Closing the Gap, not just a numbers game
Though the Gillard Government claims to be on track for various targets within the Closing the Gap initiative, others are not so sure. Emma Rennie reports.
Politicians and Indigenous welfare practitioners have challenged Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s claims that the Government is on track to improve Indigenous child mortality by 2018.
The Closing the Gap strategy is aimed at improving the health and quality of life for Indigenous people and incorporates all governments throughout Australia.
It consists of six key targets with specific deadlines, one of which is halving the gap in mortality rates for indigenous children under five by 2018.
This is one of only two targets the Government is confident that it can meet by its deadline, given the current rate of improvement.
In 1999, the number of deaths in Indigenous children under five was nearly two and a half times higher than non-Indigenous children. By 2010, that rate fell to just under double the number of Indigenous child deaths compared to non-Indigenous children.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said in an email, “The Australian Government committed to the Closing the Gap targets because we knew that previous haphazard approaches to ending Indigenous disadvantage had not been good enough.”
Ms Macklin attributed the declining mortality rates to improvements in antenatal care, sanitation and public health conditions, better neonatal intensive care and the development of immunisation programs.
She said the Government is already investing more than $5.75 billion over the next three years towards Closing the Gap. This includes $564 million towards health and education services that will assist Indigenous children.
However Shadow Minister for Indigenous Welfare, Nigel Scullion, said the Government needed to move its focus away from the statistical evidence and begin communicating with experienced practitioners and clinicians who work with Indigenous children.
Mr Scullion said each death was a situation in which the Government had failed to provide the very best of attention.
“This data gives us opportunities to look on a case-by-case basis at information and evidence that can assist us to ensure that the circumstance that death particularly was surrounded by is avoided in the future,” he said.
Information provided by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicated the Indigenous child mortality rate had dropped 48 per cent between 1991 and 2010 across Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Around 80 per cent of these Indigenous deaths were infants less than 12 months old.
“Yes, [the Indigenous child mortality rate] is going down, but the trends are flattening out and slowing down. Unless we talk to these practitioners, and respond to the practitioner’s advice, I fear that we will flat line,” said Mr Scullion.
Anne O’Connor, a Practice Nurse at the Tamworth Aboriginal Medical Service, knows a number of Indigenous families that have lost young children.
She said new initiatives, such as a local Indigenous Mums and Bubs program, had helped to educate mothers about preventing and managing health problems in their children.
Ongoing research into conditions commonly found in Indigenous children, such as kidney stones, was also helpful, she said.
“The on-the-ground stuff is great, like the Mums and Bubs program, where the midwives go and visit the mums and expectant mums, that’s great. But I think sometimes the funding goes to the bureaucracy instead of the on-ground sort of stuff,” said Ms O’Connor.
“There’s some improvement, but there’s still a long way to go, and the trouble is we still haven’t solved the problem of engaging people – really finding out what services they want and then making them so that they will be engaged.”