House debates

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Indigenous Affairs

3:51 pm

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health) Share this | Hansard source

Once a year in this place we gather to hear from the Prime Minister of the day about the progress or, more often, the lack of progress in meeting the targets set to close the gap of Indigenous disadvantage in our country. I think all of us, collectively and individually, genuinely lament, express our disappointment and reflect. And then, all too quickly, we move on. We move on to the issues of the day and criticise each other. We move on to the story of the hour. It's far too little. The plight of our First Australians is not the first-order issue in our Australian political debate. What is happening for those in the centre of our country is not at the centre of our political debate, and we must collectively do better.

We've set those targets to close the gap and, in too many instances, we are not meeting them. In some instances it's getting worse, particularly in relation to health. We have set the target of closing the gap for Indigenous life expectancy by 2030, but we are not making it. What small gains are being made in Indigenous life expectancy are being outpaced by gains for non-Indigenous Australians, and in some instances, particularly in relation to Indigenous females, we're going backwards. There was a 32 per cent increase in the Indigenous suicide rate between 1998 and 2015. Australians of Indigenous heritage are four times more likely to have diabetes or pre-diabetes and twice as likely to die from respiratory disease. Cancer rates have increased by 21 per cent, whereas cancer rates for those of non-Indigenous background have been decreasing.

As we speak, there is an HTLV-1 crisis, particularly in the centre of Australia. This week there's been news that we have had the best HIV-AIDS figures in 18 years. But even as we've made progress a disease which is a cousin of HIV-AIDS, HTLV-1, is at epidemic proportions, affecting almost half of some remote communities. We are making no progress. In fact, as a country—this is not a partisan remark—we are, frankly, not even trying. We have a huge task ahead of us. In real terms, health expenditure on Indigenous Australians—excluding that on hospitals—is falling when it should be increasing. Again, I say this not as a partisan remark but as a reminder to the country that we have a huge task ahead of us.

The issues are complicated; nobody would suggest that they're not. We can't simply increase health funding and fix the problem—not unless we fix housing, fix education and fix the spirit of no hope in many communities. I've read reports which show that communities of the First Peoples of Canada that have empowerment and have hope for the future have much lower suicide rates than other communities. I'm sure the lessons are the same here in Australia.

These are complicated issues which we all must focus on and think more about. Last week I was with the member for Lingiari, not only in Alice Springs but in Kintore on the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, 500 kilometres west of Alice Springs—as we've previously been to Docker River and Papunya. These circumstances should not exist in Australia in 2019! We cannot let this stand, that people are living in our communities, in our nation in 2019, in these circumstances.

When we go to see people on dialysis in Alice Springs and in Kintore and in Docker River, these are our brothers and sisters in Australia in 2019. These are not statistics. As worrying and concerning and as deeply disturbing as these statistics are, these are human beings and our fellow Australians in Australia in 2019. This cannot stand.

It is NAIDOC Week coming up. Our friend the member for Barton has reminded us of the themes of NAIDOC Week. I say that it is incumbent on all of us to be a voice for Indigenous Australians in this House—those who are Indigenous and those who are non-Indigenous. But we should also have a voice directly to us from our First Peoples. We should get this done. This is not a third chamber of parliament; it is only right and just that our First Nations have a voice to us to express their views about what is happening in their communities, and this must be done. And until that is done I fear that we'll continue to lament once a year, we'll continue to express disappointment, we'll continue to reflect and we'll continue to tut-tut and say, 'We must do better.' And then, by the afternoon we'll have moved on.

That Indigenous voice to us to remind us of our responsibilities and of our obligations, of our moral responsibilities as a parliament, is necessary. I commend the member for Barton for this matter of public importance.

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