Before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, a couple of years ago I first revealed the lie of $25 billion spent on Indigenous disadvantage, now touted at $30 billion. Mainstream media continued to portray the worst of the extreme poverty of First Peoples and did not pickup on what I exposed in The National Indigenous Times and in The Stringer despite the Government stating I was correct. Several weeks after that story, I revealed that 1000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders died from suicide throughout Australia between 2001 to 2010, but that I estimated this national epidemic is probably twice the reported numbers. It took two years and decent journalists in the mainstream media to start engaging in this tragedy. After exposing that there was no $25 billion spend to address Indigenous disadvantage, a shameful indictment on our 76 Australian Senators in their so-called House of Review, weeks later I tore into that big fat lie, the Close the Gap campaign as an untold tragedy of misinformation, poor tracking, skewed data and that now, some of the statistics are worse than ever. It is a national disgrace and governments stand condemned.
But why does it take so long for well resourced mainstream media to follow up what I do ever so easily? Why do they only run with stories that should be brought to the nation’s attention as calendar event pieces, rather than around the clock? Last week, we heard at long last that Close the Gap may not be closing the gap at all. Well, I tell you it is in fact widening – the arrest and jail rates demonstrate this, the extensiveness of child removal rates and the extensiveness of family breakdowns demonstrate this, the extensiveness of extreme poverty demonstrate this, the horrific rates of unnatural and premature deaths prove this. The suicide rates ram this home. These are the indicators we should be looking at. Close the Gap is a charade, but sadly so. It is a lazy effort to do something about a systematic catastrophe that should haunt us all.
My question is why do we do these big fat lies, these charades, which inevitably veil the true narrative of third world akin premature death rates, of miserably lived existences in numbers unimaginable in the world’s 2nd wealthiest nation per capita? By dabbling in these lies we guarantee the entrenchment of all that we would not want for ourselves.
There are good people – Black and White – doing everything they can to make a real difference but there are also exploitative people – Black and White – doing everything they can to promote themselves as experts and doers but only so as to make a huge quid out of the misery of their peoples while in fact they are in effect relatively disengaged from, or have become disengaged with. There are many who say they do a lot for the downtrodden and marginalised but in fact do very little and there are far too many who pretend to be what they are not, not really knowing what to do. I have first hand witness of all this – over a long period of time, from the coalface to so-called experts, to Governments.
Last year, the Close the Gap campaign once again welcomed the Council of Australian Government’s (COAG) Reform Council report and at first argued that the report “shows progress to close the gap but more needs to be done.” But after a suite of questions from myself to the co-chairs of the Close the Gap campaign, they agreed the data they rely on is questionable and that much in fact has got worse for many Indigenous Australians. The co-chairs are Mick Gooda, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Social Justice commissioner and Kirstie Parker, who is also co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress). They are good people but they are in charge of a dud.
Mr Gooda had said “Australia is on track to halve the gap in child death rates between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.” He said a greater effort is needed in employment and to achieve equality in life expectancy. But despite the Close the Gap campaign suggesting that there were some improvements amid mixed results Mr Gooda noted “that the COAG Reform Council did not contain new data” other than highlighting “the importance of collaboration and coordination between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
But all the measures I looked at paint the bleakest picture.
How can Close the Gap claim that the divide is closing? Other research shows that the picture is much worse than being depicted and there is really no middle ground on this. It appears that the data that the Close the Gap campaign depends on is misleading.
Last year, the Close the Gap stated, “The report highlights that cultural change and leadership is needed to achieve reform. Shifting Indigenous Affairs into the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet provides an opportunity for this reform.” But this year the inevitable was self-evident, that we’ve gone backwards. There are now 1 in 13 of every Aboriginal adult men in Western Australia, in jail. Australian jails are “racking and stacking” impoverished Aboriginal men and women. In the last year alone devastatingly so more than 15,000 Aboriginal children have been removed from their families and placed in “out of home care”. Shanty-towns litter third-world living conditions throughout the continent. The Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs bit is failing – abysmally. If I am wrong, then please let me know where it is working. The sell of jobs and education has gone on for nearly two years but jobs are not being created.
Last year, Ms Parker said, “We called on the Federal Government to forge an agreement with States and Territories through COAG on a renewed Indigenous health national partnership agreement.”
Ms Parker noted that with this type of funding agreement there may be better collaboration driving health and education outcomes. Ms Parker said that the “report demonstrates that we are making progress but we must redouble our efforts.” But what must have been to Ms Parker’s shock was funding cuts to Aboriginal health and legal services in last year’s May Federal Government Budget. There will be no further cuts this year. But there will also be no redress of last year’s budgetary mistakes.
Last week, I challenged the Productivity Commission, the Federal Government and the Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC) on the much touted statement that $25.4 billion was spent during the preceding year on Indigenous disadvantage. IAC chair, Warren Mundine, subsequently agreed that billions have not been spent on disadvantage. I examined the Productivity Commission’s report across 86 areas that the expenditure was arguably collated from and found that the $25.4 billion claim is a lie – and that arguably $4.2 billion is the likeliest spend on Indigenous disadvantage but in my view in reality less than one billion dollars reaches Indigenous communities in terms of addressing disadvantage. Similarly, my research has found that the data used to report on the Close the Gap is dubious and that many indicators have deteriorated, some of these deteriorating to epidemical numbers, figures that rate among the world’s worst.
One in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are dead by the age of 45 years. Aboriginal males in the Northern Territory have a life expectancy of only 52 years, a third-world statistic in the world’s second wealthiest nation per capita. Spates and rates of child and adult suicide rates are among the world’s worst. Incarceration rates, homelessness rates are increasing and from a racialised perspective are among the world’s worst. So how can Close the Gap claim any bridging of the divide, when even without all this data most people can see that the divide is widening?
The health data is being skewed by collectivised data rather than demographic and various standalone data. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census is part of the problem, inadvertently. Each Census the total population numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples dramatically increase – beyond reproduction rates; new ATSI persons are identified. The Census asks the simple heritage question of whether one has Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage. Many more people than ever before are acknowledging some heritage, despite a significant number of these peoples’ families having been removed from cultural existences for several generations or that their Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage is not their dominant identity, and therefore the majority of them have lived within first world existences totally removed from the Aboriginal experience. The lumping of everyone together as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples is contributing significantly to wrongly improving some of the Closing the Gap results and in turn hiding the stark truth that the majority of remote and regional living peoples are doing it as tough as ever or worse, and similarly so for far too many of those on the urban ‘fringes’.
The Close the Gap campaign and the Indigenous Advisory Council urgently require standalone remote and regional statistical data, credibly analysed. This would be data on the 80,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders who live outside urban concentrations. Furthermore, any credible campaign requires region by region data – for instance Central Desert data, Arnhem data, Kimberley data. The Kimberley’s data for instance will show that Aboriginal peoples are one in three of all residents, that the region has 7 per cent of its total population homeless and 90 per cent of that homelessness is Aboriginal, one of the world’s worst rates. It will show that the Kimberley’s First Peoples, 18,000 of them, have high arrest and imprisonment rates, and that the Kimberley has a high suicide rate, with recent prevalence of spates and rates of youth suicide.
The Close the Gap campaign should disaggregate required data on the 400,000 plus Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander peoples whose ancestors have always identified as Aboriginal. The collectivised data inadvertently hides whether there has been any real improvements for those who have always lived within the ‘Aboriginal experience’. The total Aboriginal population of 671,000, which at its current trend is heading to a million Australians being identified as ATSI peoples by 2025, hides how it is all truly going for those who have done it tough for generations. The 400,000 peoples I refer to are the ones who they or whose immediate families have identified as ATSI for more than four decades. Within these numbers are where more than 95 per cent of the people with poor health are and remain, where life expectancy is dramatically less than that for the 671,000 and for the 200,000 ATSI peoples more recently added to the Census. In the USA, the American Bureau of Statistic’s Census has remedied some of these issues by asking new questions about dominant heritage, multiple heritage, hybrid identities and it is finding that people with for instance some First Peoples or African-American heritage are identifying with their predominant identity and therefore concomitant living conditions. But even if people wish to identify to a cultural identity that they have long been removed from, which is fine, for the purposes of data collection and analyses to be credible in terms of asserting whether gaps are closing the data has to be scrupulously demarcated.
Last year, I shot a suite of questions to Mr Gooda and Ms Parker – questioning their data sources and on how any data they rely on is analysed. I also asked why so many small communities, most of them with less than a thousand residents, are living impoverished existences, and why so many indicators such as incarceration, homelessness and suicide are doing worse than ever while all this collectivised data is telling a different story. If we broke down the data we would find that the statistics are even more dramatic when contained to 400,000 or so Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples whose families have identified for more than half a century than the 671,000 who have been identified by the ABS. Extreme poverty measures stretch into the third-world-akin when they are demarcated and disaggregated regionally.
I asked Mr Gooda and Ms Parker to comment on the alleged $25.4 billion spend, a spend that we have proven does not happen. We also asked that they comment on the 996 reported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides between 2001 and 2010, but which we believe are many more; if we include estimations of unreported suicides, which have been classified otherwise, the numbers and rate are more than likely double – instead of one in 24 ATSI deaths by suicide – I estimate one in 12, tragically.
Mr Gooda and Ms Parker provided a statement, “It is a disgrace that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die, on average, more than 10 years younger than the broader Australian community.” But, in the Northern Territory they die up to 30 younger than the national life expectancy rate. If we demarcate statistics in the ways I have described, they still die at nearly 20 years less than the national life expectancy averages. Therefore nothing has improved in terms of significantly closing the divide on life expectancy.
“Until the plight of our entrenched disadvantaged is properly addressed and the gaps across all areas are closed, there will be little justice for our people and Australia as a nation stands diminished, “ stated Mr Gooda and Ms Parker.
“The Close the Gap community campaign renews its call on all governments to commit the necessary long-term funding and work together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples towards an equal future.”
Mr Gooda and Ms Parker provided me with three reports – Building on Close the Gap 2013, Close the Gap Shadow Report 2013 and the Close the Gap Health Plan submission. But where these reports rely on data they have relied on collectivised data.
“The campaign notes that, based on the available data, progress has been made in some areas, for example, child mortality rates, year 12 attainment levels, and year 3 reading levels. However, there has been no meaningful improvement in the overall Indigenous death rate and, disappointingly, year 3 numeracy levels and Indigenous employment have worsened,” stated Mr Good and Ms Parker.
“Clearly, this is nowhere near good enough and much more needs to be done, but not only in areas encapsulated under COAG’s current Closing the Gap agenda. The current levels of incarceration, suicide, poverty and homelessness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia are also unacceptable.”
“The campaign is very concerned about incarceration rates and violence and their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The campaign supports the inclusion of justice targets into the Closing the Gap agenda, and has called on them to be developed.” They included this call in their brief, Building on Close the Gap, to the Federal Government.
“The campaign has also been a strong advocate on the need for addressing mental health and social and emotional wellbeing including suicide, as part of the effort to the close the gap.” They have highlighted their calls in their Close the Gap Shadow Report.
They reaffirmed the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy released in May this year, focusing on community control and empowerment. “Projects should be grounded in community, owned by the community, based on community needs and accountable to the community.” However this Strategy continues to sit on the Government’s shelves. In the meantime communities continue to cry out for this assistance promised by the outgoing previous Government.
In response to my questions on the data, Mr Gooda and Ms Parker said, “As stated in the Close the Gap community media release, this week’s COAG Reform Council Report contained no new data. It replicated findings from the report by the Reform Council earlier this year and looked for broad themes and lessons to apply across the whole of the COAG reform agenda.”
“The campaign understands that, as outlined in the COAG Reform Council Report, there are limitations in the current data, and the campaign has consistently advocated to improve data collection and quality.”
“We also noted the Government has been working to improve the data.”
“National data is important to allow high level tracking of progress. Data disaggregation is equally important to help identify location where progress is not being made. Reflecting this, the campaign has called for the development of a new funding mechanism for health funding which reflects population size and the index of need.”
Some of this is fine, but all in all without demarcated, standalone data, correlating historical data to the standalone groups, the doing away with reliance of collectivised data, little is known and little will be changed. It is frustrating to be writing all this again more than a year later, and argue again the case for disaggregated data and analyses. What we will discover with the data sets I have described from temporal and other vantages is that the no close the gaps indicators have been bridged but indeed they are widening. There are billions of dollars subsumed by layers of bureaucracy, one advisory body after another and by carpetbaggers, Black and White exploiters, and it is disturbing to contemplate that they could not find hundreds of thousands of dollars only to produce adequate data and identifiers, that the Prime Minister’s Office, that the Cabinet, that the 76 Australian Senators, that one ministry after another are supposed to rely on. Any researcher knows that you start with the data, with the numbers and hard facts. Without the data, you not only risk not getting a positive outcome, you risk inflicting damage, therefore compounding problems.
I was in Canberra when the latest Close the Gap was delivered with much fanfare. The mainstream media did their calendar event reporting. They reported comments and statistics and left it at that. But now they are bandying the word ‘failing’. They are reporting what I have been writing and reporting each of the last few years.
I was pleased that Mr Gooda and Ms Parker attacked the ‘failures’. It is as if they could no longer be comfortable with themselves if they remained calm about the urgent need for a new direction. It is as if they have had enough, and relayed to the rest of Australia the will of far too many who are suffering in ways they should not. Ms Parker said it best when at the Close the Gap presentation of the report at Parliament last week she said of our Prime Minister and of the Opposition leader – that their speeches were filled “with fine words” but that this is not enough. Indeed.