Specific plan needed to close the gap for urban Aborigines

Nicholas Biddle | Sydney Morning Herald | August 7, 2009

There is not a single suburb in an Australian city or big town where the indigenous population has better or even similar socio-economic status to the rest of the population, I discovered when conducting a recent study. Not one.

Contrary to the view that dysfunctional remote communities are the main cause of indigenous disadvantage, in most of urban Australia we have a situation of same suburb, different worlds.

Another study I worked on projects that if present levels of fertility and mortality continue, there will be 1 million indigenous Australians by 2040.

What ties these results together is that the fastest rate of population growth is projected for the urban indigenous population. In the 10 years to 2016 alone, the indigenous population in Australia's main cities could grow from about 164,000 to 220,000.

This equates to a growth rate of almost 3 per cent a year, which far outpaces growth rates for the indigenous population nationally (2 per cent a year) and for the non-indigenous population in the main cities (1.5 per cent).

The Productivity Commission's recent report, "Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage", has yet again focused the nation's attention on the extraordinary challenge the Rudd Government has set itself with its Closing the Gap targets.

There was good news that should not be overlooked - indigenous income and home ownership have been increasing and more indigenous youth are completing year 12.

At the same time, though, for many of these indicators, non-indigenous rates are increasing just as fast or even more quickly, meaning the gaps have stayed consistently high.

While everyone, including the Federal Government, would agree that much needs to be done to improve the lives of remote and rural indigenous Australian people, there is clear evidence from both these studies that any Closing the Gap policy will fail dismally if Aboriginal people living in the cities are ignored.

Not only are there substantial and consistent gaps between Aboriginal and other Australians in all suburbs and towns, rapid population growth means that a large number of urban jobs, houses and educational places will need to be found just to maintain the unacceptable status quo.

Making substantial inroads into the socio-economic disparity presents a number of challenges for all levels of government.

First, although large in number compared with their remote counterparts, urban indigenous Australians make up only a fraction of the population of the city or town in which they live. This makes targeting the employment, education, housing and health services required to reduce socio-economic disparities extremely difficult.

Second, the economic slowdown means the private sector may be less able to provide the extra jobs needed to close the urban employment gap foreseen in February last year when the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made his historic national apology to the stolen generations and a commitment to Closing the Gap; or even in October when he endorsed Andrew Forrest's Australian Employment Covenant to secure 50,000 new jobs.

Third, whatever the state of the labour market, indigenous Australians have to compete with more qualified and experienced non-indigenous Australians who do not have the similar personal or family history legacies of dispossession or discrimination. In urban Australia especially, the issue is not whether jobs and schools are available, the greater constraint is the ability of the indigenous population to take advantage of the opportunities that are available.

These two studies highlight the need for a specific strategy to bring about sustained improvements in socioeconomic outcomes for urban indigenous Australians, something the Council of Australian Governments has recognised.

To close the gaps, all levels of government will have to have one eye on remote Australia with the other on indigenous gaps in the cities.

Nicholas Biddle is a research fellow at the Australian National University's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.