“The data from the Productivity Commission provides insight into the status of Aboriginal peoples in Canberra; it also reveals much, whether we like it or not, about the non-Aboriginal residents of Canberra and of the community,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.
I WAS recently invited by the ACT Lawyers Alliance to speak at a symposium on the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents of Canberra.
In my speech I looked at the ACT government’s response, as well as our collective response as a community, to the needs of our indigenous fellow citizens.
I have included a brief summary of current data relevant to the status or circumstances of Aboriginal people in Canberra.
Before that, it would be instructive to reflect on the fact that Canberra is not just our home, but also the proud capital of Australia and, on a per capita basis, the nation’s wealthiest city with the largest relative cohort of upper/middle-class citizens. It boasts regularly it is the most progressive and welcoming city in Australia.
It also has a low real and pro rata Aboriginal population compared to the states and territories. The obvious question that Julie Tongs, CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah, raises repeatedly with me, is why the appalling life outcomes experienced by many Aboriginal residents of Canberra are greeted by the ACT government and non-Aboriginal Canberrans with either deafening silence or complete indifference.
The detailed data is, in the main, from the Productivity Commission. While it provides some insight into the status of Aboriginal peoples in Canberra it also reveals much, whether we like it or not, about the non-Aboriginal residents of Canberra and of the community.
The justice system
The crude rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal men in the ACT in 2022 was 3024.3 compared to a non-indigenous rate of 152.4. The ratio of Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal men incarcerated in the ACT was, therefore, 19.8 which is the highest in Australia. An Aboriginal woman in Canberra is 17.8 times more likely to be sent to prison than a non-Aboriginal woman.
The Productivity Commission reported in January that the ACT has the highest rate ratio of Aboriginal peoples, male and female combined, in prison in Australia with a ratio of 21, the highest in Australia, compared to a national average of 15.
Aboriginal people, while constituting 1.9 per cent of the ACT population currently constitute 26 per cent of the detainee population at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC).
The recidivism rate of Aboriginal detainees at the AMC is 92 per cent, the highest rate in Australia. The non-indigenous rate is 73 per cent.
Health of Aboriginal people
Eighty-one per cent of Aboriginal people in Canberra have one or more long-term health conditions, which is the highest rate in Australia, across which the average rate is 67 per cent.
Fifty-seven per cent of Aboriginal people in Canberra have one or more selected chronic conditions, the second highest rate in Australia, across which the average is 46 per cent.
Twenty-one per cent of Aboriginal people in the ACT have ear/hearing problems, the highest rate in Australia – almost double the national average.
Forty per cent have mental health/behavioural problems, the highest rate in Australia and 60 per cent higher than the national average.
A baby born in Canberra to an Aboriginal woman is on average about 2.5 times more likely to be of low birth weight compared to a baby born to a non-indigenous woman.
Basic skills for life and learning
The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) measures children’s development at the time they begin full-time schooling across five domains, namely: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.
The latest figures reveal that, over the last decade, the ACT has suffered by far the largest increase in developmental vulnerability in Australia with the proportion of Aboriginal children in Canberra declining from just over 80 per cent in 2009 (the highest in Australia) to under 60 per cent in 2021 (the third lowest).
Achievements at school
The mean scores achieved by Aboriginal children at school in Canberra are significantly lower than the mean scores for non-indigenous students across all year levels and all domains. The “gap” between Indigenous and non-indigenous students’ mean scores represents more than two years – that is, the average mean scores for indigenous students in Year 7 are lower than those of non-indigenous students in year 5.
Children in out-of-home care
The number of Aboriginal children in Canberra under a care and protection order last year was 279 while the number of non-indigenous children under an order was 636. The rate per 1000 children aged 0 to 17 was therefore, 91.4 for Aboriginal children (the third highest in Australia) and 6.8 for non-indigenous children.
The latest Productivity Commission report also reveals that the rate of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care per 1000 children is 70.8 while that of non-indigenous children is 5. An Aboriginal child in Canberra is roughly 14 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than a non-Aboriginal child.
The Productivity Commission also reports that the ACT has the lowest level of funding, by a country mile, of intensive family support services in Australia.
This is but a brief summary of relevant data. However, it raises profound questions about the role which the Voice will play, when incorporated following what I hope and expect will be a successful referendum.
At the heart of my concern is that the appalling outcomes listed above are not a consequence of the ACT government not knowing what to do or having not received detailed advice from the ACT Aboriginal community, including the ACT Voice (namely the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body) about addressing disadvantage in Canberra, but rather that it consistently chooses to either ignore the advice it regularly receives and/or routinely fails to fund its implementation.
Jon Stanhope was ACT chief minister from 2001 to 2011.
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