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Australia Is Not Closing the Gap on Aboriginal Life Expectancy, as Incarceration Rates Rocket

An annual report into indigenous health shows Australia is missing all its targets on Aboriginal life expectancy, and funding cuts may only make the situation worse.

by Scott Mitchell
Feb 13 2015, 4:58pm

Photo by Kristen Gelineau/AP

Australia released its annual "Closing the Gap" report on Aboriginal health and mortality on Wednesday. It revealed that Australia is failing to meet its goals of bringing equal quality of life to the first peoples on almost every front. And campaigners say the situation may only get worse in the coming year.

"This seventh Closing the Gap report is in many respects profoundly disappointing," Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in his address to parliament on Wednesday. "Despite the concerted efforts of successive governments since the first report — we are not on track to achieve most of the targets."

"Government programs can be a catalyst," Abbott continued, "but success, where it is achieved, is due to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who want better for themselves. Governments can fund and governments can urge, but governments can't change attitudes and behaviors."

An Aboriginal Australian has a life expectancy that is more than 10 years less than the general population, a statistic that has barely changed from when the Closing the Gap initiative began in 2008. The government program has the goal of eliminating the discrepancy in Aboriginal to general health by 2030.

"This report confronts us with two nations, two Australias," said opposition leader, Bill Shorten, in the traditional parliamentary reply. "One Australia is the country that we experience, the one we live in. The other Australia is a nation that most of us in in place have little knowledge of or rarely glimpse," he continued. 

"Jobs are twice as hard to find. A young person leaving school is more likely to go to jail than university. A woman is 30 times more likely to know the pain and fear of family violence and 15 times more likely to be driven from her home as a result."

Indigenous people are also hospitalized for mental health at more than twice the rate of other Australians, are twice as likely to have psychiatric disabilities such as schizophrenia, and twice as likely to commit suicide.

The review directly criticized Abbott government budget cuts and their effects on indigenous health, specifically mentioning the fact that the government is not renewing funding for indigenous early childhood health care.

"Reducing funding for early childhood programs is short-sighted in terms of health outcomes among the resulting adult population," reads the report. "It is also an incredibly inefficient way of making cuts — a dollar saved in the early childhood years may result in many more dollars being spent later on."

It also named several other budget measures as having a potentially negative impact, such as the freeze in spending on government anti-smoking campaigns in indigenous communities, possible hospital funding cuts, preventative health cuts, and increased fees to see GP doctors.

Australia may stop providing water and power to remote Aboriginal communities. Read more here.

The justice system was also raised in the report as a major growing concern. Aboriginal Australians are 15 times more likely be imprisoned than the general population and that rate is more than double what it was 15 years ago.

And the situation is even worse for juveniles. While indigenous people represent only 3 percent of the population, 51 percent of Australia's juvenile detention population is indigenous, and Aboriginal youth are 31 times more likely to serve time in detention.

This has led Closing the Gap's independent steering committee to recommend that the government introduces justice and incarceration targets into the bi-partisan commitments that form the basis of the program.

Priscilla Collins, chief executive of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), spoke to VICE News about the challenges of bringing legal representation and justice to under-privileged Aboriginal communities.

"At the moment, working in Aboriginal justice is really challenging," she said. "Lawyers with Aboriginal legal services have four times the case load as our counterparts in commercial firms. Our work needs to cover magistrates, the supreme court, and bush courts held in really remote areas."

"Clients will come to us with a cluster of issues," Collins explained. "English is sometimes their third or fourth language, and some clients need a lot of time and attention to help them deal with the justice system."

Australia is locking up mentally impaired Aboriginal men in jail indefinitely. Read more here.

The already challenging area of providing justice to Aboriginal Australians is about to get more difficult, however, with AUS $6 million ($4.6m) of federal funding to Aboriginal legal services scheduled to be cut on July 6.

"Aboriginal people are already the most disadvantaged community in Australia, and these cuts are now going to further limit their access to justice," she said. "We're not talking about hundreds, but thousands of people who will be appearing before the courts unrepresented if these cuts go ahead."

Nova Peris, a Labor MP and an indigenous woman from the Northern Territory joined calls to increase the importance of battling incarceration rates.

"When you look at the Closing the Gap report, when you look at the incarceration rates, when you talk about juvenile reinvestment, that's been neglected," she said. "We always talk about closing the gap in educational and health outcomes. That's all gone backwards."

Collins added that she believed money spent on Aboriginal justice would save the government money.

"If the federal government really want to save money, they can look at other avenues for people when they come into contact with the justice system," she said. "Twenty percent of people in jail are there for minor crimes; have those people under house detention where they can be rehabilitated in the community, or serve community service and make their community better. It costs $100,000 a year to keep a person in jail or $200,000 for someone in juvenile detention."

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell