Thursday, 13 February 2020
Closing the Gap
I rise today to congratulate the Prime Minister on his address to the House and on his annual Closing the Gap update yesterday. It was frank and fearless and provided a clear pathway of what needs to be done. So much needs to be done. The 2020 Closing the gap progress report shows that, while there has been progress on some targets, not all have been met. This is a tragedy. We, as a government, as a parliament and as a nation, know there is more work to do. A strong country is one that is at peace with its past. We still have more to do to ensure that our First Peoples have the same opportunities for a safe, healthy and prosperous life, but I believe that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is an important next step on that road to a stronger future for all Australians, and I thank Minister Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, for inviting me to be a member of the committee on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians.
Many years ago, in my time in the Northern Territory, I looked at the high mortality rates for newborns in our Indigenous population in Arnhem Land. What I saw there shocked me. It mirrored what I had seen in Kenya as a medical trainee years before; yet here we were in Australia, a First World country. It was hard to grapple with the stark difference between the remote Indigenous communities and the inner city of Melbourne, where I lived. At the time, census child and infant mortality rates were considerably higher than the national average. In 1986, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers aged between 15 and 29 lost 26 in every 30,000 children who were born, compared to 15 in the non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Fast forward 30 years, and there has been a marked improvement in outcomes for Indigenous women and their children, but it's still not good enough, and the rates of mortality remain twice that of non-Indigenous children. More Indigenous mothers are attending antenatal care earlier and more frequently, and education about the risks of cigarettes means fewer women are smoking during pregnancy. These are all fantastic measures that hopefully will lead to improving outcomes. But, importantly, life expectancy for Indigenous Australians remains not as good as it needs to be, and we need to do more. The target to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation, by 2031, is not on track. Non-Indigenous mortality rates have improved at a similar rate, but the gap has not narrowed.
Education is the key to self-determination of our Indigenous people. Education leads to better health and social outcomes for all communities around the world. Therefore, since the two targets that are on track to be met are early childhood education and year 12 attainment, I would congratulate the many people who are working in this sector on achieving these fantastic outcomes. They really should be congratulated. We know that there has been a significant change in getting kids into school and helping them to finish year 12, but we do know that attendance at school is not as good as it should be, particularly for some groups of people within the Indigenous community. The earlier and longer any child is in formal education, the better the long-term outcomes will be for that child. Today, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are staying in school longer. Literacy and numeracy outcomes have improved. More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have year 12 or equivalent qualifications, and that will lead to more of them attending higher education and more of them entering professions like law, medicine and nursing, and lead to all forms of health and education outcomes—for the wider general community as well.
The government realises that, to make significant inroads and to work towards achieving our targets, we need to bring the Indigenous community along with us. We need a refresh. We need to change the way we're doing things. 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 targets alongside Indigenous Australians. Our Closing the Gap Refresh will deliver shared responsibility and accountability. I believe that every child in Australia should have the same opportunities, the same access to education and the same health outcomes as the next child. This is why I am proud to be part of a government that recognises that we need to do better and is working to close the gap.