In 2008, the Australian government made a formal commitment to address Indigenous disadvantage in Australia, known as 'Closing the Gap', but what is the “gap”?
The “gap” refers to the the vast health and life-expectation inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This inequality includes:
- shorter life expectancy
- higher rates of infant mortality
- poorer health
- and lower levels of education and employment
The Closing the Gap strategy has resulted in some improvements, but national statistics indicate that there is still a long way to go.
It is important to recognise that disadvantage may have both immediate social, economic and cultural determinants, and deeper underlying causes:
“For example, the relatively high rates of violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities are influenced by immediate factors such as alcohol and illicit drug use, mental health issues and childhood experience of violence. However, a number of researchers also suggest that deeper underlying causes include ‘intergenerational trauma’ resulting from the ongoing and cumulative effects of colonisation, loss of land, language and culture, the erosion of cultural and spiritual identity, forced removal of children, and racism and discrimination.” - Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014
Consequently, contemporary disadvantage among Indigenous Australians should be viewed in the context of colonisation.
In 2008-2012, the infant mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children was almost double that for non-Indigenous children (6.2 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 3.7 per 1,000 live births) (1).
From birth, Indigenous Australians have a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians:
- Non-Indigenous girls born in 2010-2012 in Australia can expect to live a decade longer than Indigenous girls born the same year (84.3 years and 73.7 years respectively)
- The gap for men is even larger, with a 69.1 year life expectancy for Indigenous men and 79.9 years for non-Indigenous men (2)
Indigenous Australians experience much higher death rates than non-Indigenous Australians across all age groups and for all major causes of death:
- The potentially preventable death rate for Indigenous children was more than 3 times that of non-Indigenous children between 2008–2012* (3)
- Death rates for Indigenous Australians in some age groups were 5 or more times higher than for non-Indigenous Australians between 2009-2013 in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory (4)
Life expectancy is a broad indicator of a population’s long-term health and wellbeing. There is a strong connection between low life expectancy for Indigenous Australians and poor health:
- In 2012-2013, Indigenous Australians were 4 times more likely to be hospitalised for chronic conditions compared with non-Indigenous Australians
- In 2012 the rate of disability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians was 1.7 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians (5)
- In 2012-2013, Indigenous Australians were 3 times more likely to suffer from diabetes compared with non-Indigenous Australians, and the death rate for diabetes among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 7 times higher than for other Australians (6)
- The maternal death rate for Indigenous women was almost 3 times the rate for non-Indigenous women who gave birth between 2006-2010 (7)
Other major concerns include mental health, suicide and self-harm:
- Indigenous suicide has increased from 5% of total Australian suicide in 1991, to 50% in 2010, despite making up only 3% of the total Australian population. The most drastic increase occurred among young people 10-24 years old, where Indigenous youth suicide rose from 10% in 1991 to 80% in 2010. (8) (see Indigenous Youth Suicide for more information)
- The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians increased by almost 50 per cent from 2004-05 to 2012-13 (9)
- Indigenous adults were 3 times more likely to experience high/very high levels of psychological distress in 2012-13 compared with non-Indigenous adults (10)
- In 2010 it was estimated that up to 40% of Indigenous youth aged 13–17 will experience some form of mental illness (11)
Education and Employment
The disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health in Australia reflects the large gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education and employment:
- The proportion of Indigenous 20–24 year olds completing year 12 or equivalent was 59 per cent in 2012-13 compared with 86 - 88 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians (12)
- In 2013, 7.3 per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander potential year 12 population achieved an ATAR of 50.00 or above, compared with 44.3 per cent non-Indigenous young people
- The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians was around five times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians in 2012 (13)
There is also a strong and mutually reinforcing connection between social and economic disadvantage and high rates of incarceration. Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians make up only 2.3 percent of the adult Australian population, they accounted for over a quarter (27.4 per cent) of the adult prison population in 2013 (16).
- In 2013, Indigenous adults were imprisoned at 13 times the rate for non-Indigenous adults
- In 2012-13, the daily average detention rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people was around 24 times the rate for non-Indigenous young people
- In 2008, almost half of Indigenous males (48%) and 21% of females aged 15 years or over had been formally charged by police (over their life time) (17)
The Closing the Gap strategy has made some significant improvements to Indigenous health since it was introduced in 2008 [see the Closing the Gap Prime Minister's Report 2015 (1.9MB]. However, there is still more to be done in order for Indigenous people to enjoy health and life-expectancy equality in Australia.
* Data for NSW, Queensland, WA, SA and the NT combined
** For NSW, Victoria, Queensland, WA, SA and the NT combined
Stop & Think... Is it even possible to imagine a better future?
- Imagine how difficult it might be to create a safe and healthy family and home life if your experiences tell you that domestic violence is common.
- How would you be affected if you'd seen so many of your peers choose suicide as their only option?
- If disadvantage was the norm amongst your family, and had been for generations, what is the likelihood that you could imagine a better future for yourself?
Our national leaders acknowledge the very troubling and ongoing gap in wellbeing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in relation to infant mortality, incarceration rates, mental health issues, risk-taking behaviour, and a range of other areas. The Closing the Gap strategy is beginning to make progress, and it is important, to all of us as a country, that we find a way for all Australians to thrive.
Want to know more?
Watch the Sharing Our Story series to learn more about the shared history that has led to our current situation.
The complete Sharing Our Story series is available here.