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Australia’s Indigenous Face Job, Education Hurdles, Gillard Says

Australia’s indigenous people face a “massive and unacceptable gap” in employment rates compared with the rest of the nation, while health and education standards also lag behind, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

While the number of Aborigines in mainstream employment rose to 44.7 percent in 2011 from 42.4 percent in 2006, the disparity with the remainder of the population at 72 percent is still too wide, Gillard told parliament today as she presented the fifth annual Closing the Gap report. Government targets to improve primary- and high-school education for the indigenous community are slipping, she said.

“I cannot conceal that these literacy and numeracy results are a source of personal disappointment,” Gillard told lawmakers. “Last year’s optimism gives way this year to a starker realism.”

Australia’s 400,000 Aborigines remain the poorest and most disadvantaged group in society more than 200 years after Europeans settled in 1788. Indigenous Australians populated the continent at least 50,000 years ago and now make up about 2.5 percent of the population. The Closing the Gap program aims to erase the difference in standards between the indigenous and non-indigenous in health care, education, job opportunities and community services by 2031.

Gillard said the first of the government’s five pledges made in 2008 had been fulfilled -- delivering access to early childhood education to all four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013.

Child Mortality

In primary- and high-school education, three of eight indicators in reading and numeracy were tracking as expected and the other five needed “considerable work,” she said.

While child mortality rates improved, indigenous health standards were threatened by alcohol-related accidents and abuse in remote areas of the Northern Territory, which under its newly-elected Country Liberal Party government in August revoked laws that banned some indigenous people from buying alcohol.

“I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again,” Gillard said, calling on the territory’s government to reinstate the Banned Drinkers Register. Grog is Australian slang for alcohol.

Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, offered the nation’s first apology in 2008 to Aborigines taken from their families for assimilation with the white community, saying the policy was a “blemished chapter” in the nation’s history. Rudd’s government initiated the Closing the Gap project.

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