Eight years after the Australian government began to compile a report looking at ways of improving the lives of its aboriginal population, a prominent academic says that key areas of improvement are being overlooked.
Professor Marcia Langton told Anadolu Agency in a phone interview Sunday that her concern is that skewed statistics from the Closing the Gap report -- which defines indigenous health and welfare equality -- could disincentivize the youth of Australia’s First People.
“You have to give young people hope and point them in the right direction to make right decisions to go into higher education and improve their capacity to do well in the workforce, which doesn’t mean they have to give up your culture," Langton, who holds the Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, says.
“That’s a slogan that’s used by the pro-welfare dependency brigade who can’t imagine indigenous people being successful.”
In 2005, the Social Justice Report said that a 17-year gap existed between the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. International charities such as Oxfam have reported that indigenous people can expect to live 10–17 years less than other Australians, babies born to Aboriginal mothers die at more than twice the rate of other Australian babies, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.
Such discrepancy prompted health and human rights activists to establish the Close the Gap campaign, which focused on resolving the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Referring to the eighth annual report released last Wednesday by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Langton says it "was published without sufficient data”.
“Look at the employment section. It says there’s been no improvement. But way down in the text they admit they haven’t had any data since last year,” Langton said.
“I think a bunch of statisticians wrote it [the report] and they were just doing what they were told.”
The report outlines progress being made in closing the gap in life expectancy, early childhood, health, education and employment between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians over the previous 12 months.
Turnbull, who released the eighth annual report, stated that although the report reveals “encouraging progress” towards the targets set in 2008 [closing gaps in life expectancy, attainment, employment outcomes, numeracy, children's mortality rates and education] it is “undeniable that progress has been variable, and that a more concerted effort is needed”.
This year’s report shows the goals of halving the gap in child mortality and attainment by 2018 are on track to be met, although there are uneven results in other areas.
Langton says the response of the Australian media has played a role in how it has been received.
“It repeats the mantra that nothing has changed and we’re not making any progress,” she said. “But buried in the report, which is probably just due to bad report writing, there are lots of signs of improvement.”
To highlight her point, she claims that media wrongly reporting that indigenous employment rates have dropped.
Citing an old "Work for the Dole" unemployment benefits scheme -- which saw many of those who should have been registered as out of work as employed -- and around 25,000 jobs she says were created following recommendations from the Forrest Review, she claims that the comparison is unjust.
“If you put all that data together it makes up for that statistical drop,” Langton said.
The review by mining magnate Andrew Forrest proposed sweeping welfare changes to end Indigenous disadvantage.
The other statistic Langton points to is in the higher education sector.
“The report shows a 70 percent increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education courses over the past decade. And there is almost no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university graduates,” she states.
That’s twice the rate of increase of non-indigenous Australians enrolling in higher education.
“Indigenous Australians with high education degrees have closed the gap in that they’re no longer disadvantaged. All this is buried in the report. Education and employment strategies are working to close the gap,” Langton declares.
Troubled by the possibility that the false doom-and-gloom impression of the report will perpetuate the myth that indigenous people are welfare dependent, Langton expressed her frustration at the “lobby industry in [Australia's capital] Canberra... which is about entrenching welfare”.
“It’s not deliberate. It’s part of an old paradigm,” she says.
“The lobby group is in large numbers in Canberra and it distorts the media coverage, so no one reports on the successes and what’s working. You have to tell young people they can be successful. Just because they’re aboriginal doesn’t mean that your fate is one of misery and poverty. If you make the right decisions you can be successful.”
Turnbull, who replaced the self-proclaimed “prime minister for indigenous affairs” Tony Abbott, began his address Wednesday in the language of Canberra's Indigenous Ngunnawal people -- a move that touched Langton deeply.
“There’s no doubt it was genuine,” she said refuting allegations that it was a political stunt.
In the 2016 State of Reconciliation report, released Tuesday ahead of the Closing the Gap report, it was revealed that 86 percent of Australians believe the relationship with Indigenous people is important.
This is despite the fact that, according to the report, nearly a third of people in Australia have no meaningful contact with black Australia.