House debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Ministerial Statements

Closing the Gap

11:00 am

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

Yesterday was an important day, as we reach the end of the original Closing the Gap frameworks, and I'm pleased to see that my colleague from across the chamber, the Hon. Warren Snowdon, is with us this morning. I know that he and I often agree on many things but sometimes when we make speeches he has points of difference.

Tom Calma, 12 years ago, instigated the work that was implemented by the Rudd Labor government in establishing a set of targets to address Indigenous disadvantage in Australia. While they were established with good intentions, the government of the day failed to acknowledge the critical role that Indigenous Australians themselves play in closing the gap. As the Prime Minister stated yesterday:

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

For far too long, governments of all persuasions have done things to Indigenous Australians and not with them. It's not the time to play politics on this issue. A bipartisan approach will be significant if we are to change the future for Indigenous Australians. 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—that is, equity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I am heartened by the gains in early childhood education, with a 95 per cent achievement level, and, more importantly, the gains in secondary pathways, year 12 attainment, that lead to real jobs. I do acknowledge that progress has been slow in other areas. The past 10 years have not delivered the results they should have, and there is no shying away from the responsibility we share to get the next 10 right, and the 10 after that. This demonstrates the need to adopt a new approach to closing the gap. Key to this is shared accountability and shared responsibility. Governments, Indigenous Australians and their communities and organisations need to come together. The Morrison government is committed to working with Indigenous Australians to optimise outcomes over the life course, and we have issued a call to all governments to continue to work together on national priorities for collective action and supporting local communities to set their own priorities and tailor services to their unique context.

For the first time in the Closing the Gap process, Indigenous expertise is at the centre of decision-making. This represents an opportunity to set, implement and monitor Closing the Gap along with Indigenous Australians. The year 2020 marks the next stage in an unprecedented partnership between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations, the Australian government and state and territory governments. The Morrison 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. Indigenous Australians at local, regional and national engagements are embedding knowledge and leadership and will be involved in co-designing systems, policy and operational frameworks and working with government to action change. We are taking the time to ensure Indigenous Australians are empowered and in a genuine position to make informed decisions.

In this new way of working, we share priorities with Indigenous Australians and with state and territory governments in the areas of early childhood, education, employment and business opportunities, community safety, suicide prevention, health and supporting local people to drive local solutions. We will also address the other issues impacting Indigenous Australians such as domestic violence, suicide, access to basic health care and clean water. These are equally important. We must continue to encourage conversations across the nation so we become more comfortable with each other and our shared past, present and future. This has led to local action to achieve change.

Governments, Indigenous Australians and communities have a shared commitment to closing the gap. Change will happen, and we must not be afraid to learn from each other. Indigenous Australians are the key agents of change. Governments need to draw on their insights, knowledge and lived experience to deliver on Closing the Gap for current and future generations.

As I said earlier, I'm heartened by gains, including in early childhood and education and its long-term impact. This is why, as the Minister for Indigenous Australians, I have been tasked by the Prime Minister to develop a new whole-of-government Indigenous early childhood strategy. This will be a new way of working together to achieve our shared goals, working with experts, families, frontline service providers and communities.

Longer term we know that education has a direct impact on the ability for Indigenous Australians to obtain employment and other opportunities. The employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians narrows as education levels increase. In the last 10 years, the number of Indigenous Australians accessing higher education has more than doubled, and currently almost 20,000 Indigenous Australians are attending university. This is worth celebrating.

Currently, the House Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs is looking into and will report on opportunities for employment and economic development for Indigenous Australians. As I travel around Australia, I am constantly reminded of the vision, commitment and entrepreneurship of Indigenous Australian business owners. Indigenous businesses play an important role in economic growth for the Australian economy, especially in rural and remote regions.

Businesses operated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians tend to employ higher levels of Indigenous Australians at a greater rate than in comparison to non-Indigenous businesses. They also play an important role in addressing the employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Owning a business or working in an Indigenous owned business is a powerful way for Indigenous Australians to take control of the economic future for their families and communities.

On Tuesday morning, 125 Indigenous businesses came to Parliament House to participate in the Supply Nation trade fair. They showcased the important role Indigenous businesses play in the Australian economy—from construction to tourism, from small businesses to recruitment agencies. Based in Wollongong, Evolved Communities provide cultural awareness training, and have clients including the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business; the Department of Environment and Energy; and the Treasury. Australian Indigenous Coffee, based in my home state of Western Australia, runs their Coffee to Art Program, where proceeds of coffee sold on remote mine sites in the Pilbara are donated to the Budadee Foundation's Women's Nullagine Art Program. This program supports Aboriginal women at Nullagine in practising their art and stories and passing them onto younger generations. This should also be celebrated.

Let's together start celebrating each of these gains and achievements. Let's do away with the deficit mentality that has for so long plagued Indigenous Australians. Every improved outcome and achievement needs to be celebrated and used to build momentum for greater improvements. Governments, Indigenous Australians and communities have a shared commitment to closing the gap. Change will happen, and we must not be afraid to learn from each other.

We owe it to future Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to build a better future, a greater nation. We owe it to all Australians that they feel as though they have a future ahead of them that will deliver worth and value for work. We will continue to work every day to get more children to school; to support pathways into long-term employment; to address and reduce suicides and other detrimental elements right across this nation; and to empower and give a voice to those who need it most. These are first and foremost my priorities and the priorities of the Morrison government.

For the first time government is walking this journey hand-in-hand with Indigenous Australians. I am optimistic that, by walking hand-in-hand and in partnership with each other, we will create a better future that has greater outcomes. We will see the levels of disparity across every jurisdiction of this nation, including within communities that are a part of the rich tapestry of the geographic diversity of this nation, show improvements in a way that we've not seen before.

I want to acknowledge the work that has been previously done by all governments, but it hasn't been able to raise the bar to the level in which equality of outcome is achieved. Each and every minister who has prevailed within Australian government arenas for Indigenous Australians have strived to achieve, but the challenge in that is that we've not done it in partnership, and the new paradigm should make an incredible difference.

I serve in this role with a great sense of pride because I am given the privilege of being able to walk with our people, sit with them and listen to them and to build on the opportunities that have been established from a foundation in the 1970s right through to now. What I do hope is that every member in this parliament will walk with me in achieving those outcomes, because, when we achieve them, we will close the gap.

11:10 am

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

I acknowledge the minister's contribution to this discussion, and I will raise in my contribution a couple of the issues which he has referred to. Yesterday in the House of Representatives in the debate on the MPI, I had the opportunity to speak on the Closing the Gap statement. In that speech I made it very clear that there was a disproportionate impact, evidenced in all the material that's provided through this statement, on people who live in very remote and remote Australia. These are largely the constituents in my electorate of Lingiari, over 40 per cent of whom are Aboriginal people.

What this document says very clearly is that Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged people in the country and that their life outcomes are a lot poorer than the rest of the community's. According to this document, the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal people living in remote or very remote communities and people living in the rest of Australia is around 15 years. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males are living 8½ years less than those in metropolitan centres.

There are real issues here, and I don't think that the responses from the government thus far have indicated any capacity to address those issues. I understand and I totally applaud the move going forward to work with COAG and the Coalition of Peaks. I think that's a very positive step. But let's put this in context. The minister, in the contribution he made just before me, said that he wants Aboriginal people to work with government to action change and to share priorities, and he wants the government and those people to not be afraid to learn from each other. I applaud those statements. The fact is, though, it's not what's happening.

In the Northern Territory, there have been cries for help around health infrastructure, around housing, around roads and around all the social determinants that create the environment in which people might get a better health outcome. They've fallen on deaf ears as far as this Commonwealth government is concerned, despite the fact that there is a one-off agreement with the Northern Territory government to provide some money for remote housing.

What's happening at the moment will not address the changes that are required to deal with those communities—to get the outcomes the expiring Closing the Gap targets had as objectives. We here are all responsible for this, and we need to do better. I'm hoping that the revised Closing the Gap targets are coherent. They include justice targets and they include targets on the number of kids being taken away from their families. Those sorts of targets should be included, because they need to be. But, at the same time as we are doing that, the government is taking action which is totally against the desires of Aboriginal people.

There is now no guarantee, as a result of decisions made by the Attorney-General, to provide ongoing funding to Aboriginal legal services around this country. The decision has been taken to stop funding the family violence legal service peak body in this country. This has been done by this government. On the one hand, you can say, 'We want to walk with you and listen,' but it's very different when policy decisions are being made in various portfolios that impact upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—First Nations people of this country—and no notice is taken of what they're saying.

Yesterday, I gave two examples of how Aboriginal people in my electorate and across the north of Australia have made it very clear that they don't want the rollout of the cashless debit card. They don't want it. But, despite the fact that they don't want it, there is an aspiration, desire and will by this government to override their views and say to them, 'You're going to have it whether you like it or not.' There is absolutely clear evidence that the income quarantining that has been imposed upon Aboriginal people is impacting upon the lives of Aboriginal families and on their health outcomes—that's very clear—yet this government is blind to what's happening. I'm pleased that the minister has got these aspirations of walking, listening and learning, but it requires action, and that action must be taken.

Yesterday I referred to action which had been taken by a previous government. You'll recall that the first Hockey-Abbott budget took $500 million out of the First Nations budget. One of the items that they hit was an antismoking campaign. Thankfully, bringing down smoking in Aboriginal communities is now seen as very important, but Joe Hockey said that it was a waste of money. There are people in this place who are advancing the argument for it and doing the work on the ground, where the Aboriginal people are, who said to Mr Hockey: 'You're not listening to us. You've not heard what we're doing and you don't know what we're doing. You're just saying that what we're doing is useless.' That isn't the case.

At the time, this was in 2011, Ian Lacey, a person who I know well, said: 'We visit schools, youth detention centres and sporting clubs—a huge range of community events—every day to explain to our people that high smoking rates are one of the key causes of our low life expectancy. We also work on improving nutrition and increasing the amount of physical activity our mob engage in. These are the key lifestyle changes that they require.' That's what they did, yet it didn't stop the Treasurer of the day saying that it was a waste of money. It's been proven not to be a waste of money. Ian works for the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health in Brisbane, which was established in 2009. It has operated in South-East Queensland for 10 years now. The Indigenous population of South-East Queensland is 100,000 in 2020. That's 40 per cent of Queensland's First Nations people and 11 per cent of Australia's First Nations people.

In 2009, when the institute was established, they had five clinics operating in South-East Queensland. Today, they have 20. This is all coming from within the Aboriginal community. These are changes that they are making, and I know that the minister, who is not here, acknowledges the importance of the work they have done. They have established a very important health-justice partnership, supporting Indigenous families with legal education and advocacy via their own community legal service. That is something that they are funding in this health precinct. It's very important and something for us all to learn from.

IUIH have increased the number of preventative health checks delivered in South-East Queensland by over 4,000 per cent. This is driven from within the community. I know about it because I had the privilege, as the minister, of providing the initial funding for it. They've closed, as a result of their work—this one organisation comprising Aboriginal health services from South-East Queensland—the health-adjusted life expectancy gap 2.3 times faster than predicted trajectories. This is enormous. The IUIH jobs network increased the number of jobs from 200 to 1,300. That's 1,300 people employed, 700 of whom are First Nations people. They've halved the preterm birth rates.

What these people are doing is interrupting—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11:19 to 11:30

I want to conclude my contribution by going back to where I started, about the government saying they wanted to look, listen and learn—walk with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people. The very first thing they need to do, then, is recognise the Statement from the Heart; implement a voice to the parliament and have it constitutionally entrenched; and have a makarrata commission and truth-telling. If they can do that, they'll have listened to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. At the moment, what they've demonstrated is that they're not prepared to listen to those arguments and the plea from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people right across this country to do something that they want rather than what the government wants.

11:31 am

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the Closing the gap report with sadness, like many members in this House. It's sober reading about the collective failure of the nation to address the disadvantage over generations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. There are people who might, from time to time, want to use these issues as political point-scoring. Frankly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deserve better. It's not a failure of one government or two governments or three governments; it's a failure of what happens when you break apart a culture, a tradition, a connection to country and ideals and the human consequences that then flow.

There are of course in this Closing the gap report some areas with glimmers of hope, particularly around educational attainment and meeting two of the seven standards. We are particularly happy to see that happen, including having 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. In 2018, 86.4 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds were enrolled in early childhood education compared to 91.3 per cent of non-Indigenous Australian children. The gap has halved for Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 with year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates by 2020.

These are of course signs of opportunity and of growth, because education provides a foundation for people being able to make informed decisions and go on to live happy and successful lives. That's why the Liberal Party in the Gladstone administration in the United Kingdom many years ago established the whole principle of universal education. At the heart of it, universal education comes with the principle of equal opportunity for all people regardless of their circumstance. It is continued throughout the Australian tradition here, but there has been a gap, a chasm, around the realities experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In many of the other remaining metrics around life expectancy and health and wellbeing, there is so much further to go. We know that it all isn't going to be solved overnight. That failure is not because of a tick or a flick of a bureaucrat's pen or a lack of funding but because often issues around health and inequality exist across generations, across cultural problems and against a culture of responsibility that we need to foster over time. That should never be used as an excuse. We must be able to demonstrate clearly that we're heading down the right path and that we're seeing improvement. But, sadly, those standards and those goals have not been met.

I particularly want to welcome the speech by the Prime Minister on the Closing the gap report not only because I thought it was one of the finest speeches that he has given as Prime Minister but, more critically, because his focus—as well that of the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the great Ken Wyatt—was not to accept the report and say, 'We failed yet again; let's keep trying more of the same.' In fact, what they did was turn around and give an appropriate, philosophical, practical plan to address the issues of disadvantage which have led us to the situation where we have not achieved the targets that we have set for ourselves.

I think the focus the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians have put on community and not Canberra is particularly welcome, because many members for a long time have talked—and rightly so, I might add—about the failure to encourage Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders to have the freedom to take responsibility. They have spoken about the lack of self-determination. In the words of the Prime Minister: 'We have failed the opportunity to recognise that freedom is built on empowerment and responsibility.' So focusing on community and not Canberra reflects a fundamental understanding about how the success of all of our lives is built.

We are individuals, but we do not sit on islands. We come together and form family, and the community is the foundation for nationhood. It's something that we take for granted every day: how to build a nation from the citizen and the individual up. Too often what we have had, in the issues affecting Indigenous Australians, is the exact opposite: Canberra deciding how people should live their lives, and Canberra seeing through the lens of bureaucrats and of the people in this place, and thinking they understand best the reality, the conditions, the circumstances, the culture, the attitudes and the traditions of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. And, frankly, too often Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been displaced in favour of the world view of people who sit in this city.

So to focus on community and not Canberra, to have a yarn and to listen to Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, to take us all as a nation on a collective journey, is the foundation for addressing closing the gap in the future, and I would hope that the members opposite would welcome the initiative of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians have taken, because I think it provides the opportunity for not just a reset but a sense of ownership by all of us, but most by those who would seek to gain the most from a change in policy. To empower people, with our support, to take the maximum opportunity for control over their own lives and that of their communities to advance the collective interest—that's what we should want for ourselves and that is what we should want for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, if you want to empower people not just today but for future generations as well.

I said in my address-in-reply speech to this parliament that one of the most important evolutions that I've seen in my lifetime, in my 39 years, has been the embracing by the whole of the Australian community of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and culture and traditions into the culture of the nation—a powerful and ongoing symbol that we all share about our past and how we can move forward together as a nation. But we can never do that while we continue to have citizens who are not able to realise their full ambition to live a happy and successful life, and that is the closing of the gap that we need. The journey is not over, and we all share a great responsibility to make sure that we build it together, in partnership, with respect and through listening, so that we can empower people to be able to live out their full Australian dream.

11:38 am

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

I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of our country. I acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people on whose land this parliament meets. I also acknowledge the Dharawal/Tharawal, Gandangara and Dharug people, the traditional owners of the electorate of Werriwa. I acknowledge country not just because of the convention; I acknowledge our first people because it is the right thing to do, because, in some small way, I want to acknowledge their pain and to add my voice to ensure that recognition and reconciliation are things that we, as a nation, find a way to do as soon as possible.

I am disappointed to be making a speech in the parliament again that will point out that, 12 years since the apology, we are still not anywhere near meeting all of the targets that we set then and only two of the seven have been met. While it is good that the early childhood education and the year 12 attainment targets have been met, it is disappointing there is little change for any of the other five measures, and it's blatantly 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. It's a tragedy that our First Australians are dying too soon, are educated far less, are incarcerated too often and suffer more preventable disease. The numbers show this tragedy in real terms. Sixty-four per cent of the burden of disease on our First Australians is preventable. The unemployment rate of First Australians is 21 per cent—four times the current non-Indigenous employment rate. Over one-quarter of incarcerated adults in this country are First Australians and nearly half of all juveniles incarcerated are First Australians. The research shows that First Australians are more likely to be incarcerated than African-Americans.

In 2017, suicide was the leading cause of death amongst our First Australian children aged five to 17. In that same year, one-quarter of all Australian children who died by suicide were First Australians. One in 10 households in public housing is Indigenous. It is the social impact of these raw numbers that should break the hearts of all Australians, but what these statistics don't measure, what they hide in each and every point on a graph, is a person like you and me—it's a mother and father who won't see their baby grow; it's a family that doesn't have parents, aunties or uncles to tell them their history, teach them language or identify their ancestors.

Eight Indigenous Australians have been members of this place, and we celebrate their achievement with them, but it is the Constitution of this land that must also celebrate our First Australians. I acknowledge the work of the member for Barton, Linda Burney; Senators Malarndirri McCarthy and Pat Dodson; and the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt. There is no question that our First Australians have long been and continue to be the subject of cultural and systemic discrimination. While we can't go back and correct the wrongs of the past, we have the ability and the power to stop those wrongs continuing and stop them now. We just need the will to truly want to change the future.

We should start with the recognition of our First Australians in the Constitution. We should accept and listen to truth-telling. We need to work with our First Australians to improve their quality of life. This report should be the line in the sand, but we've tried so many times to draw that line. From Wave Hill Station through to Redfern and this place, these lines cannot continue to mark the gap. This gap must close and it must be done here. We must finally end the drawing of such lines. There is no option. We must act and we must end the shameful history of the systemic discrimination against our First Nations people. We have the generational opportunity to improve the lives of our First Australians. We must learn from them, but we must learn with them, and we must close the gap.

11:43 am

Photo of Melissa McIntoshMelissa McIntosh (Lindsay, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When Minister Wyatt came to my electorate of Lindsay last year, we announced funding to the Nepean Community and Neighbourhood Services, and Community Junction Incorporated to help improve school attendance and keep Indigenous students engaged throughout their education journey. 'Helping children get to school ready to learn and receive a quality education. We must partner with people on the ground to achieve these outcomes.' Those were the words of Minister Wyatt. The Closing the gap report shows just how important those words still are today. We all want to close the gap. This year, Indigenous Australians won't be told how to close the gap; they will tell us. Working with people on the ground in my community of Lindsay, I know they want nothing more than being able to have their voice heard on issues that impact them.

Indigenous expertise at the very centre of decision-making offers the opportunity to set, implement and monitor the Closing the Gap process. As the Prime Minister said, the Closing the Gap speeches over the last decade have portrayed a tale of good intentions—indeed, good faith—but the results are just not good enough. The top-down government approach to closing the gap is changing, giving Indigenous Australians the capacity to drive the conversation and the agency to carry it out. The Closing the gap report shows just how much work we have ahead of us. But I very much believe we need to do as the Prime Minister does and not fall into this deficit mindset. Two points in particular fill me with hope for the future, and they are education and jobs.

In March last year, I met with kids and families at the Cranebrook Breakfast Club, which is hosted by Nepean Community & Neighbourhood Services. It enables kids to have a good meal before they head off to school in the morning. Most importantly, it increases the attendance rate of the kids who go there before school. I was so pleased to make one of my election commitments a school bus to pick up kids and take them to the Breakfast Club and then to school, and I couldn't wait to see that new bus in action. I know it's really helping that neighbourhood centre. They've told me that the vehicle means that they've had double the number of students being picked up and dropped off each day. These are some of the most vulnerable students in our community, and they have enormous potential.

There are students like Rhys, a young Indigenous student from Cranebrook High School, who I first met at the neighbourhood centre where his mum worked. She told me that he would one day like to study law, and I know he is off to university now and has the best and brightest future ahead of him. I know his mum is rightly very proud of his successes. Investing in programs and policies to support students like Rhys gives them the opportunity to pursue their education and succeed.

Education from the first day of preschool right through to the last day of year 12 is a tool that empowers people to start their journey. It sets up our young people's future and enables them to take control. When we get more kids into preschool and out with a year 12 qualification and then onto university and other studies, fulfilling their passions and interests further, we're witnessing the lifelong opportunity of education, which is the best pathway to a job.

In 2019, 86.4 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds were enrolled in childhood education compared to 91.3 per cent of non-Indigenous children. The target of reaching 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled by 2025 is on track, as the Prime Minister said. Between 2016 and 2018, the proportion of Indigenous children enrolled in early childhood education increased by almost 10 per cent. Early education is the foundation of this pathway. When this pathway leads to year 12 qualifications, we see more and more opportunities.

Between 2008 and 2018-19, the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 attaining year 12 qualifications or equivalents increased by 21 per cent. Indigenous Australians aged between 18 and 29 with a year 12 qualification are between 1.5 and three times more likely to gain employment. For those who go onto university and complete a Bachelor's degree, 2016 data shows that there was effectively no gap between the employment rate of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

In my electorate of Lindsay, the link between a good education and the future could not be any clearer. I am working really hard to establish a network that connects emerging local industry and our small business community with local schools—schools like the ones that Rhys and students from our Cranebrook Breakfast Club go to—to make sure that they're ready for the jobs of the future. I will continue to work with our local community organisations—like the Breakfast Club, Nepean Community & Neighbourhood Services and Community Junction—to ensure we are doing everything we can to support our local students.

It's no coincidence that the two Closing the Gap targets that are on track are education and jobs, because they go hand in hand. It all starts with education. It is a fundamental building block in life. We must work to break down the barriers of entry to education that Indigenous Australians face from a young age. With increased Indigenous involvement in decision-making, we are reshaping the way Indigenous Australians can set their own targets and prepare their own journey with their own goals for their own future.

When Minister Wyatt stood with me and my local Aboriginal community in Cranebrook, I committed to them that I would listen. I look forward to continuing to do this. I want everyone in our community to have the opportunity to achieve their aspirations, no more so than amongst our young Aboriginal children.

11:49 am

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

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which we meet, the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that I'm honoured to represent in this place, the Dharawal people. In particular, I'd like to acknowledge the work of the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation Aboriginal Medical Service. Tharawal is a fantastic place. It is a place of positivity, a place of learning, and a place of acknowledgement of the history of the Aboriginal people in Australia. I acknowledge the work of the staff of Tharawal, and in particular the chief executive officer, Darryl Wright, and the many nursing and medical staff, including my friends and colleagues Jenny and Andrew McDonald, and the medical director, Dr Tim Senior. The wonderful work they do shows me how far we have come in terms of Indigenous health since I was a child, not only in terms of Indigenous health but also in terms of what we note are the social determinants of health. Sir Michael Marmot, who was the head of the World Medical Association, has been to Tharawal. He noted the enormous work that's been done and the positivity regarding health outcomes for Indigenous people. He commented on how good Tharawal was—and it certainly is. It certainly is a place where the gap is closing in many areas.

I've spoken before in this chamber about the significance of today's date. The date of the Apology to the Stolen Generations should serve as a constant reminder of the pain, suffering and cultural decimation that's been inflicted on our First Australians. Part of the apology was truth-telling and the acknowledgement of what's happened in the past. It's very important that we remember it. We should not whitewash history. In my electorate of Macarthur over 200 years ago was the site of the Appin massacre, when troops under the orders of Governor Macquarie massacred many Aboriginal men, women and children. Their heads were then set on poles in the neighbourhood as an example to the surviving Indigenous people. We should not forget this history. We should not forget the mistakes of the past.

Today is the day after the presentation of the Closing the gap report. Let's remember the significance of the fact that very few of the outcomes have been achieved. Even those achievements that have been spoken about are very modest. The significance of the Closing the gap report cannot be underestimated. We must continue to monitor our progress in closing the gap and in securing better outcomes for Indigenous Australians by acknowledging them and by giving them a voice. We should be allowing them to be the ones directing their own history. That means acknowledging the Uluru Statement from the Heart and acknowledging the fact that we need to enshrine an Aboriginal voice in our Constitution. The reality is that this is not happening. This government should be taken to task for the fact that they will not do this. I want to commend previous speakers and those who I spoke alongside yesterday on this matter as a matter of public importance. I believe that there is a lot of goodwill and a lot of genuine people on both sides of the aisle. I'm not denying that. But the fact that the government refuse to acknowledge the Uluru statement and accept it, and refuse to want to enshrine an Indigenous voice in our Constitution, is an evolving tragedy. They must learn.

As I remarked yesterday, a lack of progress in a number of key areas is indicative of a government that's failing to act and, I believe, failing to understand and appreciate a number of the key issues facing our First Nations peoples. Words do matter. The Apology to the Stolen Generations is one of the defining moments in our nation's history:

It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

The meaning and the sincerity behind these words should be serving as a guidepost for us all.

I've spoken about the Appin massacre. Even today we can go out to a property at Appin, Mt Gilead, and the remaining barn that is there still has the gun emplacements where the Aboriginal people were shot by the settlers and soldiers inhabiting their land.

A legacy of a failure to close the gap is not one that I want to leave to my children or my grandchildren. We owe it to our nation's future, to our First Nations people and to all Australians to get this right. That means that we need to close the gap and we need to give Aboriginal people the ability to do this and direct this themselves.

The evidence is stark. Overwhelmingly, Indigenous people are top of the statistics in things like child removal, incarceration of children and youth suicide. These things are part of the problem that we are facing. Aboriginal child mortality is a national shame and one that must be addressed on an urgent basis. As I mentioned yesterday, we are seeing in our Indigenous population things like rheumatic fever, a disease that has been eradicated throughout the developed world. That is something that we should be ashamed of and we need to address urgently. We can and we must do better.

These things serve as a warning to us all about the cost of complacency. We've been looking at the Closing the Gap targets for 12 years, and progress has been extraordinarily slow. The Closing the gap report tells us that we're not on track to close the gap that exists in a number of really important things such as child mortality. We are failing to close the gap in reading, writing and numeracy. Disparity exists in rates of school attendance as well as in employment and life expectancy, particularly for Indigenous men and particularly for Indigenous men in remote and isolated areas.

An entire people in Australia are being left behind and are facing challenges that the rest of us can barely comprehend. Our First Australians, people who have known and cared for these lands for more than 60,000 years, are being discriminated against and have, on average, a poorer quality of life across the board. If this were the case in any other section of Australian society, the outrage would be palpable. These are not just statistics, as my friend and colleague and an extraordinary parliamentarian, Linda Burney, a proud Wiradjuri woman, said; these are people. We must do better.

Australia's First Peoples—mums, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters—are Australians who are facing great disadvantage in many areas of life on a daily basis. They are people who belong to one of the richest, oldest and most beautiful cultures in the world who are not being treated fairly. This day and this report provide a valuable voice for our First Australians. It's a sad voice and a reminder that we have a long way to go. It's a day when we pause and listen to Australia's First Peoples, who continue to suffer poorer outcomes in a wide range of areas, not just health but also literacy, jobs, housing et cetera. We cannot afford to be complacent and we should not be dismissive of the outcomes that we have failed to achieve in the previous 12 months. We must stop repeating the mistakes of the past and genuinely listen to our First Nations Australians. We ought to all collectively today affirm our support for the Uluru statement and support new and ambitious targets that close the gap and deliver our First Nations people a better quality of life.

Debate adjourned.