Indigenous Australians are still dying 20 years younger

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Reports indicating that the life-expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is narrowing, are hopeful at best and do little to effect change, says Gerry Georgatos.

THE LIFE EXPECTANCY gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the population remains two decades wide.

Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reporting that the life expectancy gap has been reduced to 10.6 years, it is in fact still more than 20 years less that Indigenous peoples are living.

If we are to galvanise and entrench change for the present generation and for generations unborn then we have to tell the story as it is and not as how we would hope it.

In 2013, the ABS published revised estimates of life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The ABS estimated that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males born in 2010 to 2012 could expect to live to 69.1 years of age — 10.6 years less than the rest of the Australian male population. Females could expect to live to 73.7 years —9.5 years less. But we have learned that what we hope for does not necessarily eventuate; that adjustable indicators or targets are not always met. We have seen the majority of the Closing the Gap targets fail every year since inception.

So what do we know? The grim fact is that Indigenous Australians are still dying on average more than 20 years sooner than the rest of the population. 

These are the facts — the median age at death in 2014 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males born in NSW was 57.7 years. This is as high as it got. That is more than 20 years less than NSW’s non-Aboriginal males. It was worse in Western Australia, where the average age of life was 49.9 years for males and 60 for females. Respectively, 28 years and 24.5 years less than non-Indigenous males and females.

Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders died on average in 2014 at 57.4 for males, 62.4 for females. For South Australia, 56.5 for males and 60.5 for females and in the Northern Territory 53.4 for males and 57.5 for females. Overall, in 2014, the average age of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males was 55.4 and for females it was 61.5. Therefore, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are not living on average 10.6 years less, as the majority of Australians mistakenly believe but over 20 years less.

If we keep on selling a narrative of significant positive changes when indeed this is not the case, we risk making elevated risk groups invisible, we risk a presumption of positive change when in fact it is not happening. For years the Closing the Gap effort was being sold as closing, when in fact it was not closing. Much has been sold as occurring when in fact the opposite has been the case, such as the presumption of the annual $30 billion ‘Indigenous spend’.

Half of this $30 billion presumption includes the normal spend due to Australian citizens. Therefore if there is affirmative action spending, it is less than $15 billion. But even this is not true. A significant proportion outrageously includes the cost of incarceration and law and order. The majority of the rest of the claimed spending that could be argued as affirmative action spending, just does not happen. Of that which does leave Canberra, the majority does not reach the communities and is instead swallowed up by contractors and carpetbaggers.

Because of half-truths and the desperation for a good news tale, in either the misguided or diabolical notion that it may inspire hope and from that hope we extract a dividend of social change agency, instead, we are thwarted. We have to get the message to the Australian people that on average, Indigenous Australians, the First Peoples of this continent, are still living half-lives. Despite the significant increase in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population to 730,000 (three per cent of the total Australian population), an increase of 21 per cent over a five year period according to Census data, the life expectancy gap remains abominably wide.

More Australians are identifying proudly to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage — and this is skewing the data. The statistical narrative is catastrophic: one in 19 deaths a suicide, one in nine have been to jail, one in two impoverished. But it is even worse when we disaggregate to those who have always identified — to those who generation after generation, have lived marginalised.

For a decade, I have argued that disaggregation – for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trends and for migrant populations – is a must-do. Only last year, the United Nations tabled a report effectively describing the failure to disaggregate and then to highlight the disaggregation as a human rights violation.

Australia enjoys one of the world’s highest life expectancies. But are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders really only 10 years behind in the life expectancy stakes? More Australians are identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, taking rightful pride in their heritage, but these hundreds of thousands now identifying have not lived generationally marginalised. The collectivised median age masks regions of people who are living up to three decades less.

After years of disaggregating and of arguing that if we do not disaggregate and highlight we allow for masking, invisibility and discrimination, it is a relief to find that the United Nations High Commission is arguing likewise. The High Commission compiled a report tabled February 25, 2015. It argues 'leave no one behind'.

There has been a recurrent call for data disaggregation, as part of the disaggregated statistics will be key to support tailored and evidence-based policy formulation.”

It is clear that the greater level of disaggregation will pose a number of challenges to official statistics, and thus, discussion on this topic is timely and resonates with the discussion on the "Data Revolution".

The report criticised the data sources for the Millennium Development Goals as

'designed primarily to produce national averages and tend to mask disparities and exclude population groups that may be among the poorest of the poor or the most vulnerable and marginalised.'

The report argues that from a human rights perspective this should not be allowed and that without disaggregation there is discrimination.

Data must also enable us to reach the neediest, and find out whether they are receiving essential services. This means that data gathered will need to be disaggregated by gender, geography, income, disability, and other categories, to make sure that no group is being left behind.

No goal or target should be considered met until it is met for all groups that are affected, particularly the lowest quintiles of the national income distribution, ensuring that we leave no one behind.

No one should be invisible.

With the presumption of a 10 year life expectancy gap without guarantee, calculated as an estimate on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders born today, we neglect what needs to be done in the present for those whose lives should be improved to ensure they do not die decades sooner. When we collectivise data and highlight the overall median we fail people demographically — they become invisible. When we highlight the suicide rates on national and collectivised trends we make invisible regions where the people are suiciding at among the highest rates in the nation.

Some disaggregated statistics include:

  • One in 13 of Western Australia’s Indigenous adult males are in prison today
  • One in nine Aboriginal and Torres Straits people have been to jail
  • One in six Western Australian and Northern Territorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to jail
  • Of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 to 35 years, nearly one in three deaths is a suicide
  • The Kimberley region’s Aboriginal peoples have the highest suicide rate in the nation and one of the highest in the world
  • One in four of Australia’s homeless are Indigenous Australians

We must disaggregate and highlight information so as to put to an end to invisibility and discrimination and the narrative of victimhood. Victimisation does occur and where it is invisible, it has no chance of recovery, or of a way forward. It is fact that there is a narrative of victimhood because for many of us it is there to see, surrounding whole communities throughout this continent even if the majority of Australians do not see them.

There are many who are doing everything they can to make a difference but despite this, little changes. Australians are spared the reality because far too many are made invisible and various narrators and examiners mask the telling narrative with collectivised data, with aggregations instead of disaggregation and tell instead a different tale.

Some of those with power – and living true as oppressors – are prepared to sacrifice a couple of generations in the cruelty that assimilation will plateau and then even out the statistical narrative between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population. When poverty levels and jailing and suicide rates are among the highest in the world, then there is a narrative of victimhood.

It is a fact that Indigenous Australians are living more than two decades less than the rest of the population. It is not a fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders born today will live on average 10 years less, this is a target just like the Closing the Gap targets.

Gerry Georgatos is a researcher at the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights.

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