Abbott Seeks to Close Indigenous Jobs, Health Gaps in Australia

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said urgent efforts are needed to improve employment opportunities alongside health and education conditions for Australia’s indigenous population.

“There’s almost no progress in closing the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and other Australians –- which is still about a decade,” Abbott told parliament in Canberra today. “There’s been very little improvement towards halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy. Indigenous employment has, if anything, slipped backwards over the past few years.”

Abbott, a self-declared prime minister for Aborigines, is seeking momentum for the Closing the Gap program, introduced by the previous Labor government to address differing standards for the indigenous and non-indigenous by 2031 in health care, education, employment and community services. Australia’s Aborigines, about 3 percent of the population, remain the poorest and most disadvantaged group in society more than 200 years after Europeans settled in 1788.

Improvements have been made in reducing child mortality rates, with the goal to halve the gap with non-indigenous people within a decade on track, Abbott said while submitting the nation’s sixth Closing the Gap report. Efforts to have 95 percent of the Aboriginal children living in remote communities enrolled for pre-school are also on target.

Anti-Truancy

A new focus would be on erasing the difference on school attendance within five years, Abbott said. His Liberal-National coalition government, which won power in the September election, has implemented anti-truancy measures at 40 remote schools that boosted attendance from 60 percent to more than 90 percent, he said.

The government also proposes to hold a referendum to formally recognize Australia’s indigenous in the constitution, the report said today. A draft amendment to the constitution will be put forward in late 2014, it said.

Indigenous Australians populated the continent at least 40,000 years ago. Their average life expectancy is about 10 years shorter while their jobless rate of 17 percent is almost triple the national average of 5.8 percent.

Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. (FMG) Chairman Andrew Forrest has been charged by Abbott to report in April on ways to improve existing training programs as Abbott attempts to coax the private sector, especially mining companies in remote areas, into hiring more indigenous people. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous employment rates has widened 2.8 percentage points in the past five years, with 46 percent of the Aboriginal, working-age population in jobs.

Community Visit

Abbott, 56, is a regular visitor to indigenous communities and pledged to spend a week in East Arnhem Land in the remote Northern Territory later this year.

“It has become a personal mission to help my fellow Australians to open their hearts, as much as to change their minds, on Aboriginal policy,” he said today.

Australians had “objectified Aboriginal issues rather than personalized them” and “saw problems to be solved rather than people to be engaged with,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

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