A young girl having her face painted with the Aboriginal Flag
Progress has been made in five of the Closing the Gap targets, while other areas have worsened. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS

Healthy babies and land on track but other gaps wider

Rudi Maxwell March 7, 2024

The number of Indigenous babies being born healthy and strong is continuing to improve.

But according to new data released by the Productivity Commission, that’s one of the few highlights for First Nations people among inequities proving difficult to shift, particularly in areas of incarceration and child protection.

The commission has released data on eight of the Closing the Gap targets – the framework agreed to by all Australian governments and the Coalition of Peaks, representing Indigenous organisations, to address inequality.

Overall, five of 19 targets are now on track, an improvement from four.

The new data showed the proportion of First Nations babies born at a healthy weight has improved and is on track to meet the target of 91 per cent by 2031.

The number of Indigenous mums making use of antenatal care (pre-birth) is also growing.

The target of a 15 per cent increase in land and sea country covered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s legal rights is also on track.

But there has been no improvement in closing the gap on life expectancy, with Indigenous Australian males and females expected to live 8.8 and 8.1 years, respectively, less than other Australians.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney
 Minister Linda Burney says healthy birth weight helps to lay foundations for lifelong health. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

“It is encouraging to see improvements in the number of babies born at healthy birth weight as healthy birth weight helps to lay foundations for lifelong health,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said.

“But the new data on eight targets shows there is still a long way to go.”

The rates on incarceration are not on track to meet their targets and for adults are heading in the wrong direction.

Nationally, on June 30, 2023, the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners was 2265.8 per 100,000 adult population, an increase from the previous year.

Target 11 – reducing the rate of Indigenous children in detention by at least 30 per cent – shows no change from the 2017 baseline.

The number of Indigenous kids in out of home care – the single biggest indicator whether children will come into contact with the criminal justice system – is also getting worse.

Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians Malarndirri McCarthy welcomed the data indicating progress in some areas.

Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians Malarndirri McCarthy
 Senator McCarthy said incarceration rates for First Nations youth and adults are still unacceptable. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

“But this is not enough to carry through to other positive life outcomes for First Nations people,” she said.

“We need to do more to address the unacceptable results we continue to see, such as the number of children in out-of-home care and incarceration rates for First Nations youth and adults.”

Greens leader Adam Bandt said self-determination was key to Closing the Gap.

“We need to begin a process of truth-telling in this country to talk about the history of violence and dispossession and what that has meant to First Nations people,” he said.

“We need to strike a treaty with First Nations people that is based on full recognition of sovereignty.”

Target 14 is significant and sustained reduction in suicide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but for younger Indigenous people (five-year age groups from 15 to 39) the leading cause of death is intentional self-harm. 

From 2014–2018 to 2018–2022, the rate of deaths due to intentional self‑harm increased for Indigenous people in the 15 to 19 years, 25 to 29 years and 35 to 39 years age groups.

But rates decreased for 20 to 24 year and 30 to 34 year-olds.

Rachel Fishlock, chief executive of Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia, the national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, and suicide prevention, called on all governments to take their Closing the Gap commitments seriously.

“Our people deserve to enjoy high levels of social and emotional wellbeing, but the dashboard update shows we aren’t on track for this to happen – in fact things are getting worse,” she said.

“When will governments finally take their Closing the Gap commitments seriously and make the widescale systemic changes needed?”

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 22 4636