House debates

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Ministerial Statements

Closing the Gap

11:37 am

Photo of Marion ScrymgourMarion Scrymgour (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let us remember that closing the gap is not simply a report. It is not words on a document. They are not words we simply speak in this parliament. It is not a moment to get a political hit. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it is heartbreak. It is lived experience. It is watching families suffer. It is the continuous reminder that we are not equal in this country. Let us remember that the very existence of a Closing the gap report speaks to the torment of inequality. Aboriginal people do not get to walk on the same road as others in this country, and that is a deep injustice. It is the role of this parliament—all of us—to work to close the gap.

When enlightened people talk about closing the gap, they're not contemplating the recreation of Indigenous communities as carbon copies of some kind of notional perfectly functional mainstream Australian social entity, nor are they contemplating a process whereby Aboriginal communities are nudged along a government-ordained pathway towards a socially engineered destination of that kind. Instead, what closing the gap is about is supporting Aboriginal communities in maintaining and harnessing their many distinct identities while at the same time improving quality of life and the capacity for aspirational achievements by reference to a number of key metrics. These key metrics are applicable to any scenario where human beings settle permanently at a particular location and make a life for themselves.

As you travel throughout the Northern Territory, in any such location you will be on the traditional country of a particular traditional owner or native title holding group where the community is on Aboriginal land—in other words, land granted under land rights legislation enacted by the government for the Northern Territory, or ALRA, as it is known in the Northern Territory. And then the other group of people are native title holders. As I've mentioned previously, in my first speech and at other times, work by governments to facilitate the success and longevity of Indigenous communities and, in particular, remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory—not just by reference to Closing the Gap metrics, but generally—is a vitally important task for this nation. The benefits go way beyond just helping Aboriginal people themselves, and perhaps, most significantly, translate into existential security within our geographic region for non-Aboriginal people in this country. In terms of issues which challenge Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, there are two things I want to touch on which go to the heart of where people say the gap isn't getting closed but is widening.

The first one is alcohol, and I did touch on the scourge of alcohol in our remote Aboriginal communities, or in our towns, which is causing a number of issues. By the mid-1970s, before self-government, alcohol became widely available for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. The Commonwealth was running the show at the time—self-government came into the picture in 1978—and it's ironic that, by this afternoon, we're going to be debating the territory rights bill. Throughout the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, our communities experimented with the sort of social club liquor licence which some misguided commentators are trying to urge our communities to adopt again. The experiment was largely a disaster, with the same kind of outcomes as were seen in other jurisdictions and in communities such as Aurukun in Queensland. This ushered in an important phenomenon of Aboriginal community consensus about alcohol, led by our elders and, in particular, our women. This was to the effect that alcohol should play no part in the life of those remote communities.

The consensus remained strong until 2007, when it was tragically and completely unnecessarily smashed by the policy vandalism of the Commonwealth Intervention in the Northern Territory. Although the Intervention did not change much in terms of the substantive effects of alcohol restrictions in place out in the bush, the whole branding and associated messaging of the Intervention gave younger Aboriginal people the impression that alcohol restrictions were something being imposed on them from the outside, and inculcated something of a culture of resistance.

The right to drink is a spurious and culturally loaded right, but, given that it was the Commonwealth government which trashed the social norms which were previously in place, we need to try and do some work to assist our elders on the ground to restore it. The situation in town camps—and I'm talking about Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine—was different. The restrictions imposed there at the time of the Intervention were new. However, having put restrictions in place which lasted for 15 years, as I said in my first speech, there is an urgent need for a proper transition plan which prioritises harm minimisation. Without addressing the harm caused by alcohol, our prospect of making advances in respect of all of the other Closing the Gap metrics will be gravely undermined.

The community consensus in relation to alcohol wasn't the only thing smashed by the Intervention. The second thing was the community consensus in relation to employment, in particular, with regard to what was called the CDEP, or the Community Development Employment Program. I listened very carefully, yesterday, to the words of the opposition leader, on a moment that was meant to be a commitment to end injustice: they were, frustratingly, all too familiar. I saw them during the Intervention, and I've seen them come from the opposition for years since. Whatever your thoughts are on the Voice to Parliament, it was an invitation. I was part of that group that gave the invitation to the rest of Australia—an invitation from over 250 senior Aboriginal leaders and elders from across our country. I want to say to the opposition leader, the Leader of the Nationals and Senator Price: none of you were at Uluru in 2017. You did not see and hear the power in the room that day. Aboriginal people want to change the way the future is in this country. It is time to allow us to take that control and change and close that gap. Before we speak, we must listen, deeply listen and deeply experience. Do not talk to those who agree with you. Do not spend two days in our community and think you can speak on our behalf.

I know the opposition leader was in Mparntwe, Alice Springs, for 48 hours. He did speak to some of the groups, but he thinks he can speak for our women and our children on what they need. Our women and children need many things: safe spaces to live, income security, a life free from abuse, culturally sensitive education and strong families and communities behind them. A royal commission is not one of the things we need. The critique of the voice to parliament is that it does not lead to tangible outcomes while the hypocrisy is absurd. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have called for a voice to parliament, and yet people still move to undermine it. A royal commission has not been called for by the communities, and yet we can come into this place demanding one. It speaks to the inability of those opposite to understand the predicament of our First Peoples.

We are losing a generation; let that sink in. We are losing a generation. It is on all of us in this place to work with conviction to safeguard the futures of our young people. Part of this sending a clear, unambiguous message to our First Peoples is that their voice matters. They occupy a special place in their country. Their culture and our ancestors are important. They deserve truth. It is time that we deserve a treaty. If what we are doing is not working, let's do what will work. Let's listen to what the solutions are that are coming from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There are solutions. It is important for all of us in this place to work together to make sure that we can close the gap. I've been involved in many of these reports, working with ministers from the other side to try and fix and put solutions on the ground. Aboriginal people have been saying for a long time, 'Listen to us, work with us; we can turn this around.' It's time that we all in this parliament listen to what those voices are saying.

11:47 am

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

At the outset, I thank the member for Lingiari for her role in Northern Territory politics and the fact that she has been elected to this place. I wish her well in her endeavours, not just for Indigenous brothers and sisters but for all Northern Territorians, all Australians.

I want the member for Lingiari to know that I was a big advocate for Lingiari remaining an electorate when the Electorate Commission determined unfairly, unjustly, that the Northern Territory would have just one seat—not right. Whilst I appreciate that the Australian Electoral Commission does this based on numbers, as a regional member, I know how difficult it is. Imagine if you lived in Alice Springs and had your member in Darwin. It's a long way from Alice to the capital of the Northern Territory. You represent 1.3 million kilometres and many far-flung communities. I've been to the Northern Territory many, many times, and I appreciate the amount of travel that you have to do. So I wish you all the very best and acknowledge the contribution you've already made to public life.

Indeed, closing the gap is crucial. We all know that. I know that there were modest improvements during the coalition's years in government. Life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people increased. Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males born between 2015 and 2017 are expected to live to 71.6 years and females to 75.6 years. That narrowed the gap in life expectancy from 2005 to 2007 for males from 11.4 years to 8.6 years and females from 9.6 years to 7.8 years. That's still not good enough—nowhere near good enough.

I note the healthy birth weight for Aboriginal children. Nationally, 89.5 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies born in 2019 were of a healthy birth weight, which is an increase from 88.8 per cent in 2017, the baseline year. This is the official wording:

This is a good improvement with the national target of 91 per cent on track to be met.

Ninety-one per cent—why wouldn't it be 100 per cent? Why wouldn't we want every child who's born to be of a healthy birth weight? It's a little bit like the road toll. I know we have a Towards Zero target. Well, if it's good enough for the road toll to be zero—and I appreciate that that's utopian. This is not utopian; this is very much more achievable than getting the road toll to zero, and we need to make sure that 100 per cent of Aboriginal kids are born at a healthy birth weight. We need to make sure that 100 per cent of Aboriginal kids have the same educational opportunities as non-Indigenous Aboriginal youth.

There has been a decrease in youth detention rates. Nationally, in 2021, the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people aged 10 to 17 years in detention was, on average per day, 23.2 per 10,000 young people in the population. That was a decrease from 31.9 per 10,000 young people in 2018-19. Again, we've got:

This … is a good improvement with the national target of a decrease of at least 30 per cent in the detention rate is on track to be met.

But, again, we're putting those figures alongside where we'd like to be. Where we'd like to be is: no Aboriginal kids in incarceration; no Australian kids in incarceration. I appreciate that life's not perfect—it just isn't—but we need to do more and we need to do better, and we will certainly work towards that.

I know that I'm part of the National Party and I know that the National Party has made a decision on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. I have spoken with a number of elders in my the community. We have any number of functions when I am back in the electorate and I always take the time and opportunity not just to thank but to talk to, as much as I can, those who are doing the welcomes to country—which are important. I appreciate that Wiradjuri is one of the largest of the 500 or so Aboriginal nations. My electorate, from top to bottom—Yerong Creek to Peak Hill or thereabouts—is all Wiradjuri. But even Wiradjuri elders have told my local newspaper, theDaily Advertiser at Wagga Wagga, that they want to see more detail about the Voice. Not only Wiradjuri but Indigenous nations, Indigenous elders and non-Indigenous people need, want and expect to see more detail on the Voice.

We made a decision as a party that, rather than a voice to parliament—the Uluru Statement from the Heart having been adopted in full—we wanted to see better outcomes for Aboriginal people. I say this respectfully and in good faith: when you go, as I have, and I know the member for Lingiari and others have done the same, to places such as Katherine, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, Cunnamulla, Euabalong, right through South Australia and Western Australia—indeed, anywhere you like to go in this country, but, in particular, remotely—Aboriginal communities have to do without, and they shouldn't have to; they just shouldn't. It's dreadful to see some of the shops boarded up at night. They just don't have the options available to them.

I have been to see the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Catherine King, the member for Ballarat, at every opportunity I've had since we went into opposition to lobby for a swimming pool and aquatic centre for Mornington Island in the Gulf because I'd been to the Barunga Festival in the NT just after I finished my tenure as Deputy Prime Minister—it was in the weekend before that fateful Monday. I'm sure the member for Lingiari knows the festival well. It's a great festival of culture, sport, music, bridging the gap. I was Acting Prime Minister that day. I was the first one to go since Bob Hawke. I was quite proud of that. I went there with any number of political colleagues and rivals, including the then Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt.

We then went on to Mornington Island, where we met with Kyle Yanner, who is the mayor of that shire, that island. About 1,100 Aboriginal people live on that island, and they don't have a swimming pool. They applied under the Building Better Regions Fund and didn't get the funding, more's the pity. Despite my requests, despite my best efforts to enable it happen in the subsequent round, when I wasn't chair of the ministerial committee that oversaw that, they still don't have it. I commit myself again right here, right now, to make sure that they do get an aquatic centre. And I commit myself right here, right now, to go back to that island when that actually does happen. It doesn't matter who's in government, who's in power, or whether I'm even in this place; I will continue to fight so that they get justice. I would hate to live on Mornington Island during summer, during the hot season, during the wet season, during any season, and not have the same amenity that most country towns and every city just take for granted. It's not right. It's not fair. It should happen. I know that the member for Ballarat, in good faith, will work with me to make that happen.

Getting back to the Voice, I want to see better outcomes for Aboriginal people. I do want to see detail around who will be elected and how they'll be elected. Whilst I appreciate the member for Lingiari mentioned the 250 representatives who attended Uluru to bring about this statement, 250 is but a small percentage of the overall Aboriginal population. The Aboriginal population does expect and demand more information, more detail, around what is going to be proposed. Australians generally don't like their founding document to be altered, to be changed. There have been, I think, 44 referenda. Only eight times have Australians voted to change the Constitution. So it's an important step we take.

The other thing is: we have 11 fine, outstanding representatives of Indigenous Australia already in the House of Representatives and the Senate. I don't want to see their voices usurped. They've got there rightly, appropriately, democratically elected by the people, to serve the people, to serve Indigenous Australians, to serve all Australians, and well done to each and every one of them. I do not want to see their voices diluted in any way by a quasi-bureaucracy that will soak up, potentially, millions of dollars and not provide better outcomes for Aboriginal Australians.

11:57 am

Photo of Stephen BatesStephen Bates (Brisbane, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to acknowledge once again the failures that we see within the Closing the gap report. We live in a country which was violently stolen. We claimed it was empty. We murdered and massacred the longest continual culture on earth. We trashed the country and culture, locked people up and stole their children. The Closing the gap report shows us that very little has changed. The gap is too big. The time it takes to close is too long. The injustices aren't simply historic; they're happening every week. First Nations children are still being murdered, stolen and detained. Cassius Turvey was murdered for simply walking home from school. Kids are still being put in spit hoods, and men are dying in watch houses. As my colleague Lidia Thorpe said, we are treating the symptoms, and it's not working. The gap is created by colonisation, and the answer is treaty, because sovereignty has never been ceded.

This year Jack Charles died. He died a hero to his people. He was part of the stolen generation and was placed into a home run by the Salvation Army. He was abused and denied his culture. Jack's life speaks better than any report can to the power of First Nations people in this country. This year the Queen died too, and it was in her name, the name of the Crown, that the land was stolen and declared empty, that children were taken and abused, for this colonial project we now stand as a part of.

The report shows that the removal of First Nations children is at an all-time high. Even after everything we've been through, this is still happening. We need to reconcile that. To live on this land, to extract its resources, to eat the food and farm the fibre grown here, we need to come to terms with that. The Prime Minister spoke about caring for country and doubling the number of Indigenous rangers by 2030. But First Nations rangers can't care for country when the government keeps opening up new coal and gas mines. There can be no peace until there is justice, and we need truth, treaty and voice. There is no justice in detaining a 10-year-old child in prison. The rate of incarceration of First Nations people is rising. The Prime Minister mentioned the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody but doesn't have a plan for implementing the remaining recommendations. These will save First Nations people's lives.

This week the Nationals said they won't support the referendum because it would not help close the gap, but I ask: How would they know? After nine years of being in government, the gap is wider, 10-year-old children can still be placed in prisons, and more and more children are being removed. The Greens stand with First Nations people and their call for a treaty, for truth and for a voice. We stand for justice against the state and the racist policies that are tearing families apart.

The report is once again disgusting in the picture it paints about the treatment of First Nations people. First Nations people demand equal access to health, housing, education and secure employment. We can do things differently. We can change the racist justice system, stop the racist policing. The Greens will not stand in the way of any action which delivers justice for First Nations people and we welcome the standalone national plan to end violence against First Nations women and children that is developed, delivered and evaluated by First Nations women and community-controlled organisations. We are pleased the work has begun and we urge it to be funded properly and prioritised.

It's up to this place to fix it. It is a stain on our nation and a great shame on all of us that this report shows how limited progress has been. First Nations people like Jack Charles are strong, capable, talented and exceptional. We have so much to learn about this land and its waters, about food, about plants and animals, about the longest-living culture in the world before it's lost forever. We stand with all elders past, present, and emerging in their struggle for justice and we are once again ashamed by the size of the gap and of the length of time it is taking to close.

Debate adjourned.