The challenge of 'closing the gaps' in Indigenous socioeconomic outcomes


The notion of ‘closing the gaps’ has attracted considerable attention in Australia during the early days of the new Rudd government elected in November 2007. This is partly because while in Opposition the current Prime Minister had announced his support for a ‘Closing the Gap’ campaign – championed by Oxfam, and over 40 other Indigenous and non-Indigenous non-government organisations – that focuses on eliminating the 17 year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and other Australians. This background paper sets out to do three things. First, available Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data from the five yearly censuses is used to examine change in Indigenous socio-economic outcomes. This builds on earlier research that provided a historical account of Indigenous socioeconomic change between 1971 and 2001. The initial aim of this paper is to update this time series with 2006 Census data that became available late in 2007. Second, and more innovatively, observations from data collected in past censuses are used to estimate when the existing statistical gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes might close, in situations where there is a convergence in outcomes. A decision was made to look at predictions for closing the gaps by 2041 to provide symmetry with the 35 year series available from 1971 despite the fact that the further out one estimates the more room there is for error. This is mainly because a lot of the ‘closing the gaps’ targets will be generational or multi-generational and in that context 2020 is considered too arbitrary and too close. The extrapolations undertaken here are based on several assumptions about historical official observations that measure relative Indigenous socioeconomic status. Obviously it is not possible to assume that there is always going to be convergence in outcomes, so the following analysis merely provides several scenarios to estimate some temporal bounds on when the gaps might be closed. It is important to emphasise at the outset that improving the socioeconomic circumstances of a whole sub-population relative to the rest of the population is a complex policy task. The focus is on optimistic scenarios where there is convergence as these provide evidence of what might happen in the future if all the macroeconomic factors were working in the right direction to close the gaps, as is currently the case. Third, some general observations are made about what these findings might mean for government policy at the national level. (Introduction, edited.)

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