Progress to achieve the original Closing the Gap targets, set in 2008, was glacially slow, and in July 2020 the Morrison Government announced a revised Closing the Gap “National Agreement”, with a longer list of 17 targets and a new commitment to share data with indigenous communities.
A year on, the first annual report shows that there is little new data to share, and that there is going to continue to be significant gaps in the future.
The Productivity Commission was given responsibility for publishing the first Closing the Gap “Annual Data Compilation Report” in July 2021, but it states that most of the 17 targets are still using historic data sets, making it impossible to assess progress.
The Closing the Gap program is overseen by the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), in a partnership with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations (‘Coalition of Peaks’).
The NIAA was established on 1 July 2019, elevated from a division inside Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) with a commitment from Minister Ken Wyatt the new entity would be “led together” with Indigenous communities.
In a recent answer to questions in the senate, the NIAA confirms that it maintains a small team of geospatial analysts (and data analysts supporting policy development.
However, the Closing the Gap program primarily relies on data sourced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), and many target categories will only be updated every five years with information collected in the household census, the last of which was conducted on 10 August and information from which will not be publicly available until the middle of 2022.
Additional information is provided by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT), Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) – at frequencies ranging from annual to ‘unknown’.
Various Closing the Gap related initiatives have been funded in the 12 months since the revised National Agreement was launched, however, here is little evidence of new funding for data collection – with a notable exception of $1.8 million for a suicide prevention data project, which will be delivered by the AIHW.
The Productivity Commission report provides comprehensive explanations of the data sources and collection frequency for each of the 17 targets, summarised below:
- Life expectancy (ABS, 5 yearly, the census)
- Healthy birthweight (AIHW, annual)
- Preschool enrolment (ABS, annual)
- Educational attainment (DESE Australian Early Development Census, 3 yearly)
- Attaining Year 12 (ABS, 5 yearly, the census)
- Complete tertiary qualification (ABS, 5 yearly, the census)
- Youth employment (ABS, 5 yearly, the census)
- Adult employment (ABS, 5 yearly, the census)
- Housing (ABS, 5 yearly, the census)
- Imprisonment (ABS, annual)
- Youth imprisonment (AIHW, annual)
- Children in out of home care (AIHW, annual)
- Family violence (ABS, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS), frequency is described as “periodic”, with next release date “unknown”)
- Suicide (ABS, annual)
- Land ownership (NNTT, annual)
- Language use (AIATSIS National Indigenous Languages Survey, periodic, “There is currently no date set for future iterations of the NILS”).
- Internet access (ABS, NATSIS, as noted at 13, this is “periodic”, next release date “unknown”)
A noteworthy contrast can be made to central role that data collection played in a similar attempt to address systemic disadvantage in New Zealand, the Better Public Services Programme (widely known simply as the ‘Ten Results’), launched in 2012 under Prime Minister John Key.
The New Zealand action plan made it clear that “leaders and their teams are expected to seek advice from Statistics New Zealand as they develop indicators and targets, to ensure performance information is robust, meaningful, and reliable.” The statistics agency played a leading role in monitoring progress, providing updated data reports every six months.
There is little evidence of a similar commitment to collecting data on Indigenous Australians.
The Productivity Commission will provide an independent report on progress against the National Agreement every three years; followed by an Indigenous-led review, also every three years.
An Australian Data Strategy that may assist with monitoring Closing the Gap targets is still under development, with a commitment that it will be delivered “by late 2021.”
There is a sliver of hope – on 13 August attendees at the Digital and Data Ministers Meeting (DDMM) agreed that Closing the Gap could be part of future priority data sharing areas under the recently signed Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA).
The NIAA electronic remote Indigenous Procurement Policy (RIPP) map, showing the locations of aboriginal communities and settlements across northern Australia.