House debates

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ministerial Statements

Indigenous Affairs

11:59 am

Photo of Kevin RuddKevin Rudd (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I acknowledge the First Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as one of the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

Two years ago I made a formal apology in this parliament to the Indigenous peoples of Australia, and particularly to the stolen generations, on behalf of the government, the parliament and the people of Australia. On that day in 2008, I also pledged to lead a new, national effort to close the gap in life expectancy and life opportunities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. On that day, we achieved for the first time a bipartisan commitment to closing the gap:

  • together, we acknowledged the failure of successive governments to deliver to many Indigenous communities across Australia;
  • together, we demonstrated that closing the gap is a national priority that should be above partisan politics, and
  • together, we recognised that closing the gap would take not a parliamentary term, but a generation.

When we came to government the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy at birth was estimated at 17 years. Indigenous children in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory were 3.6 times more likely to die before they reached the age of five than non-Indigenous children. Almost one in 10 dwellings in remote and very remote Indigenous communities were in need of major repair or replacement.

In 2006, only 47.4 per cent of Indigenous young people had attained year 12 or equivalent. And the employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians aged 15 to 64 stood at around 21 percentage points in 2008. In other areas, such as literacy and numeracy, comparable national data did not exist, though a large gap in achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students was evident.

These failures present us with a substantial challenge. But in facing this challenge, I believe there has never before been the commitment across our country at large to change that we have today. We have seen a growing movement to take responsibility for change—among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. If we are to make a break from the failures of the past, we must all play our part. Governments, first, must take responsibility for addressing their past failures in Indigenous affairs.

  • Second, Indigenous Australians must take greater responsibility for change—change begins in the lives of individuals and families, spreading across local communities.
  • Third, Australians across all walks of life must take responsibility for resetting relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Second Closing the Gap Statement

Today I table my second annual statement on closing the gap. Since the parliament made the apology two years ago, the Australian government has reached, for the first time, a national agreement with all state and territory governments on closing the gap. For the first time, rather than pulling in different directions, we are pulling in the same direction. For the first time, there is a national investment of $4.6 billion. And for the first time, we are setting common goals to transform the health, education and employment outcomes of Indigenous Australians.

For the first time, governments agreed to six clear targets, which work together to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians over the generation. We set these targets knowing that they were ambitious. We know that meeting them will not be easy. Generations of Indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight. We know it will need unprecedented effort by all parts of the Australian community. But there is no greater social challenge facing Australia than closing this yawning gap. And today I can report to the House that, on the ground, we are seeing the beginnings of change.

The report I table today outlines a slow path to change. It demonstrates the challenges of accurate data—to track our progress to closing the gap and thereby meet our targets. But it also demonstrates that, while progress is slow, there is action in communities right across Australia: action by governments, action by Indigenous communities and action by the wider Australian community.

Progress against the Closing the Gap targets

I will now address each of the six targets we set in 2008. The government’s first target is to halve the mortality gap between Indigenous children and other children under five years of age by 2018. In 2008, the gap in child mortality meant that 205 out of any 100,000 Indigenous children died before the age of five, compared to 100 non-Indigenous children—a difference of more than 100. Indigenous children are twice as likely to die before the age of five than non-Indigenous kids. This is a shameful statistic. For all parents, it is shocking and confronting.

While 2009 data to measure progress against this target is not yet available, other data sources can provide some measure of change. We know that the gap in infant mortality rates in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory has been on the decline over the past decade. This decline has been particularly evident over recent years and now stands at 5.3 percentage points. We must continue to act to see this decline accelerated and our target reached by 2018. Towards that goal, we have already rolled out 40 new services for mothers and babies.

Under the $90.3 million Mothers and Babies Services program, a total of 11,000 mothers and babies will be supported over five years, with services including improved antenatal and postnatal care, advice on nutrition and health checks. And today I can announce that nine new services will be funded, including at:

  • the Laynhapuy Homelands Association and the Pintubi Homelands Health Service in the Northern Territory;
  • at the Tullawon Health Service in South Australia;
  • at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre;
  • at the Wirraka Maya Health Service in Western Australia; and
  • at Mookai Rosie Bi-Bayan in Queensland.
  • In addition to these services,
  • The Australian government is supporting pregnant women to improve their own health through establishing five sites under the $37.4 million Australian Nurse-Family Partnership Program.
  • We have provided a total of 390 ear, nose and throat specialist services and a total of 1,990 dental services to 1,429 children who live in the Northern Territory Emergency Response communities in the six months from July to December last year alone.
  • And the Red Cross is working with Outback Stores to bring more fresh fruit to Indigenous kids in the Territory through breakfast clubs in remote areas, in 33 communities and 13 homeland centres.

Our second target is to provide access to early childhood education for all four-year olds in remote Indigenous communities within five years. Getting the best start in life begins early. Early childhood education is essential to getting the right start in learning and preparing for school. But the best available data shows only around 60 per cent of Indigenous children are enrolled in an early childhood education program in the year before school, compared to around 70 per cent of all children.

The good news is that the trend is in the right direction—more Indigenous children are being enrolled. And we are seeing the fastest preschool enrolment growth in remote communities, increasing by 31 per cent between 2005 and 2008. We are expanding early learning opportunities for Indigenous children through the establishment of 36 children and family centres bringing together important services including child care, early learning and parent and family support programs. Twenty-one of these 36 centres will be located in regional and remote areas, including in Kununurra in Western Australia; Mornington Island in Queensland; and Walgett in New South Wales. Another will be located in Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, where the Yuendumu Early Childhood Centre is already held up as a model of successful early childhood education.

Every day between 40 and 60 children, along with their parents and extended family, go along to that centre to paint, read books, ride bikes and play. The children have breakfast and lunch there, the community nurse visits and they go on excursions to the pool and into the bush. The 14 local Aboriginal child care workers who look after them say the children are healthy and happy. And with more children benefiting from early childhood education, the flow-on effect will help us meet our third and fourth targets.

These targets are as follows: to halve the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and other students within a decade; and to halve the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous students in rates of year 12 attainment or an equivalent attainment by 2020. These two targets are critical to closing the gap, because it is education, above all, that will improve the life chances and unlock the potential for Indigenous Australians.

The evidence here is unambiguous. Finishing year 12 transforms students future opportunities. It builds pathways to more secure, better paid and more fulfilling jobs. The learning basics—literacy and numeracy—are fundamental to all children. And they are critical to healthier, happier and longer lives. The evidence shows the gap in meeting literacy and numeracy standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is large. These gaps are evident from as early as year 3—with the largest gap in 2008 being 29.4 percentage points for year 5 reading. Literacy and numeracy scores vary across grades; in 2009 there was an improvement in the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students reading for years 3, 5 and 7. For year 9 students, the gap slightly increased.

The government is taking action to expand opportunities for Indigenous children at school. Around 78,000 Indigenous students—almost half of all Indigenous primary and secondary school students—will benefit from the government’s $1.5 billion investment in 1,500 low socioeconomic schools, as well as substantial investments in literacy and numeracy. And we are seeing great results from the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program of Dr Chris Sarra whose ‘clear expectations, high expectations’ philosophy for educating Indigenous children is delivering remarkable results among the 44 schools signed up to it.

The government provided Stronger Smarter Learning Communities in September 2009 to support an initial 12 ‘hub’ schools in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. We expect this to grow to 60 hub schools over the next four years, supporting between 180 and 240 affiliated schools. One primary school that has already signed up is the East Kalgoorlie Primary School in Western Australia. Faced with what she described as significant challenges, Principal Donna Bridge used her experience of the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program to enlist the support of parents and the community to bring about change. Five years later, attitudes have changed, school attendance is up and there have been significant improvements in literacy and numeracy. But there is a long way to go.

In Cape York in Far North Queensland, school attendance is also up, driven by the Cape York Welfare Reforms—created by Indigenous leader Noel Pearson and supported by the Commonwealth and state governments. Under the reforms welfare payments are linked to parents taking responsibility to care for their kids and make sure they go to school. In Aurukun, one community in the trial, school attendance rose from 44 to 66 per cent last year while in Coen it was 93 per cent—two points higher than the state average. This is a good achievement.

The number of Indigenous students achieving a year 12 or equivalent attainment is improving only over the long term. In 2006, only 47.4 per cent of Indigenous 20- to 24-year-olds had attained a year 12 or equivalent qualification, almost half as many as non-Indigenous young people. Indigenous school retention rates from the start of high school to year 12 have risen from 30.7 per cent in 1995 to 46.5 per cent in 2008, a 6.4 percentage point increase. With concerted government effort and the contribution of organisations like the Clontarf Foundation we are working to close the gap.

Clontarf’s school based sport academies are tackling poor attendance and outcomes among Indigenous students through sport and recreation—with some great results, including school attendance rates of more than 80 per cent and improved academic performance. By the end of February, 2,300 students in 36 schools across three states will be signed up. Clontarf is one of the academies funded through the Australian government’s Sporting Chance Program, to support Indigenous students engagement with school. Overall, the programs have achieved an average attendance rate of 79 per cent—six percentage points above the average rate for all Indigenous students in the schools.

So I am pleased to announce today that in 2010 an additional 17 sports academies will commence operation across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Victoria. This will support about 1,000 students, and will bring the total number of students within this program to some 10,000 students. Ten of these new academies will be for girls. The new academies will be established in Broome, Fitzroy Crossing, Bunbury and North Albany, in Western Australia; West Arnhem, Palmerston, Katherine and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory; Mooroopna, Bendigo and Ballarat in Victoria; and Townsville in Queensland. As well, the Clontarf Foundation will operate seven new football academies in Jabiru and Gunbalanya in the Northern Territory; and in Bairnsdale, Warrnambool, Swan Hill, Robinvale and Mildura in Victoria.

Our fifth target is to halve within a decade the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians. On this goal, there is a positive trend. Between 2002 and 2008, the Indigenous employment rate rose from 48 per cent to 53.8 per cent. This is still well below the non-Indigenous employment rate so that in 2008, the most recent available data indicates there was a 21 percentage point gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment.

Over the past year, we have replaced Community Development Employment Project jobs with more than 1,500 jobs delivering government services to Indigenous communities. These, for the first time, are now sustainable, proper jobs. The best way to accelerate growth in indigenous employment is to give people the skills both to get a job and to keep a job. Seven schools in the 29 remote communities targeted under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery already have trades training centres under our $2.5 billion national investment in trade training centres to give school students early opportunities to develop skills for a profession in the trades, and to help them complete year 12 or an equivalent qualification.

But others can still benefit. In communities like Hermannsburg, dedicated teachers have lifted school attendance to better than 90 per cent in junior school. To be successful, these young people need to be actively engaged beyond their primary school years. The government is acting today to improve access to first-rate education facilities for students in remote Indigenous communities. I announce today that intensive support and assistance will be delivered to schools from the 29 remote service delivery priority locations that have not already had funding from the trades training centres program. Schools in remote communities with large Indigenous student populations will also be provided with extra flexibility to deliver training targeted at the needs and education levels in these communities, including pre-vocational and certificate I and certificate II qualifications.

We are also working with the private sector to create real business and employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians, and I thank the private sector for their engagement. The government is also investing $3 million to support the new Australian Indigenous Minority Supplier Council, which helps certified Indigenous businesses to win new contracts in the private and government sectors. After only five months, the council has signed up 31 major corporations as backers.

Already, it has helped secure $3.3 million worth of contracts for 15 Indigenous businesses. To encourage businesses across Australia to take action to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage, we have appointed a government ambassador for business action. This position has been filled by Colin Carter, a highly regarded Australian businessman, who was a founding partner of Boston Consulting Group in Australia, and who has more recently served as the Director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. Mr Carter will work with Australian businesses to promote the employment of Indigenous people, and to encourage business people to share their skills with Indigenous communities to help set up and grow their own businesses. These efforts are in addition to the work of the Australian Employment Covenant, through which some 16,000 Indigenous jobs have been committed over the coming years from Australian business.

All these efforts culminate in our sixth and final target—to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. As of today we are informed that the life expectancy gap is 11.5 years for men and 9.7 for women. An Indigenous male born today is likely to die at just 67 years of age, and an Indigenous female at 73 years of age. This is less than the 17-year gap that we thought existed a year ago. This is good news—but it is the result of having more reliable data, rather than the result of any real improvement on the ground. That is the truth of it. In the past, we have not had reliable information on Indigenous life expectancy. So we have not reliably known the size of the gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations of Australia.

There is evidence to suggest that some progress may have been made. But the progress is clearly too slow. Closing the life expectancy gap is a cumulative target, relying on our success in meeting each of the other targets for achievement. Obviously, the health of Indigenous people is a major factor. Tobacco, obesity and physical inactivity are the leading risk factors, accounting for more than 45 per cent of the total health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Since 2007-08, Indigenous-specific health spending has increased by 57 per cent. This includes nearly $1.6 billion over four years to fight treatable chronic diseases that account for two-thirds of premature Indigenous deaths. And it includes the $14.5 million Indigenous Tobacco Control Initiative, a package of 20 innovative antismoking projects in urban, regional and remote Indigenous communities.

Australian government leadership

I spoke earlier about the legacy of decades of government failure still endured by Indigenous Australians—governments of both political persuasions. This makes it all the more urgent to be vigilant about what is working and what is not working. That is why, when evidence emerged of unacceptable delays in our major Indigenous housing program in the Northern Territory last year, the government took action to get the program on track. That action is delivering results. As a result, we remain on target to build 750 new houses, and rebuild or refurbish another 2½ thousand in remote Indigenous communities by 2013—through the Australian government working together with the government of the Northern Territory.

It is in that spirit that we have instructed the COAG Reform Council to produce an annual assessment of the performance of governments—plural—against the closing of the gap targets. We have also appointed a Coordinator General for Remote Indigenous Services to oversee the rollout of local plans in 29 remote communities and to cut through the red tape that slows delivery on the ground. In the coordinator general’s first six-monthly report, released in December last year, he identified that ‘business-as-usual’ approaches were still too widespread. He noted that fragmentation and siloing may act as a barrier to achieve improvements in service delivery necessary to close the gap.

And, to that end, I can announce today a new flexible funding pool to free up funds for remote service delivery and ensure that red tape does not get in the way of progress within these communities. Local initiative is fundamentally important to making these initiatives work. This funding pool will target high priority projects in the 29 Indigenous communities that are the initial priority of the national partnership agreement. The $46 million for this funding pool over the next three years will allow the government to respond flexibly and quickly to the Indigenous community’s needs and to act on local implementation plans.

We are not just making unprecedented investments in Indigenous communities; we are also seeking to do things differently. For example, central to our $5.5 billion investment in remote Indigenous housing is our target of 20 per cent Indigenous employment. In the Northern Territory, Indigenous employment is currently running at 35 per cent, providing jobs for more than 100 Aboriginal people across the Territory. One of them is 24-year-old Tiwi Islander Harry Munkara who is building houses in the community of Nguiu. Harry is a carpenter and, with overtime, he is earning around $800 a week. I am informed Harry told the Australian newspaper this week that for the first time he was managing to save money to put aside for his toddler son. That is good news. And, Harry says, he wants to be a role model for his people. That is also good news.

After some early difficulties in the housing construction program, houses are now beginning to roll out. Over 50 new houses are now under construction in the Northern Territory, with the keys to the first two houses handed over to tenants this week. Refurbishments are being made to around 80 homes that were in very poor repair. And more than 70 have already been completed and handed back to the Northern Territory government for allocation to Indigenous families. In total, under the Remote Indigenous Housing National Partnership, work has commenced on over 150 new houses across the country. Fifteen of these have been completed. Around half of the 240 refurbishments that have started on existing homes in poor condition have also been completed.

To ensure that our investments in remote communities bear fruit on the ground, we are seeking a fundamental change in the way housing is delivered. We are insisting that the states and the Northern Territory obtain secure tenure for housing so that the government has security over the land. In the past, the communal nature of Aboriginal land made it unclear who was responsible for maintaining houses and other structures built on that land. But we have matched an unprecedented investment with tenancy reform to ensure the residents pay rent and care for their homes—that is our objective.

Indigenous people in public housing, like other public housing tenants across the country, will have standard tenancy arrangements in place and the state and territory governments will be responsible for maintaining those houses. We are acquiring security over land so that housing and essential services can be built for the long term, so private companies can feel comfortable about investing and so that homeownership can become possible. Many Indigenous communities—including 14 in the Northern Territory—have shown a willingness to sign long-term new leases and obtain significant new investments.

With secure tenure obtained over all 18 Alice Springs town camps, we have put our $150 million Alice Springs Transformation Plan into action. We are cleaning up the camps, controlling the number of dogs and introducing new alcohol counselling services, and this month we start building new houses. This is slow, hard and difficult work. The 60 to 100 residents of one town camp—Ilpeye Ilpeye—have made clear their aspirations to own their own homes. So the Australian government has changed the tenure of this land from community lease to freehold title. This means the land can be subdivided into individual housing blocks. Over time, that means members of this community can own their own homes. This is a good thing. Communities with strong social norms give families the incentives to take responsibility for their lives and build a better future for themselves.

No family can function in overcrowded, derelict houses in which stoves and taps do not work, children cannot get a good night’s sleep, and adults cannot be rested and ready for work. Many Indigenous Australians aspire to homeownership, as other Australians do. To illustrate that, I note the remarks of Alice Springs traditional owner Darryl Pearce reported in the media last month. Mr Pearce said his people wanted the same rights to landownership and economic development opportunities as other Australians. In his words:

“We want respect and that’s what the government has given us.”

Indigenous Australians taking responsibility

The Australian government wants to help Indigenous people build healthy families and thriving communities. That is why we have invested $1.2 billion in the Northern Territory Emergency Response measures since we were elected, because we are there for the long haul. Since coming to government, the number of people supported by income management has increased from around 1,400 to over 16,000. We have now moved to put the Northern Territory Emergency Response on a long-term, sustainable footing. We have introduced legislation to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act, which the previous government had suspended in order to ensure the Northern Territory Emergency Response was immune from legal challenge. And we have taken the decision to apply income management to all welfare recipients in specified categories across the Northern Territory from July.

The number of people on income management in the Northern Territory is estimated to rise to around 20,000. This is the first step in an extension of the scheme—once it has been carefully evaluated—to disadvantaged locations across Australia. The government’s welfare reforms seek to help all disadvantaged Australians—not just those who are Indigenous—to take on more individual responsibility and to move beyond welfare dependence. In delivering these reforms, we are acting in the interests of the most vulnerable people—the elderly, women and children.

Governments are responsible for helping communities to develop the structures and leaders they need to restore social norms, recognising that change, particularly change of this nature, takes time. However, individuals also have responsibilities—to provide safe and secure homes for their children; to go to school or to make sure their children go to school; to pay rent; to look for work; to avoid self-destructive behaviour and to give the people in their care every opportunity to thrive. These are the foundations on which strong communities are built, and on which people can make the most of their natural abilities.

Today I am asking Indigenous leaders—in families and in communities right across Australia—to step up and take responsibility for restoring strong social norms in their own communities. Many are doing this right now. Just look at the Kimberley town of Fitzroy Crossing, where women such as June Oscar and Emily Carter led a community campaign for alcohol restrictions. Two years after they won their battle, the incidence of domestic violence and alcohol related injuries is down, baby birth weights are up and police say the town is a much calmer place. Now the community is working with police, business and the three tiers of government on a plan to improve services and close the gap in Fitzroy Crossing. Again, this is slow and hard work but I commend the local people for the initiatives that they have taken.

In the nearby town of Halls Creek, the community’s successful push for alcohol restrictions last year has brought a sharp drop in the incidence of arrests and domestic violence. In Queensland, at Mornington Island and Aurukun, as alcohol restrictions have come in, violent crime has gone down. There are many other Indigenous people around Australia who do not make the headlines but are quietly making a difference in their communities—and making fundamental changes in those own communities.

Australians working together

All Australians can play a part in building this better future for Indigenous Australians. And Australians from all across our nation are taking action. Across the country, banks, football clubs, mining companies, local councils, hospitals, schools and even the Perth Zoo are hiring Indigenous workers and contracting with Indigenous businesses supporting Indigenous communities. Ten years ago Rio Tinto had 130 Indigenous employees; today they have 1,400. I commend Rio for their work. BHP Billiton has 10 contracts with Indigenous businesses worth $350 million through one of its subsidiaries, WA Iron Ore. It employs 255 Aboriginal workers directly and another 465 indirectly through its contractors. I commend BHP for their work in Indigenous employment.

The ANZ Bank had taken on 420 Indigenous employees by the end of last year, and is committed to filling 10 per cent of entry-level positions with Aboriginal people by 2011. I commend the ANZ Bank for their work. Since 2006, 165 organisations have completed Reconciliation Action Plans through Reconciliation Australia, with 168 more to be launched this year. By the end of this year 15 per cent of the Australian workforce—including employees at Australia’s 11 largest companies—will work for an organisation that has a Reconciliation Action Plan.

Through these practical efforts to promote reconciliation, organisations have created 6,500 positions for Indigenous people, and filled 3,000 of them. This is the private sector at work, and I commend these private sector leaders for making this happen. They have awarded $750 million in contracts to Indigenous businesses. Sometimes they do it because it brings business benefits and because it creates a sustainable investment—for the companies and the Indigenous employees they hire. But these organisations are also taking action because they share a vision of a fairer Australia. All Australians, I believe—and the government believes—want to close the gap.


Ninety-one per cent of non-Indigenous Australians and 100 per cent of Indigenous Australians surveyed by Reconciliation Australia said that the relationship between the two peoples was important to this country. Ten years ago this May, a quarter of a million Australians walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge—and 750,000 people walked around the country—in support of reconciliation. Ten years on, there remains a very long journey ahead of us to lift Indigenous outcomes in health, housing, schools and jobs. But, as a government and as a people, we can now see a path ahead. And we are determined to move forward along that path. Not like the past, where it was non-Indigenous Australians seeking to lead Indigenous Australians, but instead walking together, working together, First Australians alongside all Australians, building a stronger and fairer Australian nation. I present a copy of the 2010 Closing the gap Prime Minister’s report.

12:31 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That so much of standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Leader of the Opposition speaking for a period not exceeding 32 minutes.

Question agreed to.

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to make a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, although I should indicate to the House that I suspect it may not last for 32 minutes. First of all, let me congratulate the Prime Minister for the historic apology he made in this House two years ago. It was a gracious apology and it was overdue. I also congratulate one of my predecessors, the former member for Bradfield, for his response to the Prime Minister’s apology in which he acknowledged the good as well as the bad that had been done in the past and in which he acknowledged the bad as well as the good which is happening now. That was a necessary antidote to any sense of triumphalism that this generation might have, any sense that we are in some way better than our predecessors in this area. I also thank and acknowledge my predecessor, the member for Wentworth, for his gracious response to the Prime Minister’s statement on this subject 12 months ago. Finally, I thank the Prime Minister for his statement today, which I think is further evidence of the government’s abundant good intentions in this area.

My problem with the Prime Minister’s statement is that good intentions are not enough. What we heard today was much evidence of additional process, much evidence of new programs and expanded programs, but not very much evidence of changed outcomes for Indigenous people. I regret to say that there was little evidence in the Prime Minister’s statement of an appreciation of what is at the heart of the Indigenous problem in this country, the problem of the vast gap that we are all so eager to close. That problem is that in moving as we needed to do from assimilation to self-determination—and I stress that that move was much needed—we replaced employment for so many Aboriginal people, admittedly employment usually in menial work, with life on welfare. That is at the heart of the difficulty that this parliament is grappling with today.

I was disappointed that the Prime Minister did not refer at all to the heroic, pioneering and inspirational work of Noel Pearson in this matter.

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

He did, actually.

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

He mentioned some of what is happening in Cape York but without sufficient acknowledgement of the work of Noel Pearson. What Noel Pearson has done is draw attention to the fact that welfare is a poison which is killing his people. What Noel Pearson has done is stress the right of Aboriginal people to take responsibility for their lives, because without that grasping of responsibility there will be no lasting improvement to the situation of Aboriginal people in this country.

There was too much about government in the Prime Minister’s statement and not enough about the individuals and communities who must also be active if people’s lives are to be changed. There was a bewildering array of programs, a massive litany of spending, but as we listened to the Prime Minister’s statement no-one with familiarity with this area could help but observe that it is very easy to spend money in this area but much, much harder to make a difference. Of course, like everyone in this chamber listening to the Prime Minister’s statement, I welcome the improvements in infant mortality, I welcome what seemed to be improvements in life expectancy, I am pleased about the improved retention rates in schools and I obviously take great satisfaction in the improved employment outcomes for Aboriginal people. But I also note that the only hard indicators that could be provided to us by the Prime Minister referred mostly to periods of former governments. I suppose it would have been too much to expect any word of acknowledgement in this House for the good work done by other prime ministers and other governments, but I think it is important for me to acknowledge in this House the good work of other prime ministers and other governments in this matter.

Prime Minister John Howard was no less committed to the welfare of Indigenous people than the current Prime Minister. Former Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough was no less committed to the welfare of Indigenous people than Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin. I pay tribute to them for their good work as I acknowledge the good intentions and the beginnings of some good work by members opposite. But, if there was one note in the Prime Minister’s statement which I found unsettling and which I suspect other members found unsettling, it was a note of self-congratulation—the suggestion that it is only now that real progress is being made, that it is only now that real cooperation is taking place, that it is only now that true understanding has dawned on the Australian people because of the work of the current government. Each generation tends to know a little more than its predecessor, but I think in this matter above all it is incumbent on us to remember that we are but pygmies and if we see far it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. There were giants in this land long before this generation and their work should be acknowledged. This generation is different from its predecessors, not necessarily better, and our descendants will look at us and they will think that we have made mistakes just as we now look at our forebears and think that they made mistakes.

I now turn to some of the specific programs that were mentioned by the Prime Minister in his statement—first, the Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program in the Northern Territory. I am pleased that the Prime Minister was able to tell us that two houses have now been readied for occupancy, that two families now have the keys to new houses as a result of this program. But I think it would be wrong of me not to remind this House that progress has been very slow and that there has been much process but little performance so far in this program. As members would probably recall, more than $45 million had been spent in this program without a single house being completed. I do acknowledge the work of the minister, who sent extra bureaucrats from Canberra to the Northern Territory to try to improve things—and I trust that things have improved, because she told this House a few months ago that if things did not improve the program would be wholly taken over by the Commonwealth. We will be continuing to monitor this program to try to ensure that the new timetables which appear to have been set really are kept. It is important that Indigenous people are not let down by governments which are more talk than they are action, and this is a program which has not started well. If it has, as the Prime Minister suggested today, improved, that is good, but we will certainly be carefully noting further developments in this area.

I also note the comments of the Prime Minister about changes to the welfare quarantining regime in the Northern Territory. One of the greatest achievements of the former government was having the guts to make the emergency intervention in the Northern Territory. It was a very difficult thing to do, because it overturned a generation of thinking and practice in this area. Again, I should note the support which members opposite provided to the emergency intervention when it was announced in the middle of 2007; I thank them. But I must also note that, while the government has maintained the terminology of the intervention and to some extent the programs of the intervention, I fear it has removed it is heart.

I know what the government is trying to do with its changes to the welfare quarantining regime and I respect its desire to ensure that there is not one rule for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and another rule for other Australians in the Northern Territory. I respect that, but I think it would be better off extending the current welfare quarantining regime in the 73 emergency conventions more widely than it would be extending a watered down version of those quarantine rules more widely—because, let there be no doubt about it, that is what is happening. Welfare quarantining in the 73 intervention communities is being watered down. Instead of applying to all government benefits, it will only apply to those people on unemployment benefits who have been on that benefit for 13 weeks in the case of people under 25 and for a year in the case of people over 25. I support the extension of welfare quarantining and I note that it was made possible by the legislative changes of the former government, but I think that it is important that we take steps forward and do not accompany one step forwards with what might be an even bigger step backwards in the case of the 17,000 people currently under welfare quarantining in the remote communities of the Northern Territory.

I note the Prime Minister’s statement as to numbers. He said in this parliament today that currently there are over 16,000 subject to quarantine and, as a result of the changes, the number will go up to 20,000. I hope he is right. I think this number is significant and it should be subject to further probing, because it is important that the welfare-quarantining rules begun by the former government are extended by the current government, not watered down.

I also would be keen to know, in the appropriate context, just what consultation the government has had with the women, in particular, of the 73 emergency communities of the Northern Territory, given that it is the women of Hermannsburg and the women of Yuendumu who have been so passionately in favour of the welfare quarantining, which has put food on their families’ tables and which has been so significant in reducing the amount of money that has been gambled or spent on alcohol in these communities.

Like the Prime Minister, I want to see a deeper engagement by all Australians in the lives of Indigenous people; I want to see a deeper engagement by government in improving the lives of Indigenous people. I was disappointed that I did not hear anything in the Prime Minister’s statement today acknowledging one of the fundamental problems of governance in remote Indigenous Australia, and that is the lack of long-term involvement by the same officials, whose decisions are so important, in the communities that are affected by their decisions.

On one of my early trips to Cape York, I was asked by one of my interlocutors whether I was just another ‘seagull’. This is the term that the Indigenous people have for government officials—white guys who fly in, scratch around and then fly out. Not for a second would I deprecate the work that officials are trying to do. Not for a second would I undervalue the goodwill and sincerity that they are bringing to the task. But the truth is it is very difficult to make a difference to communities that you do not have a long-term involvement with. That is one of the big changes that needs to take place if we really are going to make a difference to the remote Indigenous communities of outback Australia. We have to have senior people who are sufficiently committed to the task to spend not weeks, not months but years living amongst the people who are so affected by the decisions that they make.

I was also a little disappointed in the Prime Minister’s statement in that he did not seem to appreciate the importance of Aboriginal people having, in Noel Pearson’s words, ‘skin in the game’. Of course we all want to see better housing for Aboriginal people, particularly in remote areas where housing standards are so poor. But why can’t we have more Aboriginal people involved in building the houses rather than just living in the houses? I know every new contract to build houses is accompanied by official statements about the role of Aboriginal people in their construction and about the importance of training Aboriginal people in the actual carrying out of the program, but all too often these are just words; there is very little, if any, involvement of Aboriginal people in the construction of their homes.

One of the current projects of Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute is to try to ensure that in at least some communities in Cape York the houses are not just built by QBuild, the Queensland government contracting arm, but they are built by Aboriginal people. I very much hope that, on my annual trip to Cape York later in the year, I will be able to assist in that process and be with some Aboriginal people in the construction of their own homes.

It was good to hear the Prime Minister talking about the progress that has been made in encouraging large Australian businesses to be more interested in employing many Aboriginal people. The Indigenous employment covenant which Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest has inspired is one of the very encouraging contemporary developments when it comes to long-term improvements in the lives of Aboriginal people. I pay tribute to Andrew Forrest and all his collaborators in this task. I also pay tribute to Warren Mundine, the former President of the Australian Labor Party, one of the most significant contemporary Aboriginal leaders, for his work in this area.

But what about self-employment? Why is it that Aboriginal people have to be given jobs? Why can’t we see more opportunity for Aboriginal people to create their own jobs? Maybe there are not hundreds of budding Aboriginal entrepreneurs in Cape York, but there may be a few. Why does the Queensland government’s wild rivers legislation prevent them from using their own land for economic purposes? And why won’t this Prime Minister and this government give time in this parliament to debate and vote upon my private member’s bill to overturn the Queensland wild rivers legislation in respect of Cape York and give Aboriginal people real land rights, give Aboriginal people the right to use their land as an economic asset and not just as a spiritual asset?

It is very easy to stand up in this parliament and to make worthy statements about our intentions and about all the fine government programs that we have put in place, but here is a very practical way of empowering Aboriginal people which I offer to the Prime Minister: overturn the Wild Rivers Act. Stop the impact of this grubby deal between the Greens in Brisbane and the Queensland government on the real future of the Aboriginal people of Cape York.

If you are not prepared to do this, Prime Minister, aren’t we guilty of just empty symbolism and words without action? Isn’t that precisely the problem that we have had for so many generations in this country—words without action? Let that not be pronounced against this generation as we are so happy to pronounce it against others.

I should not be too harsh on the Prime Minister because I do not for a second doubt his sincerity and I do not for a second doubt his commitment. I suppose what I doubt is his imagination and his real courage to take on vested interests in this area. We all know that it is very important to improve school attendance rates. Yes, it is a disgrace that even on the official figures—which are doctored—attendance at remote schools in the Northern Territory is but 60 per cent. But what more is the Prime Minister proposing to do about this? His speech was silent on this vital matter. We all know that there is massive absenteeism from CDEP, as it used to be, or Work for the Dole, as it is becoming in remote areas. What is the Prime Minister proposing to do about that? His statement on this important issue was similarly silent. We will not close the health gap, and we will not close the housing gap, unless we close the education gap and the employment gap. That is the great challenge of our time. That is the challenge that this parliament faces along with the wider Australian community.

Finally, may I say that it is good that the Prime Minister has made a commitment to speak every year on progress towards closing the gap, even if we have not been able to have these statements on the first day of the parliament as the Prime Minister promised. But it is good that every year there is going to be an Indigenous version of the American State of the Union address. That is a good thing; that is progress. I congratulate the Prime Minister for that, because this is an important task and it is worthy of occupying the attention of this parliament. It is a most worthy task for this parliament. But let us be under no illusion about the magnitude of the job upon which we are embarked and let there be less self-righteousness and more humanity as we move forward to address the great task before us.

12:55 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Indigenous Health, Rural and Regional Health and Regional Service Delivery) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the House take note of the document.

Debate (on motion by Mr Hartsuyker) adjourned.