ABC "AM – Academic fears closing Indigenous gap could take 100 years"

AM – Academic fears closing Indigenous gap could take 100 years

[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2008/s2219240.htm]

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AM – Thursday, 17 April , 2008 08:10:00
Reporter: Tony Eastley
TONY EASTLEY: During the John Howard years, government was able to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians better than many people thought.

But according to a leading academic who’s just finished a study of the gap between black and white Australia, further improvements could be difficult.

Professor Jon Altman, is Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU.

(To Jon Altman) Professor Altman, do we know why there was more progress in the John Howard years than others?

JON ALTMAN: Look, I think the main explanation of that would be that the macro economy was so robust. But one of the outcomes from our research suggests that the broad policy settings at the national level were also probably right, bearing in mind that these results run to 2006, before very radical changes in Indigenous affairs associated with the Northern Territory intervention.

TONY EASTLEY: So what do you think had more sway there, the actual policy initiatives or the economic imperatives that were at play?

JON ALTMAN: Look, I think it’s a combination of both, but one of the reasons that our research looked at the period ’96 to 2006, as well as went back to 1971, is that we really wanted to look at the broad policy framework, and clearly what we saw that all this rhetoric about policy failure isn’t right, if things are getting better for Indigenous Australians at the national level in absolute terms.

TONY EASTLEY: Yes, so there hasn’t been a complete failure in improving Indigenous outcomes as some people might think. So what areas are better?

JON ALTMAN: Well, certainly what we’ve seen as improvements in areas like employment, we’ve seen improvements in areas like education in particular…

TONY EASTLEY: Is that across the board in all states, or did you not have that facility?

JON ALTMAN: No, we didn’t have that facility, because what we’re looking at is just the national level statistics, because when you go back as far back as 1971, it’s actually very difficult to look at either state variations or section of state.

And so we highlight that clearly there are some remote regions where you may have enormous problems because of backlogs and housing infrastructure and availability of services, but overall we’ve found that between 1971 and 2006, 12 of the 13 variables we looked at improved in absolute terms.

But that’s the upside. The downside is that in relative terms, a number of these variables, not only didn’t improve but went backwards, and this, of course, has enormous implications when you look into the future at closing the gaps.

TONY EASTLEY: So, what about the future, Professor Altman? What is achievable, do you think, and most importantly, I suppose, in what time frame?

JON ALTMAN: Well, we did some projections on the basis of these observations going forward 35 years to 2041 to match going back 35 years to 1971.

And we found that there’re actually going to be very few variables where we are going to find parity. Two that came up were the unemployment rate and possibly private sector employment we’ll see parity.

What was concerning, though, is that we saw divergence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians according a number of variables, like median weekly income and household income.

And what that is in fact suggesting is that while things are getting better for Indigenous people under current policy settings, things are actually getting even more better, if you like, for the rest of the population. So catch up is proving enormously difficult.

Some of the very, very tough outcomes for Indigenous people to achieve will be life expectancy, median weekly personal income, labour force participation, the unemployment rate and the employment-to-population ratio.

TONY EASTLEY: So when politicians talk about closing that life expectancy gap, you’re saying they should think of in terms of, what, 20, 30, 40 years or even longer?

JON ALTMAN: I’m talking about them talking much beyond 35 years, which is a generation and a half. Possibly… that’s with current policy settings, and I think one of the things that this research really throws up is that governments have got to fundamentally change the framework, and they’ve also got to invest far, far more heavily if they’re actually going to make an impact on life expectancy in some of these other, apparently intractable, variables. Again, in relative terms, that’s comparing Indigenous with non-Indigenous Australians.

TONY EASTLEY: So when we talk about 35 years, are you hinting there that people should be actually thinking in terms of 100 years?

JON ALTMAN: Under current policy settings we’re talking 100 years plus to achieve parity across a number of variables, but I should also say that under current policy settings some of the variables are diverging, so, in fact, what we’re saying is you’ll never see parity.

TONY EASTLEY: Professor Jon Altman, the Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU.