Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Ministerial Statements

Closing the Gap

10:34 am

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

I rise today to make a contribution on the Closing the Gap report. Today I am speaking with my granddaughter Charlee in mind. Charlee is 15 years old, with plenty of expectation about her future. She wants to do environmental science at university; sometimes she wants to study at ANU, here in Canberra. Her friend Mona wants her to travel to Germany and study there with her. And sometimes Charlee dreams about buying a van and travelling around Australia.

Charlee is Gija from Warmun in the Kimberley and comes from a family torn apart by the harsh policies of the past, a past where children were stolen from their families and placed in institutions. Her maternal grandmother grew up on the fringes of Geraldton in substandard housing—a very small house with dirt floors—on what was then called the 'native reserve'. Charlee carries the intergenerational trauma experienced by the stolen generations, and perpetuated in policies and government decisions which disproportionately disadvantage First Nations people. Charlee's first experience of racism was in a supermarket queue, where her grandmother's bag was searched. They were the only First Nations people in the queue, and no-one else had their bags searched. Charlee remembers this, and she remembers it as racism. Charlee was about eight years old.

Despite all of this, like all children and young adults, Charlee has expectations about her success and her future, so I was appalled to hear our Prime Minister say that Charlee, as an Indigenous child, should have the same expectations as non-Aboriginal children. Believe me, Charlee does. It's not about Charlee's expectations; it's about our attitudes and policy decisions, the decisions that we take, that continue to disadvantage First Nations people. As Senator Wong said in her contribution yesterday, non-First Nations people have a gap to close as well.

I'm reminded of an opinion piece written by Linda Burney, the member for Barton, about Australia Day. She said:

… 26 January is a reminder, not only of the dispossession and injustice, but also our strength and survival as a people and as a culture.

Linda went on to say:

Surely it is possible for us to learn, not only about the view from the boats that arrived, but the view from those on shore whose way of life changed forever.

So it is time for us to put ourselves into the shoes of First Nations people and look at that view. That's the view we should be looking at.

It is about listening and acting on the solutions First Nations people put forward. It's not about doing it our way, it not about doing it in the way we've done it in the past; it is about doing it in the way that First Nations people ask for and about doing it differently with proper, long-term funding commitments.

In WA over the past two years I have been listening to First Nations women. So far we've held two forums: one in Perth and one more recently in Roebourne. We've had about 300 women come to those forums. They've never been asked for their opinions. They've never sat in a room with politicians who can be decision-makers, who've said to them, 'I'm here to listen to you.' I'm really honoured that both Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Ms Linda Burney came to those forums as ambassadors, and you could see the pride in the eyes of the women to know that they have two Labor women politicians representing them in Canberra.

I looked at some of the targets that hadn't been met and I looked at what the First Nations women were telling us in Perth and in Roebourne. They had very different views. In relation to the gap in mortality rates, women said healthcare professionals need to undergo training to ensure they're using suitable language and have the cultural knowledge to treat Aboriginal patients. They talked about a health literacy program that is culturally appropriate, locally set up and delivered to ensure Aboriginal people of all ages understand healthy living. They talked about ngangkaris and, sadly, they also talked about the absolute racism they experience when they go to a hospital or go to a doctor. They described to me the framework. They say they're seen as: 'Oh, here comes an Aboriginal person who must be drunk.' We saw the shameful contribution of a senator in this place yesterday who simply took a blanket approach. So that's what they experience from doctors and health professionals when they go to hospitals. Is it any wonder then that they don't go to hospitals, that they don't visit doctors? They're saying: this is the change we need in our healthcare system.

On closing the gap in Indigenous literacy, the women said, 'We want to see a curriculum that's comprehensive, that has appropriate cultural learning programs.' That use of appropriate cultural learning, cultural ways and cultural practices came up over and over again throughout the day. We want to see it led by people from their own communities, and they believe this would break the stigma and bring forward a better cultural understanding. They want to see schools adopt a process of two-way learning—learning that teaches Aboriginal kids how to operate in a Western society, while still maintaining a strong sense of pride in their heritage.

Over and again First Nations women told us they want to see their languages taught in school, and they're frustrated and simply do not understand why in a remote community their children are presented with the option of learning Indonesian but not their own language. I've got to say, when you hear First Nations women say that, you just shake your head because it doesn't make any sense. Yes, offer Indonesian, of course, but offer the local language as well.

On school attendance rates, there were very strong opinions around how we could change this. They want to see community members working as Aboriginal liaison officers to check the attendance of students and communicate with families. They also want to see these liaison officers help carers navigate the system, navigate the enrolment forms, which are always in English—which is often a second language—and make the process of enrolment easier, to find birth certificates and get immunisation records to make sure that kids are in school.

They also want to see flexible uniform arrangements to stop their kids being kicked out of class over and over again. It is quite unacceptable in the public school system that kids are refused excursions and other activities because they don't have a uniform. So they want to be able to negotiate that at the local school level. These are not radical changes; these are simple changes that have been put forward by women over and over again at these forums. These are the sorts of changes we need to make.

On attendance at early childhood centres, the women said that they want their elders and local community leaders in the room because they believe they're best equipped to teach their language and they should be allowed to lead lessons. Of course they're often barred, because of their own of lack of English literacy—their own lack of ability to read and write in English. The women were very clear that they should not be disadvantaged and kept out of the classroom because they don't meet a standard that really doesn't apply to them.

I do worry when I hear the government say it wants partnerships and for First Nations people to lead. We saw in the last government Minister Scullion say that in future Aboriginal organisations would lead the failed community development program—so no ability to make change, no ability to stop people being breached and being without money; just clad the program with an Aboriginal organisation so you can tick that box or say, 'That's being Aboriginal-run,' but no ability to change the program. That program continues today, and we know the disadvantage that it has brought particularly to First Nations people across this country.

The cashless debit card: no-one except the government—there's not an academic in this country who believes the cashless debit card is a good way to go. The government now wants to roll it out across Cape York and the Northern Territory. It is racist, it disadvantages people and it doesn't work. If we are about Aboriginal people leading, we would not have those two programs.

One of the other aspects the Prime Minister talked about yesterday was domestic violence. What did we see last year? We saw the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service Forum, a forum for First Nations women, lose its funding. I despair. I see the Morrison government talking the talk but certainly not walking the walk. The solutions are out there. I've given just a glimpse of some of the solutions that have been given to me, Senator McCarthy and Ms Linda Burney. What I saw yesterday in the delivery of the Closing the Gap speech by our Prime Minister was no action. This is not a government that truly wants to close the gap. All Australians demand and deserve better.

10:46 am

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yesterday the Prime Minister made a statement on closing the gap for Aboriginal Australia. As I listen to senators speak, it is difficult to reconcile the words of Labor and Greens senators with the views of the thousands of Australians I speak to and hear from—Australians who are frustrated at the ongoing disadvantage and poverty, the appalling conditions and the lack of safety in the most remote Indigenous communities. The riots in Doomadgee, where hundreds of people were forced to flee into the bush, have already slipped from national attention. Australians do care that billions of dollars of taxpayers' money are spent each year, yet progress on improving the lives of these individuals remains elusive.

These senators have spoken as if there is some magic and silver bullet that is being willingly withheld by government, as if Australians are unmoved and somehow complicit in this terrible conspiracy. This is just not true. There can be no doubt that there remains much to be done in regional and remote Queensland for poor communities. The idea of providing greater determination in decision-making and outcomes accountability to local Indigenous people is a great initiative of this government. What is true is that the politicising, the personal attacks, the vitriol of Twitter and the nasty words of senators opposite trying to undermine Minister Ken Wyatt will not help one Aboriginal kid's or family's future.

I speak to Queensland service providers on the ground in Cairns, like Anglicare, where CEO Ian Roberts talks about kids trying to study but having to care for siblings and about overcrowded houses, where adults are not ensuring that these kids are in a safe environment, much less one that is supportive for studying; in Townsville, like the Yumba Meta Housing Association, who are teaching kids to get up to go to school and to first jobs; and in Brisbane, like Deadly Choices, who have terrific ambassadors like Steve Renouf and are providing really positive changes through health education and making great gains in their community. Not one of these groups has said to me, 'We could help another child, another family, if we had more politicians in Canberra or more money.' It is, as the Prime Minister talked about, having greater involvement of people in the communities, making decisions. The work of Minister Ken Wyatt—who has enormous respect and support for the work he does in this parliament—Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and members in the other place is providing more diverse solutions to the opportunities and problems we have in Australia, not least Aboriginal community health and wellbeing.

I recall the Press Club address given by Noel Pearson in 2008, in Brisbane, where he spoke about the challenges for Indigenous communities being made of poverty, not of race. I listened carefully when in 2013 Warren Mundine, as a member of the Uranium Implementation Committee, talked of the development of microbusinesses in Indigenous communities to provide genuine opportunity. There is the desperate desire of the Greens to turn Australia into a coffee shop to the world. A nation of baristas on casual wages with no secure financial future should alarm every Australian, because it is only with real opportunity for work, for purpose and for self-worth that any Australian can thrive. In Queensland those opportunities are being denied by the Queensland state Labor government in their policies right now with their determination not to allow genuine opportunity in the Channel Country and the Cape through pristine rivers legislation, and the lack of attention to great projects like the Kowanyama irrigation project, Collinsville coal-fired power station and the powerful Indigenous Bidura residential project—all projects run and operated by Indigenous Australians.

Today I want to highlight two outstanding people that provide inspiration and hope to me. One is a young man I met recently by the name of Injarra Harbour, from the western Queensland town of Winton. The other is Keelen Mailman from Augathella, again in Queensland. Injarra is the first Indigenous school captain of Nudgee College in Brisbane. Like many regional bush kids, me included, Injarra had to leave his community to attend boarding school to further his education and development, and to say he has flourished in that environment is an understatement. He attends Nudgee thanks to a scholarship provided by the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, which awarded 450 similar packages to other kids last year alone.

The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation was established in 2008 to help Indigenous students complete year 12 or tertiary studies and to provide employment support after they graduate. At a time when 66 per cent of young Indigenous adults have attained year 12 certificates or better, recipients of AIEF scholarships have a year 12 completion rate of 92 per cent. From Borroloola to Warrnambool, this program is genuinely closing the gap for regional kids and changing lives thanks to support from the federal government as well as some of the country's largest corporations. Seeing Injarra develop into a confident young leader is proof of this commitment to closing the gap for many who contribute to this program and that opportunity is possible no matter where you live. I want to give a shout-out to the community of young men at Nudgee who voted Injarra in as school captain; what a terrific group they are.

We all know that a good education and, importantly, support at home for a good education are key to success later in life. Indeed, one of the criteria for winning an AIEF scholarship is that a student's parents or guardians must demonstrate support for it. This means closing education gaps for Indigenous kids requires buy-in from Indigenous families themselves, and this has been acknowledged by Aboriginal advocates as the most effective way forward.

I would also like to speak about Keelen Mailman, a Bidjara woman from Mount Tabor station at Augathella, which is 650 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Keelen is a foster mum, a cattle station manager and author and this year received an Australia Day award for significant service to the Indigenous community of Queensland. This is on top of being named Barnados Mother of the Year 2016 and being a finalist for Queensland Australian of the Year in 2007.

Keelen is working hard on a terrific project to take first-time offenders on country rather than them entering the juvenile detention system. Her idea for a healing centre for Indigenous kids was awarded a $500,000 grant from the Queensland state government. However, that money has disappeared, and once again a genuine and positive opportunity for a terrific Indigenous project is stalled. I should clarify: when I say disappeared, I mean the Queensland state government has now removed it from the budget, and the project cannot go ahead.

At a time when we're closing the gap and it is in such stark relief, it would be remiss of the Queensland government to ignore this initiative, especially when it is proposed by somebody who has a proven record of effective and sincere care for Australian young people. The 2020 progress report on Closing the Gap shows that, while there's been progress against almost every measure, it has not been enough. Some positives, though, are that Indigenous mothers are attending antenatal care earlier and more frequently, and fewer are smoking during pregnancy. From 2006 to 2018, Indigenous age-standardised mortality rates improved by almost 10 per cent, and since 2016 the number of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood has increased by almost 10 percentage points. Literacy and numeracy outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have improved, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are staying in school for longer and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have year 12 or equivalent qualifications. Through the $200 million Indigenous youth education package, more Indigenous students are getting the support and mentoring they need through their secondary studies. In 2020, over 20,000 students will be supported by the package.

There is still more work to do, but we don't have to look far to see cause for hope in the inspirational achievements of people like Injarra Harbour and Keelen Mailman. I congratulate them on their successes and wish them well for the future. As for us, I wish us a greater sense of collegiality. I wish for us a greater sense of purpose and a shared commitment to genuinely improving the lives of individuals who right now are missing out on opportunities that should be available to every Australian.

But to hear the words from Labor, from the Greens and, in some cases, One Nation are not helpful. They provide for a greater divide, a less unified purpose, on what is a seriously important issue, particularly for those of us who live in regional and remote Australia.

10:56 am

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

I begin this speech on the 12th anniversary of the first tabling of the Closing the gap report by acknowledging that today we have this debate on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples and that it was, is and always will be Indigenous land. It has been a great delight, and important, that in the 12 years since the Closing the gap report was first tabled, that in this place we do an Indigenous acknowledgement of country each morning.

I also want to acknowledge the important influence and leadership of my First Nations colleagues and fellow parliamentarians Linda Burney MP, Ken Wyatt MP and my good friends Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator Patrick Dodson and Senator Jacqui Lambie. I want to highlight what a radical difference it makes to have colleagues who bring their own experiences into these debates. It means that the nature of our debates suddenly becomes a lot more legitimate in the way we engage with them.

I want to give a shout-out to my very good friend Josie Farrer MLA, who is the member for the Kimberley region in the parliament of Western Australia. I think it can at times be really difficult not just for First Nations MPs but also for other MPs who have large populations of First Nations people to bring their voice into parliament. It can be such a disparate experience from other Australians that they have to work twice as hard sometimes to have people really understand the needs of First Nations communities. So I really want to commend the work that my colleagues do in this regard. And I personally undertake to do all I can. I take inspiration from, for example, what Senator Sue Lines has done in the forums she has held with First Nations women.

The Closing the gap report was tabled to hold the government to account in achieving equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in health and life expectancy within a generation. It is unfortunate to see that the report outcomes demonstrate that our policies have again fallen short. We're not on track for five of the seven targets and, in fact, the time when we said we would achieve those targets has long since past, let alone falling behind being on track. Unfortunately, child mortality rates have fallen further behind their non-Indigenous counterparts, highlighting that the gap has actually widened since 2008. While school attendance rates have improved they've also stagnated for the past five years, and there has been no progress at all in life expectancy in the last 12 years. The two targets that were reached—the four-year-olds enrolled in preschool and the number of year 12s graduating—are, unfortunately, also the same as last year.

We've been hearing that these are lofty targets, but I have to say that they're not and that they shouldn't be. They're not too ambitious. I think the problem isn't really to do with the aspiration but with the execution. As Senator McCarthy put it yesterday, we can't step past punitive, top-down policies such as the cashless debit card and the CDP, which actually undermine directly our attempts to better outcomes in the other target areas. Low incomes and punitive policies like these, where government exercises such extreme control over people's lives when they're are already living in poverty, mean that these outcomes are simply not surprising.

I would really like to call on the government and say that it shouldn't be refreshing an approach which is clearly failing. We shouldn't be here lamenting bitterly our shortcomings while every year sticking to the same broken system. I join with Anthony Albanese in his call for urgency in addressing these issues. First Nations Australians should have the power to direct their own futures. There needs to be a referendum, and First Nations people need to be recognised in our Constitution—and have a clear voice here in our parliament.

I've been reflecting on this in recent days as part of this debate, and it's very clear to me that a voice in this parliament is not a difficult thing to achieve. We have many external agencies and institutions that have formal engagement with this parliament in appearing before committees. There are oversight committees and there are committees that have particular relationships with different agencies to make sure there is good to and fro between the parliament and the issues before those agencies. It shouldn't be that difficult to take, for example, a body that Minister Wyatt is working on at the moment which has a voice to government, but also to make sure that that voice is reflected in our parliament so that we can actually hold the government to account for their response to First Nations voices and advocacy.

We really have to move past hurtful policies, such as the cashless debit card and CDP, which have entrenched First Nations people in poverty in many regions. I'm sure that a future First Nations voice will be very firm in its advocacy in this regard. But I acknowledge also that a First Nations voice is very much about listening to the diversity of First Nations voices and communities around our nation. Given the results that were revealed in the Closing the gap report 2019, government really needs to say: 'We don't know better than First Nations communities. We never knew better.'

First Nations people are the oldest continuing culture in the world; we need to stop these paternalistic policies. In my experience, First Nations culture is something to be cherished and learnt from. I'm really privileged, I think, to be an Australian. That means I have access to Indigenous culture and that I'm invited to share in many cultural traditions. It is at the heart of our culture, as a nation.

I would like to place on record the need for us to get behind and commit ourselves as a parliament to bring agency to the Uluru statement. It's really not a great thing for the government to have mandated a process to bring people together through the Uluru Statement of the Heart, to build that hope and then to turn away from the very things that they asked for—for makarrata, for truth-telling, for a voice and for recognition in our Constitution. It's time to stop telling ourselves these comforting fictions about our history and to embrace what we see in our nation as the rich and, yes, at times, the uncomfortable past that we have. There are a multitude of issues which are not addressed in the Closing the gap report 2019, like the fact that Indigenous children are over 10 times more likely to live in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children, that 25 per cent of Indigenous people experience homelessness and that 25 per cent of those people are children.

When we reflect on these issues—and I've listened to the debate over the last couple of days—I'm concerned about the way some members of this place create stigma and reflect on poor parenting without actually reflecting on the intergenerational trauma and the kinds of experiences that families can have which make both parents and children vulnerable. I call on members of this place to really think about how they present those issues. Of course our children can and must be prioritised, but it won't actually get us anywhere if we continue this kind of blame game within First Nations cultures. We need to learn that the way forward is to listen to the voice of our First Nations Australians.

The success that we have seen in improving outcomes has been led by First Nations organisations and cultural leadership. This success is not in prescriptive and constraining policies, but in Aboriginal controlled community health, housing, child support, legal and family violence prevention services across the nation. It's been a great privilege for me to work with many of those—to listen to them and then to work to support them in their goals and aspirations. They are the ones who should be defining targets and the mode in which we achieve them.

If we don't change and update the way we approach these issues we're not going to see the outcomes that we want to see in health, education, housing and life expectancy. We won't reinvent Australia as the reconciled nation that we truly want to be and which has the true joy and appreciation for our First Nations culture that lies at our very heart.

Question agreed to.