House debates

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Ministerial Statements

Closing the Gap

12:32 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It drives me and my Labor colleagues on this side of the House to in fact double-down on our efforts to recalibrate the relationship between government and First Nations as a matter of priority. We can't afford to keep treading down the same path of failed policy responses to what are longstanding historical structural inequalities, and that means saying no to lazy policymaking. It's that lazy policymaking that has undermined or indeed removed the capacity for self-determination from First Nations peoples and communities. From where I stand, that means saying no to blunt interventionist policies that have no effective exit strategy, have no pathway for First Nations peoples to regain control of their own lives and destinies and have no capacity anymore to build healthy, safe, sustainable and prosperous communities for First Nations peoples now and for their future generations.

It's time for governments to be bold. It's time for governments to think seriously about that relationship with First Nations people, to now invest in First Nations communities and community-controlled organisations and to support those terrific community led successful programs on the ground. That's what this government needs to do. That's what a future Labor government will be doing. I cannot bear to spend another year standing in this House reporting on the failure of government to in any way, shape or form close this gap. Enough is enough.

12:34 pm

Photo of Kerryn PhelpsKerryn Phelps (Wentworth, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

During my presidency of the Australian Medical Association, I visited many remote Indigenous communities. I wanted to get firsthand information about what affected the health of these people in these communities. I recall a number of stories that made a very strong impression on me.

As we flew into one community in Western Australia, and we hit the red dust airstrip—the only way in or out of the community if there was a medical emergency—I was told that the airstrip was unsafe and unusable for many months of the year in the wet weather, when it became a river of mud. A child had recently died from a snake bite; they couldn't be airlifted out because the airstrip was unusable. The solution would have been sealing the airstrip, and the community have been asking for that for some years.

In another community, there was a high rate of chronic renal disease. People needed regular dialysis but they couldn't live on country, so they were forced to either move to the city or die on country. They were forced to leave their families. The medical service eventually did receive a dialysis machine but there was no generator in the community to support it and to power it—it was still sitting in a storage shed behind the health centre. These are the sorts of systemic failures that contribute to the gap we hear about between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

In 2002 the AMA began to publish its annual Indigenous health report card, under my presidency. It was aimed at highlighting persistent inequalities in health outcomes and longevity. The AMA report cards since then have continued to highlight fundamental issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, from addressing specific health conditions to looking at systemic failures contributing to these poor health outcomes. The medical profession has long and strongly advocated for increased awareness amongst governments, politicians, the media and the general public of the state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. The most recent AMA report card identified equitable needs based funding as a gap, and the need for systemically costing, funding and implementing physical and mental healthcare plans. In particular, it identified and recommended options to fill the gaps in primary health care, including addressing environmental health and housing issues and other social determinants.

One example, from 2017, is that the AMA Indigenous health report card called on all governments to work towards ending chronic otitis media, or middle ear infections. Poor ear health disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, particularly children, and causes a lifetime of hearing loss. It's a disease of poverty. It is directly linked to poorer social determinants of health, including unhygienic overcrowded conditions and inadequate and inappropriate health services.

The medical profession has long demanded proper funding for proven, targeted programs, and for governments to fund and resource services that are delivered in a community-controlled way. However, we're still left with the unacceptable situation that preventable, chronic health conditions are not being well-managed. The promises by successive governments about closing the gap remain illusory. The statistics speak for themselves. A life expectancy gap of around 10 years remains between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. Preventable admissions and deaths are three times higher for Indigenous people. There are matters contributing to these statistics, including: prevailing community attitudes; housing; education; an ignorance about culture and indifference about Indigenous culture; and a failure to invest in Indigenous language.

We can't close the gap if we just put money into medical services. There are still many Indigenous Australians who don't have access to proper sanitation, running water or fresh nutritious food. Health will never improve under these circumstances. The fact is that successive Australian governments have failed to invest in what Indigenous communities actually need. Indigenous people are too rarely consulted about their needs, and many do not have access to basic standards of living, like proper housing.

In a recent positive development, the Council of Australian Governments announced in December 2018 that it would establish a formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to work with governments on finalising a refresh of closing the gap. While there's been some opportunity for negotiations with Commonwealth, state and territory governments in the past, this is the first time that COAG has agreed to engage in a joint decision-making process. A coalition of almost 40 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies from across the nation is now providing legitimate community-controlled representation, and will be signatories to the formal partnership arrangements on a refreshed Closing the Gap framework.

Cheryl Axleby, Co-Chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, noted:

We must be the architects of policies that affect our lives and the partnership must recognise our right to self-determine if the quality of life for our peoples is to be improved over the next decade.

Ms Axleby continued:

Solutions to end over-imprisonment must be developed holistically alongside other areas of disadvantage in the Closing the Gap strategy - health, education, employment - in order to create real change for future generations. In addition, family violence, child protection, disability and housing targets must be added.

On this subject, it is essential to highlight domestic and family violence, which has a particularly damaging effect on Indigenous women, who are up to 35 times more likely to experience this form of violence than non-Indigenous Australian women. Indigenous women and girls are 31 times more likely to be hospitalised due to domestic and family violence related assaults compared to non-Indigenous women and girls. We must do better to address this horrific situation.

This years Closing the Gap report found that progress on only two goals was actually on track: increasing the number of Indigenous children in early childhood education and halving the year 12 attainment gap. The goals to close the gap in life expectancy by 2013, halve the gap in child mortality rates by 2018, halve the employment gap, halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018, and closing the gap in school attendance by 2018 are not on track. The mortality rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is still more than double the rate for non-Indigenous children. Homelessness rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are double the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.

Ms Axleby noted:

The Commonwealth Government has never had a deadline for ending the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - this is why we need a national justice target to make progress to end this human rights injustice.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 17 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous Australians. In the last 10 years, the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has increased by 80 per cent, with 34 per cent of the women's prison population being made up of Indigenous women.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community's failure to be heard by governments has long been at the crux of the disappointing progress in closing the gap. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations participated in good faith in the consultations led by the Commonwealth in the first stage of the Closing the Gap Refresh conducted in 2018. However, the consultations were only superficial, and draft targets were developed later without any involvement of the Indigenous stakeholders. It is this lack of genuine partnership which we must change if we are to deliver much better results in the next phase of Closing the Gap.

Mr John Paterson, a spokesman for the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation suggests:

You are not going to get kids to go to school if they haven't had a decent night's sleep because of an overcrowded house, you are not going to get kids to go to school if they haven't got food in their tummy … you ain't going to get kids to go to school if parents are not encouraging them to go to school due to lack of support services for parents.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want to have a say over their lives and matters that impact on them. We should invest in building the capacity of Indigenous Australians within their communities. That's why it's so disappointing that the government has decided to ignore the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is only through continuing to address the systemic inequalities that exist in all areas of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that we will be able to begin to have a real influence on health outcomes.

12:43 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health and Medicare) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I acknowledge the contribution of the member for Wentworth, who we just heard from. I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I recognise and pay my respects to the traditional owners of lands all across Australia. In particular, I recognise the Wathaurong and Djadjawurung people, the traditional owners of the lands that make up what is now the electorate of Ballarat.

First Nations peoples have called this land home for tens of thousands of years. Far back beyond recorded history, Indigenous peoples have lived their lives here. They raised their children, they supported each other, generations came and went and they developed their customs, traditions and practices, which today constitute the world's oldest living culture.

In more recent times, however, since the landing of Lieutenant Cook in Botany Bay almost 250 years ago, Indigenous Australians have had to battle against disease, discrimination, massacre and cultural desecration. This ongoing battle has left vast inequalities in the life expectancy, mortality, education and employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians when compared to others.

Last week the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both spoke in the House following the delivery of this year's Closing the gap report. Sadly, what the report tells us is that the gaps are still too large and that First Australians are still experiencing inequality on a scale that is an embarrassment to our nation. The failure of our nation is incredibly stark. We've failed to address the gaps in education, in life experience, in employment and in lifelong health. Rather than making the nation more equal, in a number of cases we are moving further apart. As the Leader of the Opposition said in his response last week, we have all too often failed to address racism and cultural destruction.

Addressing this is an important task at hand, particularly when it comes to health. The evidence tells us that culture and strong identity are key determinants of good health. The healthcare system of our nation must be culturally safe and free of racism. All too often it is not. I would like to think that, as a nation, we are good at calling out egregious acts of racism, and as the shadow minister for health I think it is particularly true of our health professionals. However, the evidence is that racism does occur in our health system. This ranges from a lack of understanding that unequal need requires unequal care to disturbing incidents of individuals being denied care or medicines that they need, because they are Indigenous.

That people are to this day denied appropriate treatment because of assumptions about their culture or compliance or backgrounds frankly needs to be tackled head-on. A survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians last year found that a staggering 88 per cent of those asked reported incidents of racism from nurses, and 74 per cent had experienced racism when dealing with GPs. It is obvious that, if you experience racism at a hospital or in a healthcare setting, it's less likely that you'll go there for treatment. This is something that our nation must continue to address, and I commend the many, many health organisations that are tackling this issue.

But sometimes people aren't even aware that it's occurring. It's a key reason why we must increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at all levels of our health workforce. It is also why we need to make sure that there are reconciliation action plans across all of our health service providers. We know that it's important to do that.

It's also important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have a voice in what is happening about them. It is absolutely critical that we stop doing things to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and that we actually do things with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In particular, we must engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, and in the health space we have to understand the unique and important role played by our Aboriginal-controlled community health organisations.

I cannot see a better example across this country of the WHO's vision of universal primary health care than our Aboriginal-controlled community health organisations. They are providing incredibly important services across areas of early childhood development and across areas of healthcare need, both in prevention and in treatment, that are critical to this nation, and it is to them that we must look to help close the gap.

I think it's very disappointing that there are reports that the government is attempting to look with Aboriginal-controlled community health organisations at their relying far more on MBS billing to fund their services than the block grants that they currently receive, and there is currently work being done by the government to try to look at settling the funding formula for Aboriginal-controlled community health organisations going forward. I think that, if the government is pursuing more MBS billing and less gap grant payments, it is very, very mistaken in doing so, and it's certainly not something that I would support.

I think it is really important that we look more closely at how we can support and better promote Aboriginal-controlled community health organisations to help close the gap. They will be the key. They will absolutely be the key, and we need to strengthen the work that we do with them. As we know, we must confront our mental health challenges in particular that lead to the tragedy of suicide and address those diseases with a high prevalence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A decade on, and with our nation on track to meet only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets, it is beyond time that we recommitted ourselves to doing everything that we can, understanding everything that we can, to actually ensure that we improve in particular the Closing the Gap targets when it comes to health. That will only happen when we work closely with Aboriginal-controlled community health organisations, when we work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and when we recognise that it is not our role here in this parliament to tell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people how they should feel or what they should do or what treatment they should receive; it is up to us to actually listen.

We have had a very powerful message sent to us by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Uluru statement. It mightn't be everything that we in this place wanted it to be; it might be something different. But it's not our job to tell them that they got it wrong; it is our job to try and work out how we can improve and increase the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the decision-making process—because we know that the more control people have over their own destinies and there own care the less likely they are to suffer health and mental health problems.

I again recognise that we have had the Closing the Gap statement to our parliament. I commit myself as the shadow minister for health—and if we are successful after the next election and I am in different role—to absolutely working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to close the gap in this nation.

12:51 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was fantastic to hear that contribution from the member for Ballarat and shadow minister for health. I know that she absolutely means it. I also want to recognise the significant work that the member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, has been doing in Indigenous health over decades. That knowledge is going to be very important in the future. He has seen about a decade of Closing the Gap reports and there hasn't been much good news. Unfortunately, there have been some failed policy responses. Having been in the Territory around the time of the intervention, I know that a lot that occurred totally undercut the principle of empowering people and giving them ownership over the direction of their lives and their families' lives. At the moment, I think we can see some examples in the fact that those opposites seem determined to keep justice targets out of the Closing the Gap formula. I think that is a mistake. You need only look at the incredible rates of incarceration of First Nations people in our country to realise there is something really wrong that needs to be addressed.

I have been part of a team that has been working on policy for many years in preparation for government. Obviously, I hope we get the opportunity to address some of those policy responses that are clearly failing. One thing I will mention is the failed Community Development Program of the current Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion, who is also from the Northern Territory. I note that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Northern Territory, Selena Uibo, a brilliant young woman, a very talented, passionate and grounded young woman, has written to the Prime Minister in relation to that failed program. Unfortunately, what we have seen with the CDP is that it is absolutely driving poverty in First Nations communities.

As the member for Wentworth said, when quoting John Paterson, whom I know well from the alliance of Aboriginal controlled organisations in the Northern Territory, kids won't go to school or be able to learn anything when they're hungry, when they've got empty stomachs. We're failing at that very base level. We've also seen, due to this poverty, an increase in break-and-enters to steal food. That's in the lucky country, our country, Australia. Poverty is driving break-and-enters for food. Predominantly, this has been by young people, children. Often in my electorate in the Top End, people say, 'Why aren't those kids at school?' Sometimes it's because they're out looking for a feed. Sure, this situation has been primarily due to alcohol in some First Nations families. There has been breakdown in some First Nations families, which means that their kids haven't got the supervision or support they need—in some First Nations families, I stress. But we shouldn't have a situation in our country where young people are basically being forced to seek food because there's no food in the house.

We've also seen an increase in domestic and family violence. We've seen an increase in financial coercion and family fighting. We've seen an increase in mental health problems: feelings of shame, depression and sleep deprivation. In many cases it's due to hunger. When you've got the head of the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation in the Northern Territory—an organisation which the member for Ballarat just mentioned as being so vital to us closing the gap—saying that this hunger thing is a real issue, we're listening. Everyone should be listening.

We need a federal government that will help the Northern Territory break these cycles of hunger and crime. Of course, the victims of crime need and deserve justice; but, at the same time, we cannot do what has been happening over the last few years of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments, whether it be policy laziness or whether it be just not seeking the right advice from the experts, the Aboriginal leaders in the communities. We haven't been going in the direction which we need to go in. It seems like the can keeps being kicked down the road and somehow we're just expecting that the situation is going to change. We won't see any change until we're listening—as we are committed to do on this side—to Aboriginal leaders and Aboriginal communities. I congratulate Selena Uibo, the new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. She's going to do a fantastic job, and she already is. She has been on the front foot to outline the failures in the current policies.

In the time remaining, I want to congratulate Timmy Duggan from my electorate for being chosen to lead new leadership courses through the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, which is headquartered here in Canberra but is now doing programs in Darwin. I know Timmy Duggan well. He's a champion sportsman and he's a great leader. He invited me to join him at Don Dale. A lot of people have heard about Don Dale. He runs a basketball program there on weekends. I went along with Timmy to talk with these kids who have been incarcerated about what they want their futures to be and what hope they see. What Timmy said to me was absolutely backed up by these kids on the ground. These young kids genuinely want to upskill and learn for real jobs in the future. Real jobs are what's needed. Aboriginal people want to upskill, they want to learn, and we should give them every opportunity to do that. I commend the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre for starting programs with Timmy Duggan in Darwin, in my electorate. I look forward to working with him and assisting him in that work.

We need to back the people who are working with young people and keep young people out of the criminal justice system whenever possible. We need to work with communities to see what they think is going to work for their young people. When we listen to that advice, as we have with the voice, we will do better and we will start to close the gap. Everyone, I think, regrets the slow progress in closing the gap on many of those targets. I say again that having justice targets within this framework is really important, because we cannot allow the current situation to continue where our First Nations people are incarcerated, sometimes for not paying fines that really shouldn't— (Time expired)

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Federation Chamber is suspended until 4.00 pm.

Sitting suspended from 13 : 01 to 16 : 02

4:03 pm

Photo of Anne StanleyAnne Stanley (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I've remarked on numerous occasions both in this House and outside how privileged I consider myself to have been elected as the member for Werriwa and how important it is to properly represent the constituents of not only my electorate but the whole of the country. This was crystallised again yesterday, when I was able to be in this Chamber while the members for Lingiari, Barton, Forde and Warringah gave their contributions to this debate, and last week when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition spoke as well. It's deeply disappointing to me that 11 years after the apology and the release of the Closing the gap reports that little has changed, and it is clear that so much more work needs to be done with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to improve the way they live and their opportunities.

Before I go further, I acknowledge the traditional owners of our country. I also acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, whose land on which this parliament meets, and the Dharawal, Gandangara, Dharug and Tharawal people, whose land on which the electorate of Werriwa is based. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging and I acknowledge that this land here and the land on which I live, work and represent in south-west Sydney was, is and always will be Aboriginal land.

Indeed, the electorate of Werriwa takes its name from the Aboriginal name for Lake George. I drive past Lake George each time I make the journey to Canberra. The powerful winds and golden light that flex across the dry plains make it a difficult landmark to miss. It serves as a powerful reminder of the Indigenous heritage of the Canberra region, with its ties to the name of the electorate I represent.

My speech this evening takes the path that I believe all Australians must consciously take in putting reconciliation efforts front and centre of all we do. We cannot have a conversation about how we might close the gap without thoughtfully and critically engaging with the history of the land which we call home.

The Darug people are the traditional custodians of much of the land across the electorate of Werriwa. The Darug people suffered enormously at the hands of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and other early settlers in the Western Sydney region. Their land, food, water and children were taken from them. They were divested of their culture to be made more European. Diseases brought by settlers, such as tuberculosis and measles, further diminished their numbers. By 1840, fewer than 300 Darug Aborigines were alive. That was 10 per cent of the original population.

To set the stage today in empowering Indigenous Australians towards success, it's important that we frame current statistics not only as markers of deficit but also as markers of survival. What I have just described in the above circumstances is common to all of our First Nations people. Behind each statistic presented today is a tale of triumph against some of the most harrowing circumstances that mark this nation's past. Now we are at a point where we agree that Indigenous Australians deserve the best possible circumstances to thrive upon their own terms. I agree with the member for Maribyrnong when he said last week:

… there is good news but not enough good news … hope but not enough hope … progress but not enough progress.

The fact of the matter is that one of the oldest living societies in the world, Indigenous Australians, managed magnificently for over 65,000 years without colonial interference. In the past few years, we've had books like Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia and Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu. Books like this speak to the incredible, sophisticated ways that First Nations people managed the land and the waterways of Australia for tens of thousands of years. A well-known example of this is the Brewarrina fish traps, in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Yet this area of Australia continues to suffer under the actions of modern-day Australia. When I see the devastation of the fish kills, the constant devastating cycles of drought and flood and the harm that modern-day life in Australia does to a once carefully cared for country, I think we have a lot to learn from the people who managed to live productively off this land for the last 65,000 years. It is with this in mind that we must take a leaf out of the book of Indigenous people and ask what we can do best to empower you.

The new Western Sydney Airport, in my electorate, provides a new opportunity and a fresh start in the age of reconciliation. I'm pleased to say that I know, as a member of the community consultative committee, that the WSA corporation and the government are working closely to ensure that the Aboriginal heritage is recorded and managed sensitively during the construction of the airport. There have already been eight stakeholder forums, and discussions are underway with those who know the land and have history with the region, ensuring that the airport will be built with First Nations input.

The Western Sydney City Deal also includes a strong commitment to Indigenous job targets, jobs for First Nations people, to ensure that there is clear impetus to include and engage Indigenous Australians front and centre with the prosperity that this project will bring to our region.

These may seem like small measures, but the institutional change required in closing the gap is going to take time and commitment. We need to build our institutions in Australia to include governance and input from our Indigenous people. I was disappointed to hear the Prime Minister discussing the changes in the statistics as wins and victories. Of course the statistics go some way to measuring the level of disadvantage that Indigenous Australians experience. But things like institutional empowerment and government input are so much more important and so much harder to measure. Only through self-determination, governance and input will we be able to truly empower our First Nations people.

I am proud to be part of the Australian Labor Party, a party that recognises the fundamental importance of Indigenous voices within our sphere of national government. I wholeheartedly support our measures to formally ensure that Indigenous Australians play an integral role in our nation's governance structures. An Indigenous voice in the parliament is absolutely crucial. This will ensure that all our parliaments have in perpetuity First Nations input on laws and lawmaking for Australians' futures. So too is the inclusion of the additional recognition in our Constitution.

We can't go back and correct the wrongs of the past, but what we can do is commit ourselves to closing the gap, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to improve health, living and educational outcomes as soon as possible. And we need to commit ourselves to doing that now.

4:10 pm

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Tuesday, on a perfect Canberra morning, it was my pleasure to join the Indigenous Marathon Foundation's Closing The Gap fun run and walk. It was 7 am on a crisp day and there we were at the shore of Lake Burley Griffin at the aptly named Reconciliation Place. The Indigenous Marathon Project, run by the Indigenous Marathon Foundation, was established by Rob de Castella and has, to date, sent dozens of young Indigenous Australians through its training program. The capstone is the New York marathon, but Indigenous Marathon Project participants then go back to their communities to set up Deadly Fun Runs. It is both a leadership program and a community engagement program. I commend Rob de Castella, one of my great heroes, for his initiative in setting it up.

I acknowledge those from the Indigenous Marathon Foundation—Aaron West, Adrian Dodson-Shaw, Amanda Dent, Laura White, Peta MacKinnon, Sophie Linehan and Cara Smith—as well as those from the Department of the Prime Minister and CabinetEmily Jones and Rachel Norman. It was a pleasure, too, to be joined by my colleagues the member for Rankin and the member for Lingiari, as well as Senator Scullion.

I have had a long association with the Indigenous Marathon Project. Over the course of 2015 to 2018, I set about running each of the world marathon majors as an Indigenous Marathon Project supporter, wearing their singlet. I was pleased to complete that last year, having done New York, Boston, Chicago, Tokyo, Berlin and London as an Indigenous Marathon Project supporter—253 kilometres in all. The final race was in Chicago and I was feeling a little wobbly as I came into the 35-kilometre point when suddenly I felt a hand grab me on the back of the head. I thought, 'Who on earth in a marathon would be grabbing you on the back of the head?' I looked over my shoulder and there was Charlie Maher, the first bloke to cross the line for the Indigenous Marathon Project. Charlie could tell I was struggling. He could tell there wasn't much point saying very much, so he just said two words—'Stay strong.' I did, and I managed to finish. With it, I had that sense of pride that really only comes from pushing yourself beyond the limits you thought you had. Charlie, like so many of the Indigenous Marathon Project graduates, is an extraordinary young man and will bring about extraordinary change in his community and across Australia.

There are just a handful of facts one needs to quote to recognise the challenges that we face in Indigenous policy today. The child mortality rate among Indigenous people in the Northern Territory is over 300 per 100,000. Nationally, the rate is less than 100 for non-Indigenous Australians. If we look at smoking, the share of Indigenous mothers who smoke after 20 weeks of pregnancy is 38 per cent compared to 12 per cent among non-Indigenous mothers. If we turn to education, the writing levels in NAPLAN of year 5 non-Indigenous students are higher than the levels for year 9 Indigenous students. The life expectancy gap is 8.6 years for men and 7.8 years for women, meaning that Indigenous Australians, on average, get eight fewer years with their families and loved ones. They get eight fewer Christmases, eight fewer birthdays and eight fewer years of productive work.

In the employment space, we know that there is not only a gap in Indigenous employment but also a potential challenge from automation. One of the interesting observations made by this year's Closing the gap report is the figure on page 102 which looks at the share of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians employed in what is known as 'routine work', which are jobs we know are particularly prone to automation; that share is higher among Indigenous than non-Indigenous Australians.

Then there are indicators that are not presently among the Closing the Gap targets. Incarceration rates are, among Indigenous Australians, 2,481 prisoners per 100,000 people; among non-Indigenous Australians, 164 per 100,000 people. When the Australian Electoral Commission analysed voter turnout in the 2016 election, they estimated that voter turnout overall was 91 per cent but, among Indigenous Australians, just 52 per cent.

The original six Closing the Gap targets are: in life expectancy, closing the life-expectancy gap within a generation; in child mortality, halving the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018; in early childhood education, ensuring access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013; in literacy and numeracy, halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievement for children by 2018; in year 12 or equivalent attainment, halving the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates by 2020; and, in employment, halving the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018. Then school attendance was added as a seventh target in 2014—closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by 2018. Those original targets were renewed, and now, in the case of early childhood, look to 2025.

The sad truth of the Closing the Gap targets is they are not, in large part, on track. I seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard a table which sets out each of the targets and whether they are on or off track.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows—

Closing the Gap targets table

I thank the government. According to the current numbers in 2019, only two of the seven targets are on track, those being the early childhood education target and the year 12 or equivalent attainment target. To compare this with earlier years: in 2013, for example, three out of six targets were on track; even last year, three out of seven targets were on track. To have only two out of the seven targets on track is, to all members of the House, I'm sure, deeply disturbing.

As the Leader of the Opposition outlined in his response to the Closing the Gap statement, a Labor government will enshrine a voice for the First Australians as our top priority for constitutional change. We will also embrace initiatives to encourage more teachers and more effective teachers in Indigenous communities. We'll train more Aboriginal apprentices and double the number of rangers. In our first hundred days, we will bring together people from all over the nation—police, child safety experts, families—to work out what must be done to protect the next generation of First Nations children. We'll invest in Aboriginal healthcare providers. We'll make justice reinvestment a national priority. And we'll support Indigenous languages, in this, the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Labor will provide compensation to survivors of the stolen generation from Commonwealth jurisdictions and create a national healing fund for descendants managing intergenerational trauma. And we'll abolish and replace the Community Development Program.

True reconciliation must be both practical and symbolic. It must recognise that there is deep value in the acknowledgement of the traditional elders of the land on which we meet, as I do in my public speeches, and as I do now, for the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, and as our parliament does when we open each day. It comes to reconciliation action plans being pursued by businesses and community organisations. It goes to simple symbolic acts. For example, is it really appropriate that the heads on Australian coins should be those of a monarch from the other side of the world rather than the heads of famous Indigenous Australians? Why not have our own Indigenous Australians gracing Australian coins?

It is appropriate that we in Australia acknowledge how far we have to go. This Closing the Gap report is a vital piece of truth-telling to Australia. It is to our shame, but it also a reminder of the work to be done to ensure that not two out of seven but seven out of seven targets are on track to be met.

4:20 pm

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

In making my comments today, I would like to cover off about the importance of the Closing the Gap document, talk a little bit about the history and importance of the apology, talk about my work here in parliament during the six years I have been member for Indi and talk about what's next.

Let me start with some history. There is a wonderful book called Corroboree or war party: the last dance of the Wangaratta Pangerang. This book talks about the first contact with white people in my area in 1894—the great adventurers Hume and Hovell. It says Hume and Hovell actually followed the Pangerang footsteps; Hume and Hovell didn't make the route themselves. It says that 'members of the 1824 exploration expedition travelled along native pathways. There were no other tracks except such as were made by the natives in the neighbourhood of the water.' A little bit later, it talks about the area around the Ovens Valley of north-east Victoria in 1824. It says: 'The natives hereabout are evidently numerous as they conclude from their fires, the smoke of which is observed in every direction, and yesterday their voices were distinctly heard but none of them could be seen.' So, the early white settlement history in early Victoria is recorded here. This book is by Wendy Mitchell, who did it as part of her masters degree in regional development.

In my growing up, that is probably the history I got of my area. And it wasn't really until I agreed to stand as the member for Indi that I paid some serious attention to the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who live in north-east Victoria. It was the apology that first brought this to my attention. As members would know, the then Prime Minister Mr Rudd made the apology. The federal member for Indi at the time decided that she would not be present for the apology; she abstained. The reaction in my community was one of horror, because she was our representative and she wasn't there.

I was part of the general movement that said that was not good enough; we didn't want a representative who wouldn't represent us. That was one of the driving forces that encouraged me to put my hand up. I made the commitment that, when I got elected, I would come to parliament and I would make the apology on behalf of the people of Indi, which I did. In preparation for getting elected, I met many of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I made a policy commitment in 2013 that, if elected as a member of parliament, I would form an advisory committee of Aboriginal people to assist in providing advice on issues of health, education and employment. I committed to make a public statement to recognise and acknowledge past mistreatment of stolen generations and I committed to make an acknowledgement to traditional owners of the land on which I meet at every public assembly. I am delighted to say that I have been able to do that. That was commitment No. 1.

The second part of me being a member of parliament was to be a representative for my community. I am delighted and proud to say that I think I have been able to do that—not perfectly but I have certainly begun. I have made formal speeches in parliament around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues in my electorate. I have been speaking on Closing the Gap. I have asked questions. I have reported on local activities. I have had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander come to Canberra, and we have had deputations. So, that is good work.

Also as a member of parliament I have been able to reach out and network with some of my communities. I want to briefly put on record and thank and acknowledge the work of the three local Aboriginal networks in my community that provide me with policy advice—the Gadhaba in Mansfield, the Dirrawarra in Wangaratta, the Albury-Wodonga Aboriginal Network and their leaders. I won't name you all—there are far too many—but I thank you very much for welcoming me into your community.

I want to acknowledge the First Nations elders advisory group, which I've met with twice, this year and late last year, and thank them particularly for their words of wisdom and the issues that they've presented to me about housing, health and their want to be involved in closing the gap at a regional level.

I want to talk especially about some of the key aunties and uncles that have helped me understood my job better: Aunty Betty Hood-Cherry, Uncle Freddy Dowling, Catherine Coysh, David Noonan, Tammy Campbell, Darren Moffitt and Chris Thorne. Thank you so much for your patience and your tolerance. You've taken me under your wing as your federal member and you've taught me a great deal. Following the learning from knowing you, I was encouraged to put my hand up to be considered for the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition. I think that was really when I absolutely came to understand the responsibility I have as a member of parliament. Though I thought I'd done reasonable work representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, I know our work hasn't even seriously begun.

I want to talk briefly to the report of the committee. It says:

We believe there is a strong desire among all Australians to know more about the history, traditions and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their contact with other Australians both good and bad. A fuller understanding of our history including the relationship between Black and White Australia will lead to a more reconciled nation.

There are recommendations in the report to do that, particularly around truth-telling. I want to talk for a minute about this committee of inquiry, because it came to Albury-Wodonga. We had a number of local people come to present. We had over 24 submissions from Indi to that inquiry. As I sat and listened to the local people talk about our history of white settlement and efforts around health and education, I came to understand how far we have to go and how far my community has to go before we even begin to do some of the serious work of closing the gap.

I now get to the part of my speech where I acknowledge the work of the constitutional committee. I want to say thank you to Senator Pat Dodson. When we were in Broome, he took me around and showed me his community through his eyes. If you ever go to Broome and have the opportunity to be guided around by Aboriginal people who give you a sense of their 60,000 years of history, it's the most wonderful thing to behold. I want to say thank you to Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who came to Beechworth and delivered the Kerferd oration to over 400 people at Beechworth. At the end, she got a standing ovation for not only her skill of oration but also her ability to reach across the divide of the Northern Territory and north-east Victoria to connect with the community and give us a sense of our shared journey together.

I want to say thank you to Linda Burney, member of the House of Representatives, and the leadership she has provided in the House, but also our shared work with the Torres Strait Islander women's leadership group. Linda, in acknowledging you, I also want to acknowledge your partner, Rick Farley. When he was with the National Farmers' Federation, one day he pointed out to me—he said, 'Cathy, never ever forget that Australia has a black heart.' I take that so strongly. What a wonderful thing it is to think that our culture and our nation is formed, and the heart of us is our Aboriginal traditions. I also want to thank Julian Leeser, the co-chair of that committee, for his wisdom, his knowledge and his professionalism. I learnt so much from watching him at work.

In bringing my comments to a close on Closing the Gap and bringing the last speech I will make in parliament around this topic to a close, I want to commit to do four things: I want to talk about our history, I want to talk about being solution focused, I want to talk about recognition of traditional owners, and I want to talk about the importance of Closing the Gap, but beginning at grassroots and not doing top-down work.

When I finish being a member of parliament, I commit to understanding and documenting the history of white settlement in my community, because, when we started to look at finding out who the traditional owners in our community were, there were very few of them, and they don't live locally. And the reason why they don't live locally is that they died or they got moved somewhere else. I live in a really populous part of north-east Victoria, and we don't have our local history of that white settlement. I'm going to work with my community over the next 10 years to document it and begin that process of truth-telling, and I invite the young people here today to be part of this journey with me, as part of your school curriculum. As young leaders, come with me on the journey to understand our history, our long-time Indigenous history. I hope, like me, you will be inspired by it. (Time expired)

4:30 pm

Photo of Gai BrodtmannGai Brodtmann (Canberra, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Cyber Security and Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I begin by acknowledging the Ngambri and Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, in my electorate of Canberra, and I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and future. I'm grateful for the opportunity to once again speak on the Closing the Gap report. Like the member for Indi, this is my last opportunity to do so. I've been speaking on these reports since I became the member for Canberra, and it is a great honour again to be able to speak on this latest report. Reading these reports, we see that there are incremental gains every time. There are some significant gains, and in some sectors there are no gains at all. It does make for poignant reading. It's a poignant reminder of the work that we have yet to do to ensure true equality for the diverse First Nations people across the country.

The overall message of Closing the Gap this year is one of hope, and that's what we need to take from this report. As I said, while we haven't achieved all the targets set in the majority of sectors, we are making significant progress in many others. We've seen improvements in the education sector, and we're on track in early education, with 95 per cent of First Nations children enrolled in preschool in 2017, which is a fantastic result. In the ACT we've achieved universal enrolment for all First Nations children. We're also on track in year 12 attainment, with the gap narrowing from 36 per cent in 2006 to 24 per cent in 2016. These achievements are significant and they should be celebrated, particularly that extraordinary achievement on early education. Once you get the children in at that early age, they're more likely to continue right through to secondary and then onto vocational or potentially tertiary education.

While the overall literacy and numeracy rates are not improving at the pace we need them to, there have still been some significant gains. First Nations students in year 9 are on track in numeracy across every state in Australia, and there's been an 11 per cent increase in the number of students who are at or above national standards in years 3, 5 and 9. In the ACT, all year groups are on track, reaching key literacy and numeracy targets. It's no wonder I'm proud of this community! It's no wonder I bang on about how wonderful it is all the time. These are fantastic figures. They're fantastic figures for the nation, particularly, as I said, that 95 per cent for early education. That's a significant achievement. And there's also the year 12 achievement and the year 9 literacy and numeracy achievement. Yes, there are gains being made, and we should applaud and celebrate those gains. But we can't take our eye off the ball. There is still a lot more work do be done, and not just throughout the rest of the country but also here in the ACT, despite these very good figures.

We know there is a link between education and employment, and improved education outcomes for First Nations people can only lead to greater job and economic security in the longer term. There are also links between improved education outcomes and improved health outcomes, and this is evident here in Canberra. We've got that fabulous record on early childhood, on year 9 literacy and numeracy and on year 12 attainment, and we see those knock-on-effect benefits in terms of employment and health outcomes.

What's really helping with the health outcomes here is the Winnunga Nimmityjah, the community health service down in Narrabundah, which has been providing primary health services to our First Nations people not just here in Canberra but also in the capital region. It has been providing primary healthcare services for 30 years. We celebrated this in style last year at the National Portrait Gallery. The member for Lingiari was there. The Minister for Indigenous Health and Minister for Aged Care was there. Senator Malarndirri McCarthy was there, as was Senator Pat Dodson. It was a wonderful night in celebration of this achievement. It was definitely a celebration of the fact that from little things big things grow, because when Winnunga first started it had a $200,000 budget and it was being run out of a tiny little office, from memory. Now it's this amazing facility, this amazing health service, that's right in the guts of our community, right in the guts of Narrabundah, and it just keeps growing. I've spent the last nine years, the last three terms, trying to get funding so that it can grow, so that we can get more health facilities and services and more discreet entry points for sensitive counselling and sensitive drug treatment services. We've been blessed by the fact that the First Nations people of Canberra have had access to this wonderful service, this tailored service, for 30 years.

In the Aboriginal Wiradjuri language, 'winnunga nimmityjah' means 'strong health'. Winnunga is one of more than 160 organisations nationwide that is focused on delivering primary health care to First Nations people. Winnunga is really special in so many different ways. It's very much tailored to the needs of the First Nations people of Canberra and the capital region. It provides a culturally safe, holistic healthcare service for people all around this area. Depending on the service, between 30 and 40 per cent of the capital region uses it, in addition to people who are living here in Canberra.

The range of services varies dramatically. We've got counselling services, dental services, diabetes services and services for kidney health. We've also got maternal health. That's a relatively new service. There's a maternal health centre there, which looks after infant welfare and also reproductive health. It provides a broad range of services from trying to fall pregnant to pre- and post-natal care. This is all provided down at Winnunga, in addition to a range of other services. It's a great facility. The team there is wonderful. It's run by Julie Tongs and a fabulous board of committed leaders. The medical team, the nursing team, the dental team, the counselling team and the other staff there are all wonderful. They've been there a long time. They're all deeply committed to improving the health of the First Nations people of Canberra and the capital region into the future, and they've made some significant gains. All power to them.

Canberra is also home to the Khaamburra Netball Tournament, which is a tournament for First Nations people. It was originally set up by the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander netball organisation and the Tuggeranong Netball Association. I am the proud patron of the TNA. The tournament provides participation and it also provides culturally safe and inclusive education and training opportunities in line with the Netball Australia pathways. Since 2015, Khaamburra Netball has helped First Nations girls gain confidence and self-awareness of their history and community, and the pathways program allows for representative development and the opportunity to compete in the national Indigenous schoolgirls netball tournament. I'm a proud patron of the TNA, as I said, but also of the Khaamburra Netball Tournament. Engagement in this tournament, which I have supported since its inception, grows every year in terms of bringing in Indigenous girls, women and boys to come and compete in a national tournament. People from Queensland and New South Wales come to compete in this tournament, which I think is a very rare tournament. It may not be the first of its kind, but it is one of a handful of its kind.

An essential aspect of closing the gap is recognising the strong community ties in First Nations communities and finding a way to partner with and rely on the community to enact positive change. Winnunga and Khaamburra Netball are very good examples of community engagement here in Canberra, but this engagement needs to be much, much broader. The pervasive message of the Closing the gap report this year is one of hope, as I said earlier. While we still have work to do, we have seen improvement in the lives of many First Nations people, particularly here in Canberra and in the capital region, and significant improvements in areas like education. As a community, we must work tirelessly and commit to working tirelessly to ensure the history and culture of our First Nations people are not lost, to ensure true equality for all and to create a better, more united Australia.

Debate adjourned.