House debates

Thursday, 16 February 2012


Closing the Gap

12:34 pm

Photo of Sharon GriersonSharon Grierson (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In 2008 the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the historic apology to the stolen generations. Four years ago this week, he called the apology, so correctly, 'unfinished business'. It was a momentous day, a 'national tear-fest' that truly brought us all together. It is important to reflect upon that symbolic moment of reconciliation. It was important on the first sorry day, and it remains important now, to confront the history of displacement, disconnection and despair experienced by the stolen generations. I am pleased that the government has provided more than $26 million over four years to establish the ATSI Healing Foundation to support community based healing initiatives. The Stolen Generations' Testimonies website, which records the lives and experiences of more than 30 stolen generation members, was also launched this week.

But it is important too to look forward with hope, and that is why closing the gap of disadvantage for Indigenous Australians is central to our government's endeavours. In her Closing the Gap Report the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said this week: 'Closing the Gap targets are not meant just to challenge us to do more; they are designed to hold us accountable to our ambitions.' We are on track to halve mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018; halve the gap for Indigenous students in academia; halve the employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; deliver early childhood education to every Indigenous four-year-old by 2013; and halve the gap in the number of Indigenous students passing year 12 and its equivalents by 2020.

More than 90,000 additional jobs were won by Indigenous Australians over recent years. Indigenous unemployment has fallen from 31 per cent to 16.6 per cent—still staggeringly high. Year 12 retention rates are up to 47 per cent, from an abysmal 30 per cent in the 1990s. In Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, Indigenous mortality rates have fallen by 36 per cent and additional Indigenous health workers are keeping up the fight against breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mental illness.

For many years, though, there was underwhelming investment in the lives of Australia's Indigenous people. So we are investing more than $5.75 billion over the next three years to make beneficial long-term impacts on the lives of Indigenous Australians. This includes $5.5 billion over 10 years towards the construction and refurbishment of housing and infrastructure under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. We have also committed $564.6 million over six years towards the development of young people through the National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Early Childhood Development.

I could go on, but these are just facts and figures. We all know that the money, and where we target it, is critical. But it certainly takes a lot of effort and a long time to see the change we would all like to see. Real change, the transformation of people's lives, is only effected through collaborative understanding and committed action by all Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

In reality, it is not all good news. While much of the focus of media attention is on remote areas, for me local action and local progress in cities like Newcastle is vital. In January this year the Newcastle Herald reported 'Hunter indigenous health hits worst levels in decade'. With over 34,000 Indigenous Australians, the Hunter-New England Area Health Service has the largest Indigenous population in New South Wales. The Herald reports data from the past decade showing a 50 per cent increase in smoking related admissions, a doubling of diabetes related admissions and an increase in alcohol related admissions by 30 per cent. While increases in the same diseases were also reported in the non-Indigenous population, the Indigenous rates were about three times higher. That is the scale of the problem that we have to confront.

I am very pleased, though, that GP Access—now Medicare Local Hunter Urban—has been part of trying to improve those statistics. They have employed an outreach worker and an Aboriginal health program officer. My hope is that the new Medicare Local will identify this as a real area of need and fight hard for the funds that are so necessary to make a real difference to closing the gap.

Four years have passed since the apology to the stolen generations, but there is still a tough road ahead in terms of improving the lives of all Indigenous Australians. Closing the Gap is a long-term challenge that this government is committed to. (Time expired)