Thursday, 13 February 2020
Closing the Gap
I begin this speech on the 12th anniversary of the first tabling of the Closing the gap report by acknowledging that today we have this debate on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples and that it was, is and always will be Indigenous land. It has been a great delight, and important, that in the 12 years since the Closing the gap report was first tabled, that in this place we do an Indigenous acknowledgement of country each morning.
I also want to acknowledge the important influence and leadership of my First Nations colleagues and fellow parliamentarians Linda Burney MP, Ken Wyatt MP and my good friends Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator Patrick Dodson and Senator Jacqui Lambie. I want to highlight what a radical difference it makes to have colleagues who bring their own experiences into these debates. It means that the nature of our debates suddenly becomes a lot more legitimate in the way we engage with them.
I want to give a shout-out to my very good friend Josie Farrer MLA, who is the member for the Kimberley region in the parliament of Western Australia. I think it can at times be really difficult not just for First Nations MPs but also for other MPs who have large populations of First Nations people to bring their voice into parliament. It can be such a disparate experience from other Australians that they have to work twice as hard sometimes to have people really understand the needs of First Nations communities. So I really want to commend the work that my colleagues do in this regard. And I personally undertake to do all I can. I take inspiration from, for example, what Senator Sue Lines has done in the forums she has held with First Nations women.
The Closing the gap report was tabled to hold the government to account in achieving equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in health and life expectancy within a generation. It is unfortunate to see that the report outcomes demonstrate that our policies have again fallen short. We're not on track for five of the seven targets and, in fact, the time when we said we would achieve those targets has long since past, let alone falling behind being on track. Unfortunately, child mortality rates have fallen further behind their non-Indigenous counterparts, highlighting that the gap has actually widened since 2008. While school attendance rates have improved they've also stagnated for the past five years, and there has been no progress at all in life expectancy in the last 12 years. The two targets that were reached—the four-year-olds enrolled in preschool and the number of year 12s graduating—are, unfortunately, also the same as last year.
We've been hearing that these are lofty targets, but I have to say that they're not and that they shouldn't be. They're not too ambitious. I think the problem isn't really to do with the aspiration but with the execution. As Senator McCarthy put it yesterday, we can't step past punitive, top-down policies such as the cashless debit card and the CDP, which actually undermine directly our attempts to better outcomes in the other target areas. Low incomes and punitive policies like these, where government exercises such extreme control over people's lives when they're are already living in poverty, mean that these outcomes are simply not surprising.
I would really like to call on the government and say that it shouldn't be refreshing an approach which is clearly failing. We shouldn't be here lamenting bitterly our shortcomings while every year sticking to the same broken system. I join with Anthony Albanese in his call for urgency in addressing these issues. First Nations Australians should have the power to direct their own futures. There needs to be a referendum, and First Nations people need to be recognised in our Constitution—and have a clear voice here in our parliament.
I've been reflecting on this in recent days as part of this debate, and it's very clear to me that a voice in this parliament is not a difficult thing to achieve. We have many external agencies and institutions that have formal engagement with this parliament in appearing before committees. There are oversight committees and there are committees that have particular relationships with different agencies to make sure there is good to and fro between the parliament and the issues before those agencies. It shouldn't be that difficult to take, for example, a body that Minister Wyatt is working on at the moment which has a voice to government, but also to make sure that that voice is reflected in our parliament so that we can actually hold the government to account for their response to First Nations voices and advocacy.
We really have to move past hurtful policies, such as the cashless debit card and CDP, which have entrenched First Nations people in poverty in many regions. I'm sure that a future First Nations voice will be very firm in its advocacy in this regard. But I acknowledge also that a First Nations voice is very much about listening to the diversity of First Nations voices and communities around our nation. Given the results that were revealed in the Closing the gap report 2019, government really needs to say: 'We don't know better than First Nations communities. We never knew better.'
First Nations people are the oldest continuing culture in the world; we need to stop these paternalistic policies. In my experience, First Nations culture is something to be cherished and learnt from. I'm really privileged, I think, to be an Australian. That means I have access to Indigenous culture and that I'm invited to share in many cultural traditions. It is at the heart of our culture, as a nation.
I would like to place on record the need for us to get behind and commit ourselves as a parliament to bring agency to the Uluru statement. It's really not a great thing for the government to have mandated a process to bring people together through the Uluru Statement of the Heart, to build that hope and then to turn away from the very things that they asked for—for makarrata, for truth-telling, for a voice and for recognition in our Constitution. It's time to stop telling ourselves these comforting fictions about our history and to embrace what we see in our nation as the rich and, yes, at times, the uncomfortable past that we have. There are a multitude of issues which are not addressed in the Closing the gap report 2019, like the fact that Indigenous children are over 10 times more likely to live in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children, that 25 per cent of Indigenous people experience homelessness and that 25 per cent of those people are children.
When we reflect on these issues—and I've listened to the debate over the last couple of days—I'm concerned about the way some members of this place create stigma and reflect on poor parenting without actually reflecting on the intergenerational trauma and the kinds of experiences that families can have which make both parents and children vulnerable. I call on members of this place to really think about how they present those issues. Of course our children can and must be prioritised, but it won't actually get us anywhere if we continue this kind of blame game within First Nations cultures. We need to learn that the way forward is to listen to the voice of our First Nations Australians.
The success that we have seen in improving outcomes has been led by First Nations organisations and cultural leadership. This success is not in prescriptive and constraining policies, but in Aboriginal controlled community health, housing, child support, legal and family violence prevention services across the nation. It's been a great privilege for me to work with many of those—to listen to them and then to work to support them in their goals and aspirations. They are the ones who should be defining targets and the mode in which we achieve them.
If we don't change and update the way we approach these issues we're not going to see the outcomes that we want to see in health, education, housing and life expectancy. We won't reinvent Australia as the reconciled nation that we truly want to be and which has the true joy and appreciation for our First Nations culture that lies at our very heart.
Question agreed to.