Monday, 30 November 2020
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(a) the importance of the Auditor-General, who is responsible for auditing Commonwealth entities and reporting to the Parliament, providing crucial accountability and transparency regarding Government administration, and scrutiny of the expenditure of public monies;
(b) that as an independent officer of the Parliament with responsibilities under the Auditor-General Act 1997, the Auditor-General reports not to a minister, but directly to the Parliament via the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit;
(c) that unlike similar entities such as the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) sits within the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, and the Prime Minister is responsible for administering the legislation and presenting budget bids for the ANAO, which is also subject to directions from the Minister for Finance as an entity under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013; and
(d) the potential conflicts inherent in these arrangements, given the Auditor-General exists to scrutinise the performance and actions of the executive;
(2) declares that independent scrutiny of Government spending to get maximum value for every taxpayer dollar is more important now than ever, given:
(a) the Government is racking up one trillion dollars in debt;
(b) Australia's budget deficit is now at a record high; and
(c) Government spending has blown out to the highest percentage of gross domestic product since 1970, the earliest year that records are available in the budget papers;
(3) further notes that:
(a) the ANAO's budget has been in structural deficit for years because of this Government's cuts, recording unsustainable operating losses of $3million in 2018-19 and $4million in 2019 20;
(b) the Auditor-General wrote to the Prime Minister prior to the 2020-21 Budget requesting $6million in new funding so he could continue to undertake his role, related to the accumulated budget pressures and COVID-19 cost pressures; and
(c) without new funding the Auditor-General is forced to reduce his program of performance audits which is projected to fall rapidly below the longstanding target of 48 performance audits per annum to around 38 per annum;
(4) condemns the Government for its ongoing efforts to hide rorts, waste and corruption from scrutiny and avoid accountability by:
(a) taking revenge on the Auditor-General and making further cuts to the ANAO's budget and staffing, with a $1million cut to revenue, a reduction in resources of $14 million in 2020-21 and a reduction in the average staffing level allocation; and
(b) failing for years to introduce a National Integrity Commission; and
(5) calls on the Government to:
(a) immediately reverse its cuts to the ANAO's budget and provide the Auditor-General with the funds he has requested, by having the Minister for Finance provide an immediate advance, and making a commitment to boost funding over the forward estimates in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook;
(b) apologise for the Prime Minister's failure to protect and support the independent Auditor General, as the Prime Minister has proven that he cannot be trusted to protect the integrity of the office;
(c) consider introducing legislation to remove the ANAO from the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio and establish the ANAO as a parliamentary department, cementing the Auditor General as a truly independent officer of the Parliament; and
(d) stop stalling and introduce legislation to establish a National Integrity Commission.
NAIDOC Week was held from 8 to 15 November, having been moved this year because of COVID-19 from its usual July timeslot. NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and traditions of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It traces its history to the Aboriginal activist movements of the 1920s and 1930s led by the remarkable Yorta Yorta leader, William Cooper. When I think of that generation and the generation that followed of Yorta Yorta leaders, what a magnificent group of people they were whether it was Cooper himself, Sir Douglas Nicholls or, in more recent times, Burnum Burnum, they did so much to bring to the public's attention the issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
William Cooper, in particular, is noted for his petitioning of government through various petitions and his most famous petition of King George where he asked for recognition of Aboriginal people. We can trace some of the current debates we're having about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition to the work of William Cooper.
Cooper was among other things a man of Christian faith, and it was churches that first took part in National Aborigines Day, which today we observe as NAIDOC Week. Dr Meredith Lake in her The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History quotes Cooper's letter to Prime Minister Lyons. Drawing on his Christian heritage, he asked:
Are you prepared to admit that, since the Creator said in his Word that all men are of 'one blood' we are humans with feelings like yourselves in the eyes of Almighty God, that we can have joys and our sorrows, our likes and our dislikes, that we can feel pain, degradation, and humiliation just as you do?
Although Cooper was a Christian, one of the reasons that I particularly acknowledge his memory and honour is because of the extraordinary thing he did in 1938 at the time of the Kristallnacht incidents in Germany where Nazis came around and smashed up the shops, synagogues and homes of Jewish people. William Cooper led one of the very few protests against Kristallnacht anywhere. At a time when his own people were facing their absolute nadir, there was a view in the 1930s that the Aboriginal population in Australia was in terminal decline. Despite all of the problems his own people faced, the fact that he took this remarkable action in standing up for others who were persecuted around the world makes him a truly remarkable human being. I was pleased to represent the Minister for Indigenous Australians last year at a Jewish community event in December to commemorate 81 years since the protests that Cooper led in relation to Kristallnacht.
NAIDOC Week is a time that we should reflect on remarkable Indigenous Australians. Having mentioned Cooper, I want to mention another remarkable Indigenous Australian, who was born 100 years ago this year, somebody who, during NAIDOC Week, I had cause to think about, because we stood for the Remembrance Day ceremonies in the Reg Saunders courtyard over at the Australian War Memorial. Reg Saunders was born in 1920 in Framlingham reserve in Victoria. His father had served in the First AIF, and Reg went on to be the first commissioned officer of Aboriginal background in the ADF. That's a point of history and knowledge that many Australians will know. What most people probably won't know is what a remarkable war service he actually had. He enlisted almost at the start of the war and served initially in the Middle East, in Libya, and then took part in the Battle of Greece and the Battle of Crete. I want to read something from the Dictionary of Biography about his exploits in Crete:
On 26 May—
he took part in the bayonet charge at '42nd Street' that temporarily disorganised the enemy. When Allied resistance on the island ceased at the end of the month, the 2/7th Battalion was left behind in the hasty evacuation. Saunders was one of a number of soldiers who refused to surrender. Assisted by sympathetic Cretans, he avoided capture for eleven months. On 7 May 1942 he escaped aboard a trawler to … Libya.
That was an extraordinary act of derring-do that he engaged in. That wasn't the end of his war service. He went on to serve in New Guinea, where he was promoted to captain, and later in Korea, where he served in 3RAR in a major battle against the Chinese and North Korean forces, and his battalion was awarded the US Distinguished Unit Citation.
He had a wonderful sense of humour and was a man much loved by the soldiers he commanded. My favourite story about Reg Saunders was when one officer said, 'Korea is not much of a place for a white man,' and Saunders quipped, 'Well, it's not much of a place for a black man either.' NAIDOC Week is a wonderful occasion for us to remember distinguished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the contribution they make to our country.
I second the motion. I support this motion and I'd like to acknowledge all the traditional owners of this country, past and present, including the Ngunawal, on whose land we stand today. Many people may wish to dismiss the acknowledgement of country as just a symbolic statement, but it's much more than that. It's something that should be respected, and I and many people respect the symbolism, because symbols create tradition. They create culture. Importantly, they can, bit by bit, chip away at biases, prejudice, preconceived notions and stereotypes and create change. This is why NAIDOC Week is so important.
Every week NAIDOC Week gives us the chance to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of our First Nations people. It's an important celebration because, all too often, our discourse around First Nations people centres on inequalities and injustices past and present. It is vital that we keep on doing everything in our power to correct these inequalities and right those injustices wherever we can, because the disparity in the life choices and chances for First Nations people in this country remains absolutely shocking, whether it's in relation to children in detention, domestic violence, health outcomes, educational outcomes or incarceration—and the list goes on and on. First Nations people remain so disproportionately represented in these areas that there is no other word for it than 'shocking'. This is something that we must all, as a nation, take responsibility for, and we all must play a part in addressing it. But, at the same time, it should not stop us from celebrating our First Nations people, especially their unbreakable connection to the land, to this country, and their contribution to our society.
The theme for this year's NAIDOC Week is 'Always Was, Always Will Be'. That is a powerful statement: it always was and always will be. It reminds us that First Nations people have occupied and lived on this land, on this continent, that we call home today for over 65,000 years. During those 65,000 years, they have had a long and rich spiritual and cultural connection to this country. This year's NAIDOC Week reminds us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were Australia's first explorers, first navigators, first engineers, first farmers, first botanists, first scientists, first diplomats, first astronomers and first artists, and that is something that we should celebrate—one of the longest periods, over 65,000 years, of any history in the world. We should be proud of this, and we should be proud to have one of the world's oldest oral stories, paintings, ceremonies and unique technologies right here in this country we call home. Their connection to and knowledge of the land has taught them to adapt to climate change, droughts, rising sea levels, and the list goes on. While we learn at university and schools about Shakespeare, Egyptian pyramids, European explorers and classical Greek, we should also be learning about the great pioneers who inhabited this land long, long before us. NAIDOC Week reminds us that there is a gap in our knowledge and understanding and that we would all be richer were we to know more about it. As I said: it always was and always will be.
Imagine: there were once hundreds of nations throughout our continent, speaking hundreds of different languages, with different stories and different histories. It's estimated that in the late 18th century around 250 distinct Indigenous language groups covered this continent. Today around 120 of those languages are still spoken, and many unfortunately are at risk of being lost as elders pass on. Language is the link that connects us from generation to generation. When you break that link that connectivity somehow breaks as well. It's so important to try as much as we can to keep as many of these languages going and to do everything we can as governments to assist those languages to continue. They're not just a means of communication; they express knowledge about everything: law, geography, history, family, human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, child care, health care, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food. Their continued loss is also our loss.
I firstly acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respect to their elders past and present as the foundation of this discussion about the celebration of NAIDOC Week. I want to thank in particular my esteemed colleague the member for Berowra for bringing this motion on and to acknowledge the critical role that NAIDOC Week plays in the celebration of our national life and culture. While it was only a couple of weeks ago, the spirit that sits behind NAIDOC Week is not something we need contain to the week; it's something that we can celebrate year round as part of the ongoing continuum of our country. That is what we are ultimately celebrating in NAIDOC Week—not a moment, not a day, but the continuation of a culture that has survived for more than 65,000 years on, let's face it, one of the most arduous and challenging continents on earth and against the backdrop of European settlement and its consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
That's why the theme of 'Always Was, Always Will Be' is such a critical theme. It's about that continuum. While there may have been moments of disruption, we celebrate the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as the previous member remarked, as the first explores, the first navigators, the first engineers, the first farmers, the first botanists, the first scientists, the first diplomats, the first astronomers, the first artists, the first owners, the first cultivators, the first contributors and the first celebrators of the earth that sits beneath our feet. That is something that we should celebrate critically for one week, but it is also something that we should celebrate year round—because it's part of our journey as a country. And while we go through discussions about what should be in the Constitution or about other legislative proposals for recognising the critical role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and for not just making sure they have their voice to our nation's parliament but also addressing the historical injustices that have confronted them. We must always recognise that continuum and that the objective is not to have separate mobs but to have one mob where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders recognise the contribution that all Australians make and that we recognise the contribution that they make.
I was particularly touched many years ago when I went to a RECOGNISE dinner where this point was made critically by the incredible Indigenous leader, and daughter of another incredible Indigenous leader, Rachel Perkins. She's always been both pragmatic and romantic, and I say that as a compliment, about the role that we all have in the continuum of this country and its future. We should do so, because there is so much that we—all Australians—can learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through their arts, their culture, their cultivation and their respect for this land. One of the issues we all must confront is the consequences of denying culture, particularly the erosion of languages. Languages are not just the pathway to communication. Sitting behind them are so many of the values and the stories that pre-existed codification through modern European settlement. Some of them survive in art works, but we must keep them alive today.
NAIDOC Week is also an opportunity to celebrate the incredible contributions of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who have made their contribution to the success of our country. I know the member for Berowra referred specifically to William Cooper, who is one of the most significant people in our country, regardless of their indigeneity. It adds greater weight because of the specific challenges that Indigenous Australians were focusing on at the time for him to have been bold and courageous enough to stand up for people across the world and to say, 'No more—this is not the type of conduct that we will accept.' Of course, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have made their way into this parliament and have made an incredible contribution to this parliament as well. I always remember the first Indigenous senator, Neville Bonner, from the great state of Queensland, who has been followed by other Indigenous leaders who represent all communities in this parliament.
I rise to speak on the member for Berowra's motion on NAIDOC Week, and I commend him for this motion. I note also his ongoing commitment to this issue and to Indigenous Australians. His sincerity and commitment to it is noted, and it is a very good thing. I, too, acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge the traditional owners from the place I represent, the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nation. and I acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging.
This year, NAIDOC Week was marked locally in a couple of ways. The City of Port Philip together with N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM, the elder of the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boonwurrung, celebrated NAIDOC Week. She welcomed country, and there were a number of local events including Uncle Jack Charles doing a guided meditation for those in Port Philip. It truly was a celebration of local Indigenous culture and of Indigenous culture locally. I think it's a wonderful thing that we stopped and celebrated it and marked it. But it is not all just positivity, to be honest. Whenever we stop and speak about Indigenous Australians and the issues that confront them on a daily basis we need to be sombre and note there is much to do. While we are constantly reminded and renewed of our focus through events and celebrations like NAIDOC Week, we must also be honest and fair about the work that still needs to be done and be critical of the fact we haven't achieved what we should have up until now.
The theme of this year's NAIDOC Week is 'Always Was, Always Will Be'—65,000 years of history of this great country and the fact that we will never ever take that away and we will celebrate that into the future identity of what it is to be Australian. Indigenous Australians understood things that I think that we are still grappling with: how to live sustainably on the land, how to manage water sustainably and how to not take too much from the land on which we live but to live in harmony with our surroundings. We have much to heed from the past and from the thousands of years of civilisation that happened before we all arrived in this country. But, in order to bring that forward and to close some of the truly ugly and awful differences in the life and life expectancy between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians, we need to listen to the one key thing that Indigenous Australians are asking for, and that is more of a say in their own affairs—more of a say in their own issues and the policies that affect them and their lives.
On the coming together in 2017 at Uluru for a remarkable and sincere document, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, it saddens me a little bit that we don't have bipartisan support in full for the Uluru Statement from the Heart—and that is fracturing. There is actually only one political party that supports the Uluru statement in full, and that is not something that I say with pride; that is something I say with disappointment. We stand ready and we await the coalition government to come on board and to not let this be a partisan issues. We gain nothing by having this as a partisan issue, and we need to come together. In fact, a recent survey found that a vast majority, 81 per cent, of Australians are happy for a constitutionally enshrined voice. A voice protected in the Constitution is not something that we should be afraid of.
We all remember the hesitation that former Prime Minister Howard had in saying sorry. It became a matter of culture and politics when it didn't need to be. We don't need to be standing here today afraid of what a voice and what listening and respecting the requests of Indigenous Australians means. We can stand here with confidence and engage and build something that is unifying and is embracing of the past and of the future. NAIDOC Week presents us with an opportunity to remind ourselves of that, and I hope we have a better future—and a bipartisan future—on this very front.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand and acknowledge their leaders, emerging, past and present. This week's NAIDOC Week theme is 'Always Was, Always Will Be'. This theme recognises that Indigenous Australians have occupied and cared for this continent for 65,000 years. Indigenous culture is as important today as it was 65,000 years ago. Indigenous Australians remain spiritually and culturally connected to this country.
NAIDOC Week provides an opportunity for all Australians to reflect on and understand our nation's shared history and the remarkable and ongoing contribution of our Indigenous people—that it always was and it always will be. Indeed, a greater understanding of the role Indigenous Australians have played in building and shaping the nation we all call home is critical for all Australians. This year we celebrated NAIDOC Week to recognise the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The challenge of COVID-19 meant that this year we came together differently to celebrate our community and history. This was often done virtually or in smaller numbers, but this in no way reduced the significance of this year's celebration.
As a medical student, I successfully won an AMA travel scholarship. I used this scholarship to travel to the Northern Territory to investigate 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 on an elective in Kenya just the year before. It was hard to grapple with the stark difference between the remote Indigenous communities I was working in and inner-city Melbourne, where I lived. At the time, child and infant mortality rates were off the scale.
Children born in 1986 had a life expectancy that was dramatically different from non-Indigenous Australians. Fast forward 30 years and there has been marked improvement in outcomes for Indigenous women and their children. This is because of the concerted efforts of consecutive governments from both sides of the aisle. But it is 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 risks such as smoking remains lower in women now than it was before. These are important measures that, hopefully, will lead to improved outcomes. You can't just wish for outcomes; you need to take action. It is important that the Closing the cap report has been refreshed this year by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and has more ambitions for better outcomes. But the target to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation, by 2031, is still not on track. Indigenous mortality rates have improved at a similar rate to that for non-Indigenous Australians, but unfortunately the gap has not yet narrowed.
I firmly believe that education is the key to self-determination, not just for non-Indigenous Australians but, definitely, for Indigenous people too. Education leads to better health and social outcomes for all communities around the world, and the one take-out from the Closing the gap report that we can celebrate is that, for Indigenous communities, there are better entries of children into prep and there is better retention at year 12. This means that, with more Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders achieving year 12 or equivalent qualifications, there'll be more of them attending higher education and more of them entering better jobs and better professions. This will lead to better outcomes for the Indigenous population and the wider general community.
As I said in my first speech, a strong country is one that is at peace with its past. NAIDOC Week is one small, regular but critical annual event in this journey of healing and understanding. I believe that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is a critical next step on that road to a stronger future for all Australians. I thank Minister Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, for inviting me to be a member of the parliamentary working group on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians. NAIDOC Week has evolved into a proud tradition which recognises the remarkable and ongoing contribution of our Indigenous people. Modern Australia must recognise its Indigenous people. This may not be an 'always was', but it most certainly must be an 'always will be'. By reflecting on our past, we can understand the present and look to a better future.
NAIDOC Week is, of course, a fantastic opportunity for the entire country to celebrate our diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and their very long, deep history, which has been across this continent for millennia. There's much to celebrate and there's much that we can all be very proud of. There are also, obviously, things that we are not proud of, but the strength of NAIDOC Week is that we focus on where we've come from, celebrate the incredible First Nations communities that we have in our country and look to the future and to making lives better.
During NAIDOC Week, we're here in Canberra for sittings, so, along with colleagues from our Labor's First Nations caucus committee, we visited the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services centre in Narrabundah. It was fantastic visit. It is an Aboriginal controlled health service right here in the nation's capital. It was an excellent reminder of the power of Aboriginal controlled health services and of the fantastic results they get. Our First Nations health professionals obviously have a unique insight and are best placed to improve the lives of First Nations people. They have the culturally appropriate way of operating. They know how to get the best results for our First Nations brothers and sisters.
I want to acknowledge Mike Freelander, who is here with us today, along with the member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, in the work of our First Nations caucus committee, which has really been pushing this important concept of the first 1,000 days. That is not just limited to First Nations Australians, of course. If all parents create a really healthy environment from antenatal through birth into that postnatal stage, good perinatal health for the mum and the bub is going to give us the healthiest young Australians possible, which should be the aim of all of us. The role of the Aboriginal controlled health centres is that that support during that first thousand days is absolutely essential and is making a huge difference.
These Aboriginal controlled health organisations around the country are also really empowering our First Nations communities as well as improving their access to health services. In the Top End of Australia––we heard the member for Higgins refer to her eyes being opened whilst visiting the Northern Territory––in my electorate, in Darwin and Palmerston we have a fantastic Aboriginal controlled health centre series of clinics, called Danila Dilba. They do wonderful work. They serve about 80 per cent of our large Indigenous population in the greater Darwin area. They also look after huge numbers of First Nations people, Aboriginal and Territorians that come in from the communities into Darwin.
They do a great job. They're reducing strokes and heart attacks, preventing low birth weights and also preventing complications from diabetes. People who engage with Danila Dilba health services are less likely to need to engage with other health services. A Deloitte analysis found that every dollar invested in health services generated a $4 return or benefit to society. That is terrific economics by any measure, and it's terrific humanity by any measure.
I also want to acknowledge Yilli Rreung. When the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, was in Darwin recently we visited this great NGO that is helping First Nations people in the accommodation space. I want to acknowledge their CEO, Leeanne Caton, and also congratulate her for being appointed chair of the Aboriginal Benefits Account Advisory Committee. She is a great asset and will do a fantastic job in all her roles.
During NAIDOC Week, the Larrakia Nation launched its 'lighting the spark' initiative, which is working with young people to help promote youth entrepreneurship. I want to congratulate Nicole Brown from Larrakia Nation. I want to also congratulate quickly the NT Indigenous Business Network, in particular CEO Jerome Cubillo and Steve Cardona, who are doing a fantastic job helping Indigenous businesses thrive.