Senate debates

Thursday, 14 February 2019


Closing the Gap; Consideration

4:31 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 move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate 10 minutes to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

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

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I would like to pay my respect to their elders past, present and future. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many local Aboriginal elders who I have got to know during this role—Tyrone and Wally Bell, Matilda House, Paul House, Tina Brown—who take on the role of welcoming us to their country. I have learnt so much from you and I thank you for your generosity in welcoming us to your land. I want to acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have welcomed me onto their country and into their communities and families. I have been privileged to serve in the past five years as Minister for Indigenous Affairs. I would like to acknowledge Senators Dodson and McCarthy. I acknowledge your leadership, both as senators and as Aboriginal people. We may not agree on a range of matters, but I certainly value the contribution you make and I do listen closely.

I am pleased that the annual Closing the Gap report brings Indigenous affairs to the forefront of our parliament. It is an opportunity to highlight the issues Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have told me matter to them most—getting a job, getting kids to school and keeping communities safe. Unfortunately, many in our nation will limit their discussion to a snapshot of progress, or lack thereof, against the targets—an assessment of failure in Indigenous Australia. But, as Roy Ah-See, Chair of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, said, 'We need to move from a deficit discussion to one that acknowledges where more work is needed but celebrates the outstanding contribution Indigenous people make and the success of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders in every community.'

I for one would like to stand here and declare that all of the targets are on track, and to stand before the chamber and declare there is no longer a gap between outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. However, these are long-term intergenerational issues and, as such, change will take time. The Prime Minister's statement this morning outlined that only two of the seven targets are on track—that we are on track in early childhood enrolment and high-school completion. If you take a closer look at the targets you can see these are areas where the Commonwealth had a direct leaver to change. We made getting children enrolled in early-childhood education a key focus across the Indigenous enhancement strategy. We provide direct funding to organisations that provide scholarships, mentoring and support for Indigenous students to get to school and stay in school, like the Australian Indigenous Australian Foundation, the Clontarf Foundation, the Stars Foundation, Role Models and Leaders Australia, the Bronco Academy—who I met with today—and AFL House.

It was so exciting to work with the Prime Minister and the member for Warringah to secure a historic $200 million Indigenous youth education package that will secure the future of the next generation of Indigenous Australians. In addition, we've announced today that we will waive the HELP debt for teachers who work—and, importantly, stay working—in very remote Indigenous communities for four years. This is important because, as we know, building relationships and working together takes time. It's no good having a teacher fly in for six months and then leave. It's absolutely essential to build trust and relationships in community to deliver change.

We've extended the Indigenous Procurement Policy to boost the Indigenous business sector even further. Through the Indigenous Procurement Policy we've supercharged growth in the Indigenous business sector. Since its establishment in 2015, Indigenous businesses have delivered 11,933 contracts worth over $1.83 billion—not a bad hop and a leap from $6.2 million in 2013. It's proof of what happens when we get the targets right. From 1 July 2019, part 2 of the Indigenous procurement process will introduce a target of three per cent of the value of the Commonwealth contracts to be awarded to Indigenous businesses within a decade. This is adding to the existing IPP target of three per cent of the number of Commonwealth contracts going to Indigenous businesses.

What I am pleased about and what I want to share with the chamber is that we are seeing change. We are seeing positive signs of success on the ground in many areas. More children are getting the benefits of an early education. More mums are accessing antenatal care, not smoking during pregnancy and getting their children immunised. More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living longer. More Indigenous people are in work, and, especially, more women are employed. More Indigenous people have year 12 qualifications.

To lose hope based solely on the achievement of targets fails to recognise all of the achievements of the hardworking leaders in communities across Australia. Djambawa Marawili and the Baniyala traditional owners—I think Djambawa is in the chamber today; I recognise you, wala—have established a corporation to take on, for the first time ever, the responsibilities of a delegation of land council functions. Andrea Mason, who is also in the gallery today, has worked tirelessly to improve health and wellbeing and to tackle the tough issues like domestic violence in the NPY lands.

I ask that you remember to listen to the voice and wisdom of elders like these. It is in working together in genuine partnership that success is possible. We as members of parliament, as policymakers here in Canberra, must genuinely listen to communities about what works and partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When we get it right, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are empowered to take charge of their own destinies, we see enormous success. So listen to the 1,473 Indigenous businesses that have grown and seized opportunity under the IPP. Listen to the 60 per cent of Indigenous organisations tackling some of the most difficult social issues under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. Listen to the empowered community leaders who are leading the way on working together with government to drive change on local community priorities. Listen to the traditional owner groups who have worked hard to have 220,000-odd hectares of Aboriginal land handed back in the Northern Territory since 2013.

When we work together success is possible. We hear stories of local achievements. Fishermen in Nardilmuk in the Northern Territory are working together to turn their tradition and hobby into a thriving business across the territory. The Nantawarrina rangers are removing and selling 9,000 feral goats from their country in South Australia. Young shearers are going to the Merriman Shearing School in Brewarrina in New South Wales. It's clear from these examples that when we support the economic prosperity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people there is a whole-of-community benefit.

From next month we will begin reforms on the Community Development Program, which has already supported remote jobseekers into almost 30,000 jobs. I have listened to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations which support the CDP. Just to name a few of them: the Northern Land Council; Arnhem Land Progress Association; Winun Ngari from the Kimberley; Rainbow Gateway from Queensland; New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, which has 23,000 members; Koonibba Aboriginal Corporation; and Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation—the list goes on and on. We are giving the communities greater control over CDP and shifting the focus to flexible, locally led support for jobseekers.

We are listening to people in remote communities and doing what they want, not what special interest units want. This is the difference between words and actions. We have seen huge advances in Indigenous control over land, which provides a strong foundation for building economic activity and intergenerational wealth. Native title has now been determined to exist over around 37 per cent of Australia's land mass. There are nine Northern Territory communities now with township leases, and I am really excited to see even more progress on township leasing, with communities like Gunyangara now holding township leases over their own community with their own leases. I listened to my good friend Galarrwuy Yunupingu some five years ago. We were sitting under the tamarind tree out there at Ski Beach. I heard his call to control his land. This is the difference between words and action.

In school attendances, as a parent I have said time and time again that a good education provides the best start in life. Getting kids to school in remote communities is an intrinsic but not an intractable problem. I am proud of what we have been able to do on remote school attendance. When we came to government I couldn't stand here and tell you the extent of the problem. The data simply didn't exist. We didn't measure students by indigeneity. I was told that school attendance is primarily a function of state governments, but what I have seen and heard was that getting kids to school out in communities was a huge challenge. It was something that needed to be done. The parents wanted their children to get an education. That's why we have made this a national priority. We have persisted with state governments. We have built a workforce, with unrelenting shifting social norms. This change is going to take time, but I believe it is one of critical importance. It is a generation of kids that go to school, then send their own children the school. We have got to continue to shift the dial on this. I know my colleague the member for Warringah has been very impressed by the passion and persistence of these workers as he visits the remote schools across Australia as a special envoy on Indigenous Affairs.

These are the sorts of community led solutions I have been lucky to watch grow over my time as minister. But I have also seen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities go through heartbreakingly tough challenges, challenges driven by entrenched problems, problems for which there is no silver bullet. I am proud to have been able to support communities in tackling these issues, like the National Indigenous Critical Response Service, supporting families and communities after tragedies like suicide; like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, which provide support through the custody notification service for Indigenous people taken into police custody; like the services providing therapeutic, trauma informed care to survivors of family violence to help keep them and their families safe; like the dedicated through-care workers, who work with prisoners to turn their lives around and stop offending.

I am deeply passionate about these issues and the work we have done to address them. I entrust the next generation of leaders with the task of keeping this work to tackle these difficult issues going. We need more Indigenous leaders to continue to challenge the behaviours and norms in their own communities which lead to poor outcomes. When we have brave leaders like Noel Pearson, Jacinta Price and June Oscar, we need to back them in. We need to see more existing and emerging leaders stand up and have a say, to join the coalition of peaks in working with government on the next decade of reform through Closing the Gap Refresh; to get the targets right; to put words into action.

My five years as Minister for Indigenous Affairs have been challenging. They have been more rewarding than I could have hoped. Do I wish we had seen faster progress? Of course I do, but meeting, working and speaking with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from all walks of life has reminded me time and time again of the tremendous wisdom and resilience of Aboriginal communities, families and individuals. I want to head bush and leave the mob with a clear message: the future is in your hands; keep fighting for it. To paraphrase the Prime Minister's striking and determined words this morning, there is nothing we can't do when we work together. I can't wait to see the bright potential of Australia's next chapter, the chapter of our First Australians, unfold.

4:44 pm

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

I acknowledge the contribution of the minister on this Closing the Gap debate. This parliament meets on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and we pay our respects to their elders past and present. We recognise and honour the culture and heritage of all our First Nations. We mourn the indignity and suffering that First Nations peoples have endured since the colonisation of this ancient land—the arrival of disease, the expulsion of people from their lands, the separation of children from parents, the loss of identity and the marginalisation of an entire culture. Recognition of these past wrongs is the essential first step for non-Indigenous Australia on our journey towards reconciliation.

Eleven years ago Prime Minister Rudd ensured we took a huge step on this journey when he rose in the House of Representatives to deliver the long-overdue apology to the stolen generations. In delivering that apology, he honestly and bluntly declared to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parties, 'I say sorry.' The apology to the stolen generations was a day of remembrance, a day of sadness and a day of reconciliation but, perhaps above all, a day of extraordinary nobility and of grace. I will always remember—and I remain profoundly moved and inspired by it—the grace that was shown by First Nations peoples on that day, who, despite all the hardship and indignity forced upon them, found it in their hearts to accept an apology offered by a government on behalf of those who had brought that suffering. In the spirit of our collective journey towards reconciliation and in the spirit of healing, our First Nations people rose above grievance and resentment and accepted sorrow.

But, recognising that sorrow is not enough. Prime Minister Rudd, with Jenny Macklin, instituted the Closing the Gap program to redress disadvantage and inequality through targeted action to tackle key areas of disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians. Ten years ago, on the first anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations, Prime Minister Rudd delivered the first Closing the gap report to the parliament. It wasn't a partisan report. It wasn't designed to ascribe blame or responsibility to a single government. It wasn't designed to ascribe blame or responsibility to a single level of government. Like the apology, it recognised that the plight of our first peoples is the result of 'the actions of successive governments under success parliaments'. The report was an attempt aimed at focusing our collective efforts to ensure that we do not continue to fail in the way that successive governments under successive parliaments have.

The Closing the gap report set seven targets and they were: to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018; to have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025; to close the gap in school attendance by 2018; to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018; to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020; to halve the gap in employment by 2018; and to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031. Actually, only two of these targets are truly about closing the gap—those on life expectancy and school attendance. The one on early education specifies a 95 per cent participation rate and the other three are soft targets—that is, to halve the gap rather than close it.

Last year, when I stood at this table, only three of the seven Closing the Gap targets were on track. They were those on child mortality rates, early education and year 12 attainment. This year, only two are on track—early education and year 12 attainment—and the target to halve the gap in child mortality has been revised as no longer being on track and we continue to fail to meet the remaining four. A decade ago this report made for sobering reading, and each year since governments of both political persuasions have tabled the report in this parliament to ensure that our collective attention is drawn to our progress towards the targets now set a decade ago and every year the report has continued to make for ever-more sobering reading. That fact is a responsibility for all of us. It is the responsibility of this parliament and it is a responsibility of all governments of all political persuasions and at all levels.

As I said, the indignity and hardship faced by Indigenous Australians is the responsibility of successive parliaments and governments, but I would say there is no doubt this task has been made unnecessarily harder by the coalition government's cuts of $500 million from Aboriginal programs. Today Mr Morrison suggested that the targets set a decade ago were too ambitious and that, instead, we need to 'strike the balance between ambition and what is achievable'. Well, I say it isn't our job to limit the ambition of Indigenous peoples and lower our targets simply so we can reclassify our own failures as achievements. It is clear that the Closing the Gap targets require updating. Four have expired. But we cannot and, indeed, must not lower our ambition, because we have a duty to truly close the gap. Australia cannot continue to accept that our First Nations people will die younger, lose more of their children, be less educated and receive poorer health care than their fellow Australians. We would not accept this for any other group of Australians and we certainly cannot accept it for our First Australians.

Our failure to achieve five of the seven targets requires greater, not lesser, ambition. Our failure also makes clear that a step change is needed in the way that all governments work with First Nations communities. It requires a step change in our efforts to progress our journey towards reconciliation. Achieving reconciliation with First Nations peoples and closing the gap requires us to empower. It requires us to facilitate self-determination and ensure that First Nations communities are at the table having a real say in the decisions that affect them. Labor does welcome the new partnership between the Commonwealth, the states and the coalition of Aboriginal peak bodies. It does represent an essential change in the way governments seek to address Closing the Gap targets and deliver services to First Nations communities. It is an important step in ensuring that our First Nations peoples are at the heart of policymaking and decision-making.

Working in partnership also requires that we listen, yet already this parliament has failed to accept the Statement from the Heart delivered at Uluru. Who are we to ignore the 1,200 delegates from 12 regional dialogues? Who are we to tell them we want to work in partnership but just not in the way they want? If we're truly to work in partnership, we must give First Nations peoples direct say in the decisions that affect their lives through a voice to the parliament. That is why enshrining a voice for First Australians will be Labor's first priority for constitutional change. We intend to hold a referendum on this question in our first term, as they have asked us to do. Our commitment is about recognising the importance of taking commitment to partnership seriously, about embedding in our nation's founding document the importance of self-determination for First Nations peoples. It is the step change our partnership needs. It is a step change that honours and takes forward the hope, courage and resilience that has been demonstrated through our history. The bark petitions at Yirrkala, the tent embassy, Clinton Pryor's walk for justice and Michael Long's a decade ago, the Gurindji walk-off at Wave Hill, the grand campaigners of 1967, the extraordinary victory against the odds of Eddie and Bonita Mabo and, of course, the apology—this is our history, this is their history, and together we can take it forward.

I also say that this is the same hope, courage and resilience that is demonstrated by those members of our First Nations communities who are in this parliament: the member for Barton; Mr Wyatt;, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy; and, of course, Senator Dodson. Their presence here demonstrates and reminds us again that we can walk forward. We learn from our history and we listen to our First Nations peoples. So, as we reflect on the 11th Closing the gap report, let us not lower our ambition. Let us instead redouble our efforts to work in partnership to close the gap and to continue our journey towards reconciliation.

4:53 pm

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

I too rise to make a contribution to this debate on the 11th Closing the gap report. I would first like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunawal-Ngambri people, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge that this land was never ceded, that sovereignty was never ceded and that we have a lot of unfinished business in this country.

This morning I was in the chamber to listen to the Prime Minister deliver the latest report on closing the gap, and I heard the distressing news that we had, in fact, gone backwards from last year—that this year we were only on track to meet two of our targets: early education enrolment and year 12 attainment. I'll come back to early childhood enrolment shortly. That means we're not meeting our targets on life expectancy. They're not on track. Child mortality has in fact gone backwards slightly. Last year we met that target. We're not meeting our target on school attendance. We're not meeting our targets on reading, writing and numeracy achievement or on employment outcomes.

I am going to be controversial here. I found a lot of the Prime Minister's speech this morning paternalistic and patronising. I felt very strongly lectured to about his new-found commitment to co-design and his understanding of co-design and of community control of Aboriginal decision-making and Aboriginal delivery of programs. Let's be honest here. We started a refreshed approach on the Closing the Gap targets. I clearly remember standing in this place—in fact, in the Mural Hall—and having Aboriginal people coming up to me and complaining about being excluded from the refreshed process. Let's face it: this government has been dragged kicking and screaming to the table for co-design. That is why the refreshed process has been delayed. I'll name it here. It has taken a long time for this government, despite the words that we hear, to actually commit to co-design. There had to be a great deal of lobbying to ensure that that happened. It was repeated and repeated.

If the government is so committed to co-design, why are we still seeing legislation before this parliament on the Community Development Program that does not adequately acknowledge the flaws of the program? The government brought that legislation to this place without presenting the review of the CDP. That review was released last week. The government's own report shows the flaws in that program and finally admits there is a cohort of people that have actually dropped out of the system—they are not in employment and they are not involved in the income support system. The program overwhelmingly penalises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The stats clearly show that Aboriginal people are being overwhelmingly targeted by that program. The cashless welfare card is another program that is not—as much as the government likes to say it is—a co-designed program, and there are many in the community that reject that card. There are many other programs where, if the government is committed to co-design—and I hear that it is now committed—it will take a new approach.

I was extremely disappointed that I didn't hear this morning a commitment by the government to the Uluru Statement from the Heart that is so overwhelmingly supported by First Nations peoples and that is gaining more and more support in the broader community. I argue very strongly that it was a more participatory process than has been undertaken for any of the programs that are being delivered in this country for First Nations peoples—and it was very clearly and strongly delivered. I didn't hear a commitment to that. I didn't hear a commitment to an Indigenous voice to parliament. I'll commit here that the Greens will do everything that we can to ensure that there is a voice of First Nations peoples to this parliament. I heard very strongly what Senator Wong just said, and we will also commit to making sure that Labor keep their word, because what I clearly heard when I was on the latest constitutional recognition committee was that people want a voice to the parliament. There is still discussion about what that should look like, but that is not irresolvable. There are lots of discussions going on—in fact, probably as we speak—about what the voice should look like and how to progress it.

I didn't hear a lot of discussion about the intergenerational trauma that we still need to address. I welcome a commitment to education and improving education, but you can't keep education separate from all the other things: a child goes to school in a context. If a child lives in an overcrowded house, or a house that's falling down around their ears, or if they can't get to sleep, or if they've got other vulnerabilities then just getting them to school is, in fact, not going to deliver an outcome. And they find it hard to get to school. If a child has poor health it cannot learn properly. So you can't take education out without fixing all these other things, and intergenerational trauma is one of those things that needs to be addressed. I didn't hear a commitment to that this morning. These are the things that we look for when we look to a commitment by government on those issues.

The government didn't commit to putting back in over half a billion dollars worth of funding that was taken out in 2014. That had a devastating impact on the ability of Aboriginal communities to deliver programs on the ground. I've heard very little about the Indigenous Advancement Strategy that is so detested in Aboriginal communities. These are the sorts of programs that are top-down, not co-designed, and arbitrary in their funding.

We have a long way to go in this country, but we can start a better relationship by getting a unanimous commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a unanimous commitment to implementing the voice and a unanimous commitment to truth telling—to establishing a process to enable the sort of regional truth telling that was articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Addressing issues around sovereignty and treaties is also key for this country to truly move forward. There are comments made around what I and many others call 'invasion day'—others who accept the definition of invasion day—about whether we need to change this nation, to change Australia. I genuinely believe that we need to change this nation in the way that we treat our First Nations peoples if we are going to genuinely and finally close the gap.

5:03 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise today to make some comments on the 11th anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations. The Prime Minister handed down his Closing the gap report. Eleven years is a long time, but I remember the time of the apology vividly: I was sitting up in the House with a mother who had been taken away from a community on the Trans-continental Railway line and sent to the infamous Roelands Mission in Western Australia.

Throughout Australia, First Nations peoples were using art, music, stories and songs to tell stories of First Nation's society and to share stories with non-Indigenous Australians. Musicians, led by people like Yothu Yindi and Archie Roach, were travelling around the country singing the songs of First Nations peoples. People were beginning to understand what Richard Flanagan meant when he said, 'What Black Australia offers to the nation is not guilt about our history but an invitation to our future.'

Everything that Aboriginal people, First Nations people, have done or benefited by has mainly been through their own efforts and their hard fight to achieve it. The largesse of governments is very seldom something that we experience. Through Prime Minister Rudd, some ten years after the Bringing them home report, the nation apologised to the thousands of Indigenous people who over many generations were stolen or forcibly removed from their families, their countries, their languages and their cultures. This historic process had been found to be genocidal by the late Sir Ronald Wilson, a former High Court judge and commissioner of the Bringing them home report. It reminds me of what Bill Stanner wrote when he said, 'The white man's got no dreaming. He goes another way.'

The movement for a better and more equal society led to the establishment of the Closing the Gap framework, the first national framework to tackle entrenched Indigenous disadvantage in our nation's history. The new framework was accompanied by record investment in Indigenous affairs. Eleven years have now passed. Today, after much delay and dysfunction, this Prime Minister handed down his Closing the Gap report. It was a poignant reminder of the failure of his national leadership and that of his predecessors Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull. Over the last few years commentary has rightly focused on the languishing Closing the Gap framework, with targets not being met and some targets expiring last year. It is clear that the thinking that informed the Closing the Gap strategy has unravelled. The soaring rhetoric here in the parliament has not resulted in changes on the ground.

Today I'd like to draw your attention to a key question: who actually closes the gap? In my travels around Western Australia I visit many Aboriginal community controlled organisations. Recently I drove to Fitzroy Crossing. I went to Marninwarntikura, the women's resource centre in the Fitzroy Valley. Marninwarntikura is a Walmajarri word. They call themselves 'women who belong in this region, these countries and each other have come together'. They are a team of competent, powerful, First Nations women, experts in the needs of their communities and the social and economic determinants that shape their lives. These women are not fly-in, fly-out workers. They know the families that face these challenges. They know the families that care for those struggling in their communities. They know the effects of the intergenerational trauma on their community. They know it too well. They know that an inconsistent, paternalistic government can only wreak havoc on their communities.

In my home town of Broome I see community workers daily putting in long hours to close the gap. I today offer them my respect. I respect the teachers at the Broome school, teaching Yawuru, my language. I respect the coaches on Friday night basketball at community centres. I respect the health workers of the Aboriginal medical services, running programs to support fathers and grandfathers to foster happy, loving relationships with their children and grandchildren. I respect the four-wheel-drive bus driver covering hundreds of kilometres on corrugated roads to make sure kids in remote communities get to schools. I call out to the mob at the Kullarri Patrol, ensuring First Nations people get home safely at night and off the streets; to the women of Nagula Jarndu, creating real jobs through textiles and design; to the housing workers at Marra Worra Worra, providing ground-up, community led housing services at Fitzroy Crossing; to the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, working tirelessly with elders and anthropologists to respect the remains from the eroded banks of the Fitzroy River and put them to rest. Most of these people are at the coalface. They very rarely come to Canberra. Who actually closes the gap? It's the people working at the grassroots, led by First Nations peoples, with a deep understanding and lived experience of the needs of their communities.

I acknowledge the strong and assertive work being done by peak bodies and representatives in dragging the government to a historical national partnership agreement. These peak representative bodies have a vital role to play assisting frontline organisations to deliver their services and collate national data. Their national leadership is essential and worthwhile. But there is a deeper challenge here, and that is to properly recognise that we can only close the gap in the communities of Australia if the communities of First Nations people have direct ownership, authority and control over the impact of their lives. Building self-determination and practice is going to come from empowering Aboriginal controlled organisations on the ground and making sure that they are resourced to service their communities. Self-determination is going to come from bureaucracies moving away from their entrenched institutional racism and starting to move towards respectful co-design processes with First Nation leaders to develop culturally and socially sound programs and policies.

After 11 years it is clear that we need to build and shift in the way we think about these issues. It is a paradigm shift that's required. Vision and leadership are required to understand it. When considering our pathway forward, we must remember that there was a time not long ago when every decision of every Indigenous person was determined by officialdom—which school you went to, which partner you could have, which child you could keep, which house you could live in, what time you had to be out of town and which boss you were indentured to. Through the long lens of history it is easy to understand why First Nations people are weary of centralised government decision-making. These policies and practices entrench our disadvantage and frustrate our hopes for jobs and economic development. The call for self-determination is not some new abstract concept. It's deeply informed by history. Our vision for the future must recognise this call and respond in kind. This is the simple reason why organisations like Marninwarntikura, the women's resource centre, work well. The answer is in their name, as I've said. These women belong to the region, their country and each other. They've come together to fix their communities.

The call for self-determination must not go unheard. It is unfinished business. Today's report shows that the Australian nation has made little or no progress. In fact, we've gone backwards on the number of targets that are on track.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Dodson, I'm so sorry. Your time has expired. I'd like to give you another 20 minutes. Is there agreement from the chamber?

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


Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Minister. Senator Dodson, please carry on.

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I've only got a few more—

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

You take as long as you like. You've got free rein.

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Don't give me that permission! In the years since the apology we've not managed to change the social, economic and political framework for First Nations people. I acknowledge what the minister has said about the progress that is being made and the work that he diligently tries to achieve. We just disagree on processes sometimes. It's fundamentally because the mainstream—and it's the bureaucratic functions—refuse to acknowledge that they are a major part of the problem. I accept and respect what Senator Siewert has said. If there is a collective of the parties of this parliament and if we commit to giving local communities and regions the power and authority they need to get the job done on closing the gap, then we will see progress. We must keep in our minds those who actually close the gap and give them the capacity to take it forward. We must empower those who directly service their communities and deliver the changes that will lead us together, across Australia, to bring economic, social and health indicators for First Nations peoples closer to the norms of the mainstream of Australia. Whilst we do that, we should always allow for the unique genius of the First Nations peoples to shine through, to help our nation find a path and honour.

5:15 pm

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to first acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and I would also like to pay my respects to elders past and present. Once again, the latest Closing the gap report is no cause for optimism. Only two of the seven targets are on track nationally and in my home state of South Australia, and they are the target to enrol 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds in early childhood education and the target to halve the gap in year 12 attainment. These are both important to the long-term outcomes of Indigenous children, because education is one of the pillars on which to build a solid future, but so is good health. Unfortunately, Indigenous life expectancy remains lower than that of non-Indigenous people, and child mortality rates, while lower than they were a decade ago, are still too high at 164 Indigenous babies and children for each 100,000 people—representing 96 more Indigenous children than non-Indigenous children and babies.

On the jobs front, the employment rate has not improved in the past decade at all. Just over half of the Indigenous Australians of working age living in major cities were employed, while in remote areas the figure dropped to a staggeringly low 31 per cent. The aim of this program is to progress key areas vital for meaningful lives for Indigenous people. With these results, is it any wonder Indigenous communities and organisations feel let down?

I welcome the Prime Minister's speech earlier today, in which he recognised that, despite our lofty ambitions, not enough real progress has been made in the last decade. As often as not, the annual update on Closing the Gap has not been a progress report, as we have seen frustratingly slow or no progress. It has been more of a status quo report. It is really difficult to comprehend how the collective funding and effort by federal and state governments over so many years has achieved very little progress. This tells us how entrenched some of these issues are, but it also tells us that we need to go back to the drawing board. As the old adage says: if you keep doing what you've always done, you're always going to get what you've always got. The top-down tick-a-box approach has failed. So I applaud the moves by COAG to refresh the Closing the Gap agenda and include more accountability and to work more closely with Indigenous people.

A true solution cannot be imposed on the people it is designed to help. It must be done in genuine partnership with Indigenous communities and with a willingness to listen and be responsive. Indigenous people understand better than bureaucrats what will work in their community to unlock the potential of their people now, and particularly for future generations. In saying that, I would also hope that we get more ambitious about what we're trying to achieve. I don't believe that we should have targets to halve the gap, as we do for four of the target outcomes. This always struck me as very much being a low bar. We should commit to genuinely closing the gap in all areas.

As a nation, our ambition and expectation should be that there be no difference in life expectancy, educational outcomes, health and employment of Indigenous people. If we don't strive and aim for absolute equality, if we don't have that as a benchmark, we will never close the gap.

5:19 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in response to the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap address delivered today. I begin with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of this country, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present and also to all First Nations people across the country, but in particular here in the parliament—both my colleagues, those in the gallery and those who have been present here on this important day. I'd also like to really say to the Australian parliament: thank you. This is the one day of the year that has meant so much to myself and others that I know in terms of the importance of raising the issues for First Nations people before Australians.

Senators and members may wonder when they listen to the Close the Gap targets and despair at the frustration of the inability to close the gap, knowing that those targets are still yet to be reached, but I like to think of it from a really personal point of view. As a Yanyuwa-Garrwa woman in the Gulf Country, where my families are in the Borroloola region, I think of it on a very personal level to remind myself of why this day is important. Even with the very dissatisfying results of the targets, we just cannot give up. When I say 'we', I mean all of us—all parliamentarians, all Australians. We must dig deeper. We must walk further. We must engage on such a level as to empower the First Nations people of this country.

This week, coming to parliament, I received news that my ten-year-old nephew died. Our families are devastated. His mother took him to the shower and put him to bed, to find only a few hours later that he'd died. The families of Borroloola are asking why. The schoolteachers and students of Borroloola are asking why. They smoked the school and the classroom and no-one can answer why.

It's too common a story. With the recent stories of the coronial hearings in the Kimberley over the suicides, we have to ask ourselves as a nation: why do we not really care? That's what today is about. It's the one day of the year when the Australian parliament says to the Australian people: 'We care about First Nations people in this country. We care that they are dying and that their children are dying. They are Australians too. We care and provide hope.' That is what today is about. That's what closing the gap is about.

When I came to talk about it this morning in front of the Senate, standing before the cameras to talk about closing the gap, there was only one person there. The rest of their media had turned their backs. Where were they looking? Who were they waiting for? They were waiting for another incident—another issue that has nothing to do with the importance of governance in this country. They were waiting for people who had had an incident in the parliament. And yet First Nations people were waiting for the stories of this parliament to be the main stories of this day. When I say that this day is about Australians caring, that means these guys who sit up here as well, the media, paying attention. You missed the biggest story of today. The biggest story was the fact that First Nations people in this country need you to pay attention.

It's not just about education, which is warmly welcomed on a deep level. It's about housing. It's about our roads and infrastructure. It's about the access that people need to get to hospitals and get to schools. Those things are what the parliament of Australia needs to focus on. If we want teachers in our schools, we want to make sure that they are jobs for our First Nations people—that they have the jobs. We want to make sure that First Nations people can be the nurses and the doctors and lawyers; that they have a vision for their children in this country and that they can, equally with any Australian of any colour and background, share it. That's what today is about.

We do fail as a parliament and we do fail as a country when we do not take the time to share in the disgrace and hang our heads in shame that an important part of our population suffers so deeply—when we get so distracted by things that do not matter. That's what the shame of today has been about. Closing the Gap, my fellow senators, must be the most critical day in our calendar, not just for us to stand here and speak about measurements but to stand here with feeling and to care, to have compassion and to know that we are failing the First Nations people. And we must do it collectively as the parliament of this country. The First Nations people need a voice to this parliament to speak about their issues and to engage on an equal level in governance, in the economy—on every playing field available to any Australian who is born in this country or who chooses to come to live in this country. So, Senators, Closing the Gap is a responsibility for all of us, just as much as it is for the First Nations families of this country.

5:28 pm

Photo of Tim StorerTim Storer (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunawal people, as the traditional owners of the land upon which we stand, and the Kaurna people, as the traditional owners of the land on which my office in Adelaide sits, and pay respect to their elders past and present. I also acknowledge all First Nations people in this and the other place.

Eleven statements, and yet on some of the most important indicators we are not even close to meeting the targets adopted more than a decade ago. On the current trajectory, for example, we cannot expect Indigenous Australians to live as long as the rest of the community, nor that child mortality rates will fall to the level the rest of us can expect. Just two of the seven goals are now on track, one less than last year. How are we going backwards despite pledges from all sides of politics to make sure that the people who have inhabited this continent for at least 60,000 years enjoy the same quality of life as the rest of us? In 21st-century Australia, after more than a quarter of a century of unbroken economic growth and increased prosperity, this is simply a disgrace. As both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition acknowledged, it is simply not good enough. Words are one thing, as are intentions, but it is actions that count. We have made the pledges but failed to produce the results. I agree with the Prime Minister that this is unforgiveable and appreciate his honesty in admitting that he does not know when Indigenous children will have the same opportunity as any other child in this community, but it is an indictment of us all.

I'm pleased the report acknowledges that a top-down approach was set up to fail and that a strength based, community led approach will form a critical foundation for future work. I'm also pleased that the government has endorsed the expansion of small, family and medium-sized Indigenous businesses to tackle the Indigenous employment gap. More must be done on this score. As I noted in my first speech, the Commonwealth's Indigenous procurement policy should be adopted by all levels of government and by more companies to drive demand for Indigenous goods and services and grow the Indigenous business sector.

I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to waive the HECS debts of teachers who spend more than four years working in remote Australia. This is a practical step which may encourage more teachers to spend more time with their Indigenous pupils. This initiative is essential but not sufficient, given that most Indigenous students live outside remote Australia, in the cities and towns of our nation. Education, knowledge and skills are the keys to a better life. They may not be the sole determinants, but, without them, it is that much harder.

A good start would be to commit to the suggestion of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples that we start to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents, carers, elders and leaders at the local level to create an education system which is culturally safe, inclusive and relevant. If some of the nation's most eminent Indigenous leaders think they are not being listened to, what hope have we got? As I said in my first speech last year, it is shameful that, by percentage, more of our First Nations people are in jail than any other indigenous group in the world. I agree with the opposition leader that it remains true that men and women are being arrested and jailed not because of the gravity of their offence but because of the colour of their skin. As Martin Luther King Jr put it all of those years ago: he dreamed of a nation where his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I also applaud the opposition leader for his candid challenge. As he put it, 'If this parliament cannot acknowledge that racism exists in 2019, we are just wasting the time of the First Australians today.'

I pledge to redouble my efforts to do all I can to ensure that the aspirations of the First Australians for a referendum are realised. As I said in my first speech, the historic hand of reconciliation extended to our parliament through the Uluru Statement from the Heart remains unmet. I support calls for a First Nations voice in parliament enshrined in our Constitution and for a makarrata commission to supervise a process of truth telling and agreement making. We further need to officially acknowledge the Frontier Wars, as well as incorporate them as a central element of our school curricular, and to review the Frontier Wars being formally acknowledged at the Australian War Memorial. We must recognise that the First Nations people fought gallantly to defend their lands in the face of European invasion. I also believe that true reconciliation requires becoming a republic and a review on changing our flag.

Importantly, this year's Closing the Gap report is yet another reminder that we are failing our First Nations people and that we must redouble our efforts to address the root causes of persistent inequality. It is time to take a stand and succeed where previously we have failed.

5:33 pm

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

I am also pleased to be able to stand up this afternoon and make a contribution to the Closing the Gap statement that was made by the Prime Minister today, but also, importantly, to acknowledge the contribution most particularly of Senator Scullion, Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy.

As a Western Australian senator, I am someone who is greatly interested in tackling inequity wherever I see it. As a Western Australian senator, I am privileged enough to travel across the great breadth of Western Australia, but particularly across the Pilbara and the Kimberley regions. When you travel across the Kimberley, you are struck by three things. You are struck by its vast beauty, and part of that beauty is its sparseness. You are struck, as Senator Dodson reflected, by the graciousness, the generosity and the warmth of the many Australians who live up there. But, if you are honest with yourself, you are also struck by the very serious, very obvious levels of disadvantage that we see being experienced by Indigenous Australians.

I don't think for a moment that I have the same depth of understanding—certainly not the lived experience—as Senators Dodson and McCarthy or my Liberal Western Australian colleague Mr Ken Wyatt, who's the member for Hasluck. But, like them, and I think like many other people in this place and other Australians, I do care about trying to understand why it is that, when we have Closing the Gap statements like this annually—and we've been doing it now for over a decade—the great ambition that was there in the first Closing the Gap statement, the great optimism that was there for others and that is still around for ending Indigenous disadvantage, is constantly being eroded, as has been my observation over the last few years. Why is it that we're not able to break the back of these very, very big issues for not only Indigenous people but also our country? As someone who puts a lot of faith in conservative—and I mean small 'c' conservative—principles of free markets and governance and our parliamentary institution, I look to those values first when trying to find solutions to these very, very important struggles.

I make a couple of observations. The first observation is that, when we talk about the Indigenous community in Australia, I think we do Indigenous people a disservice. That's because I'd argue that there's not just one Indigenous community but many Indigenous communities. They are fashioned and influenced by where they live, the levels of acceptance amongst their own communities and the sorts of unique challenges that they might face. So that's the first observation I would make. The second observation—and Senator Scullion reflected on this—is that, in a place like the Australian parliament, while it is important to predominantly give our focus to those things that haven't been done or have been done poorly, at the same time we must pause to celebrate, reward and acknowledge where things are being made better for people. There's no shortage of examples of instances where we see the quality of someone's individual life and their family life being improved. But that's not to diminish or in any way take away from the urgency or the enormity of this task.

These are clearly very, very big questions. I think Senator Storer spoke about this, if I heard him correctly in his contribution. Something I'm particularly alert to is: over the next few years as the conversation, the debate, about Indigenous recognition continues, how do we make sure that the energy needed on these issues is not displaced by the energy that might be put into other issues? I'm someone who's got an open mind about how important the reconciliation process is to ending some of this Indigenous disadvantage. I'm someone—Senator Dodson and others will know this—that has a very, very conservative approach as to how we might adjust or change our institutional or constitutional arrangements as a means of better addressing some of these issues. I'm not convinced that that is a way that will solve these issues, but I am convinced that, as Senator McCarthy reflected on, it is important to have a statement like this in our national parliament so that people in the parliament and also people in the community are constantly reminded that this disadvantage is real, despite the very large sums of money being put into tackling this disadvantage and despite the level of attention being given to these issues, whether it be parliamentary and political attention or media attention.

Senator Dodson and others will know that one issue that I have been particularly interested in championing and better understanding is: why is it that in a first-world country like ours, with a modern and very effective system of publicly funded health care, we're seeing such a great disparity—a very alarming disparity—in STIs and HIV infection rates in Indigenous communities at a time when non-Indigenous Australians are benefiting from access to health care and access to modern medicines? I don't have an answer.

Absolutely, governments can be doing more. Personally, I think that we should expect more, Senator Dodson, from Indigenous organisations. I say that cautiously, because I'm not an Indigenous person. But I am someone who is interested in making sure that everyone is doing everything that they possibly can. We can't allow ourselves to make excuses for people, or organisations or institutions that may not be doing the best that they can possibly do. So that is an issue that I am particularly alert to and which, in my own way, I try to bring attention to. Along with Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy, we on the Senate Community Affairs Committee and the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee have been putting our minds to that. Clearly, there are some very big issues.

But I do want to reflect on the comments that the Prime Minister made today, because I think that in a debate like this we should recognise when our national leaders make honest statements—when they accept their own or their own government's shortcomings, or when they draw out the shortcomings of governments that have gone before them. What Prime Minister Morrison said today in his speech I think is worthy of repeating. He said:

In 2008 we began this process of closing the gap. Successive Prime Ministers have reported since on our progress on meeting these national goals. It was born out of the National Apology. That was one of the first acts that I was involved in, in this place, coming in as a member of parliament, and I was pleased to do so. Closing the Gap was a recognition that words without deeds are fruitless, and Prime Minister Rudd should forever be commended for that apology and the process he began. That process that began in 2008 was born of a very good heart.

We shouldn't lose sight of that. He continued:

It recognised that accountability is vital if we are to bring about a change and meaningful process that has eluded our nation for more than two centuries.

But I must say that, while it was guided by the best of intentions, the process has reflected something of what I believe is the hubris of this place: it did not truly seek to partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It believed that a top-down approach could achieve that change that was, rightly, desired—that Canberra could change it all with lofty goals and bureaucratic targets. That's not true. It was set up to fail—and has, on its own tests. And today I'm calling that out.

It might have been set up to fail, but we can't allow it to fail. It's totally natural, I argue, and the normal way of things, that after a decade, programs, ideas and aspirations might be constantly recalibrated to better reflect the new challenges or progress.

But there are some things that I am particularly interested in when I think about the mammoth task that is trying to challenge and tackle the issue of Indigenous disadvantage. One is: aren't native title arrangements in our country still effective? Are they working for the best interests of native title holders? The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia is about to do some work in regard to that.

I'm also interested in making sure that the governance arrangements of Indigenous organisations are the strongest and the best they can be, because Indigenous people deserve to be protected. I also think that we need to do better in using technology to support the rollout of quality health care to Indigenous people in remote communities. Much of the challenge here is because of the remoteness of the challenge— (Time expired)

5:43 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to make a contribution to the 2019 Closing the gap report. In doing so, I acknowledge that we meet on the lands of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present, and any elders in the chamber observing the Senate this evening.

I want to start by thanking both Senators Dodson and McCarthy for leading the way and for contributing so much to Labor's agenda. I listened to the contribution of our leader, Mr Shorten, today in the other place, and it absolutely had the voices of Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy—and, indeed, that of Ms Linda Burney, the member for Barton—in it. They've made a real change in how Labor speaks and have made a change in our direction. I also acknowledge, of course, Mr Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck.

I stand here today with a vested interest in closing the gap. Some of you have heard me speak before about my granddaughter, Charlee. She's Gidja, from Turkey Creek in Western Australia. Many generations ago her grandmother was taken from Turkey Creek and settled in Broome. As the family looks through historical bureaucratic records, as Senator Dodson pointed out earlier in his contribution about the time when First Nations people's lives were controlled by the state, they are piecing together that Charlee's family comes from all over the Kimberley, including being incarcerated on islands at some point. But at some point Charlee's family moved down to Geraldton. We think her great-great-grandmother was taken by boat down to Geraldton. In Geraldton there existed on the fringes of the town what was called in those days a native settlement. There are pictures of Charlee's grandmother living in a tin hut with nothing on the floors. That is a couple of generations ago.

So I have a vested interest in closing the gap, because I want Charlee to succeed. I want her to do well. I want her to achieve everything that she's able to achieve. She's smart and she's sassy and she's well able to stick up for herself. But at the age of 14 Charlee has been to many, many more funerals than I have ever been to. At 14 she knows that her uncles and aunties have taken their own lives through suicide. She's witnessed that. She's been part of that. That is part of what happens in her family, very sadly. But her family is also a very proud family, and everyone in Geraldton, Broome and other parts of Western Australia knows the Gregorys, because they are a fine family. Like many other families, they're a fighting family. They have gone on to have a lot of achievements, but they have also suffered racism. Charlee suffers racism. She's had kids say to her at school, 'Oh, you know, you're all right—as an Aboriginal person.' Why should a 14-year-old have to bear that burden? She's been stopped by the police in Geraldton when she's gone home for school holidays because she's with her cousins, and they don't want them in McDonald's and they have herded them out. Many times I have told Charlee that is absolutely unacceptable and she needs to call it out, but it's almost as if it's what she expects. I remember one day saying to Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy, 'This is what happens to Charlee,' and the sad thing was that they weren't surprised either.

So when Mr Shorten said today that racism is still alive and well in our country, it is indeed. It has been part of Charlee's very short life at the age of 14, and as much as I drum into her that that is not something she should put up with, that when the police move her and her cousins on from McDonald's in Geraldton, she needs to tell her mother, because that is unacceptable. I know that that is what she faces at the age of 14, despite having a lot of ambition and promise.

I want to also talk about two things that both Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy said. Senator Dodson posed a really important question: who closes the gap? Indeed, if we're to be successful, I think it's time that we tried to answer that question. As I said earlier, Senator McCarthy said that the targets haven't failed; we've failed the targets. Of course we saw in Western Australia a shocking, shocking history of suicide, including young children. We have just seen a coronial report into that. That coronial report said—lo and behold!—we need First Nations people determining their own futures. Guess what? That was said by a highly educated white magistrate. I can tell you it's something that First Nations people have been saying for generations: they're our problems, and we know the answers to them.

I was very proud last year to be part of a First Nations women's meeting in Perth. We produced this document, which has been presented to Tanya Plibersek, the member for Sydney in the other place, as something for Labor to take and acknowledge. More than 100 of these women came together in Perth from all over Western Australia. They put forward not only issues but solutions for children, youth and learning; for health and ageing; for human rights, treaty and constitutional recognition; and for social and emotional wellbeing. They talked about effective programs and policies. As Aboriginal women, they carry a great burden in Aboriginal communities, but they had all of those solutions. Today the contribution that I want to make is along the lines of the contributions that we have heard from Senator Wong and our leader, Bill Shorten. We just haven't done enough.

Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I participated in a silent vigil outside the District Court of Western Australia, as a Catholic priest who raped young women in his care at the Wandering Mission pleaded guilty to historical charges of sexual abuse. That young woman was damaged for life. She was told through confession that it was her fault. As the judge says, one can only imagine the intense turmoil that that young woman suffered. But guess what? The court was stacked against her because, in the end, the judge accepted that the 80-year-old priest, who has been charged with more than one case of sexual assault, at some point had paid her a measly $4,000 and had shown remorse. Never mind that this historical case of sexual abuse against this young woman at Wandering Mission has defined her life. This bloke got a suspended sentence and he's now back in Victoria. Three people have been charged out of Wandering Mission. Many girls and many First Nations girls were sexually assaulted from the age of five up to about 15 or 16, when they left that mission, yet we don't have one person incarcerated. We get a judge who acknowledges the absolute trauma that this young woman experienced—a young girl, as she was at the time—and yet he gets off scot-free.

So yes, racism is alive and well in this country. First Nations people do not get the justice that those of us with white skin get. We have a lot of work to do. I am keen to be part of a Shorten Labor government in the future that will, in consultation with First Nations people, start to address the wrongs that have carried on for far too long.

5:53 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a brief contribution on the Closing the Gap report. I understand that Senator Collins will be making some remarks in a moment. I rise to do so in my capacity as chair of the finance and public administration committee of the Senate, which, through its oversight of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has coverage of Indigenous policy issues on behalf of the Senate. For someone like me, who came to parliament without any expertise or experience in Indigenous policy issues, the insight that I have gained through this role has been eye opening and humbling. I mean 'humbling' in the true sense of the word and not the sometimes politically abused sense of the word. Sometimes when politicians receive a promotion or an accolade they say they are humbled, but in fact that's the opposite of what they mean. I mean 'humbling' as in recognising the limits of one's own knowledge. I think it's healthy we are sometimes frank about that and admit that.

The Closing the Gap report this year is in some ways like many previous Closing the Gap reports in that it shows there has been some progress but that there is much, much more work to do. In a moment I will reflect on why that's the case, but I think the Prime Minister's reflection on that today has been a very sensible one. Although I think there's great merit in an annual report to parliament on progress and in setting clear goals which we can measure our performance against as a nation, it is very clear that our failure to meet those goals on, really, a bipartisan basis requires a new approach and a new reflection. Some of the design flaws in the original Closing the Gap program need to be addressed. This is an area of policy where—although this is a trait we should bring to all things—we should be particularly humble. While all governments in this area have strived to make progress, and while all governments can point to some progress under their stewardship, no government is in a position to be particularly boastful about their performance in this area, despite their best efforts. Nonetheless, we shouldn't be relentlessly negative about these issues, because that's dispiriting and discouraging, and we should celebrate the successes where they occur, while being very sober about the challenges that we face ahead.

I want to reflect on some of the results in this year's Closing the gap report against those targets. As we have heard in this debate, it is pleasing to know that there is progress in at least two areas. Firstly, there is the area of early education, with the result of 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds being enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. There has been good progress made towards that goal, and on year 12 attainment—to half the gap with year 12 attainment by 2020.

But, of course, there are more targets not on track than there are on track. One which is not on track is life expectancy—closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation, by 2031. I recognise that there are other things to be discussed in the chamber now, so I might yield my further time, but I look forward to further discussions on this topic. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.