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17 Mar 2015

The nation is making little headway in narrowing the life expectancy gap between Indigenous people and other Australians despite long-term progress in halving the mortality rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

In a result that Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted was “profoundly disappointing”, the seventh annual Closing the Gap report showed there had been little or no improvement in key measures of Indigenous disadvantage, fuelling criticism of Commonwealth spending cuts.

The report found that although Indigenous death rates from chronic disease have declined significantly, there has been no improvement in mortality from diabetes, suicide or traffic accidents, and the death rate gap for cancer has widened.

Overall, the report said, improvement had virtually stalled between 2006 and 2013, and the life expectancy gap remained wide, including 10.6 years for men and 9.5 years for women.

The report concluded that “the current rate of progress will have to gather considerable pace” if the goal of closing the life expectancy gap by 2031 was to be met.

The finding has underlined calls by AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler for governments nationwide to sustain reform momentum.

A/Professor Owler said some promising gains were being made in improving child and maternal health, but the report showed that health gulf between Indigenous Australians and the broader community remained wide.

“Achieving equality in health and life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a national priority, but the reports show that there is still a way to go before we see meaningful and lasting improvements,” the AMA President said.

A/Professor Owler said Federal Government funding cuts for primary health care and Indigenous health services would undermine recent progress and make it much harder to achieve improvement.

“There are significant numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with undetected treatable and preventable chronic conditions, which impact on life expectancy,” the AMA President said. “Community controlled health organisations and Aboriginal Medical Services need greater support to be able provide Indigenous Australians with access to the comprehensive primary care services that other Australians enjoy.”

Despite these concerns, Mr Abbott reiterated the Government’s priority was improving school attendance and employment, where efforts have so far met with mixed success.

While the country is on track to halve the gap on year 12 attainment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, there has been no improvement in Indigenous reading and numeracy, and employment outcomes have actually declined since 2008.

“Closing the gap starts with getting the kids to school. And it starts with expecting much of them while they are there,” he told Parliament. “This Government is determined to break the cycle of truancy.”

The Government’s focus on truancy and employment has been criticised for underplaying the importance of health, a line of attack that Mr Abbott moved to blunt by declaring the Government’s commitment to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan developed under the previous Labor Government.

“Without good physical and mental health, it is hard to go to school, to go to work, to raise children, to contribute to the community, or to live a long and fulfilling life,” the Prime Minister said. “The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan does capture the voices of the community and the experts, and through this plan we will continue to support families and communities to manage their health and wellbeing.”

Commitment to the implementation of the Health Plan is bipartisan, but Opposition Leader Bill Shorten used his speech to Parliament to take a swipe at the Government over its cuts to spending on Indigenous policy.

While closing the gap was “an endeavour where every Opposition wants the Government to succeed”, Mr Shorten said he was compelled to point out the ramifications of Budget cuts to Indigenous programs and services, which he said amounted to $500 million.

“Right now, a host of vital organisations don’t know whether their funding will be continued or withdrawn,” the Labor leader said. “When essential preventive health programs are helping tackle smoking, cuts will jeopardise that progress. When strides are being made to prevent chronic disease – cuts will hobble our advance.”

Mr Shorten’s criticisms prompted a walkout by several Coalition MPs, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said it was unfortunate the Opposition leader had used the occasion to engage in what he considered to be “political point-scoring”.

Mr Scullion added that the $500 million figure cited by Mr Shorten was “a furphy”.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda welcomed Mr Abbott’s commitment to the implementation of the Health Plan.

“But the work is just beginning,” Mr Gooda added. “To be truly effective, the Health Plan must be adequately funded. We therefore expect the Federal Government to follow through on its commitment to Indigenous health and ensure no further budget cuts to this critical area.”


Adrian Rollins

Published: 17 Mar 2015