'Close the Gap' quick-fix policy - FAILED

Last week Gerry Georgatos of 'The Stringer' revealed the lie of $25 billion spent on Indigenous disadvantage, and several weeks ago he revealed that almost 1000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders died from suicide throughout Australia between 2001 to 2010, and that he estimated this national epidemic is probably twice the reported numbers. After exposing that there is in fact no $25 billion spend to address Indigenous disadvantage, a shameful indictment on our 76 Australian Senators in their so-called House of Review, this week he exposes that the 'Close the Gap campaign' is an untold tragedy of misinformation, poor tracking, skewed data and that now, some of the statistics are worse than ever. It is a national disgrace and governments stand condemned.

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 9 November 2013

The Close the Gap campaign once again welcomed the Council of Australian Government's (COAG) Reform Council report and at first argued that the report “shows progress to close the gap but more needs to be done.” But after a suite of questions from The Stringer, the co-chairs of the Close the Gap campaign agreed the data they rely on is questionable and that much in fact has got worse for many Indigenous Australians. The co-chairs are Mick Gooda, the Australian Human Rights Commission's Social Justice commissioner and Kirstie Parker, who is also co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (Congress).

Mr Gooda had said “Australia is on track to halve the gap in child death rates between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.” He said a greater effort is needed in employment and to achieve equality in life expectancy. But despite the Close the Gap campaign suggesting that there were some improvements amid mixed results Mr Gooda noted “that the COAG Reform Council did not contain new data” other than highlighting “the importance of collaboration and coordination between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

But all the measures we looked at paint the bleakest picture.

How can Close the Gap claim that the divide is closing? Other research shows that the picture is much worse than being depicted and there is really no middle ground on this. It appears that the data that the Close the Gap campaign depends on is misleading.

“The report highlights that cultural change and leadership is needed to achieve reform. Shifting Indigenous Affairs into the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet provides an opportunity for this reform.”

Close the Gap campaign co-chair, Kirstie Parker had said the report highlights issues contained in a brief produced by the Close the Gap campaign which is intended to guide the new Federal Government.

“We called on the Federal Government to forge an agreement with States and Territories through COAG on a renewed Indigenous health national partnership agreement,” said Ms Parker.

Ms Parker noted that with this type of funding agreement there may be better collaboration driving health and education outcomes. Ms Parker said that the “report demonstrates that we are making progress but we must redouble our efforts.”

Last week, the The Stringer and The National Indigenous Times challenged the Productivity Commission, the Federal Government and the Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC) on the much touted statement that $25.4 billion was spent last year on Indigenous disadvantage. IAC chair, Warren Mundine, subsequently agreed that billions have not been spent on disadvantage. The Stringer examined the Productivity Commission's report across 86 areas that the expenditure was arguably collated from and found that the $25.4 billion claim is a lie – and that arguably $4.2 billion is the likeliest spend on Indigenous disadvantage but in our view in reality less than one billion dollars reaches Indigenous communities in terms of addressing disadvantage. Similarly, The Stringer's research has found that the data used to report on the Close the Gap is dubious and that many indicators have deteriorated, some of these deteriorating to epidemical numbers, figures that rate among the world's worst.

One in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are dead by the age of 45 years. Aboriginal males in the Northern Territory have a life expectancy of only 52 years, a third-world statistic in the world's second wealthiest nation per capita. Spates and rates of child and adult suicide rates are among the world's worst. Incarceration rates, homelessness rates are increasing and from a racialised perspective are among the world's worst. So how can Close the Gap claim any bridging of the divide, when even without data most people can see that the divide is widening?

The health data is being skewed by collectivised data rather than demographic and various standalone data. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census is part of the problem, inadvertently. Each Census the total population numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples dramatically increase – beyond reproduction rates, new ATSI peoples are identified. The Census asks the simple heritage question of whether one has Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage. Many more people than ever before are acknowledging some heritage, despite a significant number of these peoples' families having been removed from cultural existences for several generations or that their Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage is not their dominant identity, and therefore the majority of them have lived within first world existences totally removed from the Aboriginal experience. The lumping of everyone together as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples is contributing significantly to wrongly improving some of the Closing the Gap results and in turn hiding the stark truth that the majority of remote and regional living peoples are doing it as tough as ever or worse, and similarly so for far too many of those on the urban fringes.

The Close the Gap campaign and the Indigenous Advisory Council urgently require standalone remote and regional statistical data, credibly analysed. This would be data on the 80,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders who live outside urban concentrations. Furthermore, any credible campaign requires region by region data – for instance Central Desert data, Arnhem data, Kimberley data. The Kimberley's data for instance will show that Aboriginal peoples are one in three of all residents, that the region has 7 per cent of its total population homeless and 90 per cent of that homelessness is Aboriginal, one of the world's worst rates, that the Kimberley's Aboriginal peoples, 14,000 of them, have high arrest and imprisonment rates, and that the Kimberley has a high suicide rate, with a recent prevalence of spates and rates of youth suicide among the worst in the world.

The Close the Gap campaign should require data on the 400,000 plus Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander peoples, not just the collectivised numbers of 671,000, which at its current trend is heading to a million Australians being identified as ATSI peoples by 2030. The 400,000 peoples I refer to are the ones who they or whose immediate families have identified as ATSI for more than four decades. Within these numbers are where more 95 per cent of the poor health are and remain, where life expectancy is dramatically less than that for that for the 671,000 and for the 200,000 ATSI peoples more recently added to the Census. In the USA, the American Bureau of Statistic's Census has remedied some of these issues by asking new questions about dominant heritage, multiple heritage, hybrid identities and it is finding that that people with for instance some First Peoples or African-American heritage are identifying with their predominant identity and therefore concomitant living conditions. But even if people wish to identify to a cultural identity that they have long been removed from, that is fine, for the purposes data collection and analyses to be credible in terms in of asserting whether gaps are closing the data has to be scrupulously demarcated.

The Stringer shot a suite of questions to Mr Gooda and Ms Parker – questioning their data sources and on how any data they rely on is analysed. We also asked why so many small communities, most of them with less than a thousand residents, are living impoverished existences, and why so many indicators such as incarceration, homelessness and suicide are doing worse than ever even in the face of the collectivised data. If we broke down the data we would find that the statistics are even more dramatic when contained to 400,000 or so Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples whose families have identified for more than half a century than the 671,000 who have been identified by the ABS. Extreme poverty measures stretch into the third-world-akin when they are demarcated to those 250,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders who have identified for much longer than several decades.

The Stringer also asked Mr Gooda and Ms Parker to comment on the alleged $25.4 billion spend, a spend that we have proven does not happen. We also asked that they comment on the 996 reported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides between 2001 and 2010, but which we believe are many more; if we include unreported suicides, which have been classified otherwise, the numbers and rate are more than likely double – instead of one in 24 ATSI deaths by suicide – we estimate one in 12, tragically.

Mr Gooda and Ms Parker provided a statement, “It is a disgrace that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die, on average, more than 10 years younger than the broader Australian community.” But, in the Northern Territory they die up to 30 younger than the national life expectancy rate. And if we demarcate statistics in the ways I have described, they still die at nearly 20 years less than the national life expectancy averages. Therefore nothing has improved in terms of significantly closing the divide on the life-expectancy ga

“Until our entrenched disadvantaged is properly addressed and the gaps across all areas are closed, there will be little justice for our people and Australia as a nation stands diminished, “ stated Mr Gooda and Ms Parker.

“The Close the Gap community campaign renews its call on all governments to commit the necessary long-term funding and work together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples towards an equal future.”

Mr Gooda and Ms Parker provided The Stringer with three reports – Building on Close the Gap 2013, Close the Gap Shadow Report 2013 and the Close the Gap Health Plan submission. But where these reports rely on data they have relied on collectivised data

“The campaign notes that, based on the available data, progress has been made in some areas, for example, child mortality rates, year 12 attainment levels, and year 3 reading levels. However, there has been no meaningful improvement in the overall Indigenous death rate and, disappointingly, year 3 numeracy levels and Indigenous employment have worsened,” stated Mr Good and Ms Parker.

“Clearly, this is nowhere near good enough and much more needs to be done, but not only in areas encapsulated under COAG's current Closing the Gap agenda. The current levels of incarceration, suicide, poverty and homelessness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia are also unacceptable.”

“The campaign is very concerned about incarceration rates and violence and their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The campaign supports the inclusion of justice targets into the Closing the Gap agenda, and has called on them to be developed.” They have included this call in their brief, Building on Close the Gap, to the new Federal Government.

“The campaign has also been a strong advocate on the need for addressing mental health and social and emotional wellbeing including suicide, as part of the effort to the close the gap.” They have highlighted their calls in their Close the Gap Shadow Report.

They reaffirmed the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy released in May this year, focusing on community control and empowerment. “Projects should be grounded in community, owned by the community, based on community needs and accountable to the community.” However this is still not happening in any significant way.

In response to my questions on the data, Mr Gooda and Ms Parker said, “As stated in the Close the Gap community media release, this week's COAG Reform Council Report contained no new data. It replicated findings from the report by the Reform Council earlier this year and looked for broad themes and lessons to apply across the whole of the COAG reform agenda.”

“The campaign understands that, as outlined in the COAG Reform Council Report, there are limitations in the current data, and the campaign has consistently advocated to improve data collection and quality.”

“We also noted the Government has been working to improve the data.”

“National data is important to allow high level tracking of progress. Data disaggregation is equally important to help identify location where progress is not being made. Reflecting this, the campaign has called for the development of a new funding mechanism for health funding which reflects population size and the index of need.”

Some of this is fine, but all in all without demarcated, standalone data, correlating historical data to the standalone groups, the doing away with reliance of collectivised data, little is known and little will be changed. What we will discover with the data sets I have described from temporal and other vantages is that the no close the gaps indicators have been bridged but indeed they are widening. There are billions of dollars subsumed by layers of bureaucracy, one advisory body after another and by carpetbaggers, and it disturbing to contemplate that they could not find maybe at most hundreds of thousands of dollars to get adequate data and identifiers, that the Prime Minister's Office, that the Cabinet, that the 76 Australian Senators, that one ministry after another are supposed to rely on? Any researcher knows that you start with the data, with the base evidence. Without the data, you not only risk not getting a positive outcome, you risk inflicting damage, therefore compounding problems.


Links to Close the Gap reports:
Building on Close The Gap 2013
Close The Gap Shadow Report 2013
Close The Gap submission – Health Plan
Close The Gap Shadow Report 2012
Close The Gap Shadow Report 2013


Further reading:
SBS‘Billions of dollars yet to reach Aboriginal people living in dire poverty'
National Indigenous Radio Service‘Suicide gap widening, says researcher'
The Stringer‘Australia's Aboriginal suicide epidemic. Whose child will be the next to die?'
98.9FM‘Suicide crisis'
The Stringer‘$25.4 billion spent on Aboriginal disadvantage is a lie'
The Stringer‘Warren Mundine responds to $25.4 billion lie'
98.9FM – ‘Break down on Indigenous disadvantage spending'
National Indigenous Times‘$25 billion lie'
National Indigenous Times‘Empowerment'
National Indigenous Times‘996 lost to suicide'
National Indigenous Radio Service‘Mundine adds suicides to Indigenous Advisory's mandate'