A new Closing the Gap target will be added to improve the school attendance rate of indigenous children.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has proposed a new target to dramatically improve the school attendance of indigenous children within five years.
Mr Abbott delivered a mixed report card on Australia’s progress to overcome indigenous disadvantage in his first Closing the Gap statement to parliament on Wednesday.
“Our job is to break the tyranny of low expectations,” he said.
“We are a great country… but we will never be all that we should, until we do better in this.”
The latest report shows progress to improve literacy and numeracy skills of students and employment rates lagging behind targets set in 2009.
School attendance rates in remote communities often are lower than 70 per cent.
“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,” Mr Abbott said.
Last year, only 31 per cent of Year nine indigenous students in remote areas met national minimum standards compared with 81 per cent at metropolitan schools.
Mr Abbott said recruiting truancy officers for 40 communities already had resulted in attendance rates rising from 60 per cent to 90 per cent in some schools since the start of term one.
Future Closing the Gap reports will contain school attendance data.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told parliament Labor supported the new target.
The report also showed there had been little progress on closing the life expectancy gap – 10.6 years for men and 9.5 years for women – between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
But there was some good news, cutting child mortality and reaching Year 12 attainment targets are on track.
The government is waiting on new data to assess preschool enrolment and attendance levels.
In his statement, Mr Abbott recalled how Paul Keating’s landmark Redfern speech in 1992 had been a watershed moment for him.
Since then he’s been on a journey to make Aboriginal policy a personal mission.
“If that hardness of heart was ever really to melt, I thought that change had to include me,” he said, citing his stints as volunteer in Aboriginal communities.
Mr Abbott foreshadowed a seven-day visit to East Arnhem Land later this year.
Mr Shorten spoke of his recent visit to Nhulunbuy, 800 kilometres east of Darwin, where Rio Tinto is planning to close its Gove aluminium refinery.
The closure would mean widening the gaps in employment.
Mr Shorten called for new targets to reduce high incarceration rates of Aboriginal people and improve access to disability services.
He warned against a “one-size-fits-all” approach and called for programs aimed at empowering communities.
“We must always remind ourselves that there can be a fine line between good intentions and we-know-better paternalism,” Mr Shorten said.
Both leaders reiterated their support for constitutional recognition of indigenous people.
After former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the stolen generations, federal, state and territory governments agreed on six ambitious targets to tackle indigenous disadvantage.