Chris Ison

Why closing the gap is not always black and white

LONG-TERM and sustainable grassroots-backed job programs are the key to ensuring the Southern Downs's Aboriginal residents are better educated, healthier and live longer.

That's the view from three of the nation's leading indigenous experts who have called on the ALP and the Coalition to ensure our 1460 Aboriginals residents get a fair go this election.

Aboriginal people make up 4.1% of the Southern Downs's population compared to 1.7% of Brisbane's population and 3.3% of all Australians.

Australia's national labour force participation rate - that is the number of people working or looking for work - sits at 64.9% and the nation's unemployment rate is 5.7%.

The indigenous figures tell a more sombre tale with the participation rate at 58% and 20.6% of Aboriginal people unemployed.

Research also shows major gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous communities in terms of life expectancy, chronic illness, high school completion rates, infant mortality rates and prisoner numbers.

National Congress of Australia's First Peoples co-chair Dr Rod Little grew up in a regional Aboriginal community.

Dr Little, who has forged a stellar career in social affairs policy, said helping Aboriginal communities to create sustainable job opportunities was the key to bridging the gaps between black and white.

He said reducing racism would also help indigenous Australians find work with mainstream employers.

"If you unpack the unemployment rates in regional centres, you will find the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community makes up a big percentage of those rates," he said.

"Institutionalised discrimination or racism has prevented our people from progressing, yet it's not talked about openly.

"Coming from a regional area myself, I experienced it (racism) as a child but I believed it was normal."

Dr Little said the ALP and the Coalition needed to make strong election commitments regarding job opportunities for our indigenous community.

"In terms of closing the gaps on health, education and incarceration rates, you've got to have a look at the causes behind them," Dr Little said.

"One of the main causes is unemployment and this is worse in regional and remote areas because the job opportunities are not there."

Oxfam's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples rights policy advisor Dr Peter Lewis agreed, saying the Federal Government needed to reassess the Commonwealth-based Indigenous Advancement Strategy's tendency to award contracts to mainstream non-indigenous organisations because they were cheaper.

"We would like to see local ATSI organisations be the preferred providers and rather than funding being based on competitive tendering, it should be based on service mapping and need mapping," he said.

Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association vice-president Dr Sean Wright said all communities were different.

"It's important to realise that you can't have a blanket approach - just because something works in one Aboriginal community doesn't mean it will work in another," Dr Wright said.

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