Monday, 22 February 2021
Private Members' Business
Closing the Gap
It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak in support of the motion moved by Mr Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the Opposition, that acknowledged that, on 13 February, back in 2008, the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made a national apology to the stolen generations on behalf of the parliament and the nation. That motion also recognised the importance of closing the gap and reaffirmed Labor's and indeed this parliament's commitment to closing the gap.
I have risen in this House to speak on closing the gap every year since I was elected back in 2013, and I can't begin to tell you how frustrating it is that we've continuously failed to reach the targets that were set for us in this parliament. There were targets covering many areas of life and experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia in order to close the gap in life expectancy that existed. Yet we have only ever made inroads on two of those seven targets. Only two of those seven targets were on track: the one around meeting the targets for early childhood education, and that is a very hopeful target to meet because you're obviously reaching young boys and girls, the next generation of First Nations people; and the target around year 12 attainment, which, again, is incredibly important, as we know that education is a life-changing experience for many of us. But none of the other targets—the ones around child mortality; literacy, and the reading, writing and numeracy targets; the school attendance targets; the employment targets; the life expectancy targets—were on track. That of course is an utter failure of this parliament. It is completely contrary to the spirit of the national apology and what was said on that day, where we were making a commitment—and it was not a Labor commitment; it was a parliamentary commitment, on behalf of all of the parties in this place—to make good on closing the gap. But we have utterly failed First Nations people in this regard.
We learnt recently that there is now a new negotiation underway, a brand new deal—a brand new day, perhaps—for closing the gap. Although we haven't really seen an evaluation of what happened beforehand, we understand that we now have refreshed targets and some new deadlines that are yet even further away. We didn't have a report to this parliament in line with the anniversary of the national apology this year, and I am gravely worried that this pushing deadlines down the track and setting new targets not be allowed to be some kind of bureaucratic sleight of hand, letting this parliament off the hook again, for yet another decade. I know there will be many colleagues in this place who would be worried if that were to happen. So we will be watching that very closely. We understand that there may be a report coming in August this year on the refreshed targets and the new deadlines, and we'll all be waiting for that moment.
In 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart delivered this nation—and indeed this parliament—a serious challenge. It very clearly articulated the need for a First Nations voice, treaty, and truth-telling process in this nation—a constitutionally enshrined voice to this parliament, not some legislative fix, which we know doesn't have the kind of permanency that First Nations people are seeking. I hope that the parliament will be looking very closely at honouring those commitments, that we ensure that we don't let people down again and that we look to a constitutional enshrined voice and institute a treaty and truth-telling process in Australia.
I'm pleased to rise to speak on this motion on closing the gap. Whilst I hear the comments from the other side and acknowledge that there is much to do it, I would like to address one recommendation in particular that I'm lending my support to. I think it's important that we show the positive movements in our electorates in closing the gap. The final recommendation in Closing the gap is:
By 2031, there is a sustained increase in number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken.
In that regard, I'd like to thank all the First Nations people, particularly those who give us those most beautiful welcomes to country. Deputy Speaker Gillespie, you would have heard the welcome to country from Uncle Bill in Port Macquarie. It gives you a tiny insight into the connection that our First Nations people have with the land. For those who don't know him, Uncle Bill takes you on a journey that you can see in your mind's eye. It is so important with this Closing the gap recommendation that there is that continued education and, in particular, the continuation and the strengthening of Torres Strait Islander languages.
Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of meeting with Clark Webb, who is the CEO of—and excuse my pronunciation—Bularri Muurlay Nyanggan, which, if said properly, means 'two path strong'. I also met with the language officer, Kaleesha Morris, and the corporate services manager, Christian Lugnan, to discuss not only their achievements but also their goals to ensure our First Nations Goori youth and community are strong in both culture and education. During the meeting it was explained to me that the BMNAC was established in 2010 and that it automatically introduced two schools of Goori Learning Centres. Since then, they have built an organisation, including three learning centres and a cultural revitalisation program. In 2016, they opened two social enterprises, the first one being the Giingan Gumbaynggirr Cultural Experience, which was set up to create a long-term, sustainable financial income stream. All the profits from this go straight back into the programs. The programs are about educating both Indigenous and non-Indigenous about the Gumbaynggirr language and the Gumbaynggirr culture. The second social enterprise—and I've been to this; it's a great place to go, so, if you're in Coffs Harbour, go along to it—is the Nyanggan Gapi Cafe. It's located at the Sealy Lookout in Coffs Harbour. This offers guests the opportunity to sample and see traditional ingredients with a new-age twist, and, again, 100 per cent of the proceeds from catering go back into the corporation to help run core programs, including after-school learning centres and language courses.
Remarkably, regarding the courses that are provided, last year alone 12 students achieved novice status in the mastery of skillsets, and that's 300 or more phrases in Gumbaynggirr. Nine of the students progressed further to a mastered skillset, which allows them to tell stories completely in Gumbaynggirr. Forty-five students have mastered a skillset, and 36 have completed their skillset and are aiming to be fully fluent in 2022. Language acquisition is one of their most important goals, including to have 50 fluent Gumbaynggirr teachers by the end of this year and the launch of a combined immersion school in 2022. As I said to Clark Webb on the day, I'm fully behind this. I think it's so important. It's part of us closing the gap, as per our government incentive.
In recent weeks, I've had the privilege to spend some time with this year's Senior Australian of the Year, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann. Miriam-Rose hails from the Nauiyu community, also known as Daly River. It's a couple of hours south of Darwin, at the Top End. She's an amazing woman. When Miriam-Rose was a child, her two-year-old sister Pilawuk White was snatched from her mother's lap—another victim of the stolen generation. Miriam-Rose didn't see her sister for another 14 years. In that time, Pilawuk was sent to a mission on the Tiwi Islands before being taken to Adelaide and adopted by a non-Aboriginal family. Miriam-Rose said:
Through people talking around the community, I learned that Pilawuk was taken for having a white father and was put with a white family to have a better life. Did she?
I guess only Pilawuk herself can answer that. But we do know that taking children from their families and trying to assimilate them was a failed and cruel policy. Taking children away from their mums was not a good thing to do. In many cases, the amputation of those children from their mothers, families, culture and country did immeasurable damage that is still being felt today. The recurring intergenerational trauma has been felt by the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of the members of the stolen generation. We know that, though decades have passed since that policy ended, we still have so far to go to close the gap. An Apology to the Stolen Generations came late, even in 2008. It was a simple and deeply necessary first step along the long road to healing. But, 13 years later, we haven't got too much further down that road.
It's been 16 years since the Social Justice Report called on Australia to rise up to the challenge of closing that gap. But last year only two of the seven targets were on track. Life expectancy for First Nations Australians still hasn't caught up to that of their non-Indigenous counterparts. Labor support the new approach to closing the gap, and the new targets, but we shouldn't be just renewing targets with deadlines that are even further down the road. There's too much kicking the can down the road. We need to maintain the commitment and do the work today, because, in another 10 years, an entire generation will have passed since we set ourselves this task.
It's been more than three years since the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for a First Nations Voice to Parliament to be enshrined, a treaty to be progressed and truth-telling to occur. Labor is committed to all three of these. First Nations people have told us time and time again, for decades, that, if we want to see real, meaningful, lasting change, then they must be at the centre of decision-making. We won't be able to close the gap and truly right the wrongs of the past until we take that to heart and put it into action, and we could do this before the next election if there was a will from the federal government to do so.
So much has been lost since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave that apology on behalf of our nation. Last week, I caught up with him; he visited this place—he visited parliament. It was great to see him, but it was also a reminder of how much we have lost, particularly under those opposite, since he gave that apology.
Next month, there is an opportunity for those opposite and for all parliamentarians to contribute to listening to the voices of First Nations people. Next month, ChangeFest is coming to Canberra, so we will all have that opportunity. ChangeFest has a simple goal: for Australia to be a country where all its communities thrive and where children have a safe home, are healthy and educated, and have a strong sense of identity and belonging. I hope all members here will consider listening to what the participants have to say. It will lead to good steps down that long road towards closing the gap. I really want to acknowledge one of my constituents, Catherine Phillips, for the role she's playing in bringing ChangeFest to the hill, bringing ChangeFest and those voices to Parliament House. I encourage all parliamentarians to participate.
In the recent opinion piece by the Hon. Ken Wyatt AM, member for Hasluck and Minister for Indigenous Australians, he wrote:
Wiradjuri Elder Isabel Reid was born in Wagga Wagga in 1932.
One afternoon, she was walking home from school with her brother and sister when she was taken from her family by the government. Her parents did not know what happened to their children.
Aunty Isabel was to become a domestic servant, sent to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home, where wages for her work were paid to the NSW government.
She was denied the opportunity of a good education, denied a bond to her family, community and country, and was targeted for no other reason than the fact she was Aboriginal.
Today Aunty Isabel is one of the oldest living survivors of the Stolen Generation—
and last month Ken was able to meet and talk with her in Canberra, as she was honoured as the New South Wales Senior Australian of the Year and nominated for Senior Australian of the Year. He wrote:
She reflected on her own journey, "My life is pretty simple, what I do, I do for my community and for all the children out there that need the helping hand that I didn't get way back then."
She was one of thousands. It's unimaginable for us that our children could disappear off the street and we wouldn't know where they'd gone.
I've lived my whole time as a parliamentarian through all the processes of denial and obfuscation, of saying that they were doing the right thing at the time, of people saying, 'But they were good people, trying to do the right thing.' No, they were mistakes. When the apology came, from Kevin Rudd—and I was there that day—in that moment, I really thought, 'This is the day when the world changes for Indigenous people.' I really believed that.
I read an article today from Ross Gittins that talked about Philip Lowe's management of the economy and how the management is not to make it any worse than it already is, not to make the difficulties we're facing any worse than they already are. What has management done in Indigenous affairs since the apology? I think all we've achieved, if anything, is not to make it worse than it was. All the indicators tell you we haven't made it better, we haven't broken through the barrier and we haven't changed things for so many people.
My support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart caused some controversy. I have no idea why, because it seems to me a no-brainer that we give a voice. We talk about treaty, and we talk about truth telling. The truth is: we've got it wrong all the way through. We haven't allowed the Indigenous community to partake in the decision-making of the nation, from Murray-Darling water to the management of the forests to understanding how Australia needs to be farmed in the way they farmed before the British and other nations arrived here. They have been so resilient, still standing today as the oldest culture in the world. They're knocked about. They're not in good nick. Their children are not getting the education they should be getting. Their adults are not getting the opportunities they should be receiving from this nation.
It's not about money; it's about recognition of the past and bravely facing the present and the future. These things are not hard, but they are difficult. They're difficult for us to achieve in a community that desperately needs our statement from our hearts back to them. The Statement from the Heart to us was a generous offer of reconciliation. It's up to us, as this parliament, to resolve our issues and offer them our hearts for a changed world for the future.