Australia scraps policy to end indigenous disadvantage

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian government has scrapped a 12-year-old timetable for ending indigenous disadvantage, declaring on Wednesday that the policy had failed.

A new center-left Labor Party government launched the ambitious Closing the Gap initiative in 2008 aimed at achieving equality for indigenous Australians in health and life expectancy within a generation.

Prime ministers have presented to Parliament a report every year since then quantifying progress made in seven areas.

Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison used his annual report on Wednesday to note only two of the seven measures were on track -- closing the gap between indigenous and other Australians in finishing high school and getting 4-year-olds enrolled in early education.

But indigenous men continued to die almost nine years younger than other Australian men and indigenous women died almost eight years younger than other women. The gap is widening in the measure of child mortality, which is twice rate in the indigenous community than in the wider Australian society.

Morrison said successive governments’ top-down approach to Closing the Gap “hasn’t worked.”

“For 12 years, I have sat in this chamber and listened to Closing the Gap speeches. It’s a tale of hope, frustration and disappointment,” Morrison told Parliament. “The results are not good enough.”

“Over decades, our top-down, government-knows-best approach has not delivered the improvements we all yearn for,” he added.

Morrison foreshadowed new measures of progress that focused on local problems and priorities involving local indigenous communities. Those new steps would be agreed within months.

“I want the gaps to be defined by indigenous Australians,” Morrison said. “I look forward to the shared targets with the right data that can inform us.”

Morrison said the federal government would work with state governments and indigenous groups to reach a new agreement aimed by at creating equality for indigenous Australians.

“I’m very hopeful that a new approach that’s more locally-led and more collaborative will take us much further than the top-down, one-size-fits-all, government-led approach ever could,” Morrison said.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese described the current targets as “modest” and the gap in living standards between indigenous Australians as a “chasm.”

Albanese noted that while indigenous adults made up only 2% of the Australian population, they accounted for 27% of the prison population.

Ken Wyatt, the first indigenous person to become minister for indigenous Australians, said that leaders from the Coalition of Peaks, which represents 50 indigenous groups, had asked to “sit at the table to shape the direction of Closing the Gap into the future.”

Coalition of Peaks representative Jonathan Ford welcomed the new collaborative approach.

“Over the last 12 years, the failure has primarily been because we haven’t had a say on what happens to our people,” Ford said. “So the new approach that they’re talking about is basically giving us an opportunity to have a say, co-design and make decisions in partnership with government.”