//Reporting on Closing the Gap – Should we Already Expect Progress?

Reporting on Closing the Gap – Should we Already Expect Progress?

For those Australians who think that Development issues are something to do with Sub-Suharan Africa, think again. There is all the terrible and tragic action happening right on our doorstep.

The recent first report card speech delivered by the PM to parliament went for 40min and by some accounts and responses, didn’t deliver a great deal.

In my opinion though, we should give the PM a break, for now at least.

When you consider the situation, to think that substantial progress would have been made in 12 months on the ‘gaps’ in health and education between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is fanciful. These are long-run statistics that capture generational change, not intra-generational progress.

Consider some of the figures from the government’s report on the situation with indigenous health and education. To begin with, here is the comparison of the demographic ‘pyramids’ for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians:

And for comparison, here’s Zambia’s pyramid for 2000:

And Denmark for good measure:

The obvious point is that whereas the non-indigenous population has a roughly uniform distribution amongst the ages (roughly similar to Denmark), the indigenous pyramid has the rough shape of Zambia. Need we remind ourselves that Zambia is presently ranked at 163 on the UN Development Program’s Human Dedvelopment Index (Australia is 4th, behind Canada, Norway and Iceland). Of course the comparison is not very fair — notice that the indigenous population Total Fertility Rate for women is at 2.4 (compared to 1.9 for non-indigenous women) whereas Zambia’s TFR is 5.5. Looking at the world tables, a TFR of 2.4 puts indigenous Australia’s rate on par with Panama (HDR rank 58), Sri Lanka (104), Argentina (46) and Colombia (80).

Why is the TFR important? .. The TFR is not the be-all and end-all of develoment, but it does give a reasonable indication for the opportunity cost of raising and having children. To an economist, if you are choosing to have kids, then the value of a woman’s time foregone whilst being incapacitated (for work) due to pregnancy and infant care must be higher than choosing to do something else. So a high TFR tells us something about the economic opportunities for women.

Second, a high TFR, which is a measurement of the number of live births per woman of a child-rearing age (normally between 15 and 45) also tells us something about the life expectations for that child. If children die early, then it is likely, in a society where there is little welfare, or pension-availability, that parents would be likely to have more children such that in expectation, they will have at least one surviving off-spring to care and provide for them in their old age. So a higher TFR also tells us a little about the expectations of lifetimes and the expected economic conditions of elderly life.

Not surprisingly then, we find that the median age for the indigenous population is just 21 years, whilst for the non-indigenous it is 37. Furthermore, the report tells us that “thirty eight per cent of Indigenous people are under the age of 15 (19 per cent for non-Indigenous)” whilst “only 3 per cent of Indigenous people are aged over 65 (13 per cent for non-Indigenous)”.

These statistics are really just a re-telling of the demographic pyramid above. They quantify the lopsidedness of the Indigenous population. Whereas for the non-Indigenous population, if you were to take a random sample of 100 people, since the distribution of ages is roughly uniform, you would expect to get (say) 20 people under the age of 15, 20 more between 16 and 30, 20 more between 31 and 45, 20 more between 46 and 60 and the final 20 over 61 (approximately). Whereas, if we did the same for the Indigenous population, you would have 38 people of your 100 under the age of 15 to begin with. With only 3 who are aged over 65, the other 50 percent being aged between 16 and 64.

What is the consequence of this topsy-turvy age distribution? .. The problem is a lack of eldership. You end up with so few older, wiser and calm-headed individuals per every young, immature and potentially hot-headed youth. This is especially a problem in a strong culturally driven ethnic group like Australia’s Indigenous population. Here, eldership is vitally important — the elders of a community are relied upon for law-making, decisions of justice and general community leadership. Where there are few elders then, the potential for conflict and delinquency rise dramatically.

So where are the missing elders in Australia’s Indigenous population? The figures below gives a good clue:

The mortality pyramids (percent of deaths occurring at a given age) show that whereas for the non-Indigenous population, the percentage of deaths increase dramatically with age, from a very small base (less than one percent); for the Indigenous population, Death visits often and early. Indeed, the graph is actually covering the fact that the reality is much worse, since it shows percentage of total all deaths occurring at a given age range. But we just saw above that in terms of population, there are many many more youths than elders in the Indigenous population, so if the percentage of deaths is higher at early ages, then the absolute number of deaths occurring to the young Indigenous population is very large indeed.

If we re-cast this in terms of life-expectancy, then the 2006 Indigenous population’s figure of 59 years for men (compared with 77 years for non-Indigenous men) and 65 years for women (82 years) show the extent of the issue of higher mortality incidence at younger ages. This is the real ‘gap’ that is part of the PM’s mission — around 17 years.

So let’s put that figure into perspective. One reasonable question to ask would be when the non-Indigenous (although because of data issues, it will likely be a composite figure at best) Australian male and female life-expectancy was 59 and 65 years respectively? Fortunately, the government presents just such figures here:

Australian male life-expectancy was 59.2 in 1920-22, whilst female life-expectancy was 63.3 in the same period.

And so here is at least one of the salient facts that the media, the public and both houses of government need to be clear about — it took the best part of 80 years for the whole Australian population to gain its 17 or so years in life-expectancy. These are slow moving variables. Infact,if you assume a linear trend (which seems reasonable from the plot mentioned earlier), then the life-expectancy progress of the wider Australian population moved up at the rate of roughly 1 year of life-expectancy in every five years.

OK, suppose that is too much to ask, then how long did it take to add 10 years of life-expectancy (at birth)? .. The answer is roughly 45 years.

So whilst I’m very concerned for closing gap — this is a central moral and humanitarian task — we must be realistic about the rate of progress.

Report cards and periodic updates are superb markers of progress when it comes to product-line revenues, or sales figures, but when it comes to life-expectancies, and other aggregated population statistics, a yearly report card is a little silly. By all means, the government must be kept accountable to its promise of progress, but in reality, this will be an issue on the cabinet table for the next 15 governments at least.

Transcripts to podcasts above from AM

  1. PM’s first report on closing the gaps in indigenous health and education
  2. Response to the report from those in the field

Data used in this article

  1. The Australian Government’s collection of data on changes in Australian life expectancy statistics 1900 to the present here
  2. UNDP Development Index statistics and other data on health, literacy and incomes here
  3. ABS Report on Calculating Life Expectancies for the Australian Indigenous Population (PDF)

Other refs

  1. Life Expectancies on Wikipedia

Simon wrote the following letter to the Age on 27 Feb 2009

[Published in The Age, Monday, 2 March 2008]

The PM deserves a break, for now.


The opposition and hostile media need to know that closing ‘the gaps’ between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations of Australia will take many governments, not just one part of one government’s term as the gallery ridiculously demands.

Here’s why – consider the life expectancy gap as an example: it stands at approximately 17 years, e.g. 59 for Indigenous males, 76 for non-Indigenous males.

A reasonable question to ask is: how long ago did the non-Indigenous life expectancy for males equal 59 years?

The answer is found by going back to the 1920-22 ABS figures when Australian male life expectancy was 59.2 .

That’s right, it took 80 years — or about 20 government terms — to ‘close the gap’ on the national statistics.

So what should we expect after 12 months? Simple maths tells us that a life expectancy improvement of one fifth of one year would be excellent progress.

Similar calculations could be made for education, literacy and health statistics.

I’m all for accountability but let’s get expectations right and find a supportive tone to allow them to get on with it.

Listen to the podcast of this post here:

Or download it here: download (.mp3)

Dr SIMON ANGUS is a computational and complexity scientist and member of the Department of Economics, Monash University. With a background across the physical and social sciences, he has diverse interests including complex systems science, data-science, networks, systems biology, evolutionary game theory and the study of technology.