The current social and economic circumstances faced by a majority of Kimberley Traditional Owners are in many cases akin to third world conditions. Unless this situation is addressed, Indigenous people won’t be in a position to take advantage of opportunities arising from future economic growth in the region.
The average employment rate for indigenous people in the West Kimberley in the period 1981 to 2001 fell from 39% to 19%. While this drop in employment is in large part due to the exclusion of CDEP employment programs from the 2001 data, it demonstrates the low employment rate of Indigenous people in real terms. This is confirmed by the fact that approximately 40% of the Indigenous workforce is employed under CDEP programs .
Most Indigenous school children in the Kimberley do not meet national benchmark standards in education. School retention rates from year 10 to year 12 for Indigenous students in the West Kimberley are approximately 20% – 30% lower than for non-Indigenous students . Only ten percent of Indigenous people in the West Kimberley hold postsecondary qualifications. Where such qualifications are held, they are more likely to be at the certificate rather than degree or diploma level. Low education levels greatly reduce the ability of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley to access skilled and professional level employment opportunities.
The majority (76%) of the Indigenous population resides in rental accommodation, compared to 44% of the nonindigenous population . Indigenous households also have a much higher occupancy rate than non- Indigenous households. The average occupancy rate in Indigenous households in the northern east region in 2001 was 5 persons per household, and as high as 13.1 persons per household in Kalumburu. This may be compared to an occupancy rate in nonindigenous households of 2.2. As well as being significantly affected by overcrowding, Indigenous housing is also more likely to be of a poor standard. A survey of one community in 1997 revealed that 30% of dwellings had no effective toilet system, toilet bowl, kitchen sink, bath, shower or laundry trough.
An increasing gulf exists between health standards for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, particularly in relation to infectious and lifestyle diseases . ‘Lifestyle’ diseases and violence associated with chronic poverty have seen mortality and morbidity rates for Indigenous people remain unacceptably high and at odds with the non-Indigenous population. This contributes to a life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of up to 30 years . There is also a significant life expectancy gap between Indigenous people in the Kimberley and the Indigenous population across Western Australia. This means that region specific action is crucial.