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Narrowing the disadvantage gap: let’s just get on with it: lecture by Bob McMullan MP, Member for Fraser.

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Narrowing the Disadvantage Gap - Let’s just get on with it

Lecture by Bob McMullan MP Member for Fraser

Thursday 20 October 2005

There is a large hole at the centre of the contemporary public policy debate about indigenous affairs.

While the debate generates passionate debate about process issues - some major, some minor - the glaring fact that the relative disadvantage of indigenous Australians has worsened over the last decade goes unnoticed.

In what other field of public policy would the fact that our performance, objectively measured, is worse than that of any comparable country go unremarked? The public policy debate continues as if in an hermetically-sealed “bubble” in which the lessons and comparative performance of comparable countries does not exist.

In what other field of public policy would the fact that we are delivering outcomes for a significant proportion of the population which are worse than the average outcomes achieved in some of the poorest countries in the world not impact on the debate? And yet the demonstrable fact that the life expectancy of a young man born in Bangladesh is greater than that of a young indigenous Australian stares us in the face.

In what other area of public policy would a relatively cheap, demonstrably effective policy proposal from a respected professional organisation to deal with an evident public health crisis go unreported and without any government response? And yet, the AMA has proposed a $20 million program to extend throughout Australia a successful scheme implemented by the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service to deal with the crisis of low-birth weight babies in the indigenous community and it has been ignored.

How can this happen?

We are all a little culpable. The Commonwealth government and the states; the Opposition and the media; community organisations and indigenous leaders. To the extent we follow or allow ourselves to be diverted into the intellectual cul-de-sacs and red herrings John Howard would lead us into we must share some of the blame.

When we are collecting more tax, as a proportion of the economy as well as in absolute terms, than ever before, there is no excuse to say we lack the resources to respond.

There are always more worthwhile purposes to which public funds could be applied than there are funds available to meet them.


But when a government is: • Collecting more tax than ever before • Spending more money than any government in history • Running surpluses of $22.9 billion over the next three years • Misusing hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and special benefits to

serve the special interests of the government and its members it has no excuse for not addressing the fact that the relative situation of our poorest Australians is deteriorating.

Indigenous Australians are not sharing in the benefits of the sustained growth the Australian economy has enjoyed.

The evidence is clear: • The disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous income has increased. Indigenous individuals’ incomes averaged 64% of non-indigenous Australians in 1996. This had fallen to 62% by 2001.

The best summary can be found in the recent study by John Altman and Boyd Hunter of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research which concluded that “indigenous Australians have not shared in national economic growth to the same extent as other Australians” and that “areas of improvement evident to 1996 have been eroded over the period 1996 -2001.”

This obviously is not good enough. We need to find a way to focus on doing better.

In addition: Australia has fallen behind life expectancy compared to other indigenous peoples. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has assessed that indigenous males in Australia live between 8.8 and 13.5 years less than indigenous males in Canada, New Zealand and the USA.

International comparisons Life expectancy (Males)

Australia (non-indigenous) 76.0

Syria 71.9

Vietnam 69.1

Nicaragua 67.9

Bangladesh 62.8

North Korea 60.9

Myanmar 58.1

Australia (indigenous) 57.0

Ghana 56.9

Sudan 55.2

This suggests that, not only are we failing, we are at “World’s Worst Practice”.


We need to find a way to focus the debate around the need to find better outcomes rather than petty squabbles over red herrings and side-issues concerning process or the size and nature of inputs.

The international community faced the challenge of a similar failure to focus on the crisis of global poverty. This led to the decision at the Millennium Summit to set down specific goals and targets to meet the challenges of poverty and the associated issues of education, health and equality.

In other words, to the campaign to “Make Poverty History”.

No-one pretends that merely setting goals is enough. But by presenting goals the global community has set the world a challenge. It has shown that the resources exist to meet this challenge if we have the will.

It has raised issues of accountability. How do we measure the commitment that is needed and whether we are rising to the challenge we have set? But at least now we have a benchmark against which to measure performance. And the work of Jeffrey Sachs and others has shown that it can be done.

Last month I published an essay in the “Progressive Essays” series proposing that we need a similar initiative in Australia. We need to set Australian Indigenous Development Goals.

I was pleased to hear recently that the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission is proposing a similar initiative. They are preparing to launch their campaign on 2 November and I wish them well.

Let me turn now to the goals which I proposed.

The Goals

They covered 6 key areas and 16 targets.

Goal 1: Eliminate the gap in health standards between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians

Goal 4: Establish the right to live safely in the community for all indigenous Australians,

Goal 2: Lift the level of educational attainment of indigenous Australians to the national average

Goal 5: Lift the level of effective economic engagement of indigenous Australians to the level they seek.

Goal 3: Increase the quantity and quality of indigenous housing.

Goal 6: Tackle substance abuse in the indigenous community as an issue in its own right and as a pre-requisite to achieving other goals.



Establishing goals inevitably raises the question of accountability. Of measurement of performance against targets.

Indispensable to this task is the establishment of an indigenous representative body. If, as I suggest, its primary function should be to hold governments and agencies accountable for their performance this will guide the decisions about the appropriate structure.

This is the basis of the next stage in the evolution of this argument and will be the subject of a further essay, probably early next year.

But other accountability steps are necessary and available: • Combine the various parliamentary committees into one Joint Parliamentary Committee on Indigenous Affairs • Task the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Productivity Commission, the Centre

for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research with specific measurement, assessment and reporting tasks • Include benchmarks towards these goals in CEOs’ performance contracts


It’s long past time that as Australians we acknowledged that public policy with regard to Indigenous Australians has failed.

The statistics suggest we have world’s worst practice.

But the temporary and immediate fascination with process issues won’t fix the problem. If the problem can be fixed by special programs for remote communities how do we explain the relative disadvantage of indigenous Australians in our major cities?

Sometimes Shared Responsibility Agreements will help - but they are no panacea. In some communities lease and land tenure issues might need to be addressed to assist with economic development.

But, it suits the Howard government’s political interests to shift attention from the fact that relative disadvantage has worsened during the period of practical reconciliation. Using indigenous Australians as a political football has gone on long enough.

We need to move on.

We need to move on to: • Recognise the failure of existing policies • Establish ambitious goals to redress the current inequities


• Establish vigorous accountability measures to assess regularly how well we are doing against those agreed benchmarks • Start by responding positively to proposals for discrete initiatives to address obvious problems.

I suggest that a very useful first step would be to take up the AMA’s proposal for a program to address the crisis of indigenous low birth weight babies.

This program alone would: • Start to address the immediate problem of low birth weight babies in the indigenous community • Have a long term impact on the prevalence of various chronic diseases which

feature disproportionately amongst indigenous Australians • Contribute to a strategy to combat sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV Aids amongst indigenous Australians

There is no silver bullet. No one measure which will transform the consequences of 200 years of dispossession and disadvantage at a single stroke. And the occasional enthusiasm for individual measures which will lead to such a transformation is a distraction from the real and urgent task of addressing the absolute and relative disadvantage faced by indigenous Australians.

We can’t afford to wait until we can do everything before we do anything.

Just one practical step like the low birth weight babies initiative will begin to address some serious and enduring problems.

So let’s get on with it.