Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Ministerial Statements

Closing the Gap

10:46 am

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

Yesterday the Prime Minister made a statement on closing the gap for Aboriginal Australia. As I listen to senators speak, it is difficult to reconcile the words of Labor and Greens senators with the views of the thousands of Australians I speak to and hear from—Australians who are frustrated at the ongoing disadvantage and poverty, the appalling conditions and the lack of safety in the most remote Indigenous communities. The riots in Doomadgee, where hundreds of people were forced to flee into the bush, have already slipped from national attention. Australians do care that billions of dollars of taxpayers' money are spent each year, yet progress on improving the lives of these individuals remains elusive.

These senators have spoken as if there is some magic and silver bullet that is being willingly withheld by government, as if Australians are unmoved and somehow complicit in this terrible conspiracy. This is just not true. There can be no doubt that there remains much to be done in regional and remote Queensland for poor communities. The idea of providing greater determination in decision-making and outcomes accountability to local Indigenous people is a great initiative of this government. What is true is that the politicising, the personal attacks, the vitriol of Twitter and the nasty words of senators opposite trying to undermine Minister Ken Wyatt will not help one Aboriginal kid's or family's future.

I speak to Queensland service providers on the ground in Cairns, like Anglicare, where CEO Ian Roberts talks about kids trying to study but having to care for siblings and about overcrowded houses, where adults are not ensuring that these kids are in a safe environment, much less one that is supportive for studying; in Townsville, like the Yumba Meta Housing Association, who are teaching kids to get up to go to school and to first jobs; and in Brisbane, like Deadly Choices, who have terrific ambassadors like Steve Renouf and are providing really positive changes through health education and making great gains in their community. Not one of these groups has said to me, 'We could help another child, another family, if we had more politicians in Canberra or more money.' It is, as the Prime Minister talked about, having greater involvement of people in the communities, making decisions. The work of Minister Ken Wyatt—who has enormous respect and support for the work he does in this parliament—Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and members in the other place is providing more diverse solutions to the opportunities and problems we have in Australia, not least Aboriginal community health and wellbeing.

I recall the Press Club address given by Noel Pearson in 2008, in Brisbane, where he spoke about the challenges for Indigenous communities being made of poverty, not of race. I listened carefully when in 2013 Warren Mundine, as a member of the Uranium Implementation Committee, talked of the development of microbusinesses in Indigenous communities to provide genuine opportunity. There is the desperate desire of the Greens to turn Australia into a coffee shop to the world. A nation of baristas on casual wages with no secure financial future should alarm every Australian, because it is only with real opportunity for work, for purpose and for self-worth that any Australian can thrive. In Queensland those opportunities are being denied by the Queensland state Labor government in their policies right now with their determination not to allow genuine opportunity in the Channel Country and the Cape through pristine rivers legislation, and the lack of attention to great projects like the Kowanyama irrigation project, Collinsville coal-fired power station and the powerful Indigenous Bidura residential project—all projects run and operated by Indigenous Australians.

Today I want to highlight two outstanding people that provide inspiration and hope to me. One is a young man I met recently by the name of Injarra Harbour, from the western Queensland town of Winton. The other is Keelen Mailman from Augathella, again in Queensland. Injarra is the first Indigenous school captain of Nudgee College in Brisbane. Like many regional bush kids, me included, Injarra had to leave his community to attend boarding school to further his education and development, and to say he has flourished in that environment is an understatement. He attends Nudgee thanks to a scholarship provided by the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, which awarded 450 similar packages to other kids last year alone.

The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation was established in 2008 to help Indigenous students complete year 12 or tertiary studies and to provide employment support after they graduate. At a time when 66 per cent of young Indigenous adults have attained year 12 certificates or better, recipients of AIEF scholarships have a year 12 completion rate of 92 per cent. From Borroloola to Warrnambool, this program is genuinely closing the gap for regional kids and changing lives thanks to support from the federal government as well as some of the country's largest corporations. Seeing Injarra develop into a confident young leader is proof of this commitment to closing the gap for many who contribute to this program and that opportunity is possible no matter where you live. I want to give a shout-out to the community of young men at Nudgee who voted Injarra in as school captain; what a terrific group they are.

We all know that a good education and, importantly, support at home for a good education are key to success later in life. Indeed, one of the criteria for winning an AIEF scholarship is that a student's parents or guardians must demonstrate support for it. This means closing education gaps for Indigenous kids requires buy-in from Indigenous families themselves, and this has been acknowledged by Aboriginal advocates as the most effective way forward.

I would also like to speak about Keelen Mailman, a Bidjara woman from Mount Tabor station at Augathella, which is 650 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Keelen is a foster mum, a cattle station manager and author and this year received an Australia Day award for significant service to the Indigenous community of Queensland. This is on top of being named Barnados Mother of the Year 2016 and being a finalist for Queensland Australian of the Year in 2007.

Keelen is working hard on a terrific project to take first-time offenders on country rather than them entering the juvenile detention system. Her idea for a healing centre for Indigenous kids was awarded a $500,000 grant from the Queensland state government. However, that money has disappeared, and once again a genuine and positive opportunity for a terrific Indigenous project is stalled. I should clarify: when I say disappeared, I mean the Queensland state government has now removed it from the budget, and the project cannot go ahead.

At a time when we're closing the gap and it is in such stark relief, it would be remiss of the Queensland government to ignore this initiative, especially when it is proposed by somebody who has a proven record of effective and sincere care for Australian young people. The 2020 progress report on Closing the Gap shows that, while there's been progress against almost every measure, it has not been enough. Some positives, though, are that Indigenous mothers are attending antenatal care earlier and more frequently, and fewer are smoking during pregnancy. From 2006 to 2018, Indigenous age-standardised mortality rates improved by almost 10 per cent, and since 2016 the number of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood has increased by almost 10 percentage points. Literacy and numeracy outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have improved, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are staying in school for longer and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have year 12 or equivalent qualifications. Through the $200 million Indigenous youth education package, more Indigenous students are getting the support and mentoring they need through their secondary studies. In 2020, over 20,000 students will be supported by the package.

There is still more work to do, but we don't have to look far to see cause for hope in the inspirational achievements of people like Injarra Harbour and Keelen Mailman. I congratulate them on their successes and wish them well for the future. As for us, I wish us a greater sense of collegiality. I wish for us a greater sense of purpose and a shared commitment to genuinely improving the lives of individuals who right now are missing out on opportunities that should be available to every Australian.

But to hear the words from Labor, from the Greens and, in some cases, One Nation are not helpful. They provide for a greater divide, a less unified purpose, on what is a seriously important issue, particularly for those of us who live in regional and remote Australia.

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