House debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Closing the Gap

3:18 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Barton proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The Government’s failure to Close the Gap.

I call upon all those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

One of the most remarkable days of my life was in February 2008. In this building, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said sorry and announced a decade to close the gap in seven areas. It has been 12 years since we commenced this national effort to close the gap in the quality-of-life outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It hasn't happened.

While we have made some progress, these latest results are unacceptable. The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 was not met. The Indigenous child mortality rate is still more than twice that of non-Indigenous children, Tragically, 117 Indigenous children died in 2018. The target to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018 was not met. Reading, writing and maths results and school attendance figures are still nowhere near good enough. One in four Indigenous children are performing below minimum standards for reading and one in five below the minimum standards for numeracy. If kids aren't attending school and if they can't read, write and do maths, they are denied a lifetime of opportunity. This has not been helped by the Liberals having cut billions of dollars of funding from schools that need the most help, including many remote schools with high Indigenous enrolments. I and my colleague the member for Sydney acknowledge that many teachers and many schools are doing terrific work with Indigenous children, but they are getting precious little support from this federal government.

The target to close the gap in school attendance by 2018 was not met. While enrolment for early childhood education was on track, we are concerned about the significant variation between jurisdictions—in particular, Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales. While attendance rates in early education remain favourable, we are particularly concerned that the Northern Territory rate is almost 20 percentage points behind, at 73.1 per cent. It is deeply concerning, but unfortunately not surprising, that out-of-pocket costs are listed as a barrier to access to early education for Indigenous children. We know that out-of-pocket costs are soaring under the Morrison government, and it is often vulnerable and disadvantaged children who are most severely impacted. This disparity is more pronounced in remote and very remote areas.

The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 was not met. At the expiration of this target, the Indigenous employment rate was 49 per cent, compared to 75 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. In the decade to 2018, this gap has barely changed.

The target to close the gap in life expectancy—a gap which cannot be understood in a country like Australia—by 2031 is not on track. Indigenous Australians live eight years less than other Australians, and this gap is even wider—absolutely a chasm, as Anthony Albanese said this morning—in remote and regional areas. Alarmingly, Indigenous cancer mortality rates, well understood by our shadow minister for health, are worsening. Indigenous cancer survival is actually going backwards in absolute terms—not just in comparison to non-Indigenous Australians. This year's result is virtually the same as last year—and it is just not good enough.

These are not statistics; these are people. They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles. The first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice commissioner, Mick Dodson, said it perfectly. He said:

A certain kind of industrial deafness has developed. The meaning of these figures is not heard—or felt. The statistics of infant and perinatal mortality are our babies and children who die in our arms.

The statistics of shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles, aunties and elders who live diminished lives and die before their gifts of knowledge and experience are passed on. We die silently under these statistics.

We have all heard them—the figures of death, and of disability. Every few years, figures are repeated and excite attention. But I suspect that most Australians accept them as being almost inevitable.

The human element in this is not recognised. The meaning of these figures is not heard—or felt.

The Leader of the Opposition today spoke about truth-telling. Most of us on this side of the House and, I am sure on the other side of the House have heard the minister speak about the extraordinary truth-telling of the Myall Creek massacre. On 10 June 1838, a gang of 11 stockmen, led by a squatter, brutally slaughtered a group of some 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who were camped peacefully next to the station huts on the Myall Creek cattle station near the Gwydir River in central New South Wales.

Even though the Myall Creek massacre was just one of the countless massacres that took place right across this country, from the earliest days of British settlement in 1788 and, as we heard today, right through to Coniston in 1928, it stands alone in its historical significance. It is significant because it is the only time in Australian history that white men were arrested, charged and hung for the massacre of Aboriginal people. Because the massacre was so thoroughly investigated and documented, it provided irrefutable documentary evidence not just of this massacre but also of how commonplace such massacres were at the time.

The consequences of past wrongs have transcended generations, and they can still be felt today. We can see it in the child who doesn't have a safe roof to live under. I have visited remote communities where the town has literally run out of water, let alone clean water. I have seen dams empty and children given soft drinks instead of water. These disparities plague First Nations people right across this continent, including the islands of the Torres Strait, but it is in our remote and regional areas where the disparity is particularly pronounced, where the significant obstacles to closing the social and health gaps between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are most felt—and I'm sure the member for Lingiari will speak about that. Mick Dodson went on to say this about social justice:

Social Justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with an adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and appreciation of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity. A life free from discrimination.

Understanding this truth is critical to understanding the challenges, the disparity and the gap that we can see today. It is also critical that we understand that First Nations people best understand the challenges and solutions to the issues affecting them. It is for this reason that Labor supports the three components of the Uluru Statement in full. We also welcome the partnership that the minister spoke about today between the Coalition of Peaks and the government.

Labor looks forward to supporting new and ambitious targets to close the gap, including, as our leader indicated today, the important area of justice. We also want to see targets around child removal and out-of-home care. A direct and secure voice to decision-makers will build on the work of the peaks and ensure that the issues and perspectives of First Nations people are not left to languish on the fringes. Genuine commitment means that services and programs are adequately resourced and properly funded. It is difficult to accept a commitment as genuine when half a billion dollars has been cut from the Indigenous affairs budget by the present government. We are only halfway through the original target for closing the gap in life expectancy, but these failures are not inevitable so long as there is a genuine commitment from government to listen and lead.

Once again, we offer bipartisanship from this side of the House. There are differences on issues, particularly around a voice to the parliament, but we all understand that we cannot grow as a nation—we cannot call ourselves a complete nation—when the disparity that I've outlined, the disparity that we all understand, the disparity that we see in our electorates exists for First Nations people, the first peoples, as the High Court reiterated yesterday, of this land.

3:28 pm

Photo of Ken WyattKen Wyatt (Hasluck, Liberal Party, Minister for Indigenous Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Barton for bringing forward this MPI on a very important day, but on critical issues. There are many seminal moments in the history of this nation, and the 10 reports on Closing the Gap are seminal moments. What they have done since the commencement of this process is heighten the awareness amongst mainstream Australia of the level of the disparity. Given my age, I have read numerous reports that identify the chasms of the past, in terms of outcomes, when the difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was a far greater chasm. But, as we've progressed over the 10 years of Closing the Gap, we've succeeded in many areas of activity that are seeing improvements occurring at the local level.

The issue we have is with the aggregation of data. When you aggregate, you don't get a sense of where success sits across this nation. I celebrate many successes when I'm out in communities. Whilst my colleague from the other side does raise matters to do with potable water and elements that are important in the quality of life, we are working with good intention. Whilst established with good intention, the government of the day failed to acknowledge the critical role that Indigenous Australians play in the process.

Since I've been in this place I've seen a quantum shift in the way in which so many members in this chamber now engage with Indigenous Australians and have conversations with them in respect to what it is that they are seeking, and then they champion those causes. If we've had that impact in this chamber then the impact is greater outside as well in addressing the disparities, but we have not done the implementation process well either. It doesn't matter at which level we address this. As the Prime Minister stated earlier today:

Over decades, our top down, government knows best approach has not delivered the improvements we all yearn for.

For too long, governments of all persuasions have done things to our people, not with them.

Today is an opportunity to collectively take forward the different paradigm. The engagement of Indigenous Australians through the peak bodies with our government has developed an awareness that is significant, and that significance is not lost on the broader Indigenous community, but we've got to get better at it at every level. Now is the time to lead, to recognise our collective failings and to reach out to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to work with them, to walk with them, to listen to them and to welcome them to the table so that together we can realise what we all aspire to. This is equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I'm heartened by the gains, including in early childhood education and its long-term impact, but I equally acknowledge there are still gaps that we have much to do in.

I listened to my colleague opposite raise some issues in the lunchtime session that are part of the dialogue that the Coalition of Peaks are having with our people within the community on the ground. That is an important phase in the way that we move forward. I am reassured that the commitment to working with our people is genuine and that the process will lead to greater involvement across this nation in a way that we've not seen before.

We acknowledge that the past 10 years have not delivered the results we should have had, and there is no way of shying away from the responsibility we share to get to the next 10 and the 10 after that. This shared accountability and shared responsibility with governments, Indigenous Australians and their communities and organisations is paramount to the way in which we turn the dial from failure to potential successes in key and critical areas. That will include our government continuing to engage with ministers for Indigenous Australians, as I have been doing, across this nation, talking about areas that are important to all of us in the way in which we focus on tangible and real outcomes that change the quality of life for young people. We have issued a call to all governments to continue to work together on national priorities for collective action, supporting local communities to set their own priorities and tailor services to this unique context.

My discussions with, in many senses, my peers at each state and territory level have been very welcoming in the way in which they are now engaging with Indigenous Australians. Steven Marshall, who has responsibility in South Australia for Indigenous Australians, now brings his advisory body into the inner sanctum of government and has his ministers sitting with the Indigenous people on that body to talk about those things that impact on people living in South Australia. And there are others who are doing things differently. They are now involving and listening to Indigenous Australians around this nation.

We will continue to work together through the COAG process. The Prime Minister, as you heard today, is very strongly committed. He made this comment to the peaks: 'I am about listening and working with you, not about our government doing things to you anymore.' I know that in the discussions that he and Pat have had, they have been genuine in their commitment to making sure that we take a different paradigm of working and sharing and making decisions together.

Indigenous Australians at local, regional and national engagements are embedding knowledge and leadership into those discussions. My colleague across the table and I have, for 40 years, been on the outside fighting inwardly to reflect and achieve changes that would make a long-term sustainable difference. Now that we're in here, we have the opportunity of ensuring that, collectively, we engage and bring our people to the table and that we bring them to the deliberations of their aspiration in changing the way in which we work together. There is an important need to be bipartisan. There will be times in which we will have our differences, but the bottom line has to be for the greater good of all Indigenous people across this country. It has to be that every tier of government needs to play its role in making sure that the people at the table are equal partners.

I was in Geraldton when the native title handover occurred, and in the address I gave I made the comment that native title and Indigenous Land Use Agreements change the context of engagement, negotiation and agreed decision-making, and realise a benefit that is not just a superficial benefit but a long-term one in the economic, sustainable directions that they wish to achieve. We also have to think about that as well, because, when we talk about traditional owners, we're going to have to engage with them differently as well. But let me say that we are as one in what we say in terms of our people sitting at the table and talking.

All of us have failed in the Closing the Gap journey over the last 10 years. The intent has been great and good, but we also have to look at the model as a model that had intent but is broken. By having our people sit at the table in all of the Closing the Gap refresh approaches means that we will have a better ownership at the local level, a better ownership between governments and Indigenous Australians, but, more importantly, the engagement of mainstream Australia in the aspirations that communities seek.

Those areas of detriment in rural and remote areas still have a way to go. But we will work collectively to make sure that that occurs, and we will work with those communities. That's a commitment that both the Morrison government and I commit to in the way we will change the paradigm for the next 10 years, in which we will build a relationship and a partnership that are based on joint and shared decision-making, joint ownership and joint accountability and our capacity to reach out and use the skills within our Indigenous leadership and communities and, equally, the skills of non-Indigenous Australians in that journey forward to a better future. I hope that all of us in this chamber—the whole 150 of us—leave a legacy that marks today.

3:38 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Barton and the Minister for Indigenous Australians for their speeches. I do want to take up some of the issues which are raised by the minister. Minister, I don't doubt the sincerity of what you say about your intent to walk with Aboriginal people and to listen to them. We heard the Prime Minister this morning say that he wanted to listen to Aboriginal people and he wanted to push decision-making down. He said, 'What have we been too proud to learn?' and, later, during question time, he said, 'We need to look through the eyes of Indigenous Australians'. Well, yes; that's true. Why hasn't he done it?

On one hand, we see what I think is a very progressive step in working with the Coalition of Peaks in the way in which it has been described, and that's a very important advancement. But, on the other hand, in contradiction to that, we see a blindness and a deafness to what Aboriginal people have been saying to this government for some time: 'Why won't you listen to us?' The two examples that I can give right now are the government's insistence on making the cashless debit card mandatory throughout the Northern Territory when Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have said vehemently, 'We don't want it.' There's no understanding of the implications of this card on those people. They know, and they've asked the government not to do it. But the government seems intent on doing so regardless—where is the listening—as it is around the CDP program, which Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory say has hurt them immeasurably. There is a deafness. The government doesn't want to hear these things. And, when it doesn't hear, it doesn't listen. And, when it doesn't listen, it doesn't take note and it doesn't change. That's a problem.

This report is a sad indictment on all of us, not just the government but all of us in this place, that, over a decade, we collectively—Labor, Liberal, Nationals and Greens and everyone else—haven't been able to achieve the results we should be achieving. And I say this from the perspective of Aboriginal people who live in the remote part of the Northern Territory. What this report says is an absolute bloody indictment. It points out very, very clearly that over the decade things have been getting comparatively worse. Life expectancy for an Indigenous male in a very remote part of Australia is nearly 17 years less than it is for non-Aboriginal Australians, and eight years less than for Aboriginal Australians living in metropolitan areas. There is a problem here.

The minister says the gaps have come down—but the disparity is growing. There's no question that there have been measures which have made changes, absolutely. That's all been down to the drive of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services, largely, throughout Australia. There's one that has had outstanding success which we all know about. It's the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health in Brisbane. There's no question about that. But it's come from the community. At one point the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health—remember this?—were provided resources, $100 million by the Gillard government, for an antismoking campaign, and Joe Hockey said it was a waste of money. Pleasingly, although sadly, the government then took $500 million out of the budget.

We now acknowledge—even the government acknowledges—the importance of these programs. This is because Aboriginal people have been running them and achieving success themselves, despite what we do. We have a lesson here. The lesson is that, if we want to walk with people, we've got to talk with them, listen to them and pay attention to what they say. In the case of people who live in very remote parts of this country, we have not been listening, because, had we been listening, changes would have resulted in a definite improvement. Housing, is just one example—as is water, as the shadow minister said. There are many, many areas we need to collectively improve on.

I accept the hand of friendship across the table. I want to work with you, Minister, as we all do, but, if we don't work together, listen, learn and do what Aboriginal people ask, we won't achieve a positive outcome.

3:44 pm

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

In my comments today I wanted to focus on those who are working so hard to close the gap, and I wanted to start with the minister at the table, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, and acknowledge the efforts of the minister and the member for Barton in this space. I really wanted to acknowledge the fact that the minister was born at Roelands mission in my electorate. He was six weeks premature and ended up in the Bunbury Hospital as a result. He is, of course, of Noongar, Yamatji, Wongi heritage and grew up in Corrigin in the west.

To his great credit, he became a teacher and progressed onto senior roles in health—he was a director in health—and education in New South Wales and Western Australia. He was awarded the Centenary of Federation Medal for 'his efforts and contribution to improving the quality of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and mainstream Australian society in education and health'.

I think we are all particularly proud of his appointment to this particular role. He brings dignity to the role. He is the first-ever Indigenous minister for Indigenous affairs. He sits at the cabinet table. He represents Indigenous people every time he does so and every day of his life. I want to acknowledge his efforts in this place and the respect with which he's held. He's one of the people totally focused on closing the gap.

There is a group in my part of the world that works very well on closing the gap in health. It is the only Aboriginal community controlled health organisation in Wardandi boodja—24,000 square kilometres of the south-west. The South West Aboriginal Medical Service is a brilliant, local not-for-profit organisation. They do a fantastic job. They are founded on the principles of self-determination, which the minister talks about; empowerment; and freedom of choice. They focus on physical and mental health. They pursue best practice and provide culturally appropriate holistic health services to the Indigenous community in our south-west. They are improving the health of Aboriginal people and are providing incredible support. They call it 'Our health, our way'. That's exactly what they're doing.

Minister Wyatt, you've been there and you understand what they're offering. Ernie Hill is their chair. Lesley Nelson is doing a fantastic job as their CEO, as you know so well. The Aboriginal and Indigenous population in the south-west is close to 4,000, and this organisation has delivered nearly 26,000 episodes of health care. What a great job they're doing. I want to acknowledge all of their efforts. They have outreach into areas like Busselton, Collie, Manjimup and Harvey. I want to acknowledge Lesley Ugle, who won the Harvey Community Citizen of the Year award. She is a Harvey Aboriginal community elder. She was acknowledged as a deadly yorga, which is a great compliment in the local Noongar culture. It's roughly equivalent to 'an amazing woman'. She's delivering outreach for SWAMS in Harvey. It's a fantastic job that she is doing as part of SWAMS.

Minister Wyatt, you came to SWAMS last year and launched the world's first Aboriginal television health network. It's a federally funded network providing culturally safe health info online to help build stronger communities and close the gap. Along with SWAMS there are other organisations out there. I want to acknowledge the efforts of all those working day in and day out in Aboriginal and Indigenous communities right around Australia. Their focus absolutely is on improving the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people.

I really want to acknowledge the member for Barton and Minister Wyatt, who are at the table, in their efforts and willingness to work together. Minister, I think you've highlighted the walking together and listening in all of your remarks. One of the great things we have here is the great respect with which both of you at the table are held, not only in this parliament but wherever you are received around Australia. That's a really important part of what's ahead in closing the gap.

3:49 pm

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

( Today is an incredibly important day for this parliament and this nation, when we monitor the progress against the Closing the Gap targets that were set in 2008 following the national apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Sadly, today we know that five of those seven targets are far from on track. One of those targets was to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018. Tragically, the rate of child mortality for Indigenous children remains twice that of other Australian children. We wanted to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018. This is well behind, with one in four Indigenous children not meeting minimum standards for reading, and one in five for numeracy. These children are being robbed of a lifetime of opportunity. We wanted to close the gap in school attendance by 2018 and halve the gap in employment, and to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031. On this, Indigenous Australians remain eight years behind non-Indigenous Australians. That is worse in remote and regional areas. Very concerningly, cancer mortality rates for Indigenous Australians are actually worsening in absolute terms, not only when compared with non-Indigenous Australians.

We as a nation cannot accept this. This is the same as last year and it is simply not good enough. If we want to see real change and progress in closing the gap we must properly understand that the dispossession and separation of families did not stay in the past. The generational trauma continues on. We have to recognise this. The consequences of past wrongs have transcended generations and can still be felt today. We need to confront our history. We need truth-telling. It is also critical that we understand that First Nations people understand best the challenges and solutions to the issues affecting them. First Nations people need to be central to the decisions that affect them, and it is for these reasons that Labor supports the Uluru statement in full. As outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, delivered in 2017, three years ago now, those gathered at the National Constitutional Convention, coming from all around this country, said:

… we are the most incarcerated people on the planet … Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates … our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers.

…   …   …

… to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country … have power over our destiny … We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata … the coming together after a struggle.

Labor wants to see this implemented. Here we are, three years on, still waiting to see a voice to the parliament enshrined so that we can meaningfully listen. We must stop repeating the mistakes of the past. We must genuinely listen to First Nations Australians. We welcome the partnership between the Coalition of Peaks and the government, and Labor hopes to support new and ambitious targets to close the gap, including in the important areas of justice, child removal and out-of-home care. There are things that just must simply be addressed. As the member for Barton has again drawn attention to in this parliament, there are communities that don't have clean water for kidney dialysis, let alone drinking. We as a nation cannot accept this. A genuine commitment means services and programs need to be adequately resourced and properly funded. We question that commitment as genuine when this government has cut half a billion dollars from Indigenous Affairs. We look forward to working with the government to close the gap, but, as the member for Barton has also said, bipartisanship must not be a race to the bottom. We must be ambitious. We must genuinely listen and genuinely close the gap.

3:53 pm

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's fair to say that this Closing the gap report presents a mixed range of results. We should acknowledge that there are two important successes in the report. The target in relation to early childhood development and education is on track. That is not something to be sneezed at. We know from the work of Professor James Heckman at the University of Chicago that early childhood education and development are absolutely paramount to somebody's future.

The second success of the report is the fact that school completion rates are on track. We know that, when somebody completes year 12, many options open to them that weren't available to them but for their completing year 12, whether it's further education or employment opportunities. We know as well that for those that go on from year 12 to university and complete a bachelor's degree there is absolutely no gap between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. But we also have to be realistic that, other than those two targets, for all the other targets we are not on track.

I want to particularly focus on the target in relation to employment, because this particular report shows that there's been no substantial improvement since 2008. Although the targets are about to change, I think the employment outcomes demonstrate the need for new approaches, which the government, under the leadership of this minister, have embarked upon. Between 2008 and 2018-19 the national Indigenous employment rate increased only slightly, from 48.2 per cent to 49.1 per cent. The employment rate for non-Indigenous Australians over the same period remained relatively stable, at around 75 per cent.

There's an interesting point in the report about remoteness and employment too. In 2018-19 the Indigenous employment rate was highest in major cities, around 59 per cent, and lowest in very remote areas, around 35 per cent. That's a very small employment outcome for Indigenous people. There are a couple of interesting exceptions here. They particularly note that the remote employment rate for Indigenous employment in remote South Australia is at 67 per cent, which is an interesting and high outcome; similarly, in inner regional Queensland the rate is around 60 per cent. Those particular differences and results deserve further study.

One of the things that Minister Wyatt has done since being minister has been to commission the House Indigenous Affairs committee—which I chair and which includes, among other people, the member for Lingiari, who's my deputy chair—to look at new approaches to getting more Indigenous people into work and into small businesses. The committee held its first hearings this week, and early submissions show the huge growth that there has been, in recent years, in Indigenous people starting their own businesses.

I think today's report is a reminder of why the inquiry that the minister has established is important. Achievements in education demonstrate that employment outcomes should improve over the medium to long term. As I said, there's no gap with Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people who finish a university bachelor's degree. Evidence submitted in our inquiry indicates the Indigenous business sector has trebled over the last decade, and in the minerals industry—one industry that's led the way in making Indigenous training and employment part of their business as usual—there are 2½ times more Indigenous people working today than there were in the early 2000s. But across all industries, the submissions tell us, we need to have better links between training and employment. Also, we've seen, in the wake of bushfires, there is a greater desire in a range of industries to use Aboriginal expertise in dealing with environmental challenges. Those are the sorts of issues that have come through in some of the submissions in these early days. I think this report presents us with a challenge to reimagine and re-envisage how we deal with a thorny problem: getting more Indigenous people into work.

I want to acknowledge the comments of my deputy chair, the member for Lingiari, in relation to the government needing to listen more. I'm sorry he's not in the chamber, but I just wanted to note that Minister Ruston has been in the Northern Territory in recent weeks, and she's been going around talking to communities who are subject to the cashless debit card and listening to those communities. What she brings from that listening and consultation forward to government will be a matter for her, and it's something that I know all members will be interested in examining. In conclusion, I think the new approach to closing the gap, with the new targets, is going to be something— (Time expired)

3:59 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

First of all, I'd like to acknowledge the member for Barton and the minister for their comments. For the record, I consider them two of the finest parliamentarians we have in this place, and I thank them for their input. I want to acknowledge, to start with, not only the Ngunawal and Ngambri people on whose lands we are speaking but also the Dharawal people of my own electorate. In particular I'd like to acknowledge the Tharawal Aboriginal Medical Service, led by Darryl Wright, and my medical colleagues and the other staff there, who are doing a wonderful job to close the gap and to improve the health and other outcomes for our Indigenous population. I'd also like to mention Uncle Ivan Wellington, a senior Aboriginal elder in my electorate, and the wonderful job he's doing, particularly with the younger people in my electorate.

The handing down of the Closing the Gap report is a significant event in our national calendar. It's already been stated that tomorrow will be the 12th anniversary of the national apology. Since 2008 we've been recording and reporting our progress in closing the gap. I know there are many good things that are happening in Aboriginal health, but the Closing the Gap report is certainly extremely disappointing. Even the targets that are on track are fairly modest ones, and those that are not on track are not just a hiccup; they are shameful.

Before going on to the Closing the Gap targets, I'd just like to point out the fact that, in 2020, there are Aboriginal people with diabetes who have no access to power to keep their insulin at the appropriate temperature and Aboriginal people who require dialysis who don't have access to clean water, and rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease are seen almost exclusively in our Indigenous population. This is absolutely shameful and should not be acceptable on any level. If it were in any other population in our country, it would be seen as a national emergency. The fact that we have had an epidemic of syphilis in northern Australia and it is not seen as a national emergency—we've actually had babies born with congenital syphilis—is absolutely disgraceful in 2020.

The failure to meet the majority of the Closing the Gap targets is symptomatic of a government that is failing to act. The results before us are beyond disappointing, and they serve as a stark reminder of how far we have to go and that we must all actively and aggressively pursue change in this area. In my electorate of Macarthur, we have the Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre. Although Indigenous people make up only around three to four per cent of our population, overwhelmingly the population of Reiby is made up of Indigenous children, and that is shameful. As the Leader of the Opposition remarked, this day cannot and must not add up to nothing more than sentiment and fine words. We can and we must do better. The reality is that the coalition government has failed to close the gap, and the report is proof of that. Also, some of the speeches that have been given by those on the other side have been remarkably paternalistic. The fact that they support the cashless debit guard and they don't support the Uluru statement or constitutional recognition is demonstration of their inability to understand the importance of this issue.

Today we have again been told we're not on track to address the gap in life expectancy. In fact, for remote Indigenous people the gap in life expectancy is even bigger than it used to be; it can be over 15 years for Indigenous men in remote areas. That is disgraceful. It's upsetting that we are also far off achieving closing the gap in child mortality. Again, this is something that is shameful. These are our children. We must make sure that we close the gap in these areas. It's a crying shame, and we should not leave such an atrocious legacy to future generations. This day, this report, provides a valuable voice for our First Australians, and we must act. It's a sad voice and a reminder that we have a long way to go. It's not a day for political opportunism; nor is it a day for us to pat ourselves on the back. In many ways, the Closing the Gap targets that we've met have been led by Indigenous Australians, and they've done a fantastic job. But we must do better.

4:04 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to start by thanking the Prime Minister and the opposition leader for their Closing the Gap speeches today. I'd also like to thank the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney. I stand with everyone in this place to congratulate and honour your leadership in this space. I know that this is not a time for political pointscoring or mudslinging. This is a time when we need to be working together.

I come from Townsville, in Herbert. I have a lot of Indigenous Australians in my electorate. More importantly, my wife is a very proud Indigenous Aboriginal woman. My mother-in-law was born on Palm Island, moved to Yarrabah and now lives in Cairns. She is also a very passionate person, who likes to keep me in check. It doesn't matter what the topic is—she will call me and let me know. She's with my wife this week helping out, because I have a two-year-old. I also have another daughter on the way, who's due in April. So I have some very proud Aboriginal women in my life. Whether it's my daughter running around, dancing or pretending to be Elsa from Frozen or just watching TV and being trouble, she can really wrap her dad around her little finger.

I honestly believe that we need to work together in this space because, when I look around and look at the shadow minister, I see a leader and I see a role model for my daughter. I see a role model for my daughter from all the very strong independent, powerful women in this place, because I want her to grow up and have a future, not just in Townsville, not just because she's a very proud Aboriginal woman, but because in this place we all work together for our First Nations people. I would like my future daughter, who is on the way, to think and feel the same.

In the electorate of Herbert we have Great Palm Island. The people that live there will definitely let you know how they feel and what they want and what we can do better. For a while now Palm Island hasn't had clean drinking water. I know the minister is working very closely with his counterpart at the state level, Jackie Trad, because this isn't about federal government or state government or coalition or people in the opposition fighting each other or going to the media and saying, 'Look at what we're doing; we do things better than you.' I don't believe that is the case, nor should it be.

I know that the shadow minister keeps the minister to account. I have seen the shadow minister walk the hallways over there in the blue carpet. So she should, because that's the role of the opposition. It's the role of the state governments and the federal government and every person in my electorate. Palm Island is close and dear to my heart. I'm there next week. But we need to be always doing better. We can always do better. It doesn't matter if you're reading a report and you think it's excellent; there's always something else. There's always something more where we can work together as Australians: First Nations, not First Nations, people who have come from other countries and who call Australia home now. We are all Australians, and we should be working together. I know that that's the most important thing in this country. People don't like us fighting, throwing mud at each other, pointing fingers. There's a difference between holding people to account and just slinging mud. Our First Nations people and Indigenous Australians are one thing that we should definitely not be using for political pointscoring at all.

I would like the shadow minister to come to Townsville and we can go to Palm Island together. Of course the Minister's been up multiple times and he'll come back. This is when we stand next to each other and talk about the great things we can be doing, not just in my electorate, but in all of Australia. It is just more personal for me, obviously because that's where I'm from and my family is there. This is the time where we stand side by side. I understand that people aren't happy with certain things in the reports. That's fine. But this is the time when all Australians and every person in this place has a duty to stand next to each other, to work together, to ensure that our First Nations people have the best lives they deserve. I thank the minister and the shadow minister for allowing me time to speak on this.

4:09 pm

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

We know that five of the seven targets for closing this gap—this chasm—are not on track. We are failing in those areas—child mortality, reading, writing and numeracy, school attendance, employment, life expectancy. There are some areas that are on track, as we have heard. It's great that early childhood education is improving. But, having spoken with some people from the sector this morning, they are concerned that maybe that is coming off a bit. That is a concern for all of us. We need to keep that trajectory going in the right direction. And it is cause for celebration that year 12 attainment is on track. But for too many First Australians, we are failing.

As the member for Barton said, these are just not statistics; these are Australians—our brothers and sisters, sons, daughters, aunties and uncles. If we want to see real change and progress, I think we need to acknowledge the past wrongs that have transcended into today—that intergenerational trauma, in particular; the dispossession, the killings. Understanding this truth is critical. When I went to school, I had no idea that a First Nations person in this country ever had a house. We were just led to believe that First Nations people were just wandering around. I had the great fortune, with some of my colleagues from both sides of the House, to have some conversations with Bruce Pascoe last night. Through his research of the accounts of the first explorers into different regions of Australia, he states:

Houses and villages were observed from the far Kimberley to Cape York, from Hutt River to Tasmania, from Brewarrina to Hamilton. Permanent housing was a feature of the pre-contact Aboriginal economy, and marked the movement towards agricultural reliance.

We weren't taught this stuff. Massacres are another one. I went to a presentation today about the massacres. As the member for Lingiari informed us, one of the very last survivors of the Coniston massacre recently passed. There's only one left. But understanding this truth is important.

Another truth that is important to understand is that the government seems to be backing away from housing investment in First Nations communities. I hope that's not true. But there is a concern about it and our medical friend, the member for Macarthur, will be one of the first ones to tell people about the link between proper housing, health and education. So, there needs to continue to be a serious commitment to assisting with the diabolical situation with housing. Of course, poverty is then linked. As Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy has said, there is massive concern about the connection of some of the policies of the Morrison government. In terms of the CDP program, that needs to be moving towards the CDEP—more like that. The cashless debit card—we wait to see what the minister is going to say about her travels around the north. There is real concern that without honest consultation with First Nations people—not just talking about it, but actually doing it and reflecting that in government policy—we'll see more grinding poverty, meaning we aren't able to close these gaps.

When it comes to health, we have some serious work to do. The more that community-controlled organisations are supported to do that work, the better. I support the work that's happening with the peaks having a greater say. That is going to be vital. If we don't listen to First Nations people, we will not be able to see the advances that we need to in this nation.

4:14 pm

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Closing the Gap initiative is as important to me as I believe it is to all Australians. In my electorate of Cowper, 6.1 per cent of people are Indigenous. It's Dhanggati, Birrbay and Gumbaynggirr country. In my home town of Kempsey, approximately 14 per cent of people are Indigenous. I grew up and went to school with Indigenous kids. Although we didn't understand or see what we see now, it was clear to most of us that those kids did it tough, being forced to be part of a system that did not acknowledge or recognise that they were this nation's first people. My father, who was a doctor there for 30 years and who I spoke of in my first speech, despaired about man's inhumanity to man. I recall that on almost a nightly occasion people would come to our front door infirm, sick or looking for assistance, and many of those people were Indigenous. He didn't see black or white; he saw a person in need. It is a basic human right to have access to health services, education and employment. We have not met these ambitious targets. This is despite the efforts by this government, hand in hand with local Indigenous communities.

We as a government have been doing all we can to close the gap, but as yet we are only on track to meet two of the seven targets. Therefore, we must accept that we must do much, much more. The inability to reach these targets was acknowledged by the Prime Minister in his speech this morning. So much more needs to be done on addressing the other five targets. I welcome the Prime Minister's direction of a new approach to the programs that are locally led and more collaborative. Indigenous Australians must have a greater level of influence in the Close the Gap programs if we are to meet our targets in the future.

The year 2020 marks the next stage in an unprecedented partnership between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations and the Australian government and the states and territories. The Morrison-McCormack government, through the leadership of the Prime Minister, is bringing together COAG and the Coalition of Peaks to deliver the new partnership agreement. Our Closing the Gap refresh will deliver shared responsibility and accountability, and I am confident this new approach will make strides. I have seen examples in my electorate of Cowper where collaborative programs have delivered positive improvements to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people. I choose the following example not to be morbid but to acknowledge that today is the start, the launch, of the Youth Insearch campaign to end suicide.

My home town of Kempsey has a higher rate of death by suicide than the state average. A study by the North Coast Primary Health Network found that in Kempsey and the Nambucca area 12.6 per cent of people per 100,000 had died by suicide from 2008 to 2016. The state average was 9.8 people in every 100,000. Sadly, the rate of suicide among Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in my area was higher still. So, in March last year, the Kempsey Community Suicide Prevention Action Plan was launched at the Macleay Vocational College. I recognise the hard work of Mr Mark Morrison in his remarkable efforts for the college.

While the Kempsey Community Suicide Prevention Action Plan was not funded specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention, the health practitioners delivering it worked with the local community to build into the plan the history, culture and experiences of the Dhanggati people. Speakers including doctors, mental health professionals and men with lived experience covered topics like diabetes, ageing and culturally-connected service and support. A total of 73 people attended this free forum, and I'm told it helped many Indigenous men on a path to better health.

It is through locally-led initiatives like this that we will work better to close the gap in the future and meet all seven targets.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The discussion has concluded.