House debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024

Ministerial Statements

National Apology to the Stolen Generations: 16th Anniversary

10:40 am

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in continuation on the 16th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations and the Closing the gap annual report. In the first part of my speech, I reflected on the power of then prime minister Kevin Rudd's 2008 national apology to Australia's First Nations people whose lives had been completely turned upside down by past government policies of that forced child removal and assimilation. Primarily, it was an apology on behalf of the nation to those stolen generations. I reflected on the extraordinary life of the late Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue, who was a trailblazing Aboriginal woman and leader who herself was stolen from her family at the age of just two and raised in a mission home devoid of love and her family life.

Here we are, 16 years after the apology, and only 11 out of 19 socioeconomic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are improving. Indicators around life expectancy, children's health, education, youth employment, housing and the maintenance of culture and economic relationships with land are improving, but they are still not there. Just four are on track to meet their targets. This is completely unacceptable. Tragically, outcomes have worsened for children's early development, rates of children in out-of-home care, rates of adult imprisonment and suicide. Put simply, there is so much work to be done in order to close the gap. That is not dissimilar to the speech I just gave a little earlier. Each year, I have stood in this parliament to report on or to respond to the report about how we're going on closing the gap. No-one thinks that this is something to be turned around overnight, but the previous 10 years of inaction mean that we really have got to accelerate the efforts that we make, and I know the government is seeking to do that.

Just seven years ago at Uluru, Aboriginal people called for a voice to parliament to be seated at the table for matters that concern them, and last year we put that question to the people of Australia. Sadly, it was not supported, for a whole lot of complicated reasons that I won't have time to go into today, but what we do know is that Aboriginal people supported it. So there is a desperate appetite to be part of decision-making processes and design processes for what governments of all levels in all jurisdictions might do in terms of working to close the gap. Our resolve is not diminished by the unsuccessful referendum, but we are absolutely making sure that First Nations people continue to have a voice, even if it's not in the form that was put during that referendum process.

We've also announced the establishment of a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's commission, a new office that will protect and promote the rights of children. That will play a very important role in the work of this government going forward.

There is a lot more to do in terms of employment and education. There have been some great announcements, particularly in the Northern Territory, and I acknowledge your advocacy in that regard, Deputy Speaker Scrymgour, ensuring there are improvements for housing, employment and the justice reinvestment programs that this government is keen to see rolled out, making sure that we have genuine partnerships with those communities most impacted and most affected. As the Prime Minister said, if we want to close the gap, we have to listen to the people who live on the other side of it, and that is exactly what we will be doing.

10:45 am

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

I'm so very pleased that you are in the chair for my contribution, Deputy Speaker Scrymgour, member for Lingiari, because I have so much respect for you and for the positions that you take not just on matters pertaining to Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples but, indeed, all Australians. I know the importance of having Lingiari as its own electorate, because there was a time in the last term when the Australian Electoral Commission wanted to make the Northern Territory one seat. Indeed, even the AEC map and website included the seats of Solomon and Lingiari as one seat—the Northern Territory seat—going forward. This is something that I spoke up passionately about. I wrote an op-ed in the NTNews about it, and they ended up running it on the front page as well as inside that day's edition. It is just not right for people, particularly Aboriginal people, in such a sprawling electorate as Lingiari—one of the largest in Australia and, indeed, one of the largest political divisions in the world—to be combined with a capital city electorate and for us to expect people to get representation. You are nodding, Deputy Speaker, and I know you are a good member. I know that this is important for the Northern Territory. I'm glad that we have enshrined in legislation the fact that the Northern Territory has to have two electorates, because it's too big not to.

I am all for 'one vote, one value', but even in the AEC's latest New South Wales redistribution, the electorate of Parkes—and the member for Parkes, Mark Coulton, has represented that electorate for 17 or so years since 2007—is such a massive land mass. Just from the Riverina electorate, the new Parkes boundaries will take in Bland—centred on West Wyalong—Forbes and Parkes local government areas. It makes it so difficult for someone to represent interests, when you consider that in some of these city electorates you could put your handkerchief over them, whereas members for Parkes and Lingiari and, dare I say, Riverina—and my good friend the member for Flynn—spend much of our time behind the wheel of a car or in the passenger seat doing the work that we need to do to get around our vast electorates, which are equal if not larger in size than many European countries. It's not right. It's not right for the constituents, particularly in this case, as we talk about the important issue of closing the gap. It's not fair on those Indigenous Australians who need to see their local member of parliament as much as anyone. It's not fair on the member trying to get around those huge landmasses and give the representation required.

We are on Ngunnawal and Ngambri territory at the moment, and I respect that. My Riverina electorate boundaries, as they currently stand, are entirely encompassed by Wiradjuri people. Wiradjuri is one of the largest nations in Australia, and they are a proud people—a good people. The new electorate will have Ngarigo peoples in Tumut-Tumbarumba and Ngunnawal country in Yass and Murrumbateman. I respect the fact that the boundaries are changing.

The name of the City of Wagga Wagga was derived from the language of the Wiradjuri people. It's the largest Aboriginal nation in New South Wales. The word 'wagga wagga' for many years was considered to mean 'place of many crows'. The repetition of a word expresses plural or emphasis. In more recent times, they've adopted the word 'waga', which means a place to dance and celebrate and to come together and have those large celebrations.

I must say that one of the most impressive local events that I ever went to, organised by Joe Williams, Geoff Simpson and a few others, was a corroboree down at the Murrumbidgee River. 'Murrumbidgee' is an Aboriginal word meaning 'deep water' or 'big river'. What the Wagga Wagga City Council has done—in conjunction, I must proudly say, with federal funding—is develop the riverside precinct down to the Wiradjuri reserve to tell the story. They've got a yarning circle. They've got places there where they've got interpretive signage, where our Aboriginal history is laid out, and that is good. That is commendable because our younger generations need to know that this is so.

In the Wollundry Lagoon precinct in 2018 there was a Sorry Day rock unveiled, and that commemorates the children sent to the Cootamundra girls home and the Kinchela boys home, where they were taught farm labour and domestic work. Of course, 16 years ago, the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, issued the famous apology. It was sadly necessary.

We need to ensure that this parliament does everything it can to address the Closing the Gap issues. They are particularly heightened in regional areas, and none more so than in remote areas as far as dental health and mental health are concerned. It is not right that the health services of Indigenous Australians are lesser than those in metropolitan areas. If ever we needed to close the gap, it is in those areas—maternal health and all of those areas of health. I know I don't need to tell you this, and I'm certainly not trying to, but those people in Tennant Creek, Katherine and Alice Springs do it tough. I've visited those areas many times. It was quite an eye-opener for my wife, Catherine, when we visited Tennant Creek to listen to local people. But we need to do more to address these issues.

As long as I've got breath in me and as long as I'm in this place, I will fight hard for an aquatics centre for Mornington Island. It's in the electorate of Kennedy. It's certainly a long way from the Riverina. I appreciate that they say all politics is local. But I visited there. It was one of the last things I did as Acting Prime Minister in the golden age of Australian democracy, as I often tongue-in-cheek refer to it as. I met people like Kyle Yanner, the mayor of Mornington shire, taking in Mornington Island. That population of 1,200 or so does not have a swimming pool and does not have an aquatics centre.

Their island is surrounded by the Torres Strait. It's in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their island is surrounded by crocodile infested waters. They are beautiful people. They are a wonderful community. They're doing what they can. They're also a very young community, and yet they don't have a swimming pool. I think it's incumbent upon this place. I have urged the infrastructure minister, the member for Ballarat, to do what she can. Of course, she needs an application for one of those regional grant programs to build that particular facility, but I will continue to advocate it because I promised the mayor that that is what I would do. I want to see it delivered.

We talk about closing the gap. It's all well and good for us all to get up here and talk about all those noble gestures and to do the welcomes to country and all that, but it's also more importantly about providing real and genuine and tangible help to Indigenous people where they need it most. That is in the sorts of health services that they need—in Forbes, in Cowra and in other places where there is a high proportion of Aboriginal people. It's in those remote communities in far western New South Wales; remote South Australia; your part of the world, Deputy Speaker Scrymgour; Western Australia; and Queensland, in the outer regions. And it's about providing the necessary infrastructure in places such as Mornington Island, because it is needed and it is now expected, because I gave them the word I would do it. It's also just deserved. Why shouldn't they have an aquatic centre? It just makes no sense that they don't.

10:55 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I spoke originally more about the apology, but, since that time in February, I want to update the House on some additional measures we've made in the Environment and Water portfolio that add to our efforts to close the gap. No-one knows our land and seas better than First Nations people, who have more than 65,000 years of experience in caring for country. As the Minister for the Environment and Water, there is so much I have learned from First Nations people, but there is also so much more to do to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

In the more than two years that I've been the Minister for the Environment and Water, I believe we've been making real progress in our Commonwealth efforts on the Closing the Gap Implementation Plan. I want to begin with a few words on what we've done in the Water portfolio. The Albanese Labor government is delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full. As part of that, we're making sure that the voices and values of First Nations people are heard. Last month, on 22 June, we launched a world-leading water ownership program for First Nations people in the Murray-Darling Basin, delivering an election commitment.

Under the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program, the government has made $100 million available to buy water in the basin, with First Nations representatives to determine how that money is spent. The program has been developed in close partnership with First Nations representatives from across the basin to ensure that it supports the cultural, economic, social and environmental needs of First Nations people. The program was announced first in 2018, with a $40 million commitment from the former government. That money was never spent. The Albanese Labor government has turned this around, increasing the program's funding to $100 million as part of a broader effort to strengthen the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Act 2023. First Nations communities have cared for Murray-Darling Basin rivers for thousands of years but have largely, to date, been excluded from managing and owning water. The Albanese Labor government's $100 million Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program begins to reverse that legacy and recognises the lasting and deep connection of First Nations people with water.

The Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program will contribute directly to a national inland waters target, being developed under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. This target is intended to increase the level of ownership of inland water access entitlements by First Nations organisations across the country. First Nations Australians own and control less than 0.2 per cent of our surface water entitlements. We're now working with the states to increase ownership and control with First Nations people. My department has reinstated the Inland Waters Target Working Group. The working group has delegates from each state and territory jurisdiction, with membership also including the Coalition of Peaks, the Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Water Interests and the National Indigenous Australians Agency. I expect it won't be too long before the inland waters target will be formally added to the national agreement. But our government's progress on the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program demonstrates that I'm already taking action to increase water ownership and the economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits that come from that.

Our work on water ownership is complemented by the $150 million commitment to regional and remote First Nations water supplies. This contributes to the Closing the Gap target of providing essential services by delivering safe and reliable water in First Nations communities. Poor water security of both quality and supply of course has negative impacts on health and wellbeing. This is another area that when we came into government had not received the attention that it deserved. We've addressed this area as a matter of urgency.

The $150 million commitment is providing safe and reliable drinking water that meets those fundamental health, wellbeing and overall quality-of-life outcomes that we want for all Australians. Improved water infrastructure can support economic growth. It can create opportunities for local employment, education and training along with cultural tourism and opportunities for improved health services delivered on country. Of course, very importantly, you can't build more housing if you don't have adequate water supply in towns, so improving water supplies in remote communities allows the building of additional housing.

The Australian government has already allocated $75.9 million of the initial $150 million investment, and the bulk of those projects are already underway. I won't go through the whole list of them, but here are just a few examples: $13 million is being provided for Maningrida, on the central Arnhem coast in the Northern Territory. The project will include a new water tank to expand storage capacity alongside pipes that connect the network. More than 90 per cent of those pipes in Maningrida have already been made. Another example is in Milingimbi, off the coast of Arnhem Land. The Australian and Northern Territory governments are investing $11 million to improve access to reliable water sources. That investment will find new bores for that community. It's very obvious what that means for improvements in drinking water. It's obvious what it means for being able to provide remote dialysis in communities that previously haven't had it. Milingimbi is a good example of what it does for social impact beyond water. The investment in water has meant that 32 existing homes can be expanded and another 32 homes can be added to the community, thus helping us close the gap on housing.

There's still more work to be done on housing to meet the target, but progress of course is tracking in the right direction. Nationally in 2021, 81.4 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were living in appropriately sized—that is, not overcrowded—housing, up from 78.9 per cent in 2016.

Another area where we've been making very important progress towards the Closing the Gap targets is in the Indigenous Protected Areas program. The Indigenous Protected Areas program is jointly managed by my department and the National Indigenous Australians Agency. The IPA provides a recognised framework for First Nations communities to combine traditional and contemporary knowledge to manage their land and sea country and provide employment, education and training opportunities for First Nations people. The Australian government is investing $231½ million over five years to continue to expand the IPA program. IPA delivers environmental, cultural and social and economic benefits that follow an agreed plan. The plans include cultural site management, threatened species monitoring and protection, habitat restoration, biodiversity surveys, marine debris removal, weed and pest animal management, fire management, tourism and visitor management, and education, including cross-generational knowledge sharing.

We know IPAs are important for regional and remote development, particularly increasing employment for First Nations people. Continuing to invest in these programs and expand the IPA program is having a terrific positive impact in the Closing the Gap work. The IPA program draws on First Nations knowledge and expertise to better protect and conserve Australia's environment. They're better for the environment, better for local jobs and better for local culture. Last year, we expanded the IPA program with another $14½ million to add 10 more IPAs across Australia.

I also wanted to mention the extra investment in the very successful Indigenous Rangers Program. We're investing $1.3 billion to support the ranger program, including another $359 million to double the number of Indigenous rangers from 1,900 to 3,800 to help manage feral animals and weeds, support threatened species and better manage our land and sea country. One of the best things about the Indigenous Rangers Program is that it provides terrific work for people, including in very remote parts of Australia, and that money that goes with those jobs stays in those communities and generates even more employment for people who are working in those communities and other roles.

Our work on cultural heritage law reform is also proceeding. We're working very closely with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance and other stakeholders to strengthen our cultural heritage laws so we'll never again see a repeat of what happened in Juukan Gorge. The current partnership agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance is being extended with a new agreement for an extended partnership. As a report on Closing the Gap states, 'The gap is not a natural phenomenon.' We will do our best in the environment and water portfolios to put that gap behind us.

Debate adjourned.