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Life gap figures not black and white

KEVIN Rudd's pledge to close the life expectancy gap between indigenous and other Australians within a generation could be simpler than he thought.

The much-cited 17-year difference in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is under a cloud and under review. New estimates put it closer to 11 or 12 years.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released a discussion paper on how indigenous life expectancy is determined, warning that the method used in 2005 to calculate a 17-year gap was experimental and "subject to a range of caveats".

"In spite of those caveats, the resulting estimates have been used extensively," says the discussion paper.

In 2005, the ABS report Deaths: Australia estimated life expectancy for indigenous men at 59.4 years and women at 64.8 years. Politicians and campaigners for indigenous health reform have relied on those figures.

In March, the Prime Minister told the Closing the Gap conference in Canberra: "There is no reason that the Australia of today, a successful developed nation with a modern and prosperous economy, should accept a 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians."

But the ABS discussion paper raises serious concerns about the methodology used to calculate indigenous life expectancy, which included "indirect demographic methods". Small changes in the underlying assumptions can lead to big changes in final figures, it says.

"The ABS is of the view that the indirect demographic methods are not suitable to the Australian situation and no longer recommends their use for the purpose of compiling indigenous life expectancy estimates," it says.

Under the bureau's preferred approach, it estimates indigenous life expectancy at 66.9 years for men and 72.6 years for women, though it stresses the method to arrive at these figures is still at the consultation stage.

With new ABS data, out yesterday, showing life expectancy of Australians to be 79 years for men and 83.7 years for women, the difference may be closer to 11 or 12 years.

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