Tuesday, 25 February 2020
Closing the Gap
I rise to reflect on the Prime Minister's Closing the gap statement, delivered in the House of Representatives. While we have cause to reflect on the achievement of some progress towards reducing inequality between Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people and the general population, I commend the Prime Minister for his honest reflection on the significant work yet to be done.
The House noted that we are on track to meet two of the seven targets set in 2007. The target to have 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is on track. In 2018, 86.4 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds were enrolled in early childhood education, compared with only 91.3 per cent of non-Indigenous children. Exposing young children to early childhood education is vitally important to their development, especially for their emotional and social development, and assists with the transition to school. This is a wonderful achievement. It will mean that this generation of Indigenous children will have the same opportunity to experience social and educational benefits as their non-Indigenous peers, and will prepare them for education in years to come.
Likewise, the target to halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged between 20 and 24 in year 12 attainment or equivalent by 2020 is on track. Nationally, the gap has narrowed from 40 percentage points in 2008 to 25 percentage points in 2018-19. I've spoken previously about the role of education as a core tool for empowerment. I've spoken about how education is the pillar of our society. This is particularly significant for Indigenous Australians. We will continue to invest in young Indigenous people, knowing they are agents of change and leaders for the future. Investing in young Indigenous Australians is an investment in the future of this country. Two hundred million dollars has been provided to support mentoring programs under the Indigenous Youth Education Package so that Indigenous students can access the support and mentoring they need through their secondary studies. Through the Indigenous Student Success Program, an additional 20,000 residential, scholarship, academic and mentoring places for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will help them thrive at university.
However, our targets to close the gap on life expectancy, child mortality, literacy, school attendance and employment are not on track. While there have been improvements in some of the areas, it has not been enough to make significant strides. For this reason, a new approach is required. In order to close the gap, our government needs to draw on insights, knowledge and lived experiences of Indigenous Australians. As the Prime Minister has stated, the previous top-down government-led approach has failed to deliver what is truly needed for our Indigenous communities to thrive. This is why, for the first time in the Closing the Gap process, Indigenous expertise is at the centre of decision-making. We are taking a historic step forward by empowering our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be the key agents of change in their communities.
To support this process of empowerment, we need to also acknowledge the disempowerment of Indigenous people, which has resulted from the violent conflict of colonial past. This is why the Australian government has worked in a bipartisan manner to encourage conversations across the nation so we can speak the truth of our shared past, present and future. In order for the Indigenous spirit to heal and thrive, we must be committed to truth-telling, and we must acknowledge the ongoing intergenerational trauma that began with the process of colonialism. The Prime Minister has made this a priority. The partnership agreement on Closing the Gap has provided a new framework that fosters collaboration with our Indigenous communities in order to make meaningful action to close the gap.
For this partnership to succeed we are committing to a new process that is truthful and community led. This landmark agreement between all levels of government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations promotes the empowerment that is required. It drives local decision-making. It gives our First Nations people a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. This new Joint Council on Closing the Gap is developing realistic targets and metrics that all governments and the Coalition of Peaks can work towards. Indigenous Australians at a local, regional and national level are supplying knowledge and leadership, co-designing systems and contributing to policy and operational frameworks in collaboration with the government to bring about change. This new approach empowers Indigenous people and shifts the focus of the Closing the Gap process to where it needs to be. It is our hope that this new era of collaboration can mark profound partnership and positive change for our First Nations people.
This is not the first Closing the Gap speech that I've heard where the observation has been made that more needs to be done to actually allow Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population to have a greater say in the programs or the initiatives that governments undertake that affect them. I've heard this a number of times now. A number of us heard how it's important that communities have a greater sense of control and ownership and that communities drive the direction of the funding that is allocated to ensure their needs and aspirations are met. I begin my contribution reflecting on that and by asking the question: why? The question is directed specifically to this: in an environment where these questions are being posed, people are being asked why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are not given greater say and control in terms of the funding that's, in particular, driven by the Closing the Gap initiatives.
For the first time in this nation we have, proudly, an Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Affairs. And for the first time we have, at the same time, an Aboriginal shadow minister for Indigenous affairs as well. Yet neither of them has been accorded the opportunity to deliver a formal Closing the Gap address. The Prime Minister delivered it and the Leader of the Opposition delivered it; we did not have Aboriginal people standing at the dispatch box delivering those speeches. It would be a powerful reflection, I would submit, that Aboriginal people get to report on whether or not the things that have been said would be done, would be achieved and would be set aside to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are being achieved. For those people who say, 'Well, it's important for the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to deliver those speeches,' I would say this: if that's the case, why is the most pre-eminent economic document of the country, the budget, delivered not by the Prime Minister but by one of the Prime Minister's ministers?
If this document is supposed to be a powerful representation of parliamentary and administrative will to ensure that we work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to see an improvement across a range of measures then I think this should be done. I certainly think an Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Affairs and that person's counterpart should be accorded that respect. They should be able to speak up for their communities in this most fundamental of ways. Clearly, we are not achieving. In many respects, yes, we have made some progress, but we need to do more. I must say, too, that, as I was listening to the Prime Minister's address, I could not shake the feeling that we were being prepared for something which would be akin to maybe, possibly watering down the targets and not setting the ambitions.
And I also have to say that it was very telling that, when the Leader of the Opposition, Labor leader Anthony Albanese, said that these are not someone else's targets but our targets that we are failing, the opposition itself spoke unanimously as one to say, 'Yes.' It was not because this was a partisan point that was being made—I would actually stress that nothing could be further from the truth. But there's certainly a very strong feeling amongst many of us in the opposition and, I suspect, amongst many in the government as well that we can and should do better and that there should be no dilution of the targets whatsoever. We should press for better because the reality is that, when we look at the way that things have happened, we are done with turning our back. As a nation, we have turned our back on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for too long.
Even simply on the history of this nation we have done this. I read two powerful books in the course of the last 12 months. One was written by Stan Grant quite a few years ago. He reflected on the fact that he felt he had not been made aware of his history growing up and, when he had been made aware of it, had been quite moved by it. He also felt as an individual that he should be able to express quite clearly his dissatisfaction with the way that he and the people that he loves have been treated and the way that they have been in times past, and we as a nation should be able to face up to this without any sense of guilt. The other was Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu, which a number of people have said has moved them. But in particular that book highlighted the fact that so many of us as a people are completely and utterly unaware of the way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived their lives in very complex systems prior to colonisation. To recognise this is not some failing of the nation. It is not an admission of guilt. It is not assigning blame. It is just doing the right thing respectfully by people and ensuring that, in many respects, what had been undertaken before by refusing to acknowledge what had happened prior to the arrival of the British in this nation was, in a way, a mechanism to deny legitimacy to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
This is important in the context of what we are going through now in that Closing the Gap is not some sort of mechanistic, bureaucratic or consultant-led initiative where we tick a few boxes. This is about understanding that what has happened in the past has contributed in many respects to the disadvantage we see today and that in acknowledging this, as I said earlier, people should not feel blame—for example, when we are discussing the verses of the national anthem or the day on which Australia Day falls. There are some people who will attempt to claim that in some way, shape or form people today are being made to feel that they are responsible, that they should wear guilt and that they are to blame. No. This is about respect. This is about fundamentally acknowledging the pain of peoples before us, that if the roles were reversed and we had experienced this we would do it. If you don't think it's important that that be done, why do you go to Anzac Day ceremonies? For the same reason that we respect the sacrifice and the pain that was inflicted on one generation of Australians through that conflict we should acknowledge what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people went through and we should also acknowledge through the Closing the Gap process what we are failing to achieve.
There should be two things that happen. We should not just simply have the idea—I must say this is something that we have wrestled with for many years—that the only way we'll fix things is through practical reconciliation. As a people we are moved by symbols. We are absolutely moved by symbols. It's why we have the Australian flag in the corner. It's why we have the coat of arms up there on the wall. It's why we do the prayer and the acknowledgement of country every day. Symbols matter to people. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the issue of recognition in our Constitution is an important thing. It should not be reduced to: 'We don't need to do this; we need to achieve practical reconciliation first.' We should do both things. We in this nation should be able to do that and we should be able to find a way—recognising the Uluru statement and the statement from the heart—to incorporate an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in this place in the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are calling for.
Someone in my office has done a lot of work to go through the Closing the Gap speech and pick out key stats, and I thank him for his work. But I felt that in terms of closing the gap and where this sits in our reconciling with the people who were in this land first we need to do better and we cannot see a watering down of the targets. We cannot walk away from our failure in meeting those targets or in acknowledging the pain of peoples who were here before us, and that ambition in this space is something we should walk towards, not away from.
Firstly and importantly, I give my thanks and pay respects to the Ngunawal elders past, present and emerging for our future. I also give thanks and pay respect to the Yugara people, who are the traditional owners of the land in my electorate of Moncrieff on the Gold Coast. I honour all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here in this parliament and right across our great country. I'd also like to acknowledge our service men and women and our veterans and particularly acknowledge our Indigenous service men and women and our Indigenous veterans.
This was the first Closing the Gap speech I have heard in the chamber since being elected, and I saw with my own two eyes our Indigenous minister take the floor and deliver a speech straight after the Prime Minister. I'm sure Minister Wyatt helped to craft the statement. I share the frustration and, indeed, disappointment with what is a national truth and a national shame that today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children do not have the same opportunities as all other Australian children. The 2020 Closing the Gap report shows that the best intentions and the decisions made in good faith are not enough. Whilst there's been some progress, Australia is on track to meet only two of the seven targets that were set. These two targets are early childhood education and year 12 attainment. Sadly, the four COAG targets—child mortality, school attendance, literacy and numeracy, and employment—that expired in 2018 have not been met. The target to close the gap in life expectancy within a generation to 2031 is also unfortunately not on track. It's clear that previous strategies around closing the gap have been hampered largely by a lack of collaboration between government and Indigenous Australians. We thought that we understood their problems better than they did. We don't. They live their problems. They are the experts.
A new era of partnership to close the gap has begun. Central to this partnership is a new process that is truthful, strength based and community led. It puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people front and centre, where they deserve to be. I commend the Prime Minister and Minister Wyatt, our minister for Indigenous affairs, on their efforts to tackle this issue with a grassroots approach.
We must make an impact on one particularly important area—education. It's the key. As the Prime Minister said—and I wholeheartedly agree:
Get the education right and the skills, jobs, security, health, prosperity and longevity all follow.
I'm pleased that we've seen encouraging signs in this area.
I want to commend one institution in my electorate, if I may—and I'm sure there are others: Griffith University is working to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Its Gumurrii unit has helped more than 400 students achieve degrees in the last few years and supports 160 regional and remote students to succeed. Jacob Page, a student at Griffith University, has just completed his Bachelor of Exercise Science and his ambition is to go on to study medicine. He is the first in his family to attend university and he said that completing the course gave him a large amount of self-satisfaction.
Jacob praised the Gumurrii unit for their support when he said:
Gaining new knowledge and completing courses gives you a large amount of self-satisfaction. You will be a direct influence in improving the education statistics of our people. The amount of support you get from the Gumurrii unit will definitely make things a lot easier when starting. Don't let fear of failing stop you from trying. Everyone at Gumurrii is really nice and encouraging. They really want you to achieve.
We know that we must do whatever we can to get more kids into school, to finish school and to go on to further study. It all helps to set them on the path to better life outcomes. Education leads to a job and a job represents a future full of choice.
As a member of parliament I represent my community, and that includes Indigenous Gold Coasters. It's why I joined the backbench committee for Indigenous affairs—so I can learn more about the issues that face the Aboriginal community and the challenges we have as a government in this next chapter of closing the gap. The Gold Coast has a rich Indigenous history. Aboriginal tribes inhabited the region for over 23,000 years before European settlement and so numerous sacred sites remain. It's important that we understand the history, traditions and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Bora Memorial Rock can be found in the Jebbribillum Bora Park ring site beside the Gold Coast Highway, in my own suburb of Miami. Thousands of people pass it every day without realising its significance. The rock is dedicated to the Indigenous men and women from the Gold Coast region who served in Australian war conflicts from 1914 to 1991. The memorial was made in 1991 with a rock from Tamborine Mountain and has totemic symbols of an eagle—the protector—a snake, a dolphin and circles representing water coming together. It was once the site where young Aboriginals were initiated into their tribe with special ceremonies. I recently enjoyed listening to the youth choir sing the national anthem in their traditional language at a memorial service for Indigenous diggers.
The Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre is located at the bottom of Burleigh headland and borders my electorate. Here, Aboriginal artists create traditional artwork. You can go along and browse the paintings for sale and see Aboriginal artefacts such as dilly bags, shields and other tools and instruments that were once part of everyday life. Burleigh Heads National Park is an important and sacred Indigenous place that, to this day, offers an amazing insight into the world of the Kombumerri people, including many Dreamtime stories about how Burleigh Hill and Tallebudgera—or 'good fish'—Creek came to be. I know I have many constituents who regularly enjoy this beautiful place, including my own family.
Now, you may have been one of the millions of people who were mesmerised by the incredible Indigenous performance in the 2018 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Luther Cora, a constituent from Nerang, was the director of the Gathering performance. He's known on the Gold Coast for his storytelling and for his commitment to share the culture of the Yugambeh people. Borobi Jingeri, the big, blue koala mascot of the Commonwealth Games, also calls the Gold Coast home. His legacy lives on beyond the games as the champion of the local Yugambeh language. Borobi's full-time job now is to share his extensive knowledge of Indigenous language and culture with primary schools around South-East Queensland.
Sadly, in recent years, Indigenous youth suicide has taken too many young lives. Indigenous youth are almost four times more likely than their non-Indigenous peers to take their own lives. Tackling suicide, all suicides, is a national priority. To tackle this national priority we are using targeted strategies. We've unveiled Australia's largest-ever youth mental health and suicide prevention package. There are trials being funded which are specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In the last budget we committed $4.5 million for Indigenous leaders to create their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention plan.
To finish on the Closing the gap report, I want to commit to do four things: talk about our history, focus on solutions, recognise traditional owners and highlight the importance of closing the gap through a grassroots approach that listens to Indigenous Australians.
Once again, we look at the Closing the Gap targets with some sense of dismay. Once again, Australia notes that we are not on track to meet those important targets.
Five of the seven targets are not on track: the target to halve the gap in child mortality rates, which was on track two years ago but is now off track; the target to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy; the target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance; the target to halve the gap in employment outcomes; and the target to close the gap in life expectancy. These are not on track.
Only two of the targets are on track: the target for 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds to be enrolled in early childhood education and the target to halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 in year 12 attainment or equivalent. And so it is a disappointing track record. For the work that has been done, we note that much remains undone.
The Prime Minister, appropriately this year, said that it was important to listen more to Indigenous people. He said:
… it was the belief that we knew better than our Indigenous peoples. We don't.
… … …
I'm very hopeful that a new approach that's more locally led and more collaborative will take us much further down than the top-down, one-size-fits-all, government-led approach ever could.
But, as Bernard Keane in Crikey has noted, this has been startlingly similar to the words former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in 2016:
And so we need to listen to and draw on the wisdom, the ingenuity, the insights of Indigenous people across the nation from the cities to remote communities.
… … …
But we have to redouble our efforts to ensure effective engagement between the Government, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to build trust and develop further that respectful relationship.
… … …
… to allow decisions to be made closer to the people and the communities which those policies impact.
I mention this commonality, not to say that I disagree with the notion that the Closing the Gap project must be more closely engaged with Indigenous Australians but merely to say that those words are not enough. Simply to make that observation doesn't make it happen.
These are targets which were developed in partnership with Indigenous people, but a government that says no to Indigenous Australians' request for a voice to parliament will always struggle to engage in this kind of respectful, collaborative and locally led project. When you reject the Uluru Statement from the Heart it is difficult to embrace a locally driven Indigenous collaborative approach to the Closing the Gap targets. I urge the government to rethink its rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and to consider whether progress may be made on a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament.
There is also the matter of a justice target. Labor has called for a justice target to be added to the existing Closing the Gap targets. This is critical, given what has occurred in the realm of Indigenous incarceration. I have argued that Australia has entered a second convict age. Overall, the share of the population incarcerated is the highest it has been at any time since federation. It's up 130 per cent since 1985, with 0.22 per cent of Australian adults behind bars. But the picture is much worse among Indigenous Australians: 2.5 per cent of Indigenous adults are incarcerated.
In Western Australia that figure is four per cent. Almost one in four Indigenous men born in the 1970s will go to jail during their lifetime. A higher share of Indigenous Australians are incarcerated than African-Americans, making Indigenous Australians—in the words of Noel Pearson—the most incarcerated people on earth. We must add a justice target to the Closing the Gap strategy to help to spur an evidence based criminal justice reform project of the kind that has seen US incarceration levels fall by 10 per cent over the course of the past decade. A project of this kind could be enormously important as part of the Closing the Gap strategy.
Let me close by acknowledging a number of important projects in the realm of Indigenous equality. For several years now, I have been a supporter of the Indigenous Marathon Project. I have run all the world's marathon majors in an Indigenous Marathon Project singlet, and it was a pleasure to join Rob de Castella and the team on 13 February in Reconciliation Place for the annual reconciliation run and walk. We were welcomed by Tyrone Bell and acknowledged the strength and resilience of Indigenous Australians as celebrated through Rob's Indigenous Marathon Project. I have enjoyed in that project learning from people like Nat Heath and Damien Crispin, an Indigenous Marathon Project graduate who lives in Broome and took me for a run last year when I was in Broome.
I acknowledge the work of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Their important work with e-readers is boosting Indigenous literacy and helping to close that gap. I want to recognise former Shoalhaven High School teacher John Dyball for his work with Indigenous boarding scholarships. John was, appropriately, awarded an Order of Australia this year recognising the value of his work partnering with schools to expand the educational opportunities for Indigenous Australians.
Finally, let me pay tribute to Western Australian Treasurer Ben Wyatt, a great Indigenous leader, who announced today that he is stepping down from politics at the next election. Ben has left the Western Australian state budget stronger. He has invested in health, education and public transport. He's a great political leader, a great Labor Party member and a great Indigenous leader. He leaves politics with his head held high.
I begin by paying my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional owners of this land that we're meeting on. I pay my respect to the elders past, present and emerging. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the national apology to the stolen generations in February 2008, he made it clear that saying sorry was not enough. And it is still not enough. If we are to heal the hurt and wrong that has been done to Aboriginal people in this country, we must enable real improvements in people's lives, and that's what closing the gap was set up to do, to provide tangible measureable outcomes, to hold governments to account for the things they should do but for so long have failed to do, with devastating consequences. Unfortunately, this year's closing the gap statement is another failure.
It does bear repeating some of the targets and how we are off track in that statement. Five of the seven targets are not on track, including life expectancy and child mortality rates. The disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this country remains stark. On average, Indigenous Australians live around eight years less than other Australians. Indigenous cancer mortality rates are getting worse. The numbers in this year's report are the same as last year. The Indigenous child mortality rates are still more than twice that of non-Indigenous children. That's a confronting reality. The child mortality rate is a direct result of poorer living conditions, issues with housing and overcrowding, limited prenatal care and a history of dispossession and colonisation, a disparity that is more pronounced in remote areas. It's unacceptable. We are failing our First Nations children by allowing this gap to continue.
In education, one in four Indigenous children are performing below minimum standards for reading, and one in five are below the minimum standards for numeracy. While enrolment for early childhood education is on track, there is concern about the variation between jurisdictions, in particular again in Queensland, Northern Territory and New South Wales in those remote areas. This has not been helped by the government having cut funding from schools that need the most help, including many remote schools with high Indigenous enrolments.
It is clear that for too long First Nations people have been shut out of the conversation about their lives. Despite being in the best positions to understand their communities and their lives, their voices have not been heard. So I want to commend the work of the Coalition of Peaks, the group of Aboriginal organisations who have come together to reshape closing the gap. Labor supports their priorities, and they're really important priorities. They include having a formal partnership between the government and First Nations people on closing the gap, growing First Nations community controlled services, and improving mainstream service delivery to First Nations people. We do need to ask Aboriginal people what they want. We do need to listen to their expertise and their knowledge of what is best in their lives and their communities.
We must also be clear that a formal partnership does not absolve government of its responsibility. Closing the gap takes money and resources, and government must not step away from this. I am very concerned that, in suggesting a new approach to closing the gap, the Prime Minister suggested the targets we have may not have been realistic or achievable in the first place. Lowering our standards or suggesting that it's okay that more Aboriginal children die because maybe it's not realistic to expect that to improve is a cop-out. As the Leader of the Opposition said in his statement to the House:
The problem was not that the targets were too ambitious … the failure to meet the targets is our failure…
We must continue to take responsibility for the failings of a system that does not benefit those we are trying to assist. If we want to see improved outcomes in the health and education of Indigenous Australians, we need to invest in these portfolios and in the services they provide. We need to make sure that people in remote communities have access to clean water for dialysis. We need to make sure they have clean houses to live in, that their schools are up to scratch and that they have a local health service. That is the responsibility of governments. Instead, we've watched as the consecutive Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have made cuts to health and education. We can and we must do better.
Another area that we must continue to work on is how we account for what we're doing. In order to hold governments to account, we must continue to collect consistent data. Collecting the data on inequality, disadvantage and the disparity between Indigenous and non-indigenous people is fundamental to improving living standards. So while we may look at reviving the Closing the Gap targets, we can't lose the data and the progress we've made, because if we do we lose that ability to hold governments to account for their progress. We need this accurate data, as depressing as those outcomes might be. So I call on this government to make sure that that effort continues and that we don't walk away from the knowledge of what's happening to Aboriginal people in this country.
Finally, we must of course act on the Uluru statement and have a voice to parliament that's recognised in our Constitution. We all know that changing the Australian Constitution is not easy, and it's been done very few times, but we're at a turning point in our history. It's a turning point that will require all of us to work on it. It requires passion and it requires dedication. It requires the people in here to sign up. So I ask the people in here who are not on board yet, who think this somehow makes our country a worse place to be, to rethink and to listen to the voices of the Aboriginal people. It is time for them to be recognised in our constitution. It is time for them to have a meaningful voice in this place. It's time for our country to go through the process of truth-telling and treaty-making so that we emerge as a stronger, fairer country on the other side of that process.
We've now had 12 Closing the gap reports and 12 declarations of failure—failure to close the gap. We saw in the most recent report that five out of seven targets are not on track. This is a failure to make good centuries of injustice in our nation. You can fill a small library with the subsequent speeches made in this place about these reports—so many speeches, so much regret, and so little progress. We cheapen language when we do this. Each year we show Australians the enormous difference, the enormous distance, between our words and our achievements.
I can only imagine how numbingly predictable and how hollow this process must seem to First Australians. It would be of little value for me to add yet another expression of regret here today. Nonetheless I stand here in despair that Indigenous children experience vastly higher mortality rates. I despair that life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is sharper and miserably less than the rest of Australia. This is the legacy of systemic murder and dispossession. It's the legacy of racial contempt and indifference. It's the legacy that, after centuries of injustice, led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart from Indigenous Australians.
Almost three years ago the Referendum Council delivered a historic document to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and were optimistic that its recommendations could be fulfilled. The report was the result of unprecedented consultation with First Australians. The council's co-chair Mark Liebler said:
The Uluru statement was the culmination of an inclusive, principled, and focused consultation process, the like of which Australia has never seen … Twelve hundred delegates took part in the Indigenous-specific dialogues, from a total population of about 600,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples nationally. We believe this to be the most proportionally significant consultation process ever undertaken with Indigenous Australians.
The product of that consultation process, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, made three consensus requests from Australia: voice, truth-telling, and makarrata, coming together after struggle.
The first step, meaningful constitutional recognition of the place of Indigenous Australians in our nation in the form of a voice to parliament, was an elegant and earnest desire that an advisory body to parliament be constitutionally enshrined. First Australians were clear: they didn't want fancy, ineffectual words added in a preamble to our Constitution. What they wanted, in the words of the council, was a form of 'living recognition'.
The voice to parliament was not a new idea. Indigenous activist William Cooper, a local of Melbourne's west in my electorate, petitioned the government in 1935 for direct representation to federal parliament. Born in 1860, Cooper was a self-taught activist of unusual skill whose principles and rhetoric were shaped by the Bible. In 1917 he lost his enlisted son on the Western Front. But, when Cooper petitioned the government and later the King for representation of Indigenous Australians' interests, none of this mattered. The thousands of Indigenous signatories to Cooper's petition to King George declared:
… it was not only a moral duty, but also a strict injunction included in the commission issued to those who came to people Australia that the original occupants and we, their heirs and successors, should be adequately cared for; and whereas the terms of the commission have not been adhered to, in that (a) our lands have been expropriated by your Majesty's Government in the Commonwealth, (b) legal status is denied to us by your Majesty's Government in the Commonwealth—
'In response we request the power to propose a member of parliament of our own blood to represent us in the federal parliament.' We can clearly hear in this petition the echoes of the Uluru Statement from the Heart's simple request for a voice to parliament.
William Cooper's petition was ignored in the 20th century just as the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been ignored in the 20th century. It's been 10 years since the process of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians was initiated under the Gillard government. It's been almost three years since the Referendum Council gave former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull their request. In response we've heard unfounded fears about what the voice to parliament will mean.
I can address those fears simply. The voice to parliament would not be a third chamber. It would not undermine parliamentary sovereignty. It could not pass bills, nor veto them, but it was a consensus desire and one that the Referendum Council was confident that the Australian people would ratify by referendum. But it annoyed former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He thought that it had no chance at referendum, that it would be seen as an intrusive third chamber of parliament. In other words, he didn't trust the Australian people to see it for what it was: a modest request that First Australians have a greater say in policies that affect their lives, their communities, their future.
We've recently heard Prime Minister Morrison talking about the voice to parliament as though it is a position of the Labor Party, that it needs to be changed in order to achieve bipartisan consensus. This is a mischaracterisation. Labor did not develop the voice to parliament. We are merely reflecting the consensus request of Indigenous Australians and the Referendum Council. The gap that must be bridged here is not between the coalition and the Labor Party; it is between the coalition and Indigenous Australians.
It's been a frustrating three years of inaction in response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and it's led me to think about what I can do as a parliamentarian to progress these requests in the absence of government support. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was clear that its three requests were sequential—that is, you could not do truth-telling without voice and you couldn't do makarrata without truth-telling. That being said, while we wait for the voice to parliament, I want to engage in some personal truth-telling in this about my own family's accountability for what was done to Indigenous Australians. It's no substitute for the truth telling we need to hear from Indigenous Australia about what was done to them, but it's a small gesture of accounting from a personal perspective.
John Watts, my great-great-great-grandfather, was a pastoralist in 1840s Queensland and an MP. He was present during the initial dispossession of Indigenous Australians from areas stretching from the Darling Downs to Brisbane. His self-written memoirs, written for the audience of his descendants to tell the story of his colonial life, passed down through the generations to my family and in my parliamentary office today, express an unthinking and ruthless sense of superiority over the colonised. He wrote, 'I am one of those who think this fine country was never intended to only be occupied by a nomad race who made no use of it except for going from place to place and living only on the wild animals and the small roots of the earth and never in any way cultivating a single inch of the ground.'
This statement of ignorance is laid bare by the prize-winning book Dark Emu, in which Bruce Pascoe carefully disproves the ignorant assumptions my ancestor had about the 'natives' and their agricultural primitivism. In other ways, John Watts was a liberal of his time. For example, he was well known locally for how he treated workers on his land. But on the question of Indigenous Australians he was so blind that he could not even see his own ignorance. His statements on Indigenous Australians reflect the view of inherent Indigenous inferiority that enabled what was done to Indigenous Australians by colonisation.
My ancestor's memoirs describe killings and massacres of Indigenous Australians in South-East Queensland during this time in a matter-of-fact way. In recounting his memoirs he didn't seem to have any sense of shame or relish about what had occurred, but my father and I have since learned that what he left out of those memoirs may reveal a greater truth. Unmentioned in his memoirs, John Watts was also a champion of the Queensland native police, which was effectively a militia group comprising Indigenous men governed by white men and ordered to protect white settlers at any cost, which, in practise, meant slaughter. In justifying the actions of the Queensland native police in the wake of an inquiry into their actions, my ancestor told the Queensland parliament:
… the natives must be regarded in the same light as inhabitants of a country under martial law—and that the natives must be taught to feel the mastery of the whites. He believed that from the natives knowing no law, nor entertaining any fears but those of the carbine—
that is, a gun—
there were no other means of ruling them …
They were ruled by the gun. The Hansard provides further that my ancestor:
… alluded to the atrocities committed by the aborigines upon the whites forming the establishment of Mr. Marks, at Colleroy, on the McIntyre, previous to the establishment of the native police force, as being of so diabolical a character as to make the blood run cold, and to prove that leaving the settlers to defend themselves, tended much more to the destruction of the blacks, than the maintenance of a native force. Before this was established, the settlers had to arm themselves to the teeth, and such men, seeing their children killed before them, could not be expected to refrain from using them indiscriminately.
This was the truth that my ancestor didn't seem to want to recount for his descendants. It's a truth that is the beginning of a brutal legacy that we're now talking about in this place. It's the truth that underpins the need for the Closing the Gap statement and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and it's a truth that's hard to hear here today. But it's a truth that all of us will benefit from confronting.
Early this month, Bruce Pascoe told assembled parliamentarians in this building that learning about our nation's history, about Indigenous Australians' connection with country and about their understanding of the land, upon which we all live, ought not to be seen as an imposition but as an opportunity—an opportunity to reconsider our history, to renew our bonds and to feel a collective excitement for this act of inclusion and accounting; an opportunity to reconsider ourselves honestly and collectively. This begins with listening to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and acting on voice, truth and makarrata.
I begin by acknowledging that we are on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri people and I pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge the Dharug, Gundungurra and Darkinjung, the traditional owners in the electorate of Macquarie, which I represent. Based on the census data, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up three per cent of the population of Macquarie. That's higher than the average for New South Wales or the national average. These are people for whom our failure to close the gap means their life expectancy is, if they are male, 8.6 years lower and, if they're women, 7.8 years lower than the non-Indigenous population and their children are twice as likely to die. We have failed to close the gap on five of the seven targets on health, child mortality, life expectancy, education and employment outcomes. It's such a failure that I can see why the government has thrown in the towel and said that because they've not been achieved they're the wrong targets. I think that's a cop-out. However, that's where we are. And, while we haven't been consulted on the new targets, I trust that there will be genuine engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities about making those meaningful targets and that there will then be a commitment for the necessary funding and support to achieve them.
We should celebrate the two targets that are on track—the same ones as last year—which are the increasing number of children doing preschool and the increasing number of Aboriginal students completing year 12. Education is transformative. It changes lives. It changes futures. It is good that those were on track in these last two reports.
I want to focus on the health aspects as they affect my local communities. Access to health services in my electorate for Indigenous people remains a real concern. For example, some years ago the then Nepean Blue Mountains Medicare Local coordinated an Aboriginal sharing and learning circle within our community to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to get insights into local health needs and to establish the health priorities, alongside the Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District and the Hawkesbury District Health Service. A report was produced in 2015, spanning 2010 to 2014, which is still the most current one. This report found that—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 17:21 to 17:33
This report found there was a lack of Aboriginal health services in the Hawkesbury area and that one of the most important barriers to health services for Aboriginal people in the region was the lack of transport options. Many people simply don't have a car, and the public transport links are not good. So people found it difficult to attend health services.
Now, years on, while we certainly have some good work being done in the sector, unfortunately the health services for Aboriginal people in the Hawkesbury are still predominantly delivered from Penrith, or are in Penrith. Penrith is about 20 kilometres from Richmond and Windsor. The public transport between the two regions—the Hawkesbury and Penrith—is minimal: a bus, at times, or a train changing at Blacktown. So the real question is: why hasn't there been any significant change to the transport issues in the region? Why do we still expect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to travel out of the area for the majority of their health services? That is not going to improve their access and it's not going to close the gap.
Of course, our local community services, based in the Hawkesbury, who understand the needs of this really geographically challenging community—organisations like Merana and Mad Mob—work hard to bridge the gaps that exist, and they have my full support in fighting for services that meet the needs of our Indigenous community members.
Since coming to this place, I've also been very disappointed to see a trusted Blue Mountains service, Healthy for Life, disappear with a change in the management of health services. Healthy For Life was a community developed program, developed locally with the Blue Mountains Aboriginal community and local GPs. It was a federal government program aimed at helping Indigenous people see an improvement in their health. The Aboriginal Healthy For Life Program aimed to look after people with chronic and complex illnesses and to improve the health of mums, babies and children overall—it also had a focus on men's and boys—to achieve and improvement in long-term health outcomes, to bring them more in line with health outcomes for non-Indigenous Australians. The big thing that the program did was allow people to meet in the family home, if that was the best place to have the service delivered, or some other preferred location, not necessarily the traditional doctor's surgery. It provided a link and support to health professionals, doctors and specialists. There were regular health checks, and transport was organised for health appointments. These are the sorts of things that help to close the gap. The replacement program has been a really long time coming. I think we need to stress that both the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury Aboriginal communities deserve to have services based in their community, not delivered from somewhere miles away.
There are other organisations in my electorate that are working really hard to close the gap. I'd like to congratulate the nine students who recently completed a customised Diploma Of Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drugs tailored by TAFE Digital for The Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at Sydney university to provide training for Indigenous students, people who are really keen to work in this area. It means that there are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals in the Nepean and Blue Mountains region who will deliver these mental health, drug and alcohol counselling services. It's a really good step forward. This program was funded by Wentworth Healthcare, who operate the Nepean Blue Mountains Primary Health Network. I know that organisation is working hard with the funding it has to address some of these really difficult and serious health issues. I also want to commend the Blue Mountains GP Network. It has a long-term commitment to providing appropriate health services to the region for Aboriginal people. It is a group of very dedicated local doctors.
In talking about closing the gap I'd like to recognise two local Aboriginal achievers who spent some time in this place recently. They are two businesses from Macquarie who took part in the Supply Nation Indigenous Business Trade Fair. Anny Druett is a business owner from the Blue Mountains. She's an Indigenous speaker and trainer who has mentored Aboriginal staff for more than 25 years. She is a formidable woman. Her cross-cultural training is in demand by government and not-for-profit organisations seeking to improve their relationships with Aboriginal people. It was just wonderful to see her here showcasing what she does. Then there is executive chef Matthew Atkins, who technically doesn't live in my electorate but is very much a feature of the Hawkesbury business scene. He operates Plate Events and Catering in the Hawkesbury district and much further afield. Right now, the business is preparing to host an Indigenous fusion event in Richmond which will take donors on a unique culinary journey through the Dharug seasonal calendar, with a wide range of native Australian ingredients showcased alongside music, art and an exhibition of Aboriginal artefacts. I'm looking forward to that one. I think that the more we celebrate the achievements the more there is a greater understanding and a closing of that gap, the understanding gap.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said that the Closing the Gap statement to parliament commemorates the historic anniversary of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the stolen generation. Like him, I hope that the statement that we have recently heard results in real change, because while there have been improvements the gap does remain, and it remains in my region.
Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe looked at how Australia was a settled land long before we got here. He demonstrated by taking apart the accounts of settlers that there was agriculture, engineering and ownership and stewardship of this land by the First Peoples. As we strive to close the gap that has emerged since Europeans arrived we need to listen to the voices of our First Peoples if we are to affect real change. We need constitutional recognition of their existence, their settlement of this land. Let's make sure that as a result of this Closing the Gap statement and the changes that are promised we don't just pay lip service on these really important matters.
It's with really mixed feelings that I stand in this House, yet again—this is possibly the seventh time I've stood in this parliament to do this—to make a response to the Closing the gap report, and each and every time we have failed. We have utterly failed in terms of bridging any kind of gap for the seven measures that were laid down clearly following that historic apology in this parliament, when we were asked to make a commitment towards the monitoring and assessment of Indigenous disadvantage.
That process really mapped out a number of the key indicators. They were around life expectancy; child mortality; school attendance; reading and numeracy; employment; early childhood; and the attainment of year 12 or equivalent. These were all very practical measures that the parliament agreed to in terms of monitoring and measuring, and it is utterly tragic that after 12 years we are not on track for at least five of those seven targets, including life expectancy, child mortality and employment. That is an utter indictment on all of us, that 12 years later we're on track for just two of those targets.
I think the Leader of the Opposition was correct when he stood in this chamber, saying that the problem is not that those targets were too ambitious—we should not fall into that trap, that these goals were too big for this nation to set ourselves—but rather that we simply failed to meet those targets. That failure is ours, not that of Indigenous or First Nations people in Australia.
The other observation I would like to make now is that many Indigenous First Nations people have commented that they struggle with some of the close the gap language because it's a deficit language. It fails to acknowledge or work on those things which have been embraced positively and the great achievements within the First Nations community. That is very true, but there are also some growing and terribly worrying signs that this gap is indeed increasing and widening under the watch of this government. One only need look at the shocking incarceration rates in Australia, the terrible suicide rates for First Nations people and, indeed, the absolutely abominable rates of children being removed from families and placed in out-of-home care. These are three issues that worry me deeply about how we could even contemplate a closing of the gap when we see before us the disadvantage which has resulted from more than two centuries of dispossession, discrimination and racism. Indeed, at times it was a very violent oppression on those frontiers. This is the very sad history of that 200 years of colonial engagement, and now we are seeing the disadvantage in those communities, in many of our communities, growing.
When First Nations people gathered to talk about what their hopes and aspirations might be over a long period of time—we have come to know this as the Uluru statement—people reported back to this parliament a number of, in my view, very modest asks. One was to seek to have a voice in this parliament—that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be consulted on the issues and policies that were directly impacting and affecting them and that they would have some mechanism to have a voice to parliament on those issues. Tragically, this was dismissed in circumstances that I think were grossly unfair. There were wildly inaccurate allegations at the time that this request for a voice to parliament was somehow the creation of a third chamber. We know this to be untrue. I think even those people who first thought that have subsequently acknowledged that that was not the case; I thank the member for New England for correcting the record and saying that he had got that wrong. Nonetheless, there was a lot of damage done. Within days, there was a complete rejection of the elements of the Uluru statement. These were issues that hurt deeply for a number of First Nations people.
The other element in the Uluru statement concerned truth; I touched on this a little bit earlier. We as a nation have to confront what has been a very uncomfortable truth around the ongoing impact of colonisation in this country. As uncomfortable as that truth might be from time to time, it seems to me that it is impossible for a mature nation to be a confident nation, with a genuine partnership with its First Nations people, if we cannot be honest about the history that brings us to the place we're at now. Truth-telling is a very important and, indeed, powerful acknowledgement of the reality of our shared histories in Australia.
The other component of the Uluru statement, of course, was the makarrata—the treaty or agreement making. It's been the subject of great debate in Australia for decades and decades. It seems to me that, until we can mature as a nation to the understanding that we would have confidence in allowing self-determination of our First Nations people, we still have a lot of growing up to do if we can't find ways to adequately accommodate in a mature manner with First Nations people an agreement of some sort about the way that we continue to coexist in this nation.
So, rather than standing in this Chamber year after year discussing the ongoing failure—and this is our failure—to reach these targets, perhaps it is time that this government rethinks its relationships with First Nations people, rethinks its initial dismissal of the Uluru statement and the modest requests that were asked in that statement, and really begins to think: 'Well, you know what? After all these years, what we're doing has failed First Nations people. It's not working. It is time.' Instead of talking about a reset on closing the gap, I think it's time for a reset on the original relationships between First Nations people and the remainder of the Australian nationhood. Self-determination shouldn't ever be just a theoretical concept; it needs to be set in practice. We should have that trusting relationship: both in ourselves as mature citizens, but also in our First Nations people and that they certainly do have the answers. And this is the complaint about deficit language: First Nations people have said, time and time again, 'You need us to be able to take control of our own lives and destinies.'
Of course, as happens every day in this place, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. Here in the Canberra region, the traditional owners are the Ngunnawal people and the Ngambri people. I also want to acknowledge my colleagues and fellow parliamentarians who are Aboriginal people: the Hon. Linda Burney, Senators McCarthy, Dodson and Lambie, and the Hon. Ken Wyatt.
When the Closing the gap report was presented to parliament, the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Anthony Albanese, made a speech in which he made some, I think, very poignant and telling remarks. He said that closing the gap:
… adds up to nothing but sentiment and speeches, if this occasion becomes merely a ceremonial renewal of good intentions and a promise to do better next time.
He reflected on the Closing the Gap targets and said:
It is an indictment that, of all these targets, we’re on track for only two. The problem was not that the targets were too ambitious … the failure to meet these targets is our failure.
Of course, in saying 'our' failure, he wasn't referring to one or a few members of this parliament; he was referring to all of the members of this parliament collectively. It's important that responsibility for the failure to meet the Closing the Gap targets be laid at the feet of the parliament. And it's appropriate that responsibility and accountability—two of the words that the Prime Minister used in his speech during the debate to take note of the Closing the gap report—be laid at our feet as members of parliament. And it's also right that criticism be laid at our feet. I'm very grateful that Anthony once again recommitted Labor to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and to a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to parliament, which is one of the components of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
It is important, when we talk about why five out of the seven targets are not on track, that we think about the centrality of power in influencing the failures that have been laid at our feet. The failure to be on track for five out of seven Closing the Gap targets tells us that change is needed when it comes to power structures. Self-determination and autonomy require power. As Professor Megan Davis has said, 'A partnership where people can genuinely make informed choices and form their own pathways is not possible without structural reform.' This means that we can't continue to take an approach to addressing the targets in the Closing the gap report without also addressing the fundamental power relations that exist.
To give one example, in response to this year's Closing the gap report, Dr Chelsea Bond and David Singh have responded to that report by writing about the importance of transforming relationships of power. I want to quote from their article, which is called 'More than a refresh required for closing the gap of Indigenous health inequality'. They specifically talk about health inequality in Indigenous communities, as well as Indigenous health more broadly. I want to quote extensively so please indulge me. They said:
What is required is a broadening of our intellectual investment in Indigenous health: one that invites social scientific perspectives about the social world that Indigenous people occupy and its role in the production of illness and inequalities. In this way, we would come to understand that race needs to be better conceptualised before we understand the ways it matters to health outcomes.
Through this we might also come to realise the limitations of drawing too heavily upon a medical response to what is effectively a political problem, enabling us to extend our strategies beyond affordable prescriptions for remedying individual illnesses to include remedying the power imbalances that cause the health inequalities we are so intent on describing.
We might then be prepared for the radical reconfiguring of relationships of power between Indigenous and non‐Indigenous people that are necessary for achieving better health outcomes, whereby Indigenous peoples could be considered the solution to better health rather than the cause of ill health, where Indigenous research institutions administer Indigenous health research investments rather than be advisors to them, and where Indigenous peoples are the architects of health advancement rather than accessories to failed health policy frameworks.
They went on to say:
That any of these suggestions might appear as radical propositions is perhaps a more telling and tragic indictment of what little progress has been made in over a decade of the Closing the Gap approach, more tragic than the statistical tale that is told each February on the floors of the Australian Parliament.
I also want to note that in the discussions of the role of power there are few more obvious manifestations as violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Recently, the Hon. Linda Burney MP was quoted in the press about violence in Australia particularly against Indigenous women. She said:
People need to recognise that for Aboriginal families, these are not statistics, they are real people.
She went on to say:
It's not just people murdered or people missing, but it's the injury as well that goes unnoticed …
The thing that I am very incensed about, it's not just the murders, but the actual hospitalisations, permanent disabilities, and the maiming that takes place.
In this ABC report, the ABC said:
Nationally, Indigenous women make up 16 per cent of all female murder victims, despite comprising less than 3 per cent of the population.
It went on to say:
The ABC obtained exclusive data revealing, in some states, Aboriginal women also made up 10 per cent of unsolved missing persons cases. These women were often presumed dead.
Celeste Little wrote about this phenomenon recently in an article called 'Aboriginal women continue to disappear silently as we've done for decades'. She said:
A few years back, I spent a lot of time trawling through the lists created by feminist groups such as Destroy the Joint and Real for Women of victims of violence against women, and identifying the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women amongst these lists. I've spoken about this before but it was incredibly tough work, not just because the statistics were heartbreaking but also because so many of the cases would have one police report and no media follow up. These women often went further unmentioned and unnamed – their cases were never taken up by the media, the trials of their killers were not covered, they remained invisible to the rest of the country.
It's very clear that when it comes to violence we need a stronger approach to making sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have the structural power, in a collective sense, that they need to make sure that the violence is brought to an end. Violence has been a theme of this week, of course, given the circumstances in my own electorate recently and elsewhere across the nation. It is important that when we talk about violence we also think about those women who go missing and are never found, whose families live for decades not knowing what happened.
I met recently with Senator Kim Pate, who's a senator in Canada, alongside the founder of Sisters Inside, Deb Kilroy, to discuss this issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australia. Senator Pate is leading a campaign on a very similar issue in Canada. This is an issue that requires further consideration and further attention. It requires those things so that we don't have cases like this one. And I'll return to the ABC report that I mentioned that cites:
Widjabul woman Rhoda Roberts has worked as a journalist, broadcaster, director and festival programmer in the arts and says two women in her family have just "disappeared".
Her twin sister was 39 years old when she disappeared. They subsequently found her body, and her killer was never found. Back in 2002 Ms Roberts' cousin, Lucy McDonald, vanished from her Lismore home. She's never been found. These cases are horrifying and deeply distressing, and we need to focus on them. That also means not cutting funding to the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum. It means not cutting funding to WESNET. Thirty-one per cent of their safe phones go to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. These programs make a serious difference to the lives of women, but we must absolutely address structural reform to ensure that people have power.
I join many of my colleagues on both sides of the House in standing here today to talk about the Closing the gap report. I don't think that it is an overstatement to say the results reported this year are a terrible indictment of our collective failure—and I say collective failure, reiterating the statements that the member for Griffith has just made that we as a parliament need to be accountable for the failures. It's a terrible indictment on our collective failure and a terrible stain on our nation when we have only two of the seven targets in the Closing the gap report on track to be met, those two being early childhood education and year 12 attainment. Let us not forget that much of the reason why those two markers are on target to be achieved by 2025 in the case of childhood education and 2020 for year 12 attainment is due to the non-profit and non-government sector—organisations like Clontarf in Western Australia and organisations like the Girls Academy in Western Australia, which work with First Nations girls and First Nations boys to keep them in education.
The other five targets around child mortality, literacy and numeracy, school attendance, employment and, importantly, life expectancy are still not on track. It's not the first time that any of us have stood here and lamented the fact that we are failing in closing not just the gap but the incredible chasm that exists in inequality between our First Nations people and other Australians.
I've often said that we can't move forward without reconciling our past. I know that this is something that is broadly accepted but that we've yet to see positive action towards achieving. It's been 12 years since the national apology. The national apology was an important turning point in our history in offering not just an apology but also a start to healing the hundreds of years of hurt that have been caused between us and our First Nations people. It was just a start, but here we are, 12 years later, and my concern and my fear is that we squander our time here in this place, that each and every one of us fails to continue to push and to advocate for the change that is necessary to really close that chasm. We just can't afford to squander our time here. We are in a time in Australia's history—an unprecedented time in Australia's history—where we have a significant number of people in our parliament who are of First Nations. We have Senator Lambie, Senator McCarthy and Senator Dodson, and we have an Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Affairs in the Hon. Ken Wyatt as well as a shadow Indigenous minister for indigenous affairs in the Hon. Linda Burney. And I think that now is a time for us to listen, to really listen to them and to follow their lead.
I'd like at this point to reiterate a suggestion that the member for Chifley made. He suggested that the Indigenous minister and the Indigenous shadow should be able to deliver the address to parliament on Closing the Gap, in the same way that we have the Treasurer, for example, delivering the economic statements every year. I would back the member for Chifley's call to give our Indigenous minister and our Indigenous shadow minister the power to deliver that address.
I am incredibly proud to live in a democratic nation like Australia, and I have a very deeply held optimism and belief in our political institutions—in the intent of their design and in the undeniable good that they have done when they work for everyone. But I am also well aware that those institutions have sometimes also set policies that don't always benefit all Australians, and this is no more evident than in the persistent state of inequality and inequity that besets our First Nations people. I appreciate that we have political institutions and structures that compel us—not just each and every one of us in this House but each and every Australian—to pursue the cause of closing this chasm of inequality between our First Nations people, our brothers and sisters of First Nations, and other Australians. But we must use these institutions to listen, to empower and to give our First Nations people a voice and a platform to determine their futures and support them in doing so.
In the Prime Minister's address on the Closing the gap report, he spoke of a top-down approach, and many members on the other side have also spoken about the top-down approach. But, please, I implore you, let us not allow this focus on a top-down approach to be an excuse for dragging our feet on progress towards equality. Let us not squander our time here and let us not squander this moment in history, when we have an Indigenous minister and an Indigenous shadow minister who can be a guiding light and show us the way. Let us not insist on leading when we should be following. We really should be following. And let us truly commit to a process that empowers First Nations people by establishing a voice to parliament.
I do not accept the argument that a voice to parliament will be a third chamber—quite the contrary. A voice to parliament will not just be a symbolic act. The member for Chifley quite rightly stated that we are humans and symbols mean things to us. Symbolic acts mean something. They are not just semantics; they actually do have deep meaning and speak and send messages in ways that perhaps it is difficult to fathom at times. It wouldn't just be a symbolic act; it would be a real act of giving a voice to First Nations people.
I know that standing up and talking about this isn't going to make the change that I want to see. I know that when I talk about the inequality for our First Nations people. I know that when we talk about issues like domestic violence. I know that there are so many measures of inequality that we could also be talking about—things like eye health and ear health for Aboriginal children, particularly those in remote areas; things like comorbidity and health outcomes; things like incarceration rates. We talk a lot about the gender pay gap, but we have no data on the fact that the gender pay gap is even wider for Indigenous women. We don't often talk about that kind of intersectionality of gender and race when we talk about issues for women.
In closing, I stand here as somebody who is not Indigenous and as somebody who is acutely aware that sometimes we take away the voices of those who we should be listening to. I listened to the Prime Minister's speech, and I have no doubt that it was heartfelt and sincere—I have absolutely no doubt of that. But I do fear that there was an undertone there about the setting of these targets. I do hope that we don't walk away from our accountability to achieve the targets that we set over a decade ago, because lives count on it, our First Nations people count on it and also our future, moving forward as Australians and as part of one great nation, counts on it.
2008 was a very proud time for our nation, and I consider myself very privileged to have been a member of this parliament at that stage, where we came together collectively to apologise for past wrongs committed by successive governments against our fellow Australians—Indigenous Australians. Prime Minister Rudd's speech at the time truly reflected the spirit of our nation. It was an historic moment. The truth is, though, that past laws and policies have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians, entrenching systematic disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
I think we were buoyed with optimism by the hope of what occurred in 2008. It was a defining moment, as we made the commitment as a nation to close the gap—to improve the gap in the quality of life between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But the simple fact is that it is yet to be achieved. Twelve years later there is still much work to be done. While there has been some improvement in two areas—in early childhood enrolments and year 12 attainment targets—the overall result is by and large still well short of the mark.
The goal for 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds to be enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is close to being reached, with 86.4 per cent enrolments in 2018, compared with 91.3 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. Clearly, that is a tick. And over the decade the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged between 20 and 24 obtaining year 12 or the equivalent has increased by 21 per cent, with the target being to halve the gap of year 12 attainment rates by 2020. That's clearly on track. While these should be recognised and commended, the poor results in health, employment and other areas, such as education, are a significant concern and certainly overshadow these gains.
Take the target to halve the gap in child mortality rates for Indigenous children under the age of five by 2018, for instance. It has not been met, with 141 per 100,000, compared with 67 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous children. It's simply an indictment on us that we haven't been able to make a significant dent in that statistic by changing the mortality rate.
The target to close the life expectancy gap within a generation is just not on track, with Indigenous males having 8.6 years less life expectancy than non-Indigenous males. And, likewise, Indigenous women have 7.8 years less life expectancy than non-Indigenous females. We can't take any joy in that at all. The target for non-Indigenous employment was also not met; Indigenous employment rates are around 49 per cent, compared to 75 per cent for the non-Indigenous Australians.
The target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by 2018 has not been achieved. The gap actually starts in the first year of schooling and widens as it progresses into high school. We need to do something about that. There has always been some improvement in literacy, but the target to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018 is simply not on track at all. Clearly, an investment in education is not just an investment in our nation; quite frankly, an investment in education is an investment in prosperity for all of us. It is an investment in the country. You can't just make that investment and say we are seeking to improve the productivity of the nation by investing in and looking at the results of non-Indigenous Australians. It has to be an investment in all Australians, and the results must be attainable.
That's why I remain appalled by this government's approach to education funding. They have cut billions of dollars from our schools, particularly public schools, including those that service remote communities that have a high Indigenous enrolment. The member for Sydney points out very clearly that the Morrison government went further by cutting $500 million from programs aimed specifically at reversing Indigenous disadvantage in education. That is something that should concern all of us. If this government is serious about addressing Indigenous inequality, they must also have a close look at their policies and their decision-making when it comes to funding appropriate needs-based services. The disparity in living conditions for non-Indigenous Australians and Indigenous Australians is so high as to make clear that the current approach is simply not working.
In order to address the challenges facing Indigenous communities, we must absolutely acknowledge the involvement of self-determination. They deserve the right to be able to make decisions on matters that affect them and their communities. In highlighting the power of self-determination for Indigenous communities, I want to draw on the legacy of a friend, the late Aunty Mae Robinson, a remarkable woman. It was a privilege for me to know her and to work with her. Aunty Mae broke many barriers. She was the first Aboriginal to graduate from a school of education in the 1980s. She went on to have a lasting impact in my community. She taught at local primary schools. She was involved in the development of the first Aboriginal studies syllabus, through the University of Western Sydney, and she worked tirelessly to inspire Aboriginal youth and to provide them with the opportunities to succeed through access to education.
In concluding, I would like to share some commentary provided by the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council, an organisation in my community which does a great job servicing Indigenous people living in Liverpool, Fairfield, Cumberland and the Sutherland local government areas. Melissa Williams is the CEO of the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council. She successfully puts the matter in perspective when she says: 'Closing the gap related problems are often provided by non-Aboriginal organisations. Well meaning though these services may be, their goal is to provide a suite of services to a broad based target group.' Speaking of her organisation, she says: 'Our remit is for a much smaller, focused result: services provided to Aboriginal people, controlled by Aboriginal people'.
Accordingly, it is with this new approach moving forward that I offer bipartisan support to work for a real and actual positive change in our Indigenous communities. If we are to be a proud nation, we must be prepared to work with the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to reverse the entrenched disadvantage. The current situation of First Nations people is just intolerable. We can and we must make a change. We must make a difference. We must work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to actually deliver the services they need to help advance the future prosperity of their communities.
The annual Closing the Gap statement is a penetrating window into the character and wellbeing of our country. All else aside, we cannot be at peace with ourselves when the circumstances of so many First Australians situate them in a parallel world—a world where everything is squeezed and tilted away from basic standards of social inclusion, health care, educational attainment, economic opportunity, cultural respect and freedom from discrimination. We can't be at peace with ourselves, because, one way or the other, that is the case for too many Indigenous Australians.
As others have noted, within the seven key areas of marked disadvantage only two of the Closing the Gap targets are currently on track. That means we are not making progress to address the fact that child and infant mortality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids is twice as high as the rate in the broader population, the fact that life expectancy is so different for Indigenous people or the fact that employment participation remains widely divergent. It's interesting to note that the Closing the Gap summary refers to the unchanging gulf when it comes to employment participation as being stable. 'Stagnant' would be a better word. If your mantra is that the best kind of support that government policy can deliver for people is a job, then you'd have to judge yourself pretty harshly on those numbers.
In 2018 the Indigenous child mortality rate was 141 per 100,000. For non-Indigenous kids it's only 67 per 100,000. It is a terrible gap. We can't accept it. The rate of Indigenous child mortality was falling until 2012 but it has risen again since that time. The target to close the life expectancy gap by 2031 is not on track. Indigenous Australians live on average eight years fewer than non-Indigenous Australians. One thing we need to be clear about is that the response to the lack of progress under the Closing the Gap framework cannot be to adjust the framework in order to let ourselves off the hook of achieving real change. That would be a cop-out and an abdication.
I want to specifically mention the issue of suicide. Before I do, I acknowledge the essential work of Lifeline. I make the point that anyone feeling at risk or having dark thoughts should speak to someone by calling 131114. It's been very welcome to see the Prime Minister announce the creation of a permanent national commissioner to investigate suicides among Defence Force personnel and veterans. As we rightly apply ourselves to the awful and unacceptable rates of suicide among those who serve or have served in our defence forces, so we must acknowledge and be appalled by and galvanise ourselves in response to the scourge of suicide in Indigenous communities, particularly among Indigenous kids. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are 2.8 per cent of the Australian population. Do we reflect enough on the fact that 25 per cent of all children who died by suicide over the last five years were Indigenous kids? The Kimberley in Western Australia has the nation's highest rate of youth suicide. I was with my predecessor, Melissa Parke, when, as the Parliamentary Secretary for Mental Health in 2013, she announced in Fremantle the first national strategy for Indigenous suicide prevention—an initiative that was largely discontinued under the Abbott government.
Rob McPhee, the deputy CEO of the Kimberly Aboriginal Medical Services and co-chair of the Commonwealth funded Kimberley Aboriginal Suicide Prevention Working Group, has written about the kind of effort that is needed:
Any sustainable response must go to the deeper, underlying historical causes of hopelessness and despair, which contributes to suicide. This isn’t just a problem among children; the suicide rate peaks in those aged between 25 and 34.
These deeper causes include intergenerational trauma. Poverty, racism, social exclusion, substandard housing, and economic marginalisation of our communities are the legacies of colonisation.
There's a clear element in what Mr McPhee says that goes to the unresolved question and the unrequited promise of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That came from a process that was based on listening to Indigenous Australians. Yet what was clearly communicated through that painstaking work: the decision for proper recognition, the need for truth-telling and agreement-making processes in the form of a makarrata commission and a First Nations voice to parliament—these simple, sensible, vital steps forward have so far been ignored. It's true that by speaking in this place alone we will not bring change. That's one of the reasons it's so vital that we work harder to listen to what Indigenous people are saying.
As I rise today, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this parliament meets, the Ngunawal and the Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging. This land, our nation, was, is and always be Aboriginal land. I rise as a representative of and as someone who has always lived on the land of the Kulin nation. To the west of the Werribee River, Wathaurong people stretched as far as the Otways and down to the Bellarine, home to the Marpeang balug clan. East of the river is home to the Kurung jang balug clan of the Woiwurrung language, who stretch out to Kororoit Creek and as far north as Melton. East of our river, the Yalukit willam clan stretched as far as St Kilda, speaking the Boonwurrung language. They inhabited the land between Kurung jang balug to Port Phillip Bay. My home is by the Werribee River, and that river was the meeting place of the clans of the Iramoo plains. In making my remarks today, I pay my respects to Indigenous people of these lands and to the First Australians from country across Australia who live and work in Wyndham.
Twenty-seven years ago, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating stood in a park just kilometres from where European settlement began and urged us to recognise our dark past. The Redfern speech spoke to me. It was a call to action that set the path to reconciliation, and 12 years ago this parliament finally responded to the calls for an apology and said sorry. The declaration of sorry was proudly hung in the school where I worked, and it still catches my eye and my heart when I see it in school foyers now. Twelve years after Prime Minister Rudd's monumental apology, that day of healing, that day the truth was told, a day when the Parliament of Australia finally admitted that past actions were wrong, we mark again today the need to close the gap and check our progress. But after 12 years of the Closing the Gap process, the truths we read and the lack of progress we see in this year's report can only be summed up as inadequate and unworthy.
The facts are these. The child mortality rate has not been halved; in fact, the gap has widened since 2008. There's been no improvement in the past five years on school attendance rates. Halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy has not been met, despite slight improvements. The Indigenous employment rate has only increased by less than one per cent. There's been no progress made on the goal to close the life expectancy gap. Alarmingly, incarceration rates of First Australian men, women and children continue to rise.
For too long, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have had their way of life determined by those sitting in this House. While more recently they have been in the room, it is questionable whether they have actually been heard. Let's be straight: to take real action to close the gap, we must begin with listening to First Nations peoples. The only way our legislators can listen to First Nations peoples is if they have a voice—a voice to the parliament that is constitutionally enshrined. It's time we took the Uluru Statement from the Heart into the hearts of us who are here, to make laws and to close this gap.
Paul Keating, in Redfern, said it best. If we can be leaders around the nation, if we can do great things for our world, how can we be so behind when it comes to our First Nations Australians? The lack of progress is disappointing. In this House I felt deep shame when I heard our Prime Minister suggest that we should cave in and give up—give up on fairness and equality. No, Prime Minister, we can't throw up our hands and say it's too hard. We need to reach higher, strive harder, work smarter, to meet our collective best and our targets. We are an ambitious people—we always have been—and we should not baulk at closing the gap. We should continue the journey to reconciliation. We should enshrine the voice and hear and speak the truth. Until we do, our potential as a nation and our job in this parliament is incomplete.