Liberal senators James McGrath, Dean Smith and Amanda Stoker openly challenged Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday over a proposed referendum on Indigenous recognition in the constitution by June next year, arguing it had not been agreed to by the party room.
Mr Wyatt, who remains committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution, has told his colleagues the government will hold a referendum should a consensus be reached and it have “the best chance of success”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who will present the report to Parliament, was forced to calm the concerns of the conservative rump, reassuring them no decisions had been made on the timing or the proposed model.
Mr Morrison is expected to tell Parliament on Wednesday that despite the best of intentions, investments in new programs and shared bipartisan “goodwill”, governments have failed to meet the ambitious aims set in 2008.
Mr Morrison’s first address last year came with a renewed focus on a “refresh”, calling for a shift to ensure grassroots communities drove the solutions to improve results on early childhood education, employment and suicide prevention and health.
“Until recently Closing the Gap was never a partnership with Indigenous people: we believed we knew better. We don’t,” he will say.
“We must see the gap from the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians before we can hope to close it, and make a real difference. That is the change we are now making together with Indigenous Australians through this process.”
However Mr Morrison warned the targets did not celebrate the strengths, achievements and aspirations of Indigenous people.
“They don’t tell you what’s happening on the ground, or stirring under it,” he will say. “They don’t tell you how realistic or achievable these targets were in the first place. They reinforce the language of failing and falling short and they mask the real progress that has been made.”
The report will reveal government is on track to meet its target of 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025, with 86.4 per cent now enrolled.
The report will also show vast improvements in literacy and numeracy targets, with the share of Indigenous students at or above national minimum standards narrowing across all year levels by between 3 and 11 percentage points.
However despite these improvements, in 2018 about one in four Indigenous students in Years 5, 7 and 9, and one in five in Year 3, remained below national minimum standards in reading.
“We’ve done it well for early children, we’ve done it well for secondary education … but in all the others we have failed. There was great expectation but that hasn’t translated into closure of the gap,” Mr Wyatt said.
“I am heartened by the gains … I do however, acknowledge that progress has been slow in other areas.”
Mr Morrison has tasked Mr Wyatt to develop a new Indigenous early childhood strategy to harness experts, families, frontline service providers and communities in a new way to achieve goals.
The aim to halve the gap in employment levels between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade has also fallen short, with Indigenous employment rates in 2018 at 49 per cent compared to 75 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians.
Over the decade, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians increased slightly (by 0.9 per cent), while for non-Indigenous Australians it fell by 0.4 per cent.
Major cities had the highest employment rate at 59 per cent compared to 35 per cent in remote areas.
Ambitions to close the life expectancy gap within a generation (by 2031) are not on track, with life expectancy at birth 71.6 years for Indigenous males (8.6 years less than non-Indigenous males) and 75.6 years for Indigenous females (7.8 years less than non-Indigenous females).
However since 2006, there was an improvement in Indigenous mortality rates from circulatory disease, however it coincided with an increase in cancer mortality rates.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra