The Prime Minister’s launch of this year’s Closing the Gap Report included several welcome changes.
Firstly, there is evidence that the Government is moving towards a greater focus on progress, achievements and success, instead of constantly centering on gaps and deficits, without ignoring inequalities or areas needing improvement. This is something Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities and researchers, have been requesting for a long time.
We know that the way evidence is framed can make a difference. Hearing positive stories can inspire us to take action to improve our wellbeing; on the other hand, continually hearing about problems can leave us feeling disempowered.
One example of this is the target of halving the gap in child mortality rates from 2008 to 2018. When we focus on the gap, we see that we did not meet the target and therefore, might conclude that no improvement has been made. When we look more closely at the data, we see that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child mortality has actually declined by about 10 per cent in the last decade. There has been an even bigger drop in non-Indigenous child mortality. This is a good news story for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and for non-Indigenous children, but this good news gets lost when we only focus on the gap.
The refreshed targets help us focus on progress and achievement. Most of these refreshed targets are not dependent on how things are going within the non-Indigenous population (they are not moving targets) — they are absolute, fixed targets that we can work towards. For example, the old target of “halve the gap in employment by 2018” is replaced by “65 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15-24 years) are in employment, education or training by 2028”.
Further, the refreshed targets are evidence-based and appear to be achievable.
This is a change from the original targets which the evidence showed could never have been met. They were always going to fail. This is a problem because it has reinforced the idea held by many in the wider Australian community that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inequality was “too big of a problem” and could never be overcome. Or even worse, it supported the myth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves were the problem.
Secondly, there is increased emphasis on collecting and reporting data at finer levels, such as at the State or regional level, instead of presenting one national statistic to represent all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The longstanding practice of primarily presenting aggregate (national level) data is also something that has long been criticised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers. Disaggregated data is vital for accountability. They gives us more insight into where things are going well, and where they are not.
Thirdly, there is a shift to including additional indicators and topics of great importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities: improving housing, reducing contact with the justice system and improving access to and ownership of land and waters.
These welcome changes to the Closing the Gap strategy are largely the result of the engagement processes that involved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the country. This willingness to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the refresh process, and to partner together moving forwards, is a critical step.
Despite this progress, there is still room for improvement.
While the refreshed strategy includes important components, there are still missing pieces.
We know that culture, social and emotional wellbeing, and intergenerational trauma all have important impacts on wellbeing. While these are identified as “cross system priorities” in the draft Statement by COAG, they are not directly represented in the targets. Without measurement and assessment of culture, social and emotional wellbeing, and intergenerational trauma, we can’t measure change over time and it is difficult to apply accountability for action in these areas. There needs to be further discussion with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about whether there should be targets about culture, social and emotional wellbeing, and intergenerational trauma, and, if so, what these targets should be.
While the breakdown of statistics by State or Territory is valuable, further disaggregation is needed to tell us the full story. In particular, we need data provided at levels that are useful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ and organisations’ own service planning and evaluation.
The Prime Minister highlighted a focus on education. While we applaud investment in this area, it is critical to note that we cannot only work in one area; there is no “silver bullet” so to speak.
While we lack strong evidence, our understanding is that even if parity in education was reached, we would still see inequalities in health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared to non-Indigenous people. Efforts to support education must be paired with efforts to improve the broader social determinants of health, including ensuring our education and health systems are free of barriers such as racism that impact our ability to improve outcomes.
It is also important for the strategic actions around Closing the Gap to be developed with the recognition that all the targeted areas are intricately linked. They cannot be addressed as separate categories or decontextualized from their position in the wider social setting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives.
Lastly, the media has overwhelmingly maintained a focus on deficits, gaps and not reaching targets. We hope that as we transition to the refreshed Closing the Gap strategy, this progress frame will be mirrored in media and other reporting.
Ray Lovett, Katherine Thurber, and Emily Banks are part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Program at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University, and conduct research on the social and cultural determinants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing. Their approach is to conduct research in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, communities, and organisations, and to frame research using a strengths-based approach, where possible. Follow the program @Mayi_Kuwayu
Professor Maggie Walter is the Pro Vice-Chancellor Aboriginal Research and Leadership at the University of Tasmania.