The big read: Six of the \'best\' Labor promises

Issue 

Under the title "First steps in closing the gap", the Indigenous affairs budget papers reveal that Labor has committed itself to six bold targets. They're commendable goals, but are they achievable? National Indigenous Times' managing editor, Chris Graham, gives his assessment of how PM Kevin Rudd's first federal budget will impact upon Indigenous people.

The promise: To close the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians within a generation.

The budget provides a total of $334.8 million, including: $49.3 million to improve access to drug and alcohol services; $14.5 million to tackle high rates of smoking; a $21.5 million boost to Northern Territory health services; $19.5 million to encourage more Indigenous people into the health industry; $99.7 million to expand primary health care in the NT; $13.6 million for follow-up dental, hearing and ear, nose and throat services for NT kids stemming from the intervention; $15.7 million boost to Link-Up to enable 1000 members of the Stolen Generations to be reunited with their families.

The job ahead: The life expectancy gap currently stands at an average of 17 years, but in many remote regions (such as in Wadeye in the NT) the gap is much higher (more than 30 years).

Labor has zero percent chance of meeting this goal at current health and housing funding levels.

Of course, the term "close the gap" is open to liberal (or Labor) interpretation. Technically, you could claim to have "closed the gap", albeit just a little bit, by overseeing a drop of just a year or two.

On the upside, the Stolen Generations funding is a great initiative. It's encouraging to finally see a government acknowledge the bleeding obvious and concede that being separated from your family contributes to reduced life expectancy.

On the downside, most of the additional health funding has been directed to the NT. Bad luck for the remaining 90% of the population unaffected by the NT intervention. They are respectfully requested to refrain from dying until the 2009-2010 budget is handed down.

The promise: To halve the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and other students within a decade.

The budget provides: $28.9 million to build three new Indigenous boarding facilities in the NT; $98.9 million over five years to increase teacher numbers in the NT by over 200; $7.4 million for school nutrition programs in the NT; $19.1 million to continue professional development of teachers in the NT; and $56.4 million over four years for the "Building Strong Foundations Program to assist in the delivery of literacy and numeracy programs for underachieving Indigenous students". The funding will also go toward "Individual Learning Plans" (ILP).

The job ahead: Labor's promise prior to the election was for an ILP for every Indigenous student in the nation. The budget is notably ambiguous on "everyone" and we're awaiting clarification from the minister's office.

In the meantime, ILPs are a good initiative: they map out clear targets and strategies specific to individual needs and they keep tabs on a student's progress. But they're useless unless they're followed up regularly and managed by highly competent teaching staff. On that front, expecting 200,000 plus ILPs to be properly managed every year is pie in the sky particularly given how far behind Indigenous students already find themselves.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 Yearbook reports that results for Indigenous students in the Program for International Student Assessment were "consistently lower" than for non-Indigenous students. Black students averaged a maths literacy score of 440, compared to 526 for white students.

And, believe it or not, the longer a black student stays at school, the greater the gap becomes.

Since 2004, numeracy and literacy levels have actually declined among Indigenous students. By year 7 less than half the nation's Indigenous students achieve the numeracy benchmark, compared to around 80% of non-Indigenous students.

As with other areas of need, the education funding in this budget goes primarily towards the NT.

But still, halving the gap within a decade would be a realistic target provided Labor moves quickly to provide better facilities and substantially more resources across all communities — metropolitan, regional and remote.

The key will be coaxing good teachers into Indigenous classrooms. Bricks and mortar are important, but without high-quality teaching staff trained specifically to work with Aboriginal kids, backed up by intensive assistance from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teaching aides, a shiny new schoolhouse is worthless.

The promise: To halve the mortality gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged under five within a decade.

In addition to other measures already mentioned the budget provides for $101.5 million in extra maternal and child health services; and $11.2 million to tackle acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease among Indigenous children.

Currently, Indigenous children nationally are around three times more likely than non-Indigenous children to die before the age of five. That figure, however, is an average and is over five times higher in many regions.

The mortality rate has improved over the past two decades, and this goal is achievable within a decade. But Labor has made its job more difficult by failing to close the black health funding gap in its first year in office.

The shortfall remains at more than $200 million annually.

The promise: To halve the gap in employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within a decade.

The budget provides $168 million for "employment and pre-employment services and Community Employment brokers in the NT to increase access to skills development and jobs"; $160 million for the Land and Sea Country Indigenous Partnership, including $90 million to create up to 300 jobs for Indigenous rangers in regional and remote areas; $7.6 million for National Arts and Craft Industry Support Programs; $6.1 million for "continuing the Australian Public Services Indigenous Employment Strategy, developing an evidence base for Indigenous policy development and Indigenous tourism".

On the surface, employment statistics for Indigenous Australians can be quite misleading. On average, an Indigenous jobseeker is about three times more likely to be unemployed than a non-Indigenous jobseeker.

But that doesn't take into account the fact that statistically, a greater proportion of Aboriginal people simply don't participate in the labour force (because they don't have access to labour markets).

In addition, Aboriginal people engaged in Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), or the black "work for the dole", are listed as employed, even though their wage is barely more than the unemployment benefit and they receive no superannuation.

On the upside, the Ranger's program is an outstanding initiative: 300 real jobs is a good start, but more is obviously needed.

The Australian Public Service employment strategy is needed: 12 years of the Howard government has all but cleaned Aboriginal people out of the public service, with Indigenous personnel numbers at their lowest in almost two decades.

In fairness to Labor, it has inherited a dog's breakfast from the Liberals in the area of employment courtesy of the mad rush to demolish the CDEP program.

Even so, Labor has a reasonable chance of meeting this target but the employment must be real jobs with real wages and superannuation, not CDEP or "work for the dole".

The promise: To at least halve the gap in attainment at Year 12 schooling (or equivalent level) by 2020.

The budget provides $28.9 million to build three new Indigenous boarding facilities in the NT and $98.9 million over five years to increase teacher numbers in the NT by more than 200.

Nationally, the percentage of Indigenous students who start year 7 and make it to Year 12 is just over half that of non-Indigenous students (in 2007, the ABS reports it was about 43%, compared to 76%).

The good news is that between 1998 and 2007, the gap has been steadily closing (it decreased by eight points over this period).

Labor has a genuine chance to reach this target, although again funding has been directed primarily at the Northern Territory (in addition to $40 million allocated to Cape York in March).

Still, regional and metropolitan areas also have comparatively poor Indigenous education outcomes. If Labor is to meet the target, the 2009-2010 budget will have to expand and venture in from the bush.

The promise: to provide all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds in remote communities with access to a quality preschool program within five years.

The budget provides $3.4 million for "early childhood development services to support learning and development opportunities for children". Funding is included for five playgroups ($0.7 million) and 10 creches ($2.3 million).

Every cent of the money, according to the budget documents, is ear-marked for the NT.

Not unlike Labor's weasel words over its legal aid promise, the devil will doubtless be in the wording as in, "'All children can now access a pre-school'" although we've had a few complaints about the 1400 kilometre daily round trip."

In reality, infrastructure in remote communities is very poor and Labor has a big task ahead to build it and, importantly, staff sufficient preschools plus associated infrastructure (such as staff accommodation) within five years.

[Reprinted with permission from the May 29, 2008 edition of National Indigenous Times.]

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