Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 February 2015


Closing the Gap

3:56 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Prime Minister, I table the annual report on Closing the Gap and accompanying ministerial statement. I seek leave to move a motion relating to the consideration of the document.

Leave granted.

I move:

That the speaking times related to a motion being moved to the document shall not be more than 10 minutes.

Question agreed to.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

The Closing the Gap report is both a lesson in how bad things have become and a vindication of how necessary the changes are that we are making for the future of each and every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and family. When we compile these reports year after year we are reminded of the systemic failure, as was stated in the national apology, of the laws and policies that inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over generations. Although there have been some improvements in education and health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the report shows, frustratingly, that most of the targets are not on track to be met. Indigenous life expectancy and mortality rates have improved slightly, but we are still not on track to meet the 2031 target. Progress has slowed on the Indigenous child mortality target, but it is broadly on track to be met by 2018. We continue to roll out access to early childhood education in remote communities and all jurisdictions have committed to achieving 95 per cent enrolment this year. Whilst we are on track to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020, no overall progress has been made on the target to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for Indigenous students by 2018. It is further proof that we must get children to go to school.

There has been no progress so far on the employment target and I worry that we may be going backwards. In 2008, both sides of parliament committed to redress the inequality and disadvantage in the daily life of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their communities. We are all committed to a future where we would harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap and a future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. Despite the goodwill of all sides of politics, old approaches have failed. So, for the past year we have been living up to our commitment to continue our efforts to close the gap by putting in place something better.

To get greater traction on longstanding challenges in Indigenous affairs, investment needs to be focused on priority actions. It needs to be better targeted on doing things that have been proven and on measurable impacts on Indigenous outcomes. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy focused government investment on the priority areas of getting kids to school, getting adults into work and making communities safer. I have no doubt that getting traction in these areas will help deliver real, practical, demonstrable improvements in the lives of Aboriginal and Islander people, their families and their communities.

We have significantly changed the approach to the Indigenous affairs policy. The new Indigenous Advancement Strategy is designed to be nimble, taking away the silo effect and the ineffectiveness and confusion for users of 150 programs. More importantly, it is responsive to community needs and does not impose directives from this place. The whole structure of the bureaucracy is being overhauled, so the IAS is supported by a new network of regional offices and staff located in strategic locations across the country, and bureaucrats work with locals so that there are agreed rather than imposed outcomes. Results from the first Indigenous Advancement Strategy funding round will be made known in March this year. We are involving Indigenous people in the design and delivery of local solutions to local challenges. But some of these issues that affect communities across the country cannot be fixed in isolation or, in fact, single-handedly, thus requiring all of us to give a maximum effort, especially school, education and jobs.

Children must go to school. The school attendance statistics are variable, as you would expect them to be, but truancy is an issue right across Australia. Indigenous attendance rates at government schools are currently lower than for other students for years 1 to 10 in all states and territories. Non-attendance is more acute in remote and very remote locations. The Remote School Attendance Strategy has made an important start on this. More than 410 school attendance officers and more than 100 school attendance supervisors now operate in the 69 priority RSAS communities and 73 schools. I frequently walk out with the school attendance officers and see how it all works in a community. I did it with the Prime Minister when we were in Arnhem Land last September, and I have done it in several more remote schools in January.

The Remote School Attendance Strategy is continuing to show promising results in the Northern Territory and Queensland. In term 3 of 2014 there was a 13 per cent rise in the number of children attending school across 29 Northern Territory government RSAS schools and an eight per cent rise in the number of children attending the 11 Queensland government RSAS schools compared with term 3 of 2013. Good education is a stepping stone into a job. Whether you live in a city, a town, a regional area or a remote or very remote area, we acknowledge that we must help adults and young people move successfully from school into either higher education or training and into stable meaningful work.

The key aim is to provide real pathways to employment. This is particularly necessary in remote areas. Over half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in remote areas are welfare reliant. Too many people simply do not have enough to do. It is worse in very remote areas, with nearly two-thirds of people reliant on welfare. To give these people a chance for something better, Work for the Dole will be introduced into remote communities from July 2015, with the majority of job seekers to undertake work-like activities five days a week.

Guaranteed employment and job-specific training is the aim of vocational training and employment centres—VTECs—which build on the GenerationOne model. There are 28 VTECs around Australia and another VTEC in the pipeline. VTECs end the training for training's sake cycle and will provide guaranteed jobs at the end of training for over 5,400 Indigenous people across Australia. Even since July, over 1,300 people have commenced with VTEC, with 921 Indigenous people now in jobs at the other end of the VTEC process. We are on track to more than 5,000 individuals trained into real jobs by the end of this year. VTECs are part of the government push to create jobs for Indigenous Australians, as is Work for the Dole.

Just as going to and talking with communities, in my view, is far more instructive than reading a report, stories about people are more poignant than any statistic. Last year I visited Real Futures, the provider of the Kempsey VTEC. Real Futures is an Indigenous business that is proving to be successful at getting people off welfare and into valuable, meaningful work. One of those people who is getting trained and is getting a job is Pam Matheson. Pam has partly completed her Certificate IV in Community Services. Now, while she does that, Pam is working to train and coordinate volunteers to yarn with isolated, disabled or lonely Aboriginal people, encouraging them to reconnect with their community. This is part of the TeleYARN program. Training and a job are the two things that have changed Pam's life. Those two things will also change the lives and the future for her three daughters, and because she is motivated to be the very best role model she can be these two things will also change a community.

Pam's story is one example of what we want for every Indigenous Australian who is out of work. We are working with providers, businesses and big corporates across Australia to increase the number of available positions for Indigenous people, and we are leading from the front. As the Prime Minister announced in that other place as part of the government's initial response to the recommendations of the Forrest review, we aim to increase Indigenous employment in the Commonwealth public sector. The government will also strengthen the Commonwealth's Indigenous procurement policy, using the Commonwealth's $39 billion procurement budget to encourage Indigenous businesses in employment. In two multimillion dollar contracts the Department of Defence has engaged Indigenous owned company Pacific Services Group Holdings to refurbish existing marine infrastructure and buildings at HMAS Waterhen in Sydney and as the managing contractor for stage 1 of the planning phase of the critical infrastructure recovery project at Garden Island. Such massive contracts and job opportunities are a sign of how serious we are about including Indigenous people and businesses in the economy.

As the apology said, it will take both mutual respect and mutual responsibility to close the gap. This last year has been about getting the foundations of mutual responsibility right and further developing the mutual respect. It is too soon to quantify the impact of the changes we are making. As I travel around the country and I talk to Aboriginal and Islander people I am reminded that they each deserve our respect and our attention. Whilst we may want speedy statistics, speedy statistics actually represent people—people who need a sustained change over time. For each of these people we must stay the course, get children to school, adults into work and make our communities safer so Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the chance to build better lives for themselves and their families.

4:07 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and on which this parliament sits. I pay my respect to elders past and present. I welcome Prime Minister Abbott's statement and his presentation of the seventh annual Closing the Gap report to the parliament, and I also acknowledge the role of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in establishing the Closing the Gap process and the role of prime ministers Rudd and Gillard in presenting these reports in earlier years.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been grievously discriminated against since Europeans arrived in Australia more than 200 years ago. They have been dispossessed and disempowered. They have had their land, their languages, their culture and their children taken from them. They have suffered deeply entrenched systemic disadvantage for generations. Overcoming the terrible legacy of disadvantage is an urgent national project. It requires the marshalling of significant resources and a strong, consistent and focused effort. It is also a long-term project; it must be sustained and maintained for years to come. And it is a project for all of us; it requires commitment across the political divide and across the community.

Our nation prides itself on an egalitarian spirit, on its notion of the fair go and its sense of decency. But this is no egalitarian land when there is an unemployment rate of 21 per cent for our Indigenous people. This is no egalitarian land when the median household income of Aboriginal and Islander adults is half that of non-Indigenous adults. And this is no egalitarian land when Aboriginal juveniles are 24 times more likely than non-Aboriginals to be in detention. There can be no fair go that excludes the original inhabitants of this country. And there can be no sense of decency when Aboriginal children are nearly twice as likely to die before the age of five as non-Indigenous children.

This is why the Closing the Gap reports are important. They represent an annual stocktake of progress towards achieving a fair go for our first Australians.They provide a yardstick against which we, as political leaders, must measure ourselves.They require us—all of us—to match our words with deeds, our aspirations with actions and our sentiments with policies and programs that are welldesigned and which deliver real outcomes. This is why Labor has urged, and will continue to urge, this government to reverse the $500 million which was cut from Indigenous programs in last year's budget.These cuts have real effects on existing services in areas like preventive health, legal aid and family and children's centres.

The Closing the G ap approach owes a great deal to form er Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who opened the 42nd Parliament in 2008 with an apology to the stolen generations and who delivered the first Closing the G ap report a year later. In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments established a series of targets to reduce the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. As we all know, o ne of the most important aspects of this approach is the focus on evidence and data to monitor outcomes. At COAG's request, the Productivity Commission has been producing regular Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reports, which collect mountains of data on our progress in closing the gap.

The latest Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report was released in November last year. It contains both positive news and sobering news. The positive news is that the efforts of recent years are resulting in improvements in the areas of health, post - secondary education and employment. The gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has narrowed over recent years. Yet, it is still too wide. In 2010-12 life expectancy for Indigenous males was 69.1 years compared to 79.7 for non-Indigenous males. Life expectancy for Indigenous females was 73.7 years , but for non-Indigenous females it was 83.2. Fewer Indigenous children are dying. Mortality rates for Indigenous children have improved significantly over the period 1998 to 2012. For infants under 12 months of age, mortality rates have more than halved from 14 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 1998 to five deaths per 1,000 births in 2012.

The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report also shows that post-secondary education outcomes have improved , with a marked increase in the proportion of young Indig enous people who are finishing y ear 12 and going on to further education. It is also heartening to see basic economic outcomes improving—higher rates of full-time and professional employment, higher incomes, lower reliance on income support and increased home ownership for many Indigenous Australians. And that is good news. It also shows that the national effort that has been underway for the last decade or so is achieving results.

But, as I said, the report has sobering news as well. It found that in some areas we are not improving but just marking time, and that i n other areas the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is actually growing wider. Despite the improvements in post-secondary education, in schooling there has been virtually no chan ge since 2008 in the proportion of Indigenous students achieving minimum standards in reading, writing and numeracy. Despite the improvements in life expectancy and child mortality, rates of chronic disease and disability remain high amongst our first peoples. Mental health outcomes have not improved and the incidence of self-harm has increased. And l egal and justice outcomes for our Indigenous people have deteriorated. Imprisonment rates for adults increased by 57 per cent between 2000 and 2013 , and juvenile detention rates have increased sharply. So the news is indeed sobering. It also provides an indication of where we need to focus and redouble our efforts and to re-evaluate existing policies.

These statistics and many more are an essential part of the C losing the G ap approach. By measuring outcomes , all of us are held accountable—policymakers, governments and legislators. We are also provided with information that should ensure that the design and implementation of policies can be improved. But just as important as the quantitative data is the qualitative data. A valuable feature of the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report was its focus on the things that work—case studies of individual initiatives which have been rigorously evaluated and shown to be successful. What these show us is that well-designed programs can and do make a difference. We can make a difference.

But behind the statistics, behind the case studies and, indeed, behind the speeches today there are so many individual stories of people across this nation making a difference—whether it is the hundreds of thousands of community leaders, health workers, teachers, social and community workers and others around Australia, whether it is my friend and colleague Senator Nova Peris or whether it is people like Tanya Hosch and Tim Gartrell from Recognise Australia and people like Tom Calma and Melinda Cilento, the co-chairs of Reconciliation Australia. As I have said, there are so many people who work in our communities to redress this disadvantage. There are so many Australians who work to improve the lives of our Indigenous people.

The Prime Minister said today: 'We know that, until Indigenous Australians fully participate in the life of our country, all of us are diminished.' And the Leader of the Opposition said: 'A great nation includes everyone, and a good society leaves no-one behind.' I endorse the sentiments of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and I again reaffirm in this place the opposition's commitment to the great national project of Closing the Gap.

4:15 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to make a contribution on the Closing the gap report. Much is made in this place of bipartisan or, as I like to call it, multipartisan support for closing the gap in Aboriginal life expectancy and disadvantage. While we the Greens are fully committed to that, that does not mean that we cannot and should not uncritically accept what is happening and the policy in this place that the government of any persuasion develops to address the gap on life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is in that context that I make my contribution to this debate, because we do not think that the current government has the policy settings right. The Prime Minister himself said that much more work is needed because this seventh Closing the gap report is profoundly disappointing. I very rarely agree with this Prime Minister, but I do agree with him on that point, because it is profoundly disappointing. But, more importantly, the policies that this government have put in place are profoundly disappointing.

We have already heard some of the statistics, and I will probably cite a few more. But statistics can be used to blind people to what is actually happening out there. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs said that the government are trying to do something better. I question whether things are being done better. I think that people are being kind when they say, 'We've seen a year of turmoil in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.' We do not know what is going on with the funding. We have seen funding cuts. They can quote all the figures they like, but the simple fact is that funding has been cut from Indigenous programs. What is more, in many cases we do not actually know where those funding cuts have happened because we will not know the outcomes of the Indigenous advancement strategy tender process until March. The government would like you to think that there has been a considered approach to the way the funding has been cut. There has not been. There have been cuts across programs.

We have already seen some significant cuts that we do know of, and that includes the $534.4 million in cuts overall that has come out of the programs. There has been a $168 million cut out of health programs alone. I know that my colleague Senator Wright will have a lot to say around this issue in particular when she makes her contribution, but we have seen $34 million worth of cuts to legal aid and policy reform programs. There have been cuts to the national Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Services program of $3.6 million over the next three years.

The government claims that in fact there have not been any cuts there and that those services can tender through the IAS. The simple fact is we do not know. Those services and those programs are suffering now. Certainly the legal aid programs are being cut. In fact, when I asked in estimates about the cuts to those legal aid programs and reforms, particularly of policy, of course the government said that they would not affect frontline services. But I asked the Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda about that, and he said, 'Yes, of course it will affect the delivery of legal aid on the ground, and I am getting feedback constantly about the impact those cuts have had.'

As evidenced from this Closing the gap report, some things have got worse. I will address the issue around chronic illness later. Many things have got worse. We are not on track for progress on closing the gap in life expectancy in a generation. Yes, there has been some small progress, but clearly we are not on track to meet that target. We are on track—thank goodness!—to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade. We are on track for that. That is great. We have not met the target to ensure access for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities to early childhood education. We are not on track to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for Indigenous students. We are not on track to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We will not meet our commitments to close the gap unless we significantly change what we are doing.

I put to this place that going to a billionaire, Mr Forrest, to ask him what we should be doing is not the right thing to do either. That is a wish list from a billionaire about what we should be doing. Outsourcing policy development in that manner is not the approach that we should be taking. He—surprise, surprise!—recommended more of what the government wants to do—for example, income management. We do not need ideological beliefs rather than evidenced based policies. Income management does not work. We have had report after report about the fact that it does not work. The latest evaluation could not find any substantive evidence of the program causing significant changes relative to its key policy objectives, including changing people's behaviour. There is no evidence of an overall improvement in financial wellbeing, including reduction in financial harassment or improved financial management skills. More general measures of wellbeing in the community show no evidence of improvement, including for children. Rather than building capacity and independence, for many, the program has acted to make people more dependent on welfare. It does not work, yet we are still doing it. That is not doing something new; that is in fact a continuation of more failed programs. We have not managed to progress cooperation between the states and the Commonwealth after the end of the national partnership agreements.

One of the areas where we have made progress, thank goodness, is in cutting smoking—and what have the government done? They cut funding to address smoking, and they will come back and try and tell you, 'We haven't cut funding to smoking.' Well, they have cut funding. You go and talk to any of the services that are delivering that program and they will tell you what impact that is having. They have cut that particular program.

The impacts of the funding cuts compound other cruel government measures, around income support, for example. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, when he delivered his report last year, did not pull his punches when he made comment about the impact of these cuts. He talked about the lack of consultation, where the Assistant Minister for Health claims there is significant consultation. In answer to my question earlier this afternoon about the health budget, she said there was a lot of consultation. The commissioner for social justice found that there was not. He found that the consultation on the government's Indigenous Advancement Strategy had been scant, with minimal involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The lack of a consultation process, he said, was concerning. He described the first year of the Abbott government in Indigenous affairs as a year characterised by deep funding cuts, the radical reshaping of existing programs and services and the development of new programs and services, and said that the lack of clarity and muddled narrative was deeply concerning. It is no wonder that we have gone backwards in closing the gap.

Every year, I table in this place the Close the Gap steering committee report. It used to be called the 'shadow' report, but now it is called the Progress and priorities report 2015. They make a number of recommendations in their report that I recommend that the government take on board and read very carefully. If you read it, the key narrative that runs through it, besides the issues around not meeting the Close the Gap targets, is the need for long-term, sustained commitment to funding. That is what we need in this place, not cuts—not having Aboriginal medical services that have to work out, year by year, whether they will have funding, whether they will be able to keep their staff, whether the programs that are working will be kept going and whether they are going to be chopped and changed. We need long-term, sustained commitment to address closing the gap. We need to address the soaring incarceration rates—not build prisons but invest in alternative approaches such as justice reinvestment, which, again, Senator Wright will address. We need to be addressing the issues around cognitive impairment and people with cognitive impairment in indefinite detention.

These are all issues that the government is not addressing and that need to be addressed if we are going to genuinely close the gap. We are committed and will continue to be committed to close the gap, but we will not stand by and let policies stand without criticism that are not going to close the gap. We will continue to hold the government accountable. I seek leave to table the Progress and priorities report 2015of the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee.

Leave granted.

4:26 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

As minister responsible for Indigenous health, I rise to make a contribution to the tabling of the Close the Gap report. Before I do so, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respect to their elders past and present.

It is a very important day today in terms of the bipartisan nature of the day and of us all towards the sector—and I do indeed take Senator Siewert's point about it being multipartisan. I think we are all focused on ensuring that we get better outcomes for the Indigenous communities right across this country. It is really important that we look forward. We know where we are at this point in time, we know what has happened over time and it is really important that we focus on the future—on improvement, getting things right and, from this day onwards, making sure we do things as government better even than we have done before. I would particularly like to take the opportunity to thank all of those in the Indigenous sector who have given me such great advice over the time I have been in this role in terms of the Indigenous health policy for this government. I really do very much appreciate it.

As has been said by many today, we still have a long way to go. There is a lot yet to achieve, but I think it is really important that we acknowledge the things that have been done and the improvements that have been made. Within health, we have seen an increase in life expectancy overall, a decline in Indigenous death rates from chronic diseases, notably cardiovascular disease, and improvements in child and maternal health. We are on track to achieve the target to halve the gap in child mortality rates by 2018 and, while it has been small, there has been a reduction in the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 0.8 years for men and 0.1 years for women. The reason I make those points is to acknowledge all those people in this sector, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have worked so hard for such a long period of time to make those improvements. While I know we need to focus on what still is yet to be done and what has to be done, I think it is very important for those people who have worked so hard, day in, day out, out in our communities to make things better for the lives of Indigenous people that we do acknowledge the improvements and the gains that have been made.

In health, one of the major pieces of work we are doing at the moment is working on the implementation of the health plan. I acknowledge all of the work that went into the health plan, which was done under the previous government, by those across the sector particularly in the wide consultation that took place. What we need to do now is turn that document, which is a good document and an aspirational document, into action, which is what we are doing now as government with the implementation plan. We need to turn that health plan document into tangible outcomes on the ground, through the implementation plan, that will improve health outcomes for Indigenous people. I am very pleased that there has been a lot of collaboration on that. I thank the National Health Leadership Forum for the contribution they are making in that process. I believe that at the end of this long process we are going to have an implementation plan that will truly make a difference for health outcomes for Indigenous people.

I note the work of the Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and NACCHO, their peak body, but particularly those organisations out on the ground. Comprehensive primary health care is so important if we are going to improve health outcomes for Indigenous people. Community controlled health organisations play a significant role and are going to continue to play an important role in ensuring that we close the gap. As I travel around these communities, I am continually impressed by the work of the AMSs. Some of the work they are doing is simply extraordinary. Their focus, the work they are doing and the exceptional way that they are showing leadership in their communities and delivering health services is extremely impressive. Having said that, there are organisations that can do better. My task is to work with a community to look at ways to improve those that are not doing as well as others so that across the sector we can improve the work of those organisations, ensuring that we get better health outcomes right across the board for our Indigenous communities.

The government is investing $3.1 billion in health over the forward estimates, but funding does not of itself lead to better outcomes. I think we all recognise that. No bucket of money is going to change anything in this world. It is only what you can do with that bucket of money. That is why the government is so focused on making sure that we get it right, that we have the right policies and programs in place, so that that money makes a difference and actually leads to better health outcomes for Indigenous people. That means making sure that we improve our data levels, that we improve assessment, that we look at the programs and policies that are being rolled out and that we ensure that we get the outcomes that we want. That is why the government is focused on making sure that we review some of the policies and programs that are in place and that we target better health outcomes by making sure we have the right policies and programs in place. It is about ensuring we are focused on preventive health. It is about ensuring we are focused on the management of chronic disease. It is about ensuring we are tackling smoking. It is about those issues amongst a range of other things. We have to look forward and make sure that we keep focused on doing better in the future. It is about culturally appropriate delivery of health services. It is about ensuring that we eliminate racism in the health sector for Indigenous people. Without those two things, I truly believe we will not make the progress we want. It is something that I as the minister responsible for Indigenous health am very focused on. I will continue working with the sector to ensure that we achieve both of those things.

There has been a lot of commentary about statistics. We do need to pay attention to them. Through statistics the report shows clearly where the improvements, although small, have been and what we still need to do. But it is not just about statistics. If we are going to close the gap on health we need to ensure that we focus on what is going to work. Particularly in the health area there is not necessarily a one size fits all policy. What we need when it comes to improving health outcomes of Indigenous people in Mossman Gorge is different from what we need in Sydney, from what we need in Wilcannia, from what we need in Kintore and from what we need in Fitzroy Crossing. It is really important that we have flexibility, so that communities can deliver services targeted at how they are needed in those communities.

So often Indigenous leaders and Indigenous people in the communities actually have the solutions to so many of our health problems. We need to listen to our Indigenous leaders and, indeed, all those in Indigenous communities about how they see the future being better, about how they see us being able to improve health outcomes and what they see as their contribution. This is going to be a collective. The government cannot do it on its own. We cannot do it sitting here in this chamber with the opposition and those on the crossbenches. We can do it only if we work together in this place as government, as opposition, as crossbenchers with those in the community, and we need to meet halfway. We are going to work together only if we have mutual trust. We have so many working in the health sector in our Indigenous communities. We need to trust them to deliver those health services where they can do such great improvements working with their own communities. We need to trust that they have the judgement do the right thing. I certainly do. It is very, very important that we continue to focus on the future, that we work collectively and that we work with Indigenous communities, because every single person in this place and across the communities wants to see better health outcomes for Indigenous communities and see us close the gap.

4:36 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the Ngambri-Ngunawal people, on whose land we stand today, and acknowledge my ancestors past and present and our future leaders. Today is an opportunity for all of us to speak out about reality. It is a day on which I stand here as an Aboriginal woman with the inherent responsibility to fight and sustain our culture for future generations. Unless you are on some other planet today what is being echoed in the walls of Parliament House by Aboriginal people who have gathered here today is that there are a lot of unhappy people out there.

Whilst a lot of people come to Parliament House to talk about Closing the Gap and walk away with a warm and fuzzy feeling about what it means to them and think that we are progressing, the gap in fact is not closing. People reflect on Australia as a nation of hope and a nation of opportunity, but we are a nation that continually lets down Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—we are failing citizens of this country. We are not on track to close the gap on life expectancy, and the gap is not closing because things that work are being ignored. I have been listening to Senator Nash—and I have the greatest respect for her—and she understands what she says. But here is big difference between actually understanding it and wanting to implement what people are saying out there in the communities.

I have been around a long time, and Aboriginal people feel that what we say is falling on deaf ears day in and day out. Today we heard the Prime Minister claim that he is profoundly disappointed that the Closing the Gap has stalled. It is great that he has said that, because today we have heard truth in this place. That is what happens when you cut the funding from frontline services that have been proven to work. It is simple: Closing the Gap has fallen through the cracks of a divided and dysfunctional government. When we heard the opposition leader talk about cuts to frontline services, I saw 10 coalition members just get up and walk out. We heard Senator Nash talking about that this has to be a bipartisan approach, but to sustain lives everybody needs to be at the table to give hope and to implement the right things that Aboriginal people need. That walkout showed a total disrespect not only for leaders of this country but for a race of people—the oldest collective race of people in this world whose lives we are trying to enhance and for whom we want to make things better. I just do not get that you have people walking out of the chamber.

I had a speech prepared, but I am not going to read a speech, because I should be able to speak from my heart to tell it how it is. When I see things like that, I think to myself: 'Why did I put my hand up for parliament?' Because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of the people who paved the way for me today.

All this rhetoric about how we have to get it right and we have to listen to people. There are so many times you see Dr Yunupingu and all these talking politicians—it just has to stop. Senator Nigel Scullion knows the Northern Territory very well—it is his backyard. He has respect for the people, and people respect him in the communities. But, Nigel, we cannot be serious about getting kids to school while your government closes 38 childcare centres. There was a report from Twiggy Forrest. Why do we have a wealthy man, who has never worked a day in the life of an Aboriginal person—he does not know what it is to live in poverty or how you get out of poverty—so why are we asking him to tell us how to live our lives? I do not get it. We are only talking in circles and using Aboriginal people—our lives and our disparity—as political footballs. I said that earlier today and it has got to stop. It really has to stop.

When we talk about constitutional recognition, there is the whole fear factor: what are we recognising? What have we got to fear? Every day we acknowledge the Ngambri-Ngunawal people. We exist. We acknowledge it here, and so what is so scary about acknowledging it in our Constitution. We cannot change the past. I said that in my maiden speech. We cannot change what has happened; we cannot drag the chains of this black history that this country has in order to move into the light. We talk about 600,000 Aboriginal people in this country, and yet every single day in the newspapers there is a story about an Aboriginal person. You do not see that about any other race of people in Australia; it is only Aboriginal people. It is almost as if we are a product of disparity. You talk about people coming in and walking together, but I have been to so many communities—and Senator Scullion knows this too—and how do you expect 25 non-Indigenous service providers to be delivering programs to a community of 200 or 300 people? There is not one Aboriginal person delivering those services. We have been oppressed and we continue to oppress citizens who have survived the 40,000 years in spite of continuous failed policies.

We cannot just keep talking about it. Every election cycle we make these promises; we say we are going to give you this and then, when we get in, we backflip on health and education. It is not rocket science. If you want to engage a child in primary school—to get them into school—they have to have a profound love of education. You cannot just say that it is about jobs; it is about housing. They are the basic fundamental things that we take for granted—every single one of us—but that is like asking a hen to have teeth. You are just asking for the basic fundamental human rights for people to have an opportunity, and we are denying the opportunity when we cannot get the basics right. It upsets me that Aboriginal people are coming to this place and begging from money to drive programs in their community. They should not have to do that. I do not tell anyone how to run their lives and so why are people telling Aboriginal people how to run their lives?

There is story I would like to tell, because it is important. We are Catholics and my grandson, who is 5½ years old, went to his first day of school this year. The principal, after welcoming everyone, talked about Jesus and God and then he said, 'And don't forget; let's us all be like Jesus.' My grandson turned to his mum, my daughter, and said, 'Well, who is Jesus?' The thing is that everyone has a religion, everyone has a spiritual belief, and this country is a multicultural country. We as Aboriginal people have our spirituality and our religion. We know what we want.

It is almost like our dreams and aspirations are continually controlled by the dollar factor. And it goes back to a Country Liberal government who wants to dilute the Heritage Act and the Land Rights Act. You have 35 per cent of people in the Northern Territory owning 50 per cent of the land. When you see incarceration rates escalating, not decreasing, what does that say about society? You just want to bulldoze the people out of the way who have control over what other people want. And that is not even telling a lie; that is telling it how it is. We heard a great speech by Joe Morrison today who said: 'We are not part of the problem. We are part of the solution'. If you want to progress this country for what it is meant to be—what other countries see it for—you need to bring Aboriginal people with you. And it is not by continually taking the top-down approach. To say that an Aboriginal kid has no dreams and aspirations is wrong. To tell an Aboriginal parent, 'you don't want your children to go to school'—that is absolute rubbish. We have the same dreams and aspirations. We should be allowed to flourish as human beings and as equal citizens in this country. This whole place needs to change.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Peris. Senator Milne.

4:46 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon to make comment on the Closing the Gap report but, before I do that, I just want to say thank you to Senator Peris. That is exactly what we need to hear in this parliament. Like Senator Peris, Senator Siewert, my colleague Senator Wright and others, I was there this morning at the talks that were given and I can tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President, it was like being in a parallel universe. We had the Prime Minister standing there making his speech, and people were being polite, because he is the Prime Minister, but I can tell you that the allied health workers and the people who are working with and in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities were frustrated to death. I can tell you that that the fact is, they are living a different reality from what was being talked about—and everyone was clapping politely. And it just is not true. What was being said is just not true.

I think we need to listen. Senator Peris has spelled it out, but so too did Mick Gooda. Speaking last year about his Social justice and native title report last year, he said:

It is not okay that in 2014, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, of all Australians, are the most vulnerable, the least healthy, the most imprisoned, the most likely to die in prison, the most at risk of child abuse or neglect, the most likely to be homeless, the least likely to be educated or employed, or the most at risk of domestic violence

That is the reality. It is no use standing up and saying that you can take more than half a billion dollars out of support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and programs and suggesting that you are not undermining the capacity for people to bring about change. That is the hypocrisy. Everybody in the room this morning knew full well what had happened in the budget. They also knew full well that it had been a year of trauma, of upheaval, of uncertainty; of tearing down of long-term thinking, programs, and evidence-based work. And I can tell you, people still are saying, 'exactly what happened with the budget last year?' Mick Gooda went on to say:

It is not okay that our communities' views are ignored in decisions that affect their lives and their land. It is not okay that our communities are not equal partners in the decisions made to better improve their own lives. It is not okay that our peoples are not the recognised custodians of, and remain separated from, our land. And it is not okay that racism still defines many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's daily lives.

He went on to talk about his report at the end of last year, but he also said that he had spoken extensively about what he was calling 'the muddled narrative' of the Australian government's approach; and about how we are now experiencing one of the largest upheavals in Indigenous affairs and how this upheaval is causing immense anxiety and stress amongst our communities. He went on to talk about how over 150 programs and activities have been transferred to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet—involving over 1,400 organisations with nearly 3,040 grants and contracts—and about how these 150 programs will be collapsed down to five, whilst dealing with a budget cut of over $400 million across the next four years. Now, how can you expect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to know what is going on! Nobody knows what is going on with the collapsing of all these programs and the taking of money out of these programs; nobody knows how they are to be supported. Mick Gooda went on to say:

I would argue that the more far reaching the change and the more drastic the budget cuts, the more engagement is needed with the community and its representative organisations.

He went on to say that engagement has been conspicuously absent, before and after the announcement of these changes.

How can they possibly create positive outcomes when the government is determined to slash these programs—to slash the money supporting them; not to consult with or even talk to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are going to be impacted by them; and then to stand up and make motherhood statements about 'going to govern the country from East Arnhem Land'? Frankly, if the Prime Minister thinks it is enough to say he is going to East Arnhem Land, he is going to observe the disaster that he has put in place. He is taking away, for example, programs to assist people in not smoking—and I could not help but pick up the irony this morning. What was being bragged about is what is a very modest improvement, but nevertheless an improvement, in life expectancy—of 1.6 years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and an improvement of 0.6 years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women—yet of course, it is a 10-year gap when compared with the non-Indigenous population. There is a slight improvement in life expectancy. And there have been reduced rates of smoking during pregnancy and, in terms of smoking overall, there has been a reduction in the rate of 10 per cent over the last decade. Might you not think that a program that had resulted in a reduction in smoking of 10 per cent in the last decade, a reduction in the number of women smoking during pregnancy and so on, might have contributed to the modest life expectancy improvement? Yet we still have abolition of preventive health care services. All the Allied Health people—the doctors—who were there this morning were saying: 'We need preventive health care. We need assessment. We need not only acute care for heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes, but preventive health care as well.' They were talking about assessment and assistance in those communities.

We have also given Rosie Batty the Australian of the Year award to highlight the issue of domestic violence, family violence. I am really proud of the fact that Australia has done that. But, at the same time, this government has slashed funding to legal services for violence in Aboriginal communities. Why would you take away the legal support services for people who need them the most? This makes no sense. It suggests a government that is completely out of touch with what is required in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Of course, there are many other things in the report that are well worth consideration, but, from the Greens' point of view, this has to be long term. There has to be national leadership. It was done before through COAG, but now nobody knows who is leading this program. You have to have buy-in from the states and territories, and it was there. Far be it from me to praise COAG—let me tell you, it is a black hole that nothing ever comes out of. Nevertheless, in this sense, it at least got buy-in to a national program, a national plan, where states and territories had some buy-in, some contribution and some consistency.

But now we do not even have that. We need a long-term national plan. But no national plan can work unless it is funded. You cannot stand up and say you are doing everything to close the gap when you are taking more than $500 million out of programs that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and collapsing them into the Prime Minister's office under five programs that nobody understands and without any consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is a recipe for complete failure. In this year's budget the government must, first of all, restore funding to the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee and reverse its cuts of $130 million over five years from the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program. As I said, there are a number of other areas that they need to put money into to address—preventive health care, chronic disease, more assistance with numeracy and literacy and putting in targets for justice. Why wouldn't you, in Closing the Gap, have targets for justice? I will finish by asking people to reflect on something Mick Gooda said:

It is shameful that we do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school or universities.

This is something the whole country needs to think about. We need justice targets to get Aboriginal people out of prison. If as a country you do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school or university, the system is broken. That is what we need to be thinking about on this day of Closing the Gap.

4:56 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank Senator Scullion and Prime Minister Abbott for their statements today and for their genuine care and empathy for Indigenous people. I also want to thank them for the mature way in which they have dealt with today's report and, indeed, all issues around Closing the Gap. We would have hoped for a tripartisan approach to this issue, but the Greens had to make a political statement. They simply cannot help themselves. I might say to Senator Peris that the reason people left the other chamber when Mr Shorten was talking was not to show any disrespect to Indigenous people but to show that they did not like Mr Shorten making politics—as Senator Milne did—out of a very serious issue.

I do not want to go too much into the report today, but I do want to use this opportunity to again repeat something that I and Indigenous leaders in Queensland have long called for—that matters relating to Indigenous people and their welfare should be dealt with by elected Indigenous leaders. I have said on many occasions previously that we have too many bureaucrats—and politicians—who, with the very best intentions, are trying to do the right thing by Indigenous people. We form advisory groups of high profile Indigenous people who are in the paper all the time. But, frankly, these are academics who do not have skin in the game. I will name Indigenous leaders in Queensland—and I am sure there are others in the Northern Territory and Western Australia—who are there as Indigenous leaders not because they have been appointed by anyone, or because they have written fine articles for The Sydney Morning Herald, but because they have been elected by their fellow citizens in these communities. And they are accountable to those citizens—unlike these advisory boards who, frankly, though well-meaning, are accountable to no-one.

Elected Indigenous leaders are accountable to their constituencies every three or four years. And all of the money that comes through their hands is audited by the state auditors-general. We know exactly where the money has gone and we know what good it has done. These Indigenous leaders are mayors; they are local government leaders. But they understand education issues in their own community. They understand health issues in their own community. They understand not just how to fix roads, rates and rubbish in their communities; they understand how their communities work.

I again express a plea to my government, the Abbott federal government, and to the relevant state governments, that they should make more use of those people who are on the ground. They do not need advisory bodies; they have elected people that are accountable every three years to their constituency and they have people whose funding is audited. I have met with the Indigenous leaders forum, albeit before the last election, where we spoke about this. I did not have to say those things; they told me that they get offended, having been elected by their people to these leadership position, that they are then often ignored by federal and state governments when it comes to wider issues.

Quite frankly, I know the bureaucrats and politicians and academics from the south all have the best interests of Indigenous people at heart—I am not in any way suggesting they do not—but they are not with it; they do not have skin in the game. There are leaders like Councillor Fred Pascoe from the Carpentaria Shire; Councillor Dereck Walpo from the Aurukun Shire; Councillor Ken Bone from Cherbourg; Councillor Fred O'Keefe from Doomadgee; Councillor Greg McLean from Hope Vale; Councillor Robert Holness from Kowanyama; Councillor Wayne Butcher from Lockhart River; Councillor Peter Guivarra from Mapoon; Councillor Philemon Mene from Napranum; Councillor Bernard Charlie from the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council; Councillor Alf Lacey, my good friend from Palm Island; Councillor Richard Tarpencha from Pormpuraaw; Councillor Pedro Stephen from the Torres Shire; Councillor Frederick Gela from the Torres Strait Island Regional Council; Councillor Terry Munns from Woorabinda; Councillor Cliff Harrigan from Wujal Wujal and Councillor Errol Neal from Yarrabah—all very mature, sensible leaders, elected by their people every three or four years. If they are not doing the right thing by their people, they will vote them out at a democratic election. If they are not spending the money properly and efficiently, the state Auditor-General will quickly expose any misspent expenditure. I plead with my government and the various state governments to use these people more rather than getting academics, well-meaning bureaucrats and advisory boards from the south to advise on these particular issues.

These elected leaders come to me and tell me the sorts of things that I am saying in the Senate today. They are concerned that they are being bypassed and ignored, when they are the people who should be listened to and taken into confidence. It is not that I am for a moment suggesting that doing what I suggest would close the gap tomorrow, but I do think it is a far better way. I again make this plea to my own government, to Minister Scullion, who I know understands these things. You have to take these people into confidence, because they are the leaders of their communities. If they do not do the right thing by their communities, they will not be there after the next election. Please, Senator Scullion and Mr Abbott, I know your commitment to Indigenous people. I know your genuine concern and interest. But can I say, with all due respect, that you are not getting the right advice from people with skin in the game. That is why people like those mayors I have mentioned—and I am sure there are others in the Northern Territory and Western Australia who I don't know as well as this group of Queensland mayors—could really, really make a difference to closing the gap. If I can achieve anything in the next few years, it will be to convince governments everywhere that these are the sorts of people who they should be taking advice from, not from southern politicians, bureaucrats and academics—well-meaning all—from far away, people who really do not have skin in the game.

5:05 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I commence my remarks, can I pay particular respect this afternoon to the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people. I pay particular respect to my colleague in this chamber, the first Indigenous woman in the Senate, Senator Nova Peris. Can I hazard a guess that, on reflection of the speeches today, the truth and the passion of Senator Peris's articulation of the plight that faces our first peoples at this time will be something that people will put down as a marker in this nation's history around truth-telling with regard to the oppression that continues of the first peoples of this nation.

Senator Peris made some very powerful remarks, that there are very many unhappy people here today—unhappy people who are here on this annual occasion in which closing the gap is reported. They have a right to be unhappy, not just because of the ongoing situation in which they continue to find themselves but because of the regression that has been the marker of this particular year's report. As Senator Peris said so clearly, and as has been echoed in most of the speeches today by members of this place and the other place, on both sides of the chambers, today we say that we are not on track to closing the life expectancy gap

That is a fact. We cannot turn away from that reality. As Senator Peris said, there has been a lot of articulation about understanding of the problem, but she questioned the amount of action to change it.

I have noticed that, in the many comments that have been made in this debate, there has been some faux outrage over a loss of bipartisanship on this day. But we cannot allow bipartisanship to become the silencer of fulsome and honest communication. Bipartisanship should not be a cloak for inaction and a pathway for platitudes. So it is very important that we hear what has been said here this afternoon. We continue to hear the rhetoric about consultation. But the fact that we are talking in circles must become apparent to us at some point today. Senator Peris talked about the 25 service providers in the Northern Territory, of which not one is an Indigenous group. She talked of oppressed citizens. Yet the outrage here—fake outrage—is about the loss of bipartisanship in the discourse! We are talking about people, the first people of our nation, and how they have been abandoned. That is on the record today, and the regression in our efforts to close the gap.

The main messages from the Close the Gap report are devastatingly bad. The only good thing we can say is that life expectancy has improved very slightly over the past year. Outcomes fell short of the early childhood target. No headway has been made in halving the reading and numeracy gap for Indigenous students. We looked for any signs of hope. There is a small indication of progress in halving the gap for Indigenous employment. We do have some students staying on to year 12. Also, infant mortality rates continue to decline, and that record has been steadily improving.

But all of the people who have experienced these small improvements are caught up in our health system. The government's priorities as articulated—to improve education and employment and to provide safe communities—are not much use if the community is unhealthy, so I really want to address my remarks to the health of the Indigenous community. It is such a vital aspect of a community. Health should and must be the most urgent priority in the Close the Gap campaign if the gap is to be closed. If you are not healthy, you cannot work. If you are not healthy, you cannot go to school. If you are not healthy, it is difficult to look after your family and their health will then suffer. The circle of disadvantage is expanded again and again.

The elephant in the room is that Indigenous people are still dying today from treatable, preventable illnesses due to the lack of detection of these conditions in their early stages. That is why the life expectancy gap continues to be as enormous as it is. The best way for us to interrupt that and detect these chronic diseases earlier is by providing access to a good primary health system. That way, all the various blood tests are readily available for things like cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels. The best form of prevention that we can get for our Indigenous people is regular check-ups.

We know that the best form of primary health care, the one that is most focused on issues that are endemic in Aboriginal communities, is carried out by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health services. In that context. cuts to their budgets have a powerful impact on the Aboriginal community, because they affect the provision of primary care. Any imposition of a GP tax—which, we have been hearing over and over, is the intention of this government—would be a cost hurdle in the way of primary health care for all Australians but would be particularly devastating for Indigenous Australians, with impacts flowing on to the disease rate and the death toll, while employment and literacy rates will all stagnate and fall away.

The issue of health must become a greater priority of the Close the Gap campaign. It is vital that the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan, which was set out in 2013 by Warren Snowdon in partnership with Aboriginal people, is carried out. This plan is regarded not only as a progressive and comprehensive plan for Indigenous health in the future but also as a model for effective, inclusive partnership—in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The reality today, though, is that we have a government that has cut $500 million from essential services to Indigenous communities. You cannot cut money for such services from a community in such dire straits and not expect it to be a setback on the path to trying to close the gap. Right now, a range of key organisations that support and work within the community do not know whether their funding is going to continue or be withdrawn. As Senator Peris said, and she has a right to express it in these words:

It upsets me—

and it should upset every single one of us, to the point where we are quivering with despair—

that Aboriginal people are coming to this house begging for money to drive programs in their community.

And these are programs that have proven to be successful. That is what is going on this building today. Indigenous people who know the answers to the problems, Indigenous people who have set up and run very successful programs, are at risk of having those programs collapse in a matter of weeks. This government pretends that consultation is its first order of business, but its Prime Minister is now renowned for the absence of a capacity to consult. Preventative health programs are helping. They help tackle smoking and substance abuse in all communities, but they matter particularly in Indigenous communities. Cuts of $165 million to the Aboriginal health budget are going to smash those essential initiatives.

In the Leader of the Opposition's response to the Close the Gap report today, he raised the issue of justice, which I know Senator Milne also spoke about and I know is of great interest to Senator Peris. It is something that has been missing from the Close the Gap reports to date, and the call today for a justice target has echoed, I think, around this chamber and, I hope, around the country. Three in 100 Australians are Aboriginal, but 25 in 100 prisoners in Australian jails are Aboriginal—25 in 100. There is something wrong with those numbers. We should be ashamed that we have allowed that to be. We spend nearly $800 million on the imprisonment of Indigenous Australians. But it is not just the dollar cost. What is the cost—the human cost, the community cost? It is a tragedy that we are participating in allowing it to continue.

Half of the young Australians in juvenile detention—50 per cent—are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth who are, as we heard from Senator Milne, in Mick Gooda's words, better at staying in jail than they are at staying at school. This is a tragedy of monumental proportion. And it is so important that we have this day to discuss these issues. (Time expired)

5:15 pm

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Palmer United Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Abbott government is worsening Indigenous disadvantage in this country. Despite all the flowery words delivered by Prime Minister Abbott this morning regarding Closing the Gap, the reality is that the Abbott government has cut funding to Indigenous programs, initiatives and events across the country without regard for the impact, consequences and harm caused to our country's first Australians.

Let me cite an example from my home state of Queensland. The Arthur Beetson Foundation Murri Carnival is an annual event which is fully endorsed by the Queensland Rugby League and is the only indigenous Rugby League carnival in Queensland to be accredited by the games' governing body. The carnival is a Rugby League competition for Indigenous men, women and 15-year-old boys representing Indigenous communities from across rural, urban and remote Queensland. Funded by the federal Department of Health through its Tackling Indigenous Smoking and Healthy Lifestyle Program since 2011 at a cost of $160,000 per year, the carnival is a smoke-, alcohol- and sugar-free event which requires all players and officials to complete a preventive health assessment at local Aboriginal Medical Services or participating private-public primary care services. Mandatory checks are important for the competition as they ensure that players receive a comprehensive assessment of their health prior to taking the field. The checks also encourage better health-seeking behaviour within first Australian communities more broadly.

With preventable chronic disease the largest contributor to the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the competition is helping to improve first Australian communities to take responsibility for their own health, resulting in the overall improvement of Indigenous health generally. The carnival is held in September each year and is televised live on National Indigenous Television. In fact, it is one of the highest-rating telecasts on the NITV channel. The carnival is one of Queensland's largest in the Rugby League community and is considered to be the flagship for Indigenous sporting competitions across the country. Over the last three years, this competition has seen the completion of over 8,000 health checks delivered to Indigenous players and officials; enjoyed the participation of some 5,000 Indigenous players from 207 teams from across Queensland; witnessed a significant increase in school attendance for Indigenous boys; supported the placement of over 30 Indigenous trainees with the Australian Federal Police; been attended by over 100,000 spectators, all of whom have been exposed to the good health messages; had over 2,000 spectators participate in health education and screening at this event; witnessed a significant increase in enrolment of first Australians on the Australian electoral roll; and supported 15 Indigenous boys being placed on fully funded scholarships with Ipswich Grammar and Nudgee college.

Despite the outstanding outcomes being achieved by the annual Arthur Beetson Foundation Murri Carnival—and the persistent approaches by the management of the Arthur Beetson Foundation to the Abbott government for continued funding—the Abbott government, I am sad to say, has failed to commit to further funding for this carnival. As a result, the carnival will be cancelled this year and will not be held again. The funding equates to $160,000 a year. The Abbott government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars—in fact, millions of dollars—trying to sell higher education cuts, even though the people of Australia have already said no. My message to the Abbott Government is this. Give back the money you spent on the higher education propaganda advertising campaign—without a mandate—with interest, and put the money into the Arthur Beetson Foundation Murri Rugby League Carnival. Start doing something good for this nation instead of cutting, slashing and burning everything that moves. This will help close the gap, and, importantly, it will help our first Australians, the people of Queensland and all Australians.

So, I call on—in fact, I am begging—Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Minister for Health and Sport, Sussan Ley, because I know how important this carnival is to so many Indigenous Queenslanders and Australians, to immediately, with haste, commit to a new equivalent or improved funding arrangement for the carnival this year and for future years.

5:21 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

I know that in this place we begin every morning with an acknowledgement of country—an initiative that we are proud of and that we will continue—but I feel that at the beginning of this contribution I would like to make a personal acknowledgement of the traditional owners of our land, particularly as we are talking about such an important element: closing the gap. Senator Lazarus, I am a huge fan of that carnival. I was unaware that its funding was not secure, and I think that we can share in working towards securing funding. We cannot lose that event and all that feeds out of it.

This morning we heard the Closing the Gap program being introduced again, with the presentation of the seventh annual report. The Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, which has been working since 2006 in this area, puts out its own report, which Senator Siewert tabled earlier. At the conclusion of their shadow report, which I think is essential reading in terms of looking at engagement with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in our nation, they say that the report that they have prepared:

… affirms the need to stay the course with the Closing the Gap Strategy and to be patient for improvements sought to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and life expectancy—progress which many indicators suggest will be seen in time.

I endorse so much that is in this report and I know there is a need to stay the course, but I am not sure whether I share the concept of patience in trying to ensure that we get greater results against the initiatives that were clearly identified seven years ago—issues that were brought forward to this place and throughout the community; issues that need to be addressed to ensure that we can genuinely have an Australian community which is equal. This morning, in the Leader of the Opposition's speech in the other place, he said that a true community shows equality and that we must have that.

I am not sure whether patience, in this case, is such a virtue. I know that we need to have commitment. I know that the bringing down of this report is an opportunity for all of us to review what has occurred, to look back and, in particular, to pay credit to so many people who have worked so hard in this area for generations. It is an opportunity to acknowledge their contributions but also to take a serious and—I think—a critical strategic look at what has been achieved. The news is not good. Of course we need to celebrate where there have been some advances. We see advances in the area of halving the gap of life expectancy. There has been a very small increase there. We need to acknowledge it; we need to celebrate it. But we also need to understand that, continuing at the same rate, we will not meet the goal, which was set seven years ago, to halve that gap. But I think that we have to acknowledge that something has been done.

We also looked very clearly at halving the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 in year 12 attainment or equivalent. That is an area where the education programs—over years, and working effectively with states and territories—have led to a more positive result. But on so many of the other areas we are not on track. So that must lead to the consideration of what we should do and what we could do differently. In that sense, the government has support to look at ways to change the way that we operate, but that support needs to be endorsed by the wider community and, in particular, by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. We cannot impose policy or implement policy which is not accepted by those whom it is intended to serve.

In my short contribution today I want to talk about two things that I think need to be added to the considerations in looking at closing the gap. One of these has been mentioned by many speakers, and that is around the call to include a justice target in our Closing the Gap strategy. This has been talked about for many, many years. At the end of last year, my friend Mick Gooda, who is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, made a formal call to the government to look at including a special justice goal in the Closing the Gap strategy, because of the horrors of the inequitable involvement of people who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in our corrections system.

The statistics are extraordinarily confronting. We have heard them in previous contributions. The Productivity Commission released figures in November last year indicating a 57 per cent rise in incarceration rates amongst Indigenous men, women and children over the previous 15 years. That statistic alone demands action from governments across this country. There is no way that a statistic showing a 57 per cent increase in jailing rates in the juvenile justice system and in the open justice system should be considered to be acceptable in our community—and it is not. No-one accepts that particular finding.

The important thing is that we have the opportunity to make change. We know that there are projects that have been put in place all over the country—relatively small projects which have identified a need at a local level and looked at what can actually be implemented cooperatively to ensure that there are other options than incarceration and that there is identification of what causes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to end up through the court system and then—at such a significantly higher rate than the mainstream community in Australia—end up with jail sentences, which tend to then lead to a sequence of being in and out of prison with no chance to build better lives. There are all kinds of reasons that have been clearly identified—education opportunities, health opportunities, employment opportunities—all of which are in the Closing the Gap strategy. So actually implementing a particular justice goal in our closing the gap process is not such a big stretch, because the need and the engagement are already in place across the country.

Mr Gooda made a quite straightforward recommendation that we revise the current targets in closing the gap to include holistic justice targets aimed at promoting safer communities. We also suggest that the Australian government consult and work with the National Justice Coalition, which has been so active in this area and shows examples of where local community work has led to a change. We also suggest that the Australian government take a leadership role on justice reinvestment and work with the states, territories, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to identify further trial sites along the way that has been led by the National Justice Coalition.

I think we have the opportunity to make the Close the gap report a dynamic document that responds to the needs of the community and is not set on something that was determined seven years ago. I think there is an opportunity today, when we are looking at the Closing the Gap program, to say that there should be a justice strategy implemented that can be agreed on across whatever will take the place of COAG.

The other thing I want to throw in is the issue of mental health. This particular report actually calls for the development of a national strategy specifically looking at mental health in Aboriginal and islander communities. Again, confronting and horrific statistics show that the impact of mental illness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has a stronger impact in terms of non-diagnosis, effective treatment and also the ongoing issues around substance abuse and violence, which all coalesce to ensure that the community is not receiving equitable services and that we cannot say that we are closing any gap around making our society better and more equal.

I commend the committee that actually put together the progress and priority report. I again say I am not sure whether I can share their call for patience to ensure that we can make more progress, but I can say that I commit with them to staying the course so that, when we have the eighth report next year, hopefully we will see more progress.

5:31 pm

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to add my remarks on the Close the gap: progress and priorities report 2014 too, and I want to start by saying that I feel proud and privileged to live in a continent where the first peoples have one of the longest continuous human cultures on this earth.

All senators in this place, as leaders in this country, have a shared responsibility to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage in a real and meaningful way. If we fail, we must share that shame. While some progress has been made, it is clear that there are still significant and distressing differences in health, education, employment and social outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. Given that reality, this government's funding cuts to a broad range of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander services and organisations are baffling and, more than that, seriously damaging. If we are all committed to closing the gap, we should be able to agree that taking huge amounts of funding—over $500 million—out of the sector is not only illogical but unconscionable. Add to this the fact that this is being done in a way that has left many in a state of continuing uncertainty and anxiety about the programs they are to administer, the jobs that are available and when the certainty will be clarified, and I have to say: don't judge us by what we say; judge us by what we do.

I also say that, despite protestations of some who would say it is not polite to name these realities or get too angry about this, when we are talking about these matters which are indeed a matter of life and death, the time for politeness is over, and I think it is really important that we actually say: look at what is happening and let us actually act and not just speak.

As the Greens spokesperson for mental health, I am glad to have the opportunity to speak about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health specifically and I am heartened to see that addressing mental health and suicide prevention has been included in the Close the gap report as a new priority focus. Poor mental health has huge costs—human, social and economic—for the whole nation. The levels of mental ill health and suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are absolutely distressing. The statistics tell us that and the stories tell us that. The grieving grandparents, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers tell us that their young people are losing hope and ending their own lives before their lives have really begun. Some even speak of a contagion effect or suicide clusters in particular communities, which broadens the ripple of grief and has a devastating and enduring impact on the lives of so many people. As the Close the gap report states, mental health problems, including self-harm and suicide, have been reported at double the rate of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for at least a decade. Over the two years from July 2008 to July 2010, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males were hospitalised for mental health related conditions at more than twice the rate of non-Indigenous males. Over the decade from 2001 to 2010, the overall Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rate was twice that of non-Indigenous Australians.

While travelling in rural Australia to consult about mental health, I spoke to people about particular challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health, and those I met with talked about the importance of culturally appropriate care and the desirability of growing their own mental health workers—that is, training and skilling people from their own communities to work in mental health, because they are more likely to understand the needs and experiences of their clients and to stay and provide continuity for clients and service providers. I also heard that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers are instrumental in breaking down barriers and developing community acceptance of non-Indigenous mental health professionals. We need so many more of them, and that will require skilling, training and supporting those people in communities. There is so much that can be done, particularly in rural areas, to start addressing the mental health crisis among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The funding uncertainty plaguing the mental health sector at the moment is also deeply troubling and something that is directly within the government's control. Releasing the National Mental Health Commission's Review of mental health programmes and servicesreport must be a priority, as must subsequently consulting respectfully and fully with the mental health sector and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health sector in particular about the recommendations of this report. Instead of using the review to justify cuts to critical mental health services as this government has done across other policy areas, they must be willing to canvass more funding within a system that enhances mental health and wellbeing rather than only reacting—and inadequately—to manifestations of mental ill health.

One important aspect of this is to acknowledge the trauma and intergenerational trauma that underpins patterns of mental ill health that we are seeing today. Dispossession and stolen children—so many wrongs lie beneath the surface and they must be acknowledged and addressed if we are to have real change.

In a different policy area I note that incarceration rates—and this has been discussed by many other contributors today—are soaring. Yet the government has cut legal aid to Aboriginal legal services and family violence prevention legal services. My questions at estimates have revealed $42 million will be cut from Indigenous legal aid, yet there has been no modelling by the government as to the likely and logical consequences of this in terms of incarceration rates. I welcome recommendation 8 of the report, which recommends that Closing the Gap targets to reduce imprisonment and violence rates be developed and activity toward reaching the targets be funded through justice reinvestment measures. The need for justice targets—to name the size of the problem, to track it and to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison in Australia—is long overdue. Along with many others, the Australian Greens have advocated for both justice targets and justice reinvestment—investing in communities to reduce crime rather than investing in prisons—for many years. Earlier this year Indigenous Affairs Minister Scullion backflipped on justice targets, even as the Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage report revealed a horrifying 57 per cent jump in imprisonment rates for Indigenous Australians.

We cannot truly close the gap anywhere without confronting this issue head on. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians make up only 2.3 per cent of the adult population in Australia but make up more than a quarter of the adult prison population. The statistics for Aboriginal young people are even more shocking, and now the imprisonment of Aboriginal women is rising. The establishment of national justice targets will provide a clear framework for all governments to work with Indigenous communities. It will ensure Indigenous incarceration is not swept under the rug and it will force our governments, and us, to be accountable. I urge the federal government to adopt this recommendation without delay.

I would like to finish by acknowledging the strength and agency of this nation's first peoples. I do not profess to stand here and pretend to have all of the solutions. In so many ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities are leading and showing the way, taking charge of their lives and communities. They know what they want and they know what they need. I think of the Aboriginal women of Fitzroy Crossing who have done so much to protect their children and culture by addressing the pervasive alcohol abuse in their community. Indigenous leader June Oscar has spoken of the tsunami of funerals which prompted their response—50 alcohol related deaths in a year and 13 suicides in as many months. By restricting alcohol and raising awareness about the risks of alcohol consumption, the women achieved a 45 per cent reduction in hospital admissions, a 27 per cent reduction in alcohol related violence, a 14 per cent increase in school attendance and 88 per cent reduction in takeaway alcohol sales. In South Australia, the Aboriginal women elders known affectionately but respectfully as 'the Grannies Group' visit young men and women in prison, offering them support, connection and humanity. And in their strong, proud and persistent way they are changing the culture of the prisons they visit, both for the prisoners and the custodians.

Community responses are powerful and effective. They must inform and be an integral part of closing these shameful gaps in Australia's social fabric.

5:40 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the Ngambri and Ngunawal peoples, the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and I pay my respects to elders past and present and any elders in the Senate today. It is with great sadness that I rise today to acknowledge that we, as a nation, have failed to close the gap. Even where we have made gains, these gains have been very small. I note, too, that we continue to ignore justice. Without justice as a measure, it is hard to truly improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This must be addressed.

I acknowledge the heartfelt speech given by Senator Peris today, and I think we would be wise to listen to her and enact some of the points she made. In speaking today I acknowledge my Gidja granddaughter. I, as a white grandmother, want the best for her; but I know that as a young Aboriginal child the outcomes for her are lesser than they are from my grandson who is non-Indigenous. Within my family I struggle to understand why the colour of her skin means that her outcomes are much lower. That is completely unacceptable. Of course, as my granddaughter, I love her to bits and I want the very best for her—but I know the odds are stacked against her.

As a West Australian I continue to be saddened by what is happening in my state. I say again: we have to have justice. Justice must be a measure. We have the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the country in Western Australia, and they continue to get higher. Deaths in custody are a tragedy in Western Australia and I have spoken in this parliament on two occasions about the tragic death in custody of Miss Dhu.

About eight weeks ago I attended an Aboriginal deaths-in-custody meeting on a Saturday afternoon. There were mainly Noongar people there—southwest people. Every person in the room—every single Noongar person—had a death: an unusual death, a harsh death or a suicide. All were related to justice. I could not help but note the fact that if that had been gathering of non-Aboriginal people it would have been a very different gathering. The sorrow in that room was overwhelming. I was determined as I left that meeting. You could easily get caught up in that sorrow and be completely ineffective, so we need to be warriors as parliamentarians—warriors along with the leaders of the Aboriginal community.

The time for listening and consultation is long gone. The time now is for action. In this place, a couple of months back, we heard about the homeland communities. Yes, they have their troubles; but there are less suicides on homeland communities in Western Australia than in non-homeland communities. But they are to be defunded and the premier of our state just announced, without any consultation, that they would be closed. This would be a tragedy. Many of them have microbusinesses operating on them and to just close them, because that is the easiest thing to do, would again be a great injustice to Aboriginal people in those communities.

In Western Australia towards the end of last year we had an 11-year-old Yamatji boy commit suicide. Imagine if he had been a white child. There would have been immediate action—and yet nothing has been said; nothing has been done. I cannot imagine the tragedy of finding an 11-year-old who has suicided.

In the Kimberley we continue—every single week—to have suicides. The highest rate of suicide in the world now occurs in the Kimberley. You only have to visit the Kimberley and move beyond Broome to see the abject poverty and disadvantage, to see many Aboriginal people living in towns but not employed in the local supermarkets, not employed in the tourist destinations. They are left to sit under trees or work for Aboriginal organisations.

We had a Kimberley elder, about four weeks, ago commit suicide. He was a person held in high regard in the Kimberley. He was so depressed and lacking in hope that he simply took his own life. There is much for us to do. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has said we have to move forward, but the time for talking is done. It is now time for action.

5:46 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, past and present. Why are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies dying at a rate greater than non-Indigenous Australians? Why are not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living for as long as non-Indigenous Australians?

On 13 February 2008, seven years ago, then Prime Minister Rudd said:

This new partnership on closing the gap will set concrete targets for the future: within a decade to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for Indigenous children, within a decade to halve the appalling gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and, within a generation, to close the equally appalling 17-year life gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous when it comes to overall life expectancy.

In another seven years, will a future Australian Prime Minister deliver a speech which contains words that hold the same meaning? I would like to say, 'No', but the sad reality is that if a drastically different approach is not taken by Australian politicians to solving the problem of the disadvantage gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians then it is likely that a Prime Minister of Australia in 2021 will be talking about closing the gap with the same sense of helplessness, frustration and anger that many caring Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, feel today.

I offer to this chamber a different approach to closing the gap between the first people of Australia and those who have joined them from all over the world. This parliament that we serve in can be overwhelming if you let it, because of its size and grandeur. This Senate can intimidate and frighten, with its complicated rules and procedures. However, stripped away to its bare essentials, this is a place where we make decisions on how to share Australia's national wealth and prosperity with its people, through argument and debate.

Put simply, we sit at our nation's table, have a conversation and carve up a pie. That is putting it quite simply. We decide how much of the pie each Australian receives and how it is going to be eaten. How can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians ever have a chance of receiving a fair share of the pie and determining how it is eaten if they do not have a permanent voice at our nation's table?

My message today is simple: if you want Australia's first people to have a fair share of our national wealth and a proper say in how it is spent, every piece of legislation that passes through this parliament must be scrutinised and spoken to from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander point of view. It is as simple as that. This democratic objective can be achieved in a number of ways. We could establish parliamentary committees that review all legislation and ask these questions: (1)    Will this be good or bad for First Australians?; (2) How can we improve this legislation to help indigenous people?

The other way to guarantee that every piece of Australia's national wealth wrapped up in documents we consider in this Senate is spoken to by an Indigenous voice is to establish dedicated Indigenous seats in this parliament. This is not a new concept. A number of progressive countries have established dedicated Indigenous seats in parliament. Our brothers and sisters across the ditch, in New Zealand, established dedicated Maori seats in 1867. Importantly, the gap in the mortality rate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in countries that have dedicated Indigenous seats is lower than Australia's gap. It is much lower.

An International Health and Human Rights research article in 2007—which examined the Human Development Index of Indigenous people in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States—showed that Australia was the worst performing country. We should be ashamed of ourselves for that. We were the only country that did not have dedicated Indigenous seats. The study confirmed that the gap between Maori disadvantage/mortality of 8.5 years, and closing, is not as large as Australia's first people of 23.2 years, and widening.

If two or three per cent of Australia's population is Indigenous, then I cannot see any good reason—and there is not one—why two or three per cent of our seats in parliament cannot be dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander seats. This one change—dedicated Indigenous seats—while not a silver bullet, if international experience is to be valued and respected, will do more to close the gap than any other symbolic or practical measure that has been previously put before the Australian people. I will never understand in this nation why we see other nations doing so much better. It is such a simple procedure, but we refuse to follow it. We refuse to even debate on it, and we refuse to talk about it. And that is half the problem in this Senate chamber. We keep going over old ground, and we keep using old material. It is time to look forward to the future, and it is time to do things very differently in this chamber. Until we start doing so nothing will change. The Indigenous issues will never get better and the gaps will continue to widen. I ask the people in this chamber, for once in their lives, to have a good look around the world and see how others are doing it and how their performance is standing up against ours, because ours is bloody dismal. Our performance with Indigenous people and how we treat them is dismal. That is all I am asking for. Have a look at it; bring it in. I want it debated. I want it looked at.

Question agreed to.