Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Closing the Gap
This year's Closing the gap report reminds us, sadly, of how little progress we have made in addressing the structural inequality facing First Nations people in this country. Before I continue, I want to acknowledge the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people, who are the traditional owners of this country, and acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands that I represent in this place across the electorate of Lingiari.
Now, there are some pleasing aspects of the report, or at least two: improvements to early childhood and year 12 retention. We can't deny that reality. It's very important that we applaud it. But, 11 years on, two of seven targets are only 'on track'. We need to ask ourselves why that is. We shouldn't be blaming the victims, as is often the case. We need to reflect upon what we are doing here. I think that as a nation it's an indictment on us all. If anything has failed, it's us, not the targets. We need to acknowledge that we haven't done enough. This nation, as rich it is, hasn't come to terms with its obligations to deal properly with our First Nations people and to work with them in a way where they control the outcomes. There's a huge gap between the words and actions; the gap between promises and results. We must do better.
I'm not going to, as I could, reflect upon the initial Close the Gap targets when they were set by the Rudd government, now so long ago, and talk about the record moneys that were made available to tackle disadvantage. But I do want to say that those investments have not been sustained. I'm not going to itemise them, but the 2014 budget saw $500 million taken out of programs for First Nations peoples. In that environment, it's very hard to understand how we could ever close any gap.
I want to applaud the initiatives that have been taken to address particular things over that period, but they have dropped off. Instead of looking at what more we can do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we have withdrawn. So the current structure of government is not inclusive. It doesn't take leadership from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It treats them as victims and objects. The compelling argument that I receive all the time is the desire of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take control over their own lives and be dealt with equally, as partners, in the process.
I was heartened to see the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition in his contribution about what Labor is planning to do around the establishment of a voice, around regional representation and around giving Aboriginal people greater control over their lives and greater control over what happens in this place—in a sense, trying to just flip it so that the policy determinants are developed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people themselves rather than by us here. If we can do that and understand with maturity that it's okay to let go a bit and give people that opportunity, then I think we can make a difference—and we will make a difference.
I've seen some examples. We've got the member for Forde here in the chamber. I'm not sure if he's aware of the work of the Institute of Urban Indigenous Health in Brisbane. Now, here is an organisation which reflects the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across this country to do good for themselves and for the nation. Starting in 2011, I was fortunate enough to be the Minister for Indigenous Health and I was able to provide the Institute of Urban Indigenous Health with support to establish their organisation. It is four health services coming together under one umbrella—four health services, four clinics. I'm going to get the figures wrong, but it is now eight years on—my maths is not that flash, as you can tell—and they've got 21 clinics and are servicing almost 50 per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in South-East Queensland. They are making an immeasurable difference in health outcomes and they're doing it for themselves. They are a community based organisation, a community driven organisation, which is delivering magnificent services to the people of South-East Queensland. That's an example of where government has been prepared to allow them, provide them with support and give them the opportunity to tread in the direction they want to tread—and that's what we need to do.
That's not to say there won't be failings and failures around the place, but we've got to commit to a different relationship. The one we've got at the moment is simply not good enough. I've been in this parliament a long time and I've seen policies come and go, ministers come and go and prime ministers come and go—you name it! But one thing is certain: the desire of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be self-determining has not changed from the day I entered here to today. Yet, we have been loath, absolutely loath, to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the power to make decisions around their own lives in an appropriate way. That's why the issue of the voice and the Statement from the Heart is so important. That's why constitutional recognition is so important. We need to appreciate that, if we want to change the dynamic to really close the gap, we have to give people control. It's not hard. It might be hard to loosen the grip a bit. But, once you do and with the proper governance arrangements in place, you will see the difference, as I've seen the difference in many organisations across this country. We've got very reputable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, highly professional people, who are able to lead the organisations and be engaged as equals across the table as partners. We just don't care to do it. We need to change that. We need to make sure that we do what we can to change the relationship.
We need to appreciate that, in how we deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it's about health and it's about education—it's all of those things. But it's got to be delivered in a culturally safe way. We've got to recognise something which is very hard for us non- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to recognise—and that is the depth of the institutionalised racism that still exists in this country. We've got to come to terms with that fact. We've got to let go and understand that we have been the inhibitors. We've got to change it and allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have their voice and to properly listen to that voice—not just tolerate that voice but listen, hear and then act. If we can do that, we can make a difference. That's what I believe we, as this parliament and this country, need to do.
As parliamentarians, we have a particular responsibility. It's time for us to stand up in a mature and open way and deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as they should be dealt with—as the First Nations people of this country. It always was and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land, this country. Nothing can change that. What we've got to do is recognise it and recognise that, with it, comes an obligation on us to treat people fairly. We've yet to do it. We must do it. I'm hopeful that, if there's a change of government, as a result we can make it happen.
I would like to thank the member from Lingiari for his comments. I had the pleasure when we served on the Indigenous affairs committee to spend some time in his electorate and to visit some of his communities. Before I was in this place, I used to have some business clients in Alice Springs, so I spent a bit of time in Alice Springs as well. I'd like to take this opportunity, first and foremost, to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land here in Canberra, the Ngunnawal, but also to recognise the traditional owners of the country that I represent—the Yugambeh people and the Yugara people.
I think it's interesting to reflect on the comments from the member for Lingiari. I made the note in response to his comments that, to progress, we must be eternally vigilant. I think sometimes we let things slip over time. We think that we've put things in place and we think that they will continue to work the way we always envisioned they would work. But gradually, over time, that falls away and people lose focus and we see these good intentions fall by the wayside and we end up not achieving the outcomes that we sought with the best intentions from the outset. I think this Closing the Gap report highlights that very starkly. I think, in that context, it's appropriate that the Prime Minister has used the term 'refresh' and that we refresh those goals and objectives of what we want to achieve.
But the key part of that is that we involve the Indigenous community in that process. I think that's what the member for Lingiari touched on particularly well. It's interesting—I took the opportunity to go back and have a look at some of the history of the relationship between the settlers in the 1800s and the Indigenous community in Logan at the time. Based on the information that I was able to obtain through the Logan City Council website, it appears to me that there was an enormous amount of interaction between the then settlers and the Indigenous community. We have, I'm pleased to say, no records in what is modern-day Logan City of any major issues of conflict or other things that we know happened around the country that were very detrimental to our Indigenous communities.
In fact, the writings of botanist Charles Fraser in 1828 document the quality of the workmanship of the local Indigenous communities in their fish traps and kangaroo nets that they used to catch wildlife to feed themselves and how the settlers relied on the ingenuity of the Indigenous community to survive those first few years. We have a number of stories of our local families when they first settled and how they relied on the help of the Indigenous community to survive a couple of very difficult summers.
So it's not that we haven't been able to do this in the past; we actually have. I think it's one of the great failings today in our society that we seem to disregard our history and we fail to learn from what worked in our history.
But I also want to use this opportunity to speak about the terrific work that is being done in my electorate by our local Indigenous community. When we have a look at the work that is being done by the Yugambeh Museum to preserve the Yugambeh language and other associated language groups and to preserve the broader cultural history of the Yugambeh language group, which stretches all the way down to the border at Tweed Heads and out to the Bay Islands as well, and at what is being done using modern technology to spread that message, we see also that the result is that a number of our schools, particularly a couple of our state primary schools, Waterford West State School and Eagleby South State School, actually have programs within their language-other-than-English classes to learn the local Yugambeh language, which I think is absolutely tremendous. They're creating a platform for Indigenous storytelling with traditional and contemporary didgeridoo compositions, including didgeridoo lessons and collaborative performance opportunities.
I also know that the show at the Beenleigh Historical Village called Spirits of the Red Sand is about showing the story of our Indigenous community throughout history up until the modern day.
When you look at some of the great elders in our Indigenous community, who do so much work with the youth and the younger generations to ensure that that cultural history is retained and taught to the next generation, they are people like Auntie Robyn Williams, Patricia O'Connor and Rory O'Connor. They do so much work to ensure that the culture, beliefs, values and language of the Yugambeh community are continued.
I'd also like to take the opportunity to mention Will Davis, who's the CEO of the Beenleigh Housing Development Company, and also Peter Eather, who is very involved there as well, for the work that they are doing to put together an Indigenous housing project out near Jimboomba to create a community. Part of the importance of that community is that it is focused on creating the opportunity for our Indigenous community to buy and own their own property and creating the economic opportunity for them to do so.
We know from the Closing the gap report and its focus on education how important that is. I've already touched on that as to a couple of our schools, but Upper Coomera State College and their Indigenous champions program and Beenleigh State High School's Indigenous mentoring experience program are also critically important to that.
In the urban setting, which we don't always talk about as much for our Indigenous community, there is much that is occurring. I'm pleased to say that, in a number of those spaces, we, as a government, have provided significant funding to organisations. We've provided over $200,000 to the Kombumerri Aboriginal Corporation for Culture, to facilitate those Indigenous language and arts programs. We've provided over $300,000 to the Beenleigh Housing & Development Company, to keep them operating, and we are working, through the minister's office, at the moment, on their Indigenous housing project.
I'd also like to touch on the terrific work that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service does with their Jimbelunga nursing home at Eagleby. In particular, I'd like to mention Jody Currie as well as Belinda Davis for their hard work and dedication to providing culturally appropriate aged care for our ageing Indigenous community members. Importantly—and I think this is one of the great values of Jimbelunga—it's not only about providing aged care for our Indigenous community; it is creating a bridge for an older generation of people with a European background who are also residing in that facility. It creates the opportunity for those people, even at an advanced age in life, to build relationships with and better understand our Indigenous history and culture. I think that is critically important.
I want to use this opportunity to thank all of those people in my local community who ensure that our Indigenous culture and heritage is celebrated but also that it is continued forward for future generations.
I recognise the member for Forde's comments. I also recognise the member for Werriwa, who is in the chamber this afternoon; her commitment to reconciliation is a very genuine one. I'd also like to recognise, to begin with, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people of this part of the world, the traditional owners of Canberra and its surrounds.
It is interesting to participate in this debate, because I have been a part of this history and been present at most of the momentous occasions I'm going to speak about. Last week, of course, this parliament marked 11 years since the Rudd government delivered the national apology to the stolen generations, which then, of course, led to the 10-year commitment in Closing the Gap.
The member for Warringah has just joined us. He of course has a great commitment in this area as well.
I remember that day absolutely clearly. I remember sitting in the gallery, looking down onto the House of Representatives, and seeing those old people from the stolen generation—where it could not be denied anymore, this truth—sitting around the chamber. I remember the speeches of the then new Prime Minister; it was the first act of the Rudd government to make that apology. I remember well the steadfast refusal of Prime Minister Howard to make that apology. And it was like this nation held its breath, waiting for that apology to take place—that's what it truly felt like. I remember walking out of the chamber that day after listening to the speeches—one from the member for Warringah, as I recall—and I remember walking into the marble foyer and then out onto the forecourt and falling into the arms of Aunty Mae Robinson, who was carrying a black-and-white photo that day, and she said, 'Linda, I brought Mummy with me.' It was a photograph of an eight-year-old Aboriginal girl who'd been put into the Cootamundra girls home. Aunty Mae—and she might be one of your constituents—brought that photograph with her that day. It was truly, truly remarkable.
I'll always remember Kevin Rudd's words:
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
Those were the opening words of the apology. Of course, the reality of that apology was felt not just in this place but by the many thousands of people out on the lawns and across the country. In schools they sat in front of television sets and watched that apology being made.
It did acknowledge the pain and injustice experienced by First Nations peoples, families and communities. It did recognise the historical injustices. The effects of those injustices have transcended down through generations and can still be felt today. It meant so much to so many who had waited so long. I'll never forget those old people and I'll never forget the 350,000 people who crossed the Harbour Bridge in Sydney. Looking up into that clear blue winter sky the word 'sorry' appeared.
That apology of course led to the Closing the Gap targets, which we have an annual report to this parliament on. I think it is right that we think about that annual report and whether it is just a tick-and-flick exercise and how we make that annual report and those Closing the Gap targets a reality that is part of every day of this parliament's existence. Labor has argued long and hard that those targets need to be expanded to include two new targets: one about incarceration and one about child removal. We understand that there is much work being done by the peak Aboriginal organisations and the government in terms of bringing new Closing the Gap refresh targets. We look forward to looking at and working with those targets.
I cannot underscore the intergenerational impact of the stolen generations and how that is felt not only in my generation but in generations younger than mine. I was there the day the Bringing them home report was launched in Melbourne in 1997. It was a terrible time in Australia's history. We as a nation were ripping ourselves to pieces. The minister at the time was John Herron and the Prime Minister was John Howard. It was at the height of that terrible debate in terms of winding back the native title legislation and the government's 10-point plan to do that. I'll never forget those days. I think we are still recovering from those days. The Bringing them home report was a line in the sand for this country. It was a line in the sand that said that, of course, no-one could argue they did not know that history. It was very important.
There were unmet targets this year. The target to halve the gap in child mortality rates by 2018 is not on track. The target to close the gap in school attendance by 2018 is not on track. The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track. The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 is not on track. The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is also not on track. It is clear to me that we are simply not progressing fast enough for many of us. These have real implications for real people.
Self-determination is very much what First Nations people are talking about. The 200 years of injustice perpetrated against First Nations people should not be our destiny or our fate. Dispossession, the massacres, the removal of children and the destruction of culture and languages of course are still being felt today. The Closing the gap report and the apology that kicked off that report should be the way in which we, as a parliament, are working with First Nations people to address those incredibly distressing social justice outcomes. An Indigenous voice to the parliament would give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a greater say in the issues and decisions of government that affect our lives, and of course the Australian Labor Party is committed to that voice in the parliament. We are committed to constitutional entrenchment of that voice. There is nothing to fear with that entrenchment, and it is certainly not a third chamber of this parliament—it never has been, and it has never been described as that by those who have been its architect. This is at the core of listening to First Nations people. If we want to see real progress in closing the gap, we need to listen to First Nations communities and their peak organisations. This is where those answers are.
I have worked in this space for over 40 years and I have come to understand that there is no magic bullet. These issues can be dealt with on an individual community basis and we have the capacity to do that. To be able to listen requires real leadership. I recall, very vividly, the words of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who made that apology:
We … take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
… … …
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
There is nothing to be afraid of when we speak the truth. There is nothing to be afraid of as a nation in knowing that truth. That truth will liberate us. It will make us a more united nation, a more reconciled nation. The leadership has to come from us. It has to come from this parliament to help shape that truth for future generations in this country.
It is good to follow the member for Barton. It is also good to see that there are number of strong Indigenous voices in this parliament. It is a sign of how far we have come, as a country, that that is the case. Obviously, we have got further to go, but we have come a long way.
Modern Australia has an Indigenous heritage, a British foundation and an immigrant character. Indigeneity is one of the three pillars that constitute modern Australia. I was delighted to be asked by the Prime Minister to be his special envoy, with special responsibility for improving remote school attendance and performance, because if Aboriginal people are to fully participate in this country then obviously they have got to have jobs and they have got to have a decent education, because without a job it is hard to live decently and without an education it is hard to work effectively in modern Australia.
I made a statement to the parliament late last year with a number of recommendations, and I was really pleased that the Prime Minister took up three of those recommendations in his Closing the Gap statement last week. First, the government is proposing to waive the HECS debts of teaching graduates who, after a couple of years of experience and appropriate training, go into remote areas and stay for four years. The government is going to considerably expand funding for the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. We are proposing to work with more communities that wish to take more responsibility for self-improvement by embracing measures such as the debit card or something akin to the Family Responsibilities Commission. I thank the Prime Minister for adopting those recommendations.
It is absolutely critical that every Australian child go to school every day unless there is some absolutely compelling reason for their absence. It is also important that, when kids go to school, they are going to be well taught. We all know that schools with a high turnover of teachers and principals are not going to give the same quality of education as schools that have teachers and principals who are there for the long haul. We all know that there are difficulties associated with life in remote Australia; some people love it, but many people find it difficult; even those who love it find it difficult. That's why the more incentives we can provide to people who do have a real commitment to teaching in remote Australia the better.
I am a huge admirer of the work of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. I know that it is not easy for kids from remote Australia, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, to suddenly bowl up to some of the best schools in the country; but, thanks to the mentoring which the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation provides, the vast majority of those kids have made a success of the schooling that they've got. I don't want to sound elitist but, frankly, why shouldn't Aboriginal kids be able to aspire to the very best of schools, why shouldn't Aboriginal kids be able to hope for the same kinds of networks that so many of us in this parliament enjoy, why shouldn't the government do what it can to ensure that this particular gap is well and truly closed?
One of the things that impresses me about the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation is that, thus far, at least 50 per cent of the money they have spent has been privately raised. I hope that they continue to raise a very substantial sum from private sources. I think there are many Australians, individually and corporately, that want to support this cause. But if we are going to expect private philanthropy to continue to fund the education of so many promising Indigenous kids, I think it is only reasonable that the federal government provides at least 50 per cent of the funding on an ongoing basis—and I'm pleased that that is now happening.
I know that Indigenous politics can be just as difficult as politics everywhere, but I want to say that there are few people in this country who are more deserving of our admiration than Noel Pearson. I don't say Noel is always right, but he is always courageous. And he has been incredibly brave in trying to insist that his own people don't just lament the manifest injustices that have been done to them over the years but are also prepared to take responsibility for their future—'our right to take responsibility'. It thrills me that Indigenous leaders at a number of communities in Australia, such as Ian Trust in the East Kimberley, have said to government, 'We are prepared to accept the debit card,' whereby 80 per cent of a person's welfare payments are, of necessity, spent on the things that are needed for life. I think any community that wants to embrace the debit card should find that the government is prepared to make that happen.
As is reasonably well known, I've spent quite a lot of time in remote Australia. I've tried to make it my business to spend at least a week a year in remote Australia—even as opposition leader, and even as Prime Minister, I tried to do so. Over the years, visiting remote schools has been a pretty dispiriting experience—but much less so now, I've got to say.
I am very impressed with the progress that has been made and the efforts that governments of states and territories of both persuasions have been making to ensure that remote schools are getting better. Every remote school that I visited had a data board in the common room where every enrolled child's progress and attendance was being tracked. All of the remote schools that I visited were insisting upon a rigorous back-to-basics curriculum, and all of the state and territory education departments were doing what they could to try to ensure that they got much more continuity with teachers and principals.
So, while we have not closed so many of these important gaps, progress is being made. We should be encouraged, even while we urge ourselves on to more efforts in the future. Yes, I am certainly open to seeing new targets added. I would like to see crime reduced. I would like to see family dysfunction reduced, because then we would certainly reduce incarceration. Then we would certainly reduce child removal. But, in the end, in every community—remote, regional and urban—regardless of its ethnic composition, we want the kids to go to school, we want the adults to go to work and we want communities to be safe, because that is what happens in a decent community. We owe it to Aboriginal people to ensure that they, the First Australians, are also first-class citizens in the very best of countries. I think that the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap statement is a significant step towards that wonderful goal.
I rise to speak on this 11th statement on closing the gap. My seat of Grey has around seven or eight per cent Indigenous population, and around 40 per cent of those live in remote communities, in many cases where English is not the first language. All of the remote Indigenous communities in South Australia are in the electorate of Grey. I was elected in 2007 and I have become a very regular visitor to pretty much all of these communities. Over that time I made a lot of friends and looked at the change. I must say the improvement in infrastructure over that period of time, which roughly shadows the period since the apology, has been very significant. In many of these communities the infrastructure is first class, whether that be housing—sometimes we need a bit more housing, it must be admitted—the quality of the shops, the health facilities or the schools. They are schools that parents anywhere in Australia would be happy to take their children to on the basis of the facilities. As we speak, we are constructing a $106 million road into the main access road into the APY lands in the north of my electorate.
We've done many things. We've implemented a school attendance program. It's had mixed results, it must be said. School attendance programs work very well when you have good leaders on the ground, a bit like schools themselves. Where you have a really good lead person in the school attendance team, we get very significant results. One of the downsides of that, of course, is that it's only part-time employment. Once somebody shows that they actually have some goods, someone else will offer them a job and then you'll have to find someone to replace that very good person. So it's patchy. The government has announced that we are providing funds to continue that role and, in fact, will expand it in my electorate in the main town of Ceduna so it will apply to Ceduna Area School and the Lutheran school there. It's been running 30 kilometres away at Koonibba.
All of those things are improving, but on many other things—as the Closing the gap report shows us—the indices are not improving. You have to ask yourself the question: why?
We are spending a bit over $40,000 a head on Indigenous Australia at the moment. When you get into the remote lands, the APY lands, we're at over $200,000 a head. And you have to ask yourself: why aren't we seeing a dramatic improvement in the outcomes of the people? We've got dramatically improved infrastructure, but the programs do not seem to be delivering the results. And yet, when I go and talk to these program deliverers on the ground, whether they be NGOs or government employees, they've got a good story to tell: 'We're doing this. We're doing that. We're teaching the women how to cook. We're showing the fellows how to repair their car.' Whatever the program, they're doing a really good and important job. They'll convince me they're doing a good job. They are convinced they're doing a good job. Then I'll go to the next provider and get exactly the same story and I'll be convinced again. And then I'll go to the next provider and I'll get exactly the same story and be convinced again. I say to them: 'How come, if you're all doing such a good job, the place is not getting better?'
One of the complaints that I hear is: 'Well, we just started this program. We thought we had it up and running well, and then the funding changed.' I'm not a great subscriber to that theory. I think we don't examine the programs hard enough in the first place. We don't have hard enough benchmarks put in and we don't ask the programs to justify their existence. I say: if the program's no good, it's no good, and that money should be reinvested into something that works, quite frankly. We're doing the best we can, but it's not good enough. We're spending a lot of money, but it's not making enough difference. So we need to keep examining those programs.
In urban Indigenous Australia—I said 40 per cent of the Aboriginal population live in the remote lands; 60 per cent, by definition, live in the more urbanised areas—progress is better. One of the great advantages they have in these communities is that English is generally the first language. They speak English at home and they speak English in the school. It's such an enormous advantage. I don't know how many wars the English won around the world, but they won that war—the war of language. English is the commerce language of the world. It is the thing that works. It unlocks the future. So we're seeing better results, particularly in the school area, and I celebrate every Aboriginal child that reaches year 12 level. I celebrate everyone that goes on to higher levels of learning. I celebrate everyone that enters an apprenticeship. May they keep doing it!
I'm very pleased to report that the South Australian government is supporting Clontarf to come into South Australia, a place where they weren't welcome before for other reasons. I won't get into the politics of it. But they will be there, and I think they're doing a great job in getting Indigenous boys to school all over Australia—thousands of them. So we need to back that program.
That brings me now to the cashless welfare card, which the member for Warringah touched on. It is an outstanding success. Ceduna was the first community to sign on. We know we've got lower domestic violence rates. We know we've got lower levels of alcohol content in people admitted to the drying out centres. We know that people are spending more money on groceries. We know that the place is just better. As a young leader said to me: 'I know all that. I've seen all the statistics. I know what it is. But the place just feels a whole lot better!' We know that they're spending less money on poker machines. It's a great outcome. It's a great program. It needs to be extended. I think it needs to be extended to more communities around Australia. But in fact it's a finite program that's running out on 30 June.
The legislation to extend this trial for another 12 months was introduced into the chamber last week. It hasn't been debated yet. I understand that the minister is seeking the Labor Party's support. I dearly hope they give it. Let me say to those opposite: please, please support the continuation of the trials. Support it for the women and children that need the vastly improved environment in which they are living in. Don't just lap up the things you are told by people who don't know. I extend the invitation to anyone on the other side of the chamber—and I don't just mean this chamber: if you want to come to Ceduna and meet the people and witness the results, I will take you there any time you like. I'd be very pleased to do so. So that's my plea at the end of this. I think we are making progress in that community faster than we've ever made it before. It is a quantum change in behaviour. Tourists have noticed the difference. The place is calmer. The program is now stretching—it's just starting to unroll in Bundaberg. I've said all along that I think Bundaberg is a very important marker in this trial. We've had Ceduna and Kununurra, or East Kimberley, which have large Aboriginal populations. We have gone into the Goldfields, where there is a very significant Aboriginal population. But now it's in Bundaberg, where the Aboriginal population is much more like the mainstream make-up of the rest of Australia.
I've always said that the cashless debit card is not about aboriginality. It is about the failure of those on long-term welfare to spend money on the things that the taxpayer has given them money to spend on: to spend it on their families; to spend it on education; to spend it on housing, on heating, on clothing and all of those things—to spend it on entertainment—but not to blow the majority of it on alcohol, on drugs and on gambling. I am always reminded of what the former mayor of Ceduna told me when I asked about the way it was going down in Ceduna. He said: 'I'll tell you the people who really hate it; the people who really hate the cashless welfare card are the drug dealers. The drug dealers really hate it, because there's no cash for the drug dealer.' I celebrate that. What a magnificent win that is. That is a fantastic advance.
As one who has walked with that community and congratulated their leaders on the strong moves they've made, and told them that in fact they are showing Australia the way, I implore this place to support the continuation of the trials and to look seriously at rolling them out further around Australia. It's not a silver bullet—I understand that—but I believe it's a very valuable tool in closing the gap. We must stick with it.
I believe it appropriate that I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we stand at this point in time, the Ngunnawal people. I will also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which I live: the Manbarra people and the Bwgcolman people of Palm Island, and the Bindal people of Townsville.
Last year I stood in this place and spoke on the 2018 Closing the gap report. I spoke about the targets that were set 11 years ago and how, sadly, the report showed that, for the first time since 2011, three out of the seven Closing the Gap targets were on track to be met. Unfortunately, I am standing here today disappointed and frustrated again. Whilst I am very pleased to see improvements in early childhood education and year 12 retention rates in the 2019 Closing the gap report, the reality is that these are only two targets out of seven that are on track. I will also give my congratulations, in my local community, to Clontarf and the newly established Stars programs that are operating in a number of the high schools in my electorate of Herbert. I do believe that that has helped significantly in ensuring the year 12 retention rates and that getting kids to school is working very, very well.
Under this LNP government, targets have gone backwards. As a result, they have not done much for our First Nations brothers and sisters, because their lives are not improving. The cuts, chaos and dysfunction of this LNP government are clearly evident in this report. I want to make it clear that it's not the targets that have failed; rather, it is this LNP government that has failed our First Nations people. The successive failures of the Abbott-Turnbull Morrison government's inability to match well-intentioned rhetoric with action are gross miscarriages of justice and leadership.
It needs to be said that the time for rhetoric and longwinded niceties is well and truly over. It is now time for action, collaboration and delivery. The time for dictating to our First Nations people is over. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a very high incarceration rate and very poor health outcomes. Poverty and inequality are extraordinarily high. We must engage and collaborate with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, because this is their land—it always was and it always will be.
Labor believe that we need a new focus to achieve the targets set out in the Closing the Gap framework, and we welcome the opportunity to collaborate with our First Nations people because we know that a genuine partnership with First Nations people is essential to bring about change. This LNP government has failed to genuinely engage with First Nations people. Whether it's Closing the Gap, the Community Development Program, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy or constitutional recognition, this government has consistently pursued flawed policy and failed to genuinely engage with First Nations people in the design and implementation process.
If those opposite were serious and truly committed to ensuring First Nations people have a say in the matters that affect them then they would immediately reverse their opposition to a constitutionally enshrined voice for First Nations people. Under a Shorten-led government, a voice for the First Nations people will be enshrined in our Constitution and it will be one of our first priorities. This is a genuine commitment and we will work in partnership with our First Nations peoples.
My electorate of Herbert includes the largest discrete Aboriginal community, Palm Island, with a population of anywhere between 3,500 and 5,000 people. Fifty-one per cent of the population on Palm Island is under 25 and it's approximately eight per cent of the electorate. Palm Island has a horrendous penal history, but the traditional owners, the Manbarra people and the Bwgcolman people, are strong and resilient people. But they have some unique challenges that the LNP government are completely ignoring.
Palm Island's unemployment rate is almost 29 per cent and, when you consider that 51 per cent of the population is under 25, that is extraordinarily high. Instead of working with the community to address this, the LNP government have cut the national partnership on remote Indigenous housing, a 10-year $5.4 billion program which expired in June 2018. For Palm Island, this has meant further job losses. Because of the LNP cuts to vocational education and training and the national partnership on remote Indigenous housing, seven apprentices on Palm have lost their jobs. These cuts are doing nothing to assist in closing the gap. In fact, it is this sort of poor decision-making and lack of vision by this LNP government that is failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples not only in my electorate of Herbert but across this nation.
I have a strong and longstanding relationship with the people of Palm Island that stems from well before my election to this place. As I said earlier, the residents of Palm Island, the Bwgcolman and Manbarra peoples, are resilient and strong, but they need support to achieve economic sustainability. They are passionate about their community, their history and their vision for a thriving, prosperous and economically sustainable island. Last year, it was their 100-year anniversary and they celebrated with a focus on the past, the present and the future. The future was formed around the young people and their vision for their community.
I have been enormously proud to support Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council in securing funding for local projects such as: the better connected project, which improved connectivity between the Palm Island council and community members, staff and other agencies; and the small business incubator project, which enabled residents to have a space for entrepreneurial small-business endeavours which will stimulate small-business growth and create much-needed employment opportunities.
I am proud to be part of a Labor team that will invest an extra $750,000 in our first three years to the Bwgcolman Community School on Palm Island. This investment will ensure every child will get the quality education that they deserve. I will continue to work with the residents and the Palm Island Shire Council to ensure that they receive their fair share. Together, we will continue to strive for more opportunities for the residents to ensure that we do close the gap.
Labor have worked with our First Nations peoples. We have co-designed and announced policies that will assist in closing the gap. A Labor government will provide $10 million to programs that will assist in the healing of the stolen generation and their descendants nationwide and be administered by the Healing Foundation. These programs will support intergenerational healing, family reunion and return to country. Labor will work with First Nations peoples and set justice targets, reduce incarceration rates and improve community safety. In our first 100 days, a Shorten Labor government will convene a national summit for First Nations children. It is very clear that Labor are serious about working with our First Nations people in order to make positive and meaningful changes to their lives and the lives of their children.
Governments cannot any longer turn a blind eye to the reality of failed targets. In order to meet our targets, as I have said, we must engage in genuine and collaborative partnership. We must engage in truth-telling. We must admit our weaknesses and failures of the past and take serious and immediate actions that will improve the lives of First Nations people and give them the opportunity to tell their stories. Labor believes that the notion of 'business as usual' cannot continue and is no longer an option. First Nations people must have a permanent and ongoing say in the issues that affect their lives if we are to ever close the gap. I am proud to work in this place with the Hon. Linda Burnie, Senator Pat Dodson and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy in a Labor team that is trying very hard to close the gap for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters into the future.
Deputy Speaker McVeigh, in commencing my remarks, I acknowledge the work that you did with me on the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which I chaired and which reported at the end of last year. Your contribution, particularly with your experience as a minister, was very significant. I appreciate the work that you did in helping bring us together. I also note that my friend the member for Wide Bay, who has a significant community of Indigenous people in Cherbourg, is here today. It is to my great regret that we never made it to Cherbourg because of some sorry business that was going on in that community, but it was very much our intention to go there. I particularly want to acknowledge my friend the member for Indi, who I will miss in the next parliament. We had the great privilege on that committee of visiting her community and understanding something more of what happens when you bring together a group of Aboriginal people from all around the country and put them in a community that is not necessarily their own community and also some of the issues of intercommunal dispute, as it were, as to who are the rightful claimers of the area. I know that the member for Indi is particularly passionate about truth-telling and having a better understanding of that history. I am sure that is a matter in which, even beyond her service in this place, she will continue to be interested.
Occasionally we come to this place thinking we have all the answers. I approached the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as somebody who was interested in constitutional law, but I realised how little I actually knew about Indigenous policy and Indigenous history and how much more I needed to know and wanted to know. The member for Indi has a particular interest in the whole issue of Closing the Gap and asked many questions about that issue. I'm going to write something, at greater leisure later in the year, about the experience of that committee and some of the things that we saw. But it occurred to me that it is occasionally good to admit that you don't have all the answers and that you can look around and there is much that you can learn from others.
I think too much of the debate we have had about Indigenous policy in this place has been bifurcated between those on the Right, who are looking for the practical and the local, and those on the Left, who are looking for the symbolic and the bureaucratic. I think what we need to do is find a modus vivendi that brings the sides together, that says 'For the practical to work you need the symbolic, but for the symbolic to have meaning you need the practical.' That is something that I particularly took away from the journey in relation to the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
I think it's important to think about the purpose of Indigenous affairs policy. Surely the policy has to be to close the gap, to lift the standard of living for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I think one of the key things that has come out of the Closing the Gap Refresh is the same thing that we put forward in the joint select committee: you need to have Indigenous people at the centre of what you are doing and you need to actually ask them to set the targets that are right for them. Anybody can set a target for somebody else where you set somebody up for failure; but, unless you have people buying into the target, unless you have people buying into the goal, you will not achieve the aim that you wanted to achieve.
I'm sorry the member for Herbert has left, because I enjoyed visiting Palm Island on that committee with her. I opened my eyes to Palm Island. I have to say, I had a particularly negative impression of Palm Island before visiting there. Palm Island has a notorious reputation in our country, but I was actually impressed by a number of the people that we met on Palm Island for their leadership and for trying to better the lives of their fellow citizens. The member for Herbert did what any opposition does in this space: critiques the failure of government policy in this space. That is, in some respects, easy and understandable politics. It is indeed what people on my side could have done when the Rudd-Gillard Rudd government was in office, when the Whitlam government was in office or when the Hawke government was in office, because the truth is that everyone has approached this policy space with good intentions and wanting to do better. But we haven't achieved the success that all of us would hope to.
Australia, as I've said, in other contexts is a wonderful country. There's nowhere on earth where the standard of living is as high as it is here, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples don't always share in that high standard of living. The inequality between the social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the population is quite stark. So the notion that Tom Calma put forward when he was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner some decade ago, that we should have a Closing the Gap target, was a very good one. The measurements and the performance over that decade have not been fantastic. As the Prime Minister said, we should celebrate the victories, because part of this is a need to celebrate the hopeful notes in Indigenous policy. It is not all a story of failure. It is good that we now have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education. We're on track to meet that target by 2025. And we're on track to meet the target in relation to year 12 attainment, halving the gap there by 2020. But they are the only two targets under the current regime that are on track. The other targets around life expectancy, child mortality rates, reading and numeracy, employment and school attendance are not successful, and we need to do more there.
It is true to say that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living longer, that 95 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education, that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are staying in school for longer and that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have year 12 qualifications, and that is a good thing. I agree with the member for Warringah when he talks about the importance of school attendance, because education is the thing that is going to change people's lives. But it's more than just education. It is what Noel Pearson once described as 'fanning the flames of self-interest'. Indigenous people themselves have to decide that they want to try to improve their lives and make them the focus. The government can't force that on people. That is why the refresh targets that have gone through the COAG process, that have the buy-in not only of the Commonwealth government but also of the states and territories, are so important. The way in which we've engaged with Indigenous people and are engaging with them in relation to those refresh targets is so very important in terms of properly achieving. That doesn't mean that if you haven't succeeded in one area you change the target so that you can succeed. It's about getting the buy-in. It's about getting that flame of self-interest. It's about making the decision, a decision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In the remaining couple of minutes that I have left today, I want to talk about some of the things that we are doing well and some of the thing that the government has talked about in relation to addressing the Closing the Gap targets. I also wanted to address the member for Herbert's point about constitutional recognition. The government is giving active consideration to the report from the committee that Senator Dodson and I chaired, and I look forward to their response in due course. That is not something that has been taken off the table. It is being given active consideration.
I applaud the Prime Minister for his announcement of the teacher boost for remote Australia. Prior to becoming a member of this House, I served on the board of Teach For Australia, which places outstanding university graduates from other disciplines—in science, in law, in economics—into a teaching program and then sends them to remote schools and sees extraordinary changes in the performance of students as a result of that. Anything that we can do to encourage our best and brightest teachers to go into remote schools has to be of benefit, because we know the quality of teaching improves the quality of student performance.
I applaud the work that the member for Warringah is doing in trying to encourage more students to go to school. I applaud the Prime Minister's focus, his single focus, on improving educational outcomes, because that is a particularly life-changing and societal-changing policy prescription. Senator Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, has, since he has been minister, pursued the notion of Indigenous procurement, and he has had real success in this. It's not something which he has blown his trumpet about, but it is a wonderful thing to see Indigenous businesses given a real focus in government procurement policy. The Indigenous business sector now spans over 1,473 Indigenous businesses, delivering 11,933 contracts worth over $1.83 billion since the establishment of this policy in 2015. This is a great increase, and it has been particularly because of the single-minded focus of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
I commend the Closing the gapreport. We must do better, we will do better and the refresh targets will help us achieve that goal.
We have had so many promises and so many disappointments. It's well and truly time to match the rhetoric. We cannot continue to return to parliament every year and hear the appalling statistics.
I have a great deal of empathy with that statement. This is the sixth year I have stood to address the Closing the gap report. The fact that, again, in 2019, I stand before the House to say that only two of seven targets remain anywhere near on track fills me with a sadness but also a rage that we seem incapable of doing better when, indeed, we are an incredibly prosperous and wealthy nation. There is a problem with the relationship between government and its First Nations people, and I don't think that we can underestimate the challenges that that brings to this parliament. I will come back to that issue in a moment.
Before going any further, I would like to acknowledge that this parliament again meets on the lands of the Ngunawal and the Ngambri peoples of Canberra and surrounds. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the country that I get to call home in Newcastle—the Awabakal people and the Worimi people across the harbour into the Port Stephens region. I take that acknowledgement very seriously. Indeed, when I chair our caucus meetings, it is the first thing that I say each and every time. I hope that reminding ourselves of this is not just a trite comment at the beginning of our speeches or at the start of parliament or community events but that it somehow becomes deeply embedded in the Australian psyche—this understanding of First Nations peoples, their place in this nation and the responsibility that we have to create and to forge a mutually respectful partnership.
I opened with those comments about just how deeply distressing it is to stand in this parliament year after year and report that we have failed. I think the problem is—and I take the point of the member for Berowra before about not wanting to take political pointscoring into this debate—the failure of consecutive governments to find a genuinely respectful, mutual partnership. And, at the risk of sounding partisan now, I think the way that this government responded to the Uluru statement that came down last year has simply embedded that distrust of government. Their quick response was to dismiss that statement, within days, after two years of consultation—two years of First Nations people talking about the kind of relationship they wanted to reset with the Australian people. The First Nations presented a very well-thought-through statement to this parliament. It was one that we weren't sitting at the table for, and one that might have surprised us with some of the content, but it was the wishes of First Nations people. And what did we do—what did the government do? It said outright, 'This cannot happen. This creates a third chamber.' Wrong! That was total misinformation. But that dismissed that statement on day one. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and sense of betrayal that would've been felt by First Nations people in Australia at that time.
First Nations people are amongst the most resilient people on this planet, as any people must be who've survived 200-plus years of dispossession—and I don't think we should sugar-coat the cultural frontier wars and the bloody process of colonisation, over a long period of time, that took place here. Australia has a very complicated relationship with First Nations people that is born from our colonial past, and it seems we are very, very slow to learn about how to remedy that. The year-by-year Close the Gap disappointments are really confirmation of the fact that we've never been able to deal adequately with those fundamental questions about our relationships with First Nations people. So we can say that it is great that we have more four-year-olds enrolled in an early childhood education program in First Nations communities, and it is terrific that more people are attaining a year 12 education. But it is truly appalling that we cannot make headway on any one of those other targets.
Let's not forget that there are important targets that are missing, that have never been agreed to by this parliament. I will flag with you just one of those: the justice target. It is totally abhorrent that we incarcerate First Nations peoples to the extent that you are more likely to go to prison than you are to go to university in this country if you are a First Nations person. I don't know anybody who actually thinks that that is acceptable. Yet that is what we do.
I am deeply worried by the incarceration of any person, because, really, imprisonment is a failure of our justice system. It's the failure end. So the more and more people you incarcerate, the more and more you really have to say, 'We've failed. We have failed you deeply.'
There is a dreadful trajectory, a pattern, now, that shows the shocking imprisonment rate for First Nations women. This has skyrocketed nearly 150 per cent since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. We have a senator, Senator Patrick Dodson, who sat on that royal commission. It took testimony from people across this nation and made over 330 recommendations, most of which were not enacted. So when I sometimes feel a little despondent about the progress, or the lack of progress, being made in this space—and this is an area that I've worked in for the last 30 years of my life—battling issues around the relationships between First Nations Australians and the rest of us, I think that I cannot be self-indulgent and throw my hands up and say, 'This is too hard.' We do not have that luxury. When I see people like Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Linda Burney, the member for Barton, in our own house playing such important leadership roles and bringing those voices into this parliament—and I acknowledge Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck, on the other side—
It being 6.30 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The member for Newcastle will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.