.
The Aboriginal flag outside Parliament House in Canberra.

This week, Indigenous leaders and delegates from around the country will meet in Canberra to discuss ideas and strategies on revitalising the campaign.

“We [the National Congress] have asked for four additional targets, which are housing, justice, family violence and child protection,” Ms Huggins said.

Shared responsibility 

Professor Calma is asking people not to dismiss the targets simply because they haven’t been met.

“I’d really urge that we don’t look at throwing all these current targets out,” he said. “Let’s look at what worked and what didn’t work. Let’s take the learnings from the first decade and build on that.”

At the end of the week, the Indigenous delegation will report to a Council of Australian Governments meeting in Canberra. There may be calls for more targets, or to change the strategy instead.

“Over time, we’ve seen states and territories start to lose a bit of focus and there’s definitely a lack of coordination between the federal government and state and territory governments,” Professor Calma said.

He said some of the responsibility for closing the gap also lies with Indigenous people.

“Governments can’t make us healthy, governments can’t make us go to school, we’ve got to take those decisions ourselves,” he said.

“We are doing that but we need to be supported to do it in a more meaningful and substantive way.”

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