Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 March 2023


Closing the Gap, National Apology to the Stolen Generations: 15th Anniversary

10:03 am

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

I start by first acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and paying my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and I want to particularly acknowledge First Nations senators. I will speak briefly because I believe it's important that Senator Dodson and Senator Stewart give the balance of the government's contribution today.

Fifteen years ago, on his first parliamentary sitting day as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology on behalf of the nation to Australia's Indigenous peoples—in particular the stolen generations. In acknowledging the past, Prime Minister Rudd said we were laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians, and part of that future was a commitment to close the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in health, education, employment and life expectancy within a generation.

Well, today we still have a long way to go. The last Closing the Gap annual report, tabled a few months ago, shows that gaps not only persist but in many areas are widening. This includes the number of children being school-ready, rates of incarceration and deaths by suicide. For too long, policies designed in Canberra and imposed on First Nations communities without meaningful consultation have failed to deliver the outcomes which we hoped for. We have tried to close the gap but we have done so without listening sufficiently to the voices of First Nations people.

This government takes responsibility for doing better. The Albanese government's first Closing the Gap Implementation Plan details the next steps that the Commonwealth will take towards achieving the targets and priority reforms of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. It shows all Australians what tangible and practical actions are being taken in partnership with the Coalition of Peaks to achieve progress. New measures in the 2023 implementation plan include support for water infrastructure to provide safe and reliable water for remote and regional Indigenous communities; a partnership with the Northern Territory government to accelerate the building of new remote housing; funding for the national strategy for food security in remote First Nations communities; support for family violence prevention and legal service providers; more on-country education for remote First Nations students, including greater access to junior rangers and culturally appropriate distance learning; and additional support for boarding for rural and remote students.

While the implementation plan sets out our immediate path for action, long-term and lasting progress requires structural change. This year Australians have the opportunity to be part of that change. The referendum for a Voice to Parliament is about two things. It is about recognition and it is about consultation. The Voice will give independent advice to the parliament and government, making recommendations on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Community led, empowering, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed, it will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures.

Before I conclude and leave—as I said—the majority of the contribution to the First Nations colleagues that I have the privilege of serving with, I want to make some observations as the Minister for Foreign Affairs. As well as having so much to gain within Australia from closing the gap and achieving reconciliation, we have much to gain in the world by elevating the experiences and voices and wisdom of First Nations people. This is a national asset, and it is a source of our strength. It opens new ways to engage on shared interests with partners in our region. In the countries of the Pacific to which I have travelled I have been welcomed by traditional owners, and the centrality of traditional custodianship, of custom, of leadership in the Pacific way is something we should respect in our regional engagement. It is something we should be sharing with the Pacific family by elevating the perspectives and voices of First Nations people across communities across the blue Pacific.

Yesterday I had the privilege of announcing Mr Justin Mohamed as Australia's inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People. Justin is a Gooreng Gooreng man from Bundaberg with extensive experience across many roles. He will lead the Office of First Nations Engagement in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Together they will work in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to progress Indigenous rights globally and help grow First Nations trade and investment. This new position ensures, for the first time, that Australia will have dedicated Indigenous representation in our international engagement.

(Extension of time granted)

Elevating First Nations voices in our international engagement makes us stronger in the world. I was very proud to attend the United Nations General Assembly with Senator Pat Dodson, and I'm very proud that today, on International Women's Day, in New York the Australian delegation for the Convention on the Status of Women is led by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. That is a great thing.

Today is about closing the gap, but it is about more than that. It has greater ambition than that. It is about our nation, it's about achieving our full potential as a nation, and that can only happen when every Australian has the chance to realise their own potential.


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