Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday admitted Australia has failed to meet important targets on Aboriginal welfare and vowed to work to ensure all indigenous children went through school.
In delivering his first “Closing the Gap” report to parliament, which aims to improve the lives of the Aboriginal population by bridging the divide with non-indigenous Australians, Abbott said outcomes so far were mixed.
The plan to halve the gap in child mortality within a decade was on track to be met, he said, while the goal of having 95 per cent of children living in remote areas enrolled for pre-school was also on target.
However, he said: “The bad news is that there’s almost no progress in closing the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and other Australians - which is still about a decade.
“There’s been very little improvement towards halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy. And indigenous employment has, if anything, slipped backwards over the past few years.
“We are not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful targets,” added the conservative leader.
The Closing the Gap project was launched by the then-Labor government in 2008, the year it offered a national apology to Australia’s original inhabitants for wrongs committed since British settlement in 1788.
It set targets on health, education, mortality and imprisonment, with progress to be reported each year.
Abbott, who came to power last year vowing to be the “prime minister for Aboriginal affairs”, said his primary goal was to make sure indigenous children received a proper education.
“Because it’s hard to be literate and numerate without attending school; it’s hard to find work without a basic education; and it’s hard to live well without a job,” he said.
“We may be doomed to fail - I fear - until we achieve the most basic target of all: the expectation that every child will attend school every day.”
In a bid to reach that goal, he proposed a new target of ending the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous school attendance within five years.
Abbott said when attendance was above 90 per cent for all schools, regardless of the number of Aboriginal students enrolled, the target would be achieved. Currently in some Aboriginal communities, school attendance is under 60 per cent.
Aborigines, who number about 500,000 of a total population of 23 million, are the most disadvantaged Australians, suffering disproportionate levels of disease, imprisonment and social problems as well as lower educational attainment, employment and life expectancy.
They are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement two centuries ago.
Abbott, who won office last September and pledged to spend a week every year in a remote indigenous community, said he intended to keep that promise.
“After 226 years of intermittent interest at most, why shouldn’t Aboriginal people finally have the prime minister’s undivided attention for seven days,” he told parliament.
“None of this makes me more worthy or less fallible than any of my predecessors - but it does demonstrate that this government is serious about Aboriginal policy.”