Report Highlights Indigenous Disadvantage

By Rebecca Devitt

25 August 2011

Increases in Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, child abuse and chronic disease highlight the widening of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, according to a new report released by the Productivity Commission. The latest report entitled Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2011 shows improvement in only 13 of the 46 indicators that are part of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) commitment to “close the gap.”

Areas in which improvements have occurred include employment, education and home ownership. However the report indicates that the neglect and abuse of Indigenous children has increased from 15-37 per 1000 children in the last decade whilst 159 Indigenous children were subject to care and protection orders in the ACT last year.

Indigenous child abuse was one of the key reasons for the intervention into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory but there has been little improvement in this area over the last decade. The report states that whilst this increase could possibly be due to improved child protection policies and reporting this is “likely to reflect real increases in child abuse and neglect, given little improvement in the social and economic circumstances of Indigenous people.” The findings into child abuse are worse than in the previous 2009 report with Indigenous children now seven times as likely to be abused.

In a media release, Gary Banks, the chair of the inter-governmental Steering Committee responsible for the report said the latest data “reveal considerable disparities in outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians.”

Mr Banks acknowledged that there had been some improvement in post high school education and significant improvement in health, school literacy and numeracy. The report found that the mortality rate of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia had dropped by 27 per cent between 1991-2009.

Whilst there has been some improvement in areas such as house ownership, outcomes in criminal justice for the Indigenous population have in fact deteriorated. Indigenous adults remain overrepresented in Australian prisons, with the imprisonment rate for Indigenous men increasing to 35 per cent in a decade and the rate for Indigenous women jumping to 59 per cent by 2010.

Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald AM has blamed an increase in mandatory sentencing arguing that whilst governments have been introducing policies which seem popular with the community they have had a “devastating effect on Indigenous communities and actually increases the risk of people being incarcerated.”

The Australian government has invested $526.6 million of the 2011-2012 federal budget over the next five years to pay for measures addressing Indigenous disadvantage. According to Commissioner Fitzgerald whilst there has been significant investment in health and education, policy makers need to re-examine how these programs are delivered, arguing that there is a need for a greater focus on what works for Indigenous communities.

“Where there is local involvement, participation in program development and a sense of empowerment of the local community you are more likely to get enhanced results” Commissioner Fitzgerald stated.

The report can be found here.