NATIONAL: Aboriginal leaders say Indigenous incarceration rates are going through the roof and an official target is needed stop future generations wasting their lives in jail.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard on today told parliament Australia was slowly closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.
Presenting the annual Closing the Gap report, Ms Gillard said the nation was on track in two out of six targets.
The most achievable were the halving of infant mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018 and ensuring access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013.
Australia also made progress towards halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievement for Indigenous children by 2018, the report said.
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Jody Broun said there were some good outcomes in health and education, but the situation was only deteriorating in the area of justice.
“There’s enough evidence to show things have gotten worse over the last 20 years in terms of incarceration rates and representation in the criminal justice system,” she told reporters in Canberra.
“We need a focus on that.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said Indigenous youth incarceration rates were particularly dire.
“It’s going through the roof in this country, and if we don’t do anything about it we’ll lose another couple of generations,” he said.
Mr Gooda highlighted Western Australia as a jurisdiction that was jailing scores of Aboriginal people for minor traffic offences or not paying fines.
“I don’t advocate getting rid of jails,” he said.
“But we have to change the narrative in this country that more jails make safer communities. Stopping people offending and reoffending does.”
Mr Gooda said efforts to reduce Aboriginal children’s truancy rates needed to go hand-in-hand with quality education programs.
“We now have kids graduating from grade 12 with problems with basic literacy and numeracy,” he said.
Ms Broun said there were concerns about the reliability of some data collected for the report.
Government must urgently improve ways of measuring indigenous life expectancy, which now relied on Census data every five years for verification.
There should be annual targets covering this area, Ms Broun said.
Australian Greens senator Rachel Siewert said she is not confident the government is on track to meet any of its six closing-the-gap targets because of doubts about data reliability.
The next phase of the government’s Northern Territory intervention, under the Stronger Futures legislation currently before parliament, could actually widen the gap, Senator Siewert said.
Focusing on school attendance did not necessarily guarantee learning because of barriers such as ear problems and a lack of bilingual classes, she said.
Senator Siewert echoed calls for a new closing-the-gap target to reduce the high rates of Indigenous incarceration and fears that elements of the Stronger Futures laws could exacerbate the situation.
“The draconian top-down approach doesn’t work,” she said.
“If you look at community-driven programs there’s much more success.”
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation director Jacqueline Phillips welcomed the prime minister’s renewed focus on linking practical and symbolic actions to advance reconciliation.
“For too long, politicians and the media have portrayed these actions as mutually exclusive, rather than inextricably linked,” she said.