Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Closing the Gap
That the Senate take note of the annual report on Closing the Gap and accompanying statements.
Today, I visited the other place to hear the Prime Minister's address and the Leader of the Opposition's address on Closing the Gap report 2020. It was a pleasure to hear the renewed bipartisan commitment to ensure progress over the next decade to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This is vital because, sadly, the results to date are just not good enough. But I can assure the Senate and I can assure the Australian people that this government are committed to closing the gap and we believe it is an initiative that can address the disparity between health, education, employment and life experience for Indigenous Australians. There can be no doubt that the seven target areas of child mortality, early childhood education, school attendance, literacy and numeracy, year 12 attainment, employment and life expectancy are crucial to making a difference in the lives of Indigenous people. While it is important to note there has been progress on almost every measure of the existing framework, the fact of the matter is we're only on track to meet two of the seven targets. Clearly this is not where any of us want to be.
The two targets that are on track are important because these support the bright future for the next generation. For our early childhood education, the target is to have 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 because childhood education is important to a child's cognitive and social development. That target is on track. In 2018, 86.4 per cent of indigenous children were enrolled in early childhood education compared with 91.3 per cent of non-Indigenous children. On year 12 attainment or equivalent, the target is to halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged between 20 and 24 in year 12 or equivalent by 2020, and education is crucial to finding work. That target is also on track. In 2018-19, around 66 per cent of Indigenous Australians between 20 and 24 years of age had attained year 12 or the equivalent. In the past decade that has increased by 21 percentage points.
But the targets in the five areas that did not meet the targets are equally important. On child mortality, the target is to halve the gap for Indigenous children under five within a decade. Although there's been progress in maternal and child health, improvements in mortality rates have not been enough to meet the 2018 target. In the 10-year period 2008 to 2018, Indigenous child mortality rates improved by seven per cent. We absolutely must make more progress on this.
On school attendance, the target is to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years. At 2018, this target was not met. Attendance rates for Indigenous students remain lower than for non-Indigenous students, with around 82 per cent of Indigenous students in comparison to 92 per cent in 2019. Gaps in attendance are evident from the first year of school and widen during secondary schooling. On literacy and numeracy, the target is to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade. While the gap narrowed across all year levels between three and 11 percentage points, it has not been enough to meet the targets.
On employment, the target is to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade. We did not meet this target by 2018. In 2018, the Indigenous employment rate was 49 per cent compared to 75 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. This is disappointing that there has been little change on this measure.
There is a target to close the life expectancy gap within a generation by the year 2031. At this time, this target is not on track. Over the period 2006 to 2018 there was an improvement of almost 10 percentage points in Indigenous mortality rates. However, non-Indigenous mortality rates improved at a similar rate, meaning this gap has not narrowed.
To make sure we see real change over the coming decade we need a collegiate, collective commitment to an improvement to change this for future Indigenous Australians. That is exactly what the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, is changing in his approach to Closing the Gap 2020. Up until now that approach has been very much a top-down approach. So despite the very best intentions and all the resources that have been applied to this task, if we have failed to deliver our goals, we have missed the mark. A new Closing the Gap process that is truthful, strength based and community led that puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at its very, very core is absolutely essential. Unless all Australians see the gap—we need to close the gap from the point of view of Indigenous Australians—we will not succeed in our mission. That is why this new era does not include targets set by governments.
Minister Wyatt, working with Indigenous leadership that makes up the Coalition of Peaks and the state and territory governments, will determine the right design for the next framework. This new approach is locally led, collaborative and will make much further progress than a one-size-fits-all government-led approach could ever have hoped to achieve.
The process is to refresh Closing the Gap strategies. It has taken time but, when the framework is right, we will do better. The reform priorities already identified include developing and strengthening structures to ensure full involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and embedding ownership, responsibility and expertise to close this gap. It includes building the formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled services sector to deliver Closing the Gap services and programs in agreed priority areas. It also includes ensuring all mainstream government agencies and institutions undertake systemic and structural transformation to contribute to closing the gap.
In conclusion, our future approach to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians must be different from the past. We must do it differently and we must do it together.
I acknowledge we meet on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I also pay respects to and recognise my First Nations colleagues: the extraordinary Australian sitting behind me, Senator Patrick Dodson; Senator Malarndirri McCarthy; the member for Barton, Ms Linda Burney; and the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt.
I do want to say something about the gift that Senators Dodson and McCarthy and Ms Burney have given the Australian Labor Party. Our First Nations caucus has been such a transformative experience for people in our caucus, and has meant for so many of us that the reality of the experience of our First Nations people has been given so much greater weight and also experience in our caucus. It has been profoundly moving for many of us, and we are grateful for it. I also recognise the many First Nations people who have come to parliament on this day and were there to see Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese give their speeches.
With the tabling of the Closing the gap report we should be talking about progress, but we're not really. We're talking about inertia; we're talking about our failure to meet many targets. We know that there have been some successes, but they are insufficient. We know that the health of our Indigenous Australians is far worse than non-Indigenous Australians; we know that the Indigenous child mortality rate is still twice that of non-Indigenous children; we know that Indigenous Australians live around eight years less than other Australians, and the gap is even wider in remote and regional areas. We know that our First Nations children are being left behind and locked out of opportunity: one in four falling below minimum standards for reading; one in five below minimum standards for numeracy. The incarceration rates of First Nations people are unacceptable: two per cent of the population, 27 per cent of the prison population. And we have seen, particularly in recent times, the prevalence of suicides, particularly amongst young people, ripping families and communities apart.
There have been some who have suggested the problem was that the ambition was too great in the gap targets. Well, the parliament should ask itself whether it would tolerate these facts, these gaps, for any other part of our society. We cannot compound more than 200 years of dispossession with an acceptance of disadvantage. As Mr Albanese said:
We can't keep coming back here, year in, year out, wringing our hands. The new way forward has to be led by First Nations people in meaningful and mutually agreed partnerships.
The Coalition of Peaks has said clearly what government needs to do to improve services for First Nations people. The three reform priorities are: formal partnerships between government and First Nations people on closing the gap, growing community controlled services and improving mainstream service delivery.
Change begins with listening. It's easy to say, isn't it? It's much harder to do. I will return to that point. If we really want to see progress on closing the gap, we must properly understand how the consequences of dispossession—the removal from country and culture, misguided policies that have transcended generations—can still be seen and felt today. I will never forget Senator Dodson's first speech. It was a privilege to hear it, but it was pretty hard to hear—about hiding in the grass—and a reminder of what has happened and still reverberates today. You see, I don't believe we can understand the challenges of today if we do not understand that the causes so often remain rooted in the past. We must stop repeating the mistakes of the past and we must actually, genuinely listen to First Nations Australians.
So we welcome the partnership between the Coalition of Peaks and government. Labor looks forward to supporting new and ambitious targets and structural changes to close the gap, including in the important areas of child removal and incarceration, and the resources to enable that. A direct and secure voice to decision-makers will build on the work of peaks and ensure that the issues and perspectives of our First Nations people are not left to languish on the fringes. A genuine commitment means that local and regional services and programs will be adequately resourced and properly funded. I have to say it is difficult to accept a commitment as genuine when half a billion dollars was cut from the Indigenous Affairs budget by this government.
We are all challenged to do better, with more diligence and commitment. We all wish to determine our own lives; it's part of the way in which we understand agency and meaning and identity. Other Australians aren't just asked to be practical. Our Indigenous leaders have been telling politicians for years that self-determination matters. Well, maybe it is time we did listen. Maybe we don't know best. Today in the parliament, Mr Morrison said that the government wants 'a partnership where we listen, work together and decide together'. We have this clarion call from our First Nations people, the Uluru statement—a statement, as Anthony Albanese said, of unadorned power and, I would add, of clarity, voice, truth-telling and agreement making. The First Nations Voice is a modest request that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples be consulted about policies and issues that directly affect them—not, as some have mischievously said, a third chamber or deliberative chamber.
Of course, another element in the statement, the call from First Nations people, is truth. We do need to tell the truth. I remember, and I'm sure Senators Dodson and McCarthy remember much more so, the way Mr Howard most infamously discouraged Australians from engaging with the truth. Do you remember the black armband view of history? Well, I'm pleased that we seem to have moved on from this, because not acknowledging the truth not only does not permit us to work together to close the gap but deepens the wounds. We must tell the truth, and all of us should be our best selves. We must seek acceptance and reconciliation. As Richard Flanagan said:
What Black Australia offers to the nation is not guilt about our history but an invitation to our future.
Then of course there is makarrata. Senator McCarthy explained it to me after the statement came out; I probably understand a bit. But I'm reminded of so many examples internationally where reconciliation and progress required people making peace—with themselves and each other. Mr Albanese described it today as 'conflict resolution, making peace after a dispute, justice and, of course, the path to a national treaty'. Hear, hear!
I felt a great sadness today when the Prime Minister said 'we must listen' but went on to make clear that the coalition were going to ignore what was sought or put aside—not press forward on what was sought in the Uluru Statement. You can't ask people to tell you what they want and then turn away when they do. You can't ask people to consult with you, and then make it clear in the national parliament that you don't actually like the answer. That's not respect. That's not consultation. That's not listening.
I will finish on this point. Our First Australians have been deeply connected with country on this continent for over 60,000 years—the Yuin people in the south-east, the Yawuru people in the north-west, the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in the north, the Muwinina people in the south, the Noongar people of the south-west, the Meriam Mir in the Torres Strait, the Kaurna in South Australia, the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Desert and more.
In the cut and thrust of this place, what is sometimes forgotten is the profound honour of having First Nations people across our entire continent—the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, people whom we have the privilege of representing. There is too often a tone of burden where there should be a feeling of pride. This parliament should ask itself whether we take the pride we should in our first Australians. As for the results of any report, we may find that the gap we need to close is actually within us.
Here we are again, in another new parliamentary year, with another recital of policy failure, another appeal to cop it sweet and be patient. For more than a decade now, there has been this 'Groundhog Day' ritual whereby members from this chamber troop over to the other place, there to be told that most of the targets for closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples continue to be beyond our reach. No-one is ever held accountable for this. First Nations peoples are expected to be impressed that parliament is talking about them and taking the time to do so.
Today we learnt that only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets are on track: early childhood education and year 12 attainment. Let me remind you of the five targets that are not on track. Tragically, the target to halve the mortality rates of First Nations children is not on track. Just as tragically, the target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track. The target to close the gap in school attendance by 2018 is not on track. The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 is not on track. The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is also not on track.
As grim as the picture is, it fails to reveal the whole sorry story of inequality, focused as the targets have been on health, education and employment. The targets tell us nothing about the over-representation of First Nations men, women and young people in the crowded prisons across this land. They tell us nothing about the exploitation of others who work for the dole under the perversely titled Community Development Program or those whose income is not theirs to manage, under the rules of the cashless debit card. And they tell us nothing about the abject circumstances which beset those thousands and thousands of First Nations people who live in remote communities where access to basic services is a constant struggle.
It's worth remembering today that the Closing the Gap regime grew out of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission, and in particular the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. The inquiry was established by the Keating government back in 1995. The Bringing them home report, primarily the work of the late Sir Ronald Wilson and my brother, Mick Dodson, the social justice commissioner, was tabled in parliament in May 1997. Their report identified gross violations of Aboriginal people's human rights and spoke about the removal of children as genocide—as genocide!—and aimed at wiping out Indigenous families, communities and cultures.
Prime Minister Howard was much discomfited by the report and could not bring himself to accept the recommendation that this parliament of Australia apologise for those dreadful points of history. Underlying that stubbornness and intransigence was an ill-founded fear that the Crown's liability was going to be an astronomical compensation claim. And so an apology remained a moot point for more than a decade, until a new Prime Minister, Labor's Kevin Rudd, formally apologised to the stolen generations. On that momentous day, 13 February 2008, whilst he did not offer compensation, he went further than an apology; he laid out a framework of a 10-year program to close the gap. 'Our challenge for the future is to embrace a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,' Prime Minister Rudd told the parliament 12 years ago. 'The core of this partnership for the future,' he said, 'is the closing of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities.'
It was a well-intentioned agenda of practical reconciliation, but the outcomes have been so dismal. What an indictment, what a blight on this nation: 12 years with so little to show for it. No wonder that those First Nations peoples who gathered at Uluru in May 2017 lamented and proclaimed the torment of our powerlessness. Now we have the torment of this government's sluggishness as it crawls to develop a new 10-year framework for closing the gap. The process is called the Closing the Gap Refresh. It began in the federal bureaucracy two years ago, and there's no outcome yet. Much money has been spent on travel and talkfests, expensive consultants have come and gone, and still we have no new framework.
The Prime Minister tells us in the foreword of this year's Closing the gap report that this is not a process we should rush. Well, I say that's not good enough. The Commonwealth's administration of Indigenous affairs after the disastrous machinery of government changes by the Abbott government in 2013 falls under the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, so the buck stops with the Prime Minister. And all the Prime Minister can say to justify this protracted process of drawing up a new framework is that getting it right is worth the time it takes. I'm not fussed about getting it right; what worries me is the lack of urgency.
At least the government has belatedly engaged First Nations peak organisations in the process to develop a new national agreement on closing the gap. A new agreement is to be underpinned by four principles: developing formal partnerships between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, giving Aboriginal community controlled services greater roles, improving mainstream service delivery, and the development of local data processes to enable people to make better decisions. Those are all worthy principles but, as we know, no new program will succeed. It will fail unless it has adequate resources, and unless bureaucracies earnestly embrace those principles—and if it has the First Nations wholehearted participation. And in the end, any new agenda will amount only to practical reconciliation.
My commitment has always been to real reconciliation. My leader, Anthony Albanese, in the other place this morning showed his commitment when he said that this country is not reconciled and that a country that is not reconciled is not really whole. 'Until we are whole, our true potential as a nation will continue to elude us,' he said. When they met at Uluru nearly three years ago now, First Nations peoples laid out a clearly preferred pathway to reconciliation and wholeness. Labor supports in full the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The first call in that statement was for a voice to the parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution. The opposition leader this morning described this as a 'great and unifying mission'. But this government does not have the will to embrace that, because hardheads and the hard Right don't have the heart for true reconciliation.
Rather, this government wants a voice to the government—a voice that is not protected by being enshrined in the Constitution. The Prime Minister said this morning that his government supports recommendations about truth-telling in the 2018 report of the Joint Select Committee into Constitutional Recognition. And that's a good thing. But he could not bring himself to mention the Yolngu word 'Makarrata', which the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for. Makarrata: as the opposition leader said this morning, 'Let everyone feel those four syllables.' It's conflict resolution—and doesn't this nation need conflict resolution with its first peoples? It's making peace after a dispute—and hasn't this dispute gone on for far too long? And it's justice, so that we can all be liberated and become better people. This could be achieved through a pathway to a national treaty. There was certainly no mention of national treaty by the Prime Minister this morning. We are left to surmise only that Makarrata and treaty are steps too far for this government. What does that say about the leadership?
We as a nation are capable of great achievements, especially at times of crisis—like the drought, like the fires, the floods and the coronavirus. We are very capable of responding to great things, and it's time we responded to the First Nations requirements. It befuddles me—why this intransigence to something that is blatantly clear, is simple and is not asking for much? It's constantly eluding us.
Finally, today let me acknowledge and pay tribute to those who show untiring leadership on the front lines, where the gaps are widening and are stark; those who bear a heavy burden and toil day and night to care for children at risk and to worry for their loved ones. They are those unsung heroes who soldier on, sometimes at great personal risk, and they're unsupported because of the lack of adequate resources. There goes real leadership, and I salute them all.
( As the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngambri and Ngunawal peoples, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.
Since 2008 Australian governments have worked to deliver better life expectancy, mortality rate, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Today's report highlights the issues that we've had in closing that gap. We haven't achieved what was expected and we haven't collectively achieved what was needed. Today's update shows Australia is on track to meet only two of the seven set targets—specifically, having 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early-childhood education by 2025 and halving the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 in year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates by 2020.
We note that there have been improved outlooks in some areas, such as education, yet progress in many other areas still lags behind our community's expectations. The target to halve the gap in child mortality rates by 2018 wasn't met, the target to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy within that decade was not met and the target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track. Only by acknowledging our failures can we move forward, make better-informed decisions and make a positive future for all Australians. We must not be afraid to learn from each other. This year, 2020, marks the next stage of Closing The Gap Refresh to deliver shared responsibility and accountability, led by our nation's first Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians, Minister Wyatt.
I want to speak tonight specifically on a key indicator that we feel quite strongly about: employment for our Indigenous Australians. No state or territory met the target to halve the gap in employment outcomes within a decade. Employment rates for Indigenous Australians increased, but only in New South Wales and the Northern Territory. Job security, meaningful full-time work, provides financial and economic security and helps to open the door to self-determination. Employment status also has associations, as we all know, with outcomes for health, social and emotional wellbeing and living standards. The Nationals welcome the new approach to closing the gap: local people leading local solutions.
As a former teacher, it is great to note that since 2014 we have seen significant investment in Indigenous youth and education initiatives, opening the door to real, secure jobs across rural and regional Australia. There are 45,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth being supported on their education journey through a raft of mentoring scholarships and leadership programs. But there is so much more to do.
Education is the door to better job outcomes. In the past 10 years the number of Indigenous Australians accessing higher education has more than doubled. Currently, almost 20,000 Indigenous Australians are attending university. Young employed Indigenous Australians with year 12 qualifications are more likely than early school leavers to be employed full time and be in a skilled occupation. These outcomes need to be celebrated and used to build momentum for greater improvements from education to health to employment opportunities.
The evidence clearly shows that education is the door to better job outcomes and that, when it comes to employment, gaps exist—a gaping chasm. In 2018 Indigenous employment rates were 49 per cent compared to 75 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. The target to halve that gap has not been met. Until recently, closing the gap was not a real partnership with Indigenous people. The Community Development Program, though, has supported remote jobseekers into almost 30,000 jobs. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities now have greater control over the program, with a focus on flexible, locally led support for jobseekers. We are listening to people in remote communities because they are our communities. The Nationals' focus is on doing what these communities want and need, not what special interest groups want.
Economic empowerment is key, and realised and hoped for in Collinsville, North Queensland, where traditional owners are leading a coal-fired power station project proposal with a focus on Indigenous employment. Australia's first high-efficient, low-emissions, ultra-super-critical coal-fired power plant could mean 2,000 jobs in regional Queensland during the construction phase and 600 regional jobs once operations begin, with, as I said, a focus on Indigenous employment. Including Indigenous Australians in making local decisions to build capacity employment benefits all, economically and socially. Sustainable, ongoing, meaningful employment in regional communities for everyone is a priority for the National Party. Putting Indigenous Australians in the decision-making process as outlined by the Prime Minister will mean a better outcome for all.
This next chapter in closing the gap will be guided by the principles of empowerment and self-determination and will deliver a community-led strategy that enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to move beyond the present into a thriving future. Rewarding careers are what we want to see. Indigenous Australians at local, regional and national levels are embedding knowledge and leadership. They're co-designing the systems, policies and operational frameworks, and are working with governments to make positive change for their families and communities. They're our communities. We're sharing priorities with Indigenous Australians and with state and territory governments, and, for the first time, Indigenous expertise is at the table with government—not to be told what will happen, but the opposite: for the first time, Indigenous expertise will be used to talk, to educate and to inform so that they can have a real and meaningful input into a say around future developments.
We are seeing more Indigenous kids in school by working with the community. Initiatives such as the teacher boost for remote Australia, removing all or part of the HELP debt for over 3,000 students, will encourage more teachers to work and stay in very remote areas. As Senator Dodson raised, basic services being delivered to remote and regional communities means we have to get more teachers, more nurses and more doctors practising in these communities so that Indigenous Australians living there can have the full experience of being a citizen of this country and the services that that should entitle them to.
By discussing and recognising the past and understanding the present, we're better equipped to create positive change to eliminate the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. For 100 years, the National Party has worked to ensure rural and regional Australians have the same opportunities as those in the city. This is our challenge. We know a good education leads to a rewarding long-term career. We want to see partnerships, not paternalism. Only together can we hope to close the gap, so that all Australians enjoy all the benefits of this country that is both young, and infinitely ancient. Thank you.
I rise also to speak to the Closing the gap report 2019. Firstly, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land that we are meeting on. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledge that this land was never ceded and that we have, as a nation, a lot of unfinished business.
I'd first like to start talking about progress on closing the gap and making some comments as they relate to what sorts of things we need to do if we are going to meet the aspirations that were included in this particular set of targets and those that are currently being developed with the Coalition of Peaks.
The target to ensure that 95 per cent of all First Nations four-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is on track, although you will notice that it looks like enrolments have decreased over the last 12 months. I'm deeply concerned that some of the changes that have been made to childcare subsidies are in fact disproportionately impacting on First Nations parents. I've had some pretty strong feedback on that particular issue and the complications that now make it much harder for First Nations parents, in the bush particularly, to navigate. In 2018, 86.4 per cent of First Nations children were enrolled in early childhood education. This is a very important step to ensuring that young people stay connected with school and, of course, develop the child's cognitive and social skills. The child commissioner's report which I commented on earlier this week, and that I'll come back to, notes, for example, that ear health for First Nations children is 2.9 per cent worse than for non-Indigenous children and that they're 2.9 times more likely to have a hearing problem. This is an issue that I have been passionate about over the years and it is deeply connected to education, because if we don't address that issue and get on top of it then children's engagement with school will be deeply affected by hearing impairments.
The other target that is on track to be met is halving the gap in year 12 attainment or equivalent for First Nations students. Around 66 per cent of First Nations 20- to 24-year-olds had attained year 12 or equivalent, which is an important improvement. Yet it is with a very heavy heart that I note we're not on track to meet the rest of the targets.
The target to halve the gap in mortality rates for First Nations children under five within a decade is not even close to being met. In fact, because non-Indigenous infant mortality rates have improved at a faster rate, the gap has actually widened. The First Nations child mortality rate was twice the rate of non-Indigenous children. Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to end up being taken into the child protection system. Forty per cent of those in the out-of-home care system are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. In fact, we have more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care now than when the Bringing them homereport was tabled.
These statistics are not what you would expect and do not belong in a so-called First World country like Australia. We are also far away from closing the gap in life expectancy by 2031. First Nations women have a life expectancy gap of 7.8 years and First Nations men have a gap of 8.6 years. These targets are heavily dependent on the social determinants of health and wellbeing including housing, education, income support, wages, employment. We are failing to address these particular social determinants of health, particularly for First Nations people, so how can we expect that we would be closing the gap if they are not being dealt with? It is estimated that social determinants are responsible for at least 34 per cent of the health gap between First Nations people and non-Indigenous people. This is one of the reasons why we have not made progress in closing the gap.
The target to close the gap in school attendance is also not on track. School attendance rates for years 1 to10 have not improved for First Nations students over the past five years. Similarly, the target to halve the gap in the share of First Nations children at or above national minimum standards in reading and numeracy within the decade has not been met. About one in four First Nations students in years 5, 7 and 9 remain below national minimum standards in reading.
Finally, we are not going to meet the target to halve the gap in employment outcomes between First Nations and non-Indigenous people within a decade. In 2018, the employment rate for First Nations people was around 49 per cent compared to 75 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. This data shows, as Pat Turner, the co-chair of the current COAG process and chair of the Coalition of Peaks, so clearly articulated this week:
There is more than just a gap, it is a chasm, a gaping wound on the soul of our nation.
I want to come to the inability of consecutive governments to meet the Closing the Gap targets. It is not through lack of ambition or commitment from First Nations people to get the message to government and try and work with government to meet these targets. But you have to look at some of the issues that are stopping us meeting those targets. I've just been through the failure to adequately address social determinants of health such as housing. When you are living in an overcrowded house, how can you be expected to go to school? We've canvassed this issue so often in this place but we are still seeing a failure to invest in housing and employment outcomes.
Discriminatory policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention, which is still being applied in the Northern Territory under another name, by and large, are still there. And we have a government that is intent on forcing the current compulsory income management process into the cashless debit card. Prime Minister, if you are listening to this debate in the chamber, it is a top-down approach, the very approach you had a go at in your statement today on Closing the Gap. He made a specific reference to top-down approaches, and yet that is what the cashless debit card is. That is what the Community Development Program is. It's no wonder we're not meeting and closing the gap on employment. It is because that is a failed program. That program ends up penalising First Nations peoples. There is a wildly disproportionate increase in the number of penalties applied in regional and remote communities through the CDP program, which means people lose money. They end up further entrenched in poverty. These sorts of punitive approaches have to stop if we are to have any hope in closing the gap.
Today Scott Morrison acknowledged in his address that a top-down approach hasn't worked for First Nations peoples, so why is the government not scrapping the policies that they are imposing through this top-down approach, which is not working, as the evidence shows? The evaluation of the Northern Territory intervention showed it met none of its objectives. This card disproportionately impacts First Nations peoples and entrenches poverty, disadvantage and stigma. People still talk about it being like ration days.
A recent study found—this came out at the inquiry into the next rollout of the card—that women on compulsory income management in the Northern Territory under the Northern Territory intervention were more likely to have babies with low birth weights. That's critical evidence there. It is peer reviewed, thorough research. The government's imposition of compulsory income management contradicts its commitment to the new national agreement on closing the gap.
We have far too many First Nations peoples caught up in the criminal justice system. We've heard the statistics for young people, women and men. And yet we still haven't seen the Northern Territory government or the government here fully committing to the implementation of the royal commission into youth justice in the Northern Territory. There were absolutely critical recommendations around diversionary programs and making sure that young people don't end up in the justice system in the first place. These are the sorts of evidence based policies that will meaningfully break the cycle of involvement with the criminal justice system. There's been consistent push-back over the years to include justice targets in the existing Closing the Gap targets, something that the government committed to when they were in opposition and then didn't do when they got in government.
It's appalling that we're still seeing the lack of implementation of the reports that, in fact, Senator Dodson referred to: the royal commissions, the Bringing them home report and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We've only just seen the implementation of a custody notification system in Western Australia. I'm really pleased that it's there now, but it's only just happened. Those recommendations were from 1991.
Today the Prime Minister used the word 'jobs' seven times in his address, as if that is some sort of magic antidote for closing the gap. Yes, it is very important; I'm not saying it is not. But we have failed approaches. Unless we address those social determinants of health, it's very difficult to ensure that First Nations peoples can actually get meaningful jobs and stay in those jobs.
The CDP program is failing. It's discriminatory. It needs to be replaced. And it's not for want of Aboriginal organisations presenting to government very, very good programs that can be implemented. They have a plan for how we could increase employment; but, again, it was not taken up. No, the government will tinker around with the Community Development Program. So we have a long way to go. If we are genuinely going to close the gap under this new process, the government is going to have to get rid of those discriminatory programs.
I want to turn now to the future and the positive work that's been done on closing the gap with the Coalition of Peaks, the group of 50 community controlled peak organisations who are now working in co-design with COAG on a new national agreement on closing the gap.
This new agreement will set shared priorities and targets for the next decade. For the first time Aboriginal peoples will have an equal voice and, hopefully, full ownership of the Closing the Gap framework. This historic partnership gives First Nations people shared decision-making power with governments, and Pat Turner today at the Closing the Gap lunch clearly articulated that it has to be at national, state and local level—she was very clear about that. She articulated the key priorities they have put to government about agreement over decision-making processes and being at the table at all levels of government; that services have to be led, delivered and developed by community controlled organisations but that mainstream organisations also have to take responsibility and deliver their services to First Nations peoples and not in a discriminatory manner. She also made the very strong point about ownership of data, making sure they get access to data. Those are the priorities they have put to government.
It's not there yet. We have to see the outcome of that continuing work. There are a lot of people putting a lot of faith in that process. It's a particularly important process that can literally change the direction of this nation. It can ensure that Aboriginal people are self-determining, that they are leading, developing and owning the programs that they know will work, and that they won't be subject to the vagaries of changing government priorities all the time.
It depends on who you speak to today as to what today means to different people. If you talk to young Australians in particular—and I had an interview with triple j Hack not long ago—they have a different view of what this day means in terms of the parliament's efforts to improve the lives of First Nations people. They asked pretty heavy questions, and I thought it was important that those questions were asked about how far we've come and the fact that in the parliament today there was an acceptance of a failure in achieving the targets that we've all stood for each year since 2008—whether in the parliament or in our respective places outside the parliament in whatever organisations we work as First Nations people—of wanting to believe that the parliament of Australia is sincere and genuine and has a determined focus to improve the lives for First Nations people but also to improve the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Those are the young people of this country who look at the parliament today and ask: why have you failed? What are you guys doing? What are you, the coalition, doing? What are we, Labor, doing? What are the crossbenchers doing? What are the First Nations members of the parliament doing to improve the lives of First Nations people? It was a poignant question because it's a question that goes to the heart, I believe—and should go to the heart—of each and every member of the Senate and the House of Representatives. But when I came into the parliament this morning and read articles on the treatment of the First Nations minister, Ken Wyatt, by his own colleagues on his side and I read about the views of my fellow senators on the government benches on the future of First Nations people in the Constitution to be recognised, to have a voice, I got angry, really angry. This is a day when—and it's the one day of the year—our parliament should be focusing completely on First Nations people, but yet again we're distracted by internal conflict in the parties opposite, in the leaders who could be doing more.
When we have young Australians asking these questions, each and every one of us doesn't really have an answer adequate enough to justify why we're failing in these targets. But when you also speak to young Australians who ask these questions you try to connect the history of how this began in 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had to work with a hostile parliament to just say sorry to the stolen generations of this country—a hostile parliament where members walked out, refusing to acknowledge that this was a significant day with the apology to First Nations people. Yet, on the lawns out in front of Parliament House and right across the country, hundreds and thousands of Australians gathered, black and white. Why? Because they wanted to have hope—hope in a future that was theirs, hope in a future that belongs to their children and grandchildren for all people who call Australia home. When we come together for Closing the Gap day, that is what First Nations people are looking for—that continued hope for that vision for a future and everyday living. But we fail as members of parliament when we cannot connect and cannot listen to what First Nations people are saying. We fail when we talk about CDP, the Community Development Program, and the cashless debit card when we know, from numerous inquiries, the entrenched poverty that continues across the regions of Australia and when we know that these have a direct correlation to the health, the education, the housing, the jobs and, most importantly, the life expectancy of our First Nations people.
When young Australians ask what we're doing, I can say that I work on inquiries. I worked with Senator Keneally on the still birth inquiry. We went around the country and listened to those families. We know that the rate of still birth for Indigenous people is far greater, just like most of the other health factors we talk about in here. To the credit of Greg Hunt, the health minister, he listened to those recommendations and he made a difference by following through. Now that's a really good example of something we can stand up and talk about on Closing the Gap day. It's something we have done together as parliamentarians from all walks of life.
But today when I listened to the Prime Minister speak, wanting again to find that hope and that way forward, I looked at the minister sitting beside him, Ken Wyatt, and I thought, 'When you, Prime Minister, say that you're engaging with First Nations people, I want to believe that that's not just-lip service.' When leaders like Pat Turner and other leaders of the Aboriginal community controlled organisations in this country sit beside you, whether it's at the cabinet table, in a room in the parliament or out there beyond the parliament, and you say you're engaging, then that has to follow through with the policies that you deliver in this parliament, because I can tell you that those First Nations people who are sitting with you today are going to be the same people who'll turn around tomorrow and really give it to you if you are not genuine in that engagement. You may say you have them at the table now but, if you do not treat them with the respect that must come through both this Senate and that House in terms of the policies that this parliament delivers to improve the lives of First Nations peoples, you will not be calling that an engagement anymore; you will need the makarrata commission after that, let me tell you.
I see Ken Wyatt sitting there, someone who, I have no doubt, has the greatest sincerity in wanting to improve the lives of people in this country and improve the understanding between black people and white people. I find it really shallow when the people sitting around him are forever in the newspapers, at some stage or other, wanting to tear him down, wanting to rubbish him as a minister, and wanting to say that he's no good and put him in his place. Then they say: 'We don’t know anything about a Constitution. No-one's talked to us about a referendum.' Well, hello, Senators. We've been talking about it since May 2017. It isn't about the Constitution, is it? It's actually about your relationship with the First Nations man in your cabinet. I can say as an Aboriginal woman—forget what side of politics I may be on—that it's disgraceful the way that you treat him. If you think holding him out on this day is going to cover the bases for you, let me tell you that First Nations people will see right through that, as I'm speaking to you right now, as I see it.
So there has to be a genuine connection. I say this to young Australians because they ask these questions of me and I'm sure they will ask it of many others. Those listeners who join in on Triple J and all the young shows around the country, they deserve to know if there is hope for the future. Are we as a parliament courageous enough to have that sincere engagement and to open our eyes and our hearts? We need to open our eyes and hearts to the fact that when you crush people with policies you are keeping them down—Senator Dodson and I and my colleagues talk about it, and I know the Greens talk about it—and that has a direct correlation with whether they are rising above the entrenched poverty we see right across the country.
Let's talk about jobs. When ministers get up in here and say, 'We've created 1.5 million jobs,' I go: 'Oh, that's great. You know what? There are 33,000 people on CDP. Are they any of those 1.5 million? If they are, please tell me and I'll go trumpet that for you. I will be proud of that for you.' But it's not. It's not happening. Then they talk about the cashless debit card and want to impose it on 23,000 people in the Northern Territory who are already suffering from an intervention that took place under Prime Minister John Howard. And people in the Northern Territory are living on the BasicsCard. That is not giving people hope.
I think Close the Gap Day should be all about looking at what our future is. But that future has to be about how we treat one another. If I see a First Nations bloke in the cabinet of the coalition government being treated like rubbish, what do you think the people out there think? What do you think the people, especially First Nations people, think? We're not silly. There has to be genuine and sincere engagement, and that includes how we treat one another in here. If that's how you're treating him, it's no wonder the way people out in these organisations—especially Aboriginal organisations whose funding was cut under Tony Abbott by $500 million and who've never recovered since then. These are areas that deal with health, education and our children—children who keep getting taken away. I get phone calls from people who desperately need help because their child has been taken away by welfare—aunties, grandmothers, who call, wanting to know what they can do. But first you're dealing with the trauma of the fact that they've realised that the child has just been taken from them. As recently as the weekend, a grandmother rang me and said: 'My grandchild has just been taken from her parents and put on a plane and flown to Darwin from a community. What can I do?' This is the daily existence of people out there.
Senators, you only have to look at 26 January, just a few weeks ago, and see the hundreds of thousands of Australians who marched in various rallies across the country, wanting a better future, a better vision, for our country. There might be groups in there that you might not agree with, but you've got to step back and be quite impressed by the numbers of people who were getting out there because they believe in something that we are not doing as a parliament. We're not improving the lives of First Nations people in our jails—there are way too many of them. That's what a lot of those protests were about, and they'll continue. There are too many children being taken away. Tomorrow, on the anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations, we're going to see that again. These groups who are so concerned, as they should be, that there are far more removals of First Nations kids in this country than there were when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood up and apologised to the stolen generations. That is our collective responsibility as a parliament.
So next year, when we come together for Closing the Gap, I hope I don't have to keep reminding the parliament of how significant the day is. But I certainly hope we can become a country that's far more understanding of the connection between the policies and legislation we create in here and the direct impact it has on the lives of First Nations people in this country.
When I speak here today I hope that I am going to get across the voice of many Australians. I've never been a pretender, and the people of Australia are relying on me to speak openly and honestly about this issue of closing the gap. Closing the Gap is complete rubbish, and my thoughts are echoed by many Aboriginals who take the time to meet with me. As far as I'm concerned, it's a joke. The call for recognition is just a feel-good smokescreen that hides the true problems. The biggest problem facing Aboriginal Australians today is their own lack of commitment and responsibility to helping themselves.
Closing the Gap is the marketing term used by politicians and bureaucrats so they can feel good about themselves and get in front of TV cameras and pretend they're doing something to lift remote First Nations people out of their self-perpetuating hell holes. Most Australians know that tens of billions of dollars are spent each year to help alter the standard of living between those in remote Aboriginal communities and even those living in our developed parts of Australia. When you spend billions of dollars a year on any group of people you expect outcomes. Sadly, those billions have gone to the non-productive, unrepentant Aboriginal industry, not to where it should go, the grassroots Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is an industry that has achieved no notable benefits in pulling our First Nations people out of squalor, domestic violence and poverty.
When I speak here today I represent the quiet Australians, those Australians who have had a gutful of the billion-dollar handouts with very little to show for them. Far too many Aboriginal kids in remote communities at this very moment are starving. They're that hungry they're breaking in to homes not to steal DVD players but to steal food. Far too many Aboriginal kids are fearful of their alcoholic parents and family members, who prey on their vulnerability. Those Aboriginal children in my home state of Queensland, in towns like Doomadgee, Woorabinda, Aurukun and Yarrabah, remain vulnerable to sexual assault and a life of petrol and paint sniffing under the current weak plans by our federal and state governments.
On the other hand, I need to commend the hard work of the NPA Regional Council, led by Mayor Eddie Newman and by Councillor Michael Bond from New Mapoon, who took the time to meet with me last year to genuinely speak about bridging the gap. Together with their council colleagues in Umagico, Seisia, Bamaga and Injinoo, they have demonstrated that we can close the gap with work programs and opportunities for our Queensland Indigenous people—and so too with the mayor of the Torres Strait Islander Council, Fred Gela, and the Torres Shire Council mayor, Vonda Malone. What people need to understand about me and One Nation is that we will always give credit to those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups who are actively striving to better outcomes for their people, but I'll also call out those dysfunctional communities.
I spoke about this issue 24 years ago when I was first elected to the House of Representatives. It wasn't called Closing the Gap back then, but again we threw countless billions at the very same problems we're talking about today. What's changed since I first raised those issues? Nothing. We still have Aboriginal kids not going to school. The wonderful air-conditioned school in Doomadgee has around 400 students enrolled, but they're barely able to roll-call 50 per cent of students on any given day. They've got just one child in the whole school with a 100 per cent attendance record. Whose fault is that? Lazy parents. You can't blame the whites when it's your own negligence. We can throw all the money in the world at building these schools, with three meals a day for $2 to make sure Aboriginal kids are given a wholesome meal while they're at school, but, if they don't turn up, how do they get ahead in life? We're also bribing parents with payments to send their kids to school, but even that's not working.
Never before have Aboriginal people been given greater opportunity to get a job. I see it frequently advertised: 'Only Aboriginals need apply.' I had a letter sent to my office last year that confessed to applying for one of these jobs, even though the writer knew he wasn't Aboriginal and in fact he wasn't even Australian; he was a Pacific islander. When he was quizzed about his heritage, he made up a story, saying he was a part of the stolen generation and had no proper knowledge of his background. What type of mockery does this create?
Many Australians feel we have widened the gap as a result of Federal Court and High Court decisions. Only yesterday, we undermined our border security and immigration laws with the decision by our High Court. We widen the gap by dropping Australia's national anthem at football games but are expected to stand and conduct a welcome to country.
You will never close the gap while this parliament continues to hand native title land claims back to land councils. The tensions this creates among tribes or mobs is feeding the division in many of these remote communities. I hear frequently from Aboriginals who have serious concerns with the behaviour of Noel Pearson and Jason Yanner, alias Little Boy Murrandoo Yanner. These people aren't helping close the gap; they're simply riding the gravy train.
Incarceration rates of Aboriginals remain alarmingly high, even with the reluctance from the courts to jail them. The simple truth is: if you do the crime, you do the time. We expect it of every other Australian or person who comes to this country. If you want to close the gap, start taking some responsibility for your own people. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. We've provided the schools, it's now up to you to send your own kids to school. We've provided the jobs, but it's up to you to turn up when you're rostered on, not when it suits. It's up to the Aboriginals to stay off the grog and the drugs.
I will leave you with my final thoughts. Closing the gap should be about treating all Australians equally and on an individual needs basis, not one based on race. These government policies that are based on race are themselves discriminatory and racist. Stop feeding the resentment in this country and you'll naturally close the gap. And stop playing the victim if we are to move forward as a united country. Resentment, hatred and blaming have to stop. We owe this to all future generations, regardless of race or colour.
My understanding is that the convention is that leaders of party have precedence over newly-arrived senators. I acknowledge that in the most recent circumstance, Senator McCarthy was given the call on the basis that she is a proud First Nations woman—and I support that call. But I don't believe that Senator Bragg has that same claim, so I'm seeking the call.
Thank you very much, Mr Acting Deputy President. I rise as the Greens leader in the Senate to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we're on, the Ngunnawal people, and acknowledge that as sovereignty was never ceded we're on stolen land. This was and always will be Aboriginal land, and I would like to pay tribute to the First Nations parliamentarians in this place.
In relation to the last contribution, which we just heard from One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson, it's the racism that we've come to expect from her and her party. I might note that this is precisely why the Greens are pushing for a parliamentary code of conduct that would ban hate speech. I would like to apologise on her behalf for the offence that was likely caused to many listening to those words. They don't reflect the sentiment of this chamber, nor do I believe they reflect the sentiment of the vast majority of Australians.
We heard some very fine words from the Prime Minister this morning, but words will not close the gap; action will. So far, this government is known for the racist Northern Territory intervention, the racist cashless debit card, cutting half a million dollars from the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and cutting funding for the Family Violence Prevention Legal Service. And just this week, in court, it was arguing that Indigenous people with dual citizenship should be deported as aliens. So the Prime Minister's remarks this morning were, frankly, hypocritical, compared to the actions of this government. In fact, he went so far as to imply that the Closing the Gap targets were too ambitious. No! No, they are not, and we need truth, treaty and justice. I support and endorse the comments made by our wonderful spokesperson for Indigenous affairs, Senator Rachel Siewert, and pay tribute to the many years that she's worked on these issues.
I want to make just a few remarks about the issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and about some resourcing matters. First Nations women experience violence at three times the rate of non-Indigenous women. First Nations women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence than non-Indigenous women. The government's fourth action plan for the elimination of violence against women did start to make some positive noises. It noted the need to respect and listen to First Nations people affected by violence and to acknowledge their unique experiences; it noted the need to deliver 'high-quality, holistic, trauma-informed and culturally safe supports' suited to the complex needs of First Nations women and children; and it noted the need to address the immediate impacts and underlying drivers of family violence in First Nations communities through collective action. But, despite those commitments, the government cut funding to the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum—FVPLS, as it's known. The forum is the coordinating body for First Nations organisations that are dedicated to addressing family and domestic violence, and it plays a critical role in implementing culturally safe family violence prevention services. It works to give a collective voice to First Nations women and children affected by family violence and it helps to shape effective, targeted and culturally appropriate government policy responses.
There was a national evaluation of the FVPLS program, and it recommended increased funding to support members, to develop resources and to share information about best practices. Those are exactly the things that the FVPLS national forum is providing, yet the government cut its funding. The cuts are entirely inconsistent with this so-called Closing the Gap Refresh and the principles of co-design. The cuts will put culturally appropriate family violence services at risk and, by doing so, put First Nations women and children at risk. The Greens have called on the government not only to reverse those funding cuts to the national FVPLS forum but to increase funding to this critical service. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO said this in response to the cuts:
The National FVPLS Forum supports our women and helps to keep us and our families safe. It is also a member of the Close the Gap Campaign, and we must ask how we can close health and wellbeing gaps when the organisations tasked with doing so are themselves under threat of closure.
On maternal health care: the Closing the gap report recognises that maternal health, including antenatal and prenatal care, is the key driver in reducing Indigenous child mortality. Complications in pregnancy and birth result in a widening gap between Indigenous child mortality and non-Indigenous child mortality, and this is inexcusable. History and politics continue to shape the lives and the health of First Nations peoples overall, affecting the health of First Nations women and their babies. I want to note the tragic death of Naomi Williams, a 27-year-old Wiradjuri woman who was 22 weeks pregnant when she died of septicaemia in 2016. Ms Williams had made 20 visits to various medical centres in the months leading up to her death but had been turned away or given little medical attention. Last year a New South Wales coronial inquest into her death identified clear and ongoing deficiencies in the care Ms Williams received. The coroner found that implicit bias, lack of culturally appropriate providers and a lack of Indigenous representation in health services and boards could no longer be denied. The government must do more to urgently improve access to culturally appropriate care, particularly in maternal health.
The last thing I want to address is the fact that this government continues to ignore First Nations people on resource decisions. Fracking for shale gas has started in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory against the wishes of traditional owners, who are terrified about the impacts on their water resources. This government has ignored them. In fact, our environmental laws don't even cover fracking if it's for shale gas. The federal government did, however, approve the pipeline for the export of that gas. This government also has repeatedly voted against my draft legislation, my bill, to give landholders, including traditional owners, the right to say no to fracking, to coal and to gas.
Sadly, there are more examples. The Wangan and Jagalingou people in my home state of Queensland have unequivocally opposed the Adani coalmine. They did not consent to the mine and they have fought it in court. They continue to fight it, even when Adani have callously pursued Wangan and Jagalingou council leader Adrian Burragubba for costs. This government has not only ignored them but approved the mine. But it also stood by as the Queensland government extinguished native title over the Wangan and Jagalingou country to enable the mine to proceed. This government has allowed traditional owners to be treated as trespassers. And, just this week, it took the High Court to rule that Indigenous people who are dual citizens are not aliens in their own country. There is a credibility gap between this government's words and its actions. We need not just a refresh of the Closing the Gap approach but a refresh of the people running this joint.
For me, the overriding sense from today is that this country has let Indigenous people down. The reason I spent a large part of my first speech last year dealing with this issue is that I have always felt it was the nation's unfinished business. I mean, how could we have a situation where people could be left so far behind on almost every social indicator. Frankly, after hearing some of the contributions that were made earlier, I'm really not sure what world they're living in. But I promised myself I would make these brief remarks free of politics.
I think today is a good day in the sense that we now have a lot more Indigenous input into what these targets should look like. I very much welcome that. I'm hoping that, next year, we'll see some significant improvements. This year, the improvements on early-childhood education and year 12 attainment are steps in the right direction. But there is a lot more to do. I am a big believer in having an Indigenous voice to parliament. When I travel around New South Wales and talk to Indigenous people, they always make the same point to me—that is, that on the ground, whether they are community leaders or community members, they haven't got sufficient control to run their affairs at the grassroots level in the way they would like to. My sense is that, if a voice could create more control for Indigenous people on the ground, if it was practical, that would be a very, very good step.
More broadly, there is an important job for us to do on recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution. I am very confident that Minister Wyatt, who is the first Indigenous person to hold a cabinet rank and also the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, will shepherd through a good process which will give the community many options for what a voice could look like. That process is being chaired by Marcia Langton and Tom Calma, and it is a good process. Once that voice is nailed down, there will be an opportunity to talk about constitutional recognition. The benefit of doing the voice first is that it is substantive, it is material and it could be the sort of reform that could really change some of those numbers we have seen today, which I think everyone would agree we need to do more work on. I very much look forward to working in a bipartisan fashion as we develop these models for a voice to parliament. The Labor Party, in the committees I have been on, have been very constructive. Despite some of the reporting today, I am optimistic about what this process could achieve.
( Senator Hanson has dedicated her public life to lowering the tone of every debate that she participates in, and today is no exception. If she was unable to show empathy or understanding, she could at least have shown restraint. Her racist comments—and they are racist—have no place in this chamber.
Our First Nations people have endured far worse over the years. Now, I have faith in their strength and their resilience. Senator Hanson, after all, is not such a formidable opponent. But it doesn't make her comments okay. They are not okay. We have heard from many speakers today about the challenges that face First Nations communities—the challenge that we ought to take up in this place, in this parliament, as true allies to First Nations communities who are fighting for their future and the future of their children. Those challenges are many and while we've made some progress, as the reports today demonstrate, the results on health, on education and on early childhood are simply unacceptable. As the Leader of the Opposition said earlier today, these are not just statistics; these are people—sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles.
If we want to see real progress on closing the gap, we must properly understand how the consequences of dispossession and the removal from country and culture—the misguided policies, no matter how well-intentioned—have transcended generations and can still be seen and felt today.
First Nations people have given us a map. They gathered in Uluru and they made a statement—the Statement from the Heart—and they talked about what they wanted clearly, unequivocally and with a unity of purpose that we'd do well to heed. Because what First Nations people have asked for is a voice to parliament, and if we mean what we say when we say that we wish to partner with people, then what could be more sensible than a voice established to allow First Nations people to be consulted on the questions that affect them?
If the analysis provided by the government today about the results from the Closing the gap report is correct—if we accept it—that the results derive from a failure to work with First Nations people, then how can we reject their call for a voice? How can we reject their call for a constitutionally enshrined voice and the certainty that such enshrinement would offer to those people? The Statement from the Heart also asks for makarrata—for treaty-making, for truth-telling. These are opportunities for Australia—opportunities for us to embrace our history, to embrace what First Nations people offer us.
Today is an opportunity to reflect on how far we have to go in closing the gap in quality of life for Indigenous Australians. Our contributions should be thoughtful. They should be measured. They should have the integrity of the contributions we heard earlier from our First Nations senators, my comrades Senator McCarthy and Senator Dodson—and I am so proud of the contributions they made in this place today. They stand in stark contrast to what was offered by Senator Hanson. Today is not a day for bigotry and it is not a day for filth.
In the two minutes that I have at this point I, too, concur with the sentiments expressed by Senator McAllister. I was appalled to hear the contributions from Senator Hanson today. But that is all I'll say on that matter because I'm not going to give it any further air.
I also think it's time that we heard the First Nations voice on closing the gap. Today in the House, we should have heard the voices of Mr Ken Wyatt and Ms Linda Burney. Tonight, in this place, in the Senate, the first voices we should have heard are those of Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy. That's how it should be, and I hope that next year we can get better agreement. The fact that Senator McCarthy had to line up behind non-Indigenous speakers offended me greatly—I told her I was going to mention this, and I'm glad that I've put it on the record. If we are honest and sincere about listening, about a partnership and about First Nations people leading, then we haven't done it in this place and we didn't do it in the House today.
Debate interrupted .