“Without high-quality data, it is impossible to understand where we are headed … ”
These words formed part of a 2009 Prime Minister’s letter to the Chair of the Council of Australian Governments on preparing the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage data report.
Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2020 by the Productivity Commission, and the Final Report of the Inquiry into the indicators of, and impact of, regional inequality in Australia by the Senate Economics References Committee, were each released in December 2020. These will be significant to readers of this column as both reports received significant data and case studies to inform the development of policies to improve outcomes for these communities. As many would be aware, across its broad church of responsibilities the LGAQ advocates on issues affecting Indigenous, regional, and remote councils and their communities.
The 2020 report notes that indicators suggest some improvements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:
- Mortality rates for children improved between 1998 and 2018, particularly for zero-one-year olds, whose mortality rates more than halved (from 13 to five deaths per 1000 live births).
- Education improvements included increases in the proportion of 20–24-year-olds completing year 12 or above (from 2008 to 2018-19) and the proportion of 20–64-year --olds with or working towards post-school qualifications (almost doubling from 2002 to 2018-19).
Other indicators suggest some areas of continuing concern:
- Rates of children in out-of-home care have almost tripled in the past 15 years (60 per 1000 children in 2018-19).
- The adult imprisonment rate increased 72 percent between 2000 and 2019, and whilst the youth detention rate has decreased; it is still 22-times the rate for non-Indigenous youth.
Suggested approaches to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people include:
- Enabling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share in decision-making on things that affect them.
- Addressing laws, policies, and practices that operate to the detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
- Ongoing government investment, collaboration and coordination.
- Ensuring access to effective culturally safe services, at the right time and suited to the local context.
- Addressing racism and discrimination in the Australian community, through structural changes, and building knowledge and education.
The report identifies three “aspirational priority outcomes”:
- Safe, healthy and supportive family environments with strong communities and cultural identity;
- Positive child development and prevention of violence, crime and self-harm;
- Improved wealth creation and economic sustainability for individuals, families and communities.
There is a strong connection between Indigenous peoples and remote Australia, where they represent 30 per cent of remote area populations (1.13, OID 2020). There are both similar and unique challenges faced by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living in remote communities. The Final Report of the Inquiry into the indicators of, and impact of, regional inequality in Australia made only two recommendations:
1. 2.114 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government fundamentally re-examine its regional infrastructure spending plan and make an expanded infrastructure programme the basis for its stimulus plan for Australia’s economic recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. 2.123 In order to establish to most appropriate response in terms of regional investment, the committee recommends the Commonwealth Government undertake a series of round table consultations with:
- Commonwealth departments and agencies;
- State, and local governments;
- Regional associations; and
- Community organisations.
While writing a final report that captured the wealth of data and stories of personal experiences provided in 148 submissions and five public hearings was always going to be an epic task, the issues raised by contributors have not waned and these contributions remain a valuable resource.
Even a quick review reveals that there is a lot more in these submissions than the familiar calls for better coordination across government and more built infrastructure. It is incumbent upon the Federal Government to take this information and use it to inform the review and development of all relevant policies affecting Indigenous and remote communities.
In a March 2020 joint letter to the Treasurer on the Remote Area Tax Concessions Report, the LGAQ, LGANT and WALGA requested that the Treasury Department undertake a separate review of the suggestions made in ubmissions to the Productivity Commission Inquiry. The same request appears to apply to the Senate Committee Final report on regional inequality. Perhaps to demonstrate that public submissions invited by inquiries make a difference, then the information from the submissions to these latest inquiries, along with submissions to the Review of Remote Area Tax Concessions, could be referred to all federal agencies for review and inclusion into relevant policies and programs.
The Federal Government could show that it listens to what the people of these communities are saying. Now that would be a demonstration of data informing understanding and policy, which is what these inquiries are supposed to be all about.