Levels of self-harm and incarceration for indigenous Australians have increased at alarming levels despite the efforts of both sides of politics to ‘close the gap’, the most comprehensive report on indigenous wellbeing has found.
The landmark report also finds that virtually no progress has been made in reducing alcohol and substance abuse or in addressing high rates of chronic disease and disability among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
While there is progress on a range of fronts, with less reliance on welfare, more home ownership and a big improvement in infant mortality rates, there has been virtually no change in literacy and numeracy outcomes at schools, especially in remote areas.
The release of the report on Wednesday is certain to prompt calls for the state and federal governments to restore funding to frontline indigenous legal services, set specific ‘close the gap’ targets on incarceration, mental health and disability and back approaches that have delivered results.
“This report should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians or working in service delivery or program design,” says Productivity Commissioner Patricia Scott.
Key findings of the report, called Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, Key Indicators 2014 and spanning more than 600 pages, include
- Hospitalisations for intentional self-harm increased by 48 per cent between 2004-05 and 2012-2013, with the proportion of adults reporting high levels of psychological stress increasing by 27 per cent in the same period.
- The adult imprisonment rate for indigenous Australians increasing by 57 per cent between 2000 and 2013, with juvenile detention rates fluctuating at around 24 times the rate for non-indigenous youth.
- A narrowing of the life expectancy gap from 11.4 years to 10.6 years for males and from 9.6 years to 9.5 years for females – but not enough progress to suggest the gap can be closed within a generation.
- An improvement in year-12 attainment and post-secondary education outcomes.
Preparation of the report, the sixth since 2003, was overseen by senior officials from federal, state and territory governments and a working group chaired by Ms Scott.
Aside from mental health, self-harm and incarceration, the gap widened on access to clean water and functioning sewerage and electricity services. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households living in houses with adequate services fell from 83 per cent in 2008 to 78 per cent in 2012-13.
While governments agreed to set ‘close the gap’ targets in six areas since 2008, they have agreed to add a seventh of school attendance pushed by Mr Abbott. The findings will bolster the case of groups arguing more targets are needed, especially to reduce imprisonment rates.
Ms Scott said the report highlighted the importance of local engagement in policy development and the need for continued funding for well-targeted programs that worked.
The report highlights the importance of prevention and early intervention and outlines a host of programs that have demonstrated their value. Among them is the Alice Springs Domestic and Family Violence Outreach Service, which supports women facing domestic and family violence.
“There’s a lot to be said here for holding governments to account. We’d like to think there would be people who would turn around to the government and say, ‘Well done in this area, but what’s the story here?'” Ms Scott told Fairfax Media.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 18 November 2014.