The Close the Gap Campaign’s response to the COAG Reform Council’s latest report on Indigenous health sums up the terrible misdirection of the Federal Government’s 2014 Budget, which is inflicting pain in all the wrong places and puts at risk recent gains and its own priorities.

“Mixed results on closing the gap confirms alarm over budget cuts” was the CTG Campaign’s verdict on the latest – and possibly last – independent update on the Close the Gap agenda.

The COAG report shows childhood mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are falling and the literacy gap is narrowing but that unemployment continues to rise.  Watch the ABC Lateline report for more details.

And the report highlights, as CTG Campaign Co-Chairs Kirstie Parker and Mick Gooda point out, that the Budget has imposed cuts in exactly the areas where it should be investing.

Parker is Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples – which also lost its funding in the Budget, as did the COAG Reform Council itself.

She said:

“Smoking is a key driver of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and these diseases were responsible for 33.8% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths between 2007 and 2011.

“We’ve seen a 3.6% reduction in smoking rates over that time yet the Federal Budget has reduced spending on closing the gap anti-smoking initiatives,”

“The COAG Reform Council report also highlights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander obesity as an issue that warrants national attention. Meanwhile, we see the Federal Government cutting preventative health programs. Obesity has significant health implications. Cuts to preventative health now will only cost many more dollars in future health expenses and delay progress in closing the gap.

Parker said the Government would do well to look to the health sector as a blueprint to improve poor employment outcomes, one of the main priorities it has identified for its Indigenous agenda. She said:

 “The health sector is the biggest employer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Investing in health has a multiplier effect because it equates to investing in health, employment and communities.

“I fear that cuts to the health sector are likely to lead to reduced health outcomes for our people and trigger further spikes in unemployment.

Her fellow Co-Chair, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said it is heartening to see rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child mortality are decreasing at over three times the rate experienced by other Australians. He said:

“This demonstrates the traction we are getting with the closing the gap strategy. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are getting better access to health care services. Indigenous childhood health checks have doubled over the past four years and childhood immunisation rates are increasing.

But he said the $7 GP co-payment announced in the Budget will apply to childhood vaccinations and, given that children require six GP visits in their first 18 months for their immunisation program, will deter parents and may hinder the progress being made in reducing childhood mortality rates. Earlier this week Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leaders held a crisis meeting on the Federal Budget, and called for the co-payment to be scrapped. Gooda also outlined his concerns  that Budget cuts could devastate Indigenous Australians here.

Warren Mundine, the chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Affairs Council has defended the Budget, saying “most of the post Budget politicking is focused on the headline dollar amount of the cuts without reference to frontline outcomes”, but his deputy, Dr Ngiare Brown is critical, particularly on the co-payment plan, saying:

The Coalition claim they want to cut red tape, duplication and the bureaucracy, for example, but I’m concerned there are actually going to be cuts to frontline services, which we were promised would absolutely not be the case

Elsewhere Gooda warned about the impact on Indigenous communities on harsh new measures on young unemployed people, saying:

 I was told years ago if we don’t have adequate safety nets for people in need, one of two things will happen: they’ll knock on the front door of your house begging for stuff or break in the backdoor taking it.

Gooda said the independent COAG Reform Council has played an important role in monitoring and reporting on efforts to close the gap. It is unclear whether that reporting will continue after the Council closes on June 30. Hear his concerns on ABC radio today that if decisions are not made on the basis of the best evidence available “we … might as well be just making up things on the back of beer coasters”. He said in a statement:

We call on the Federal Government to ensure regular and independent monitoring and reporting of national, state and territory progress towards closing the gap is maintained.

See the snapshots below, or the key findings, or read the full report:

See also this analysis: Widening not closing the gap on Indigenous health

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