Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Ministerial Statements

Closing the Gap

9:31 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the Closing the Gap ministerial statement and the Commonwealth implementation plan.

I rise today to acknowledge the Indigenous people of our country. We pay our respect to the Ngunawal people and all First Peoples and to their elders past, present and emerging. I acknowledge Indigenous Australians serving our country in a wide range of fields today. I acknowledge those Indigenous Australians in the Australian Defence Force, protecting Australians and advancing our interests. At this time of global challenge with this global pandemic I acknowledge those Indigenous Australians serving on the frontline of our medical professions and other fields of endeavour, keeping Australians safe and helping our nation through tough times. I also honour the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who serve in this parliament across both of our chambers: the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians and Senators Dodson, McCarthy, Lambie and Thorpe. We look forward to that number growing.

As the Prime Minister has reflected upon in the other place, at the core of closing the gap is ensuring that every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boy and girl can grow up with the same opportunities and the same expectations as any other Australian child. They should have every opportunity to grow up proud of their culture and confident that it is accorded respect by their fellow Australians.

Thirteen years ago the parliament rightly apologised to the stolen generations. As a new member of this parliament I remember it as a significant moment of great reckoning and a vital step towards reconciliation. As the Prime Minister said, in the nine years that have followed the Closing the Gap process, whilst with the best of intentions at heart, it has at times remained hard of hearing. We still thought we knew better. That is why our government brought together a new 10-year national partnership agreement, signed by all Australian governments, the Coalition of Peaks and the Australian Local Government Association. From that partnership the National Agreement on Closing the Gap was born.

Last Thursday we made the promises of that agreement real with the presentation, as tabled, of the first Commonwealth implementation plan. This agreement holds the financial commitments, partnership, shared accountability and scope that form the most significant and comprehensive response to closing the gap that our government has ever provided. With this implementation plan we are making good on our commitment to do things differently, focusing on listening, learning, accountability, transparency and a genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders and organisations—a partnership built on mutual respect, dignity and, above all, trust.

At the heart of the national agreement is who it empowers and what it inspires. In a significant departure from what we've done before, each of the states and territories and the Coalition of Peaks will be responsible for their own actions and their own plans. An annual Commonwealth progress report will be tabled around this same time every year. Similarly, the states and territories will separately deliver theirs, and all of us will reprioritise our investments to do things that we know will work and are working. To help us understand what the evidence says and our progress, the Productivity Commission will release an annual report on the outcomes and priority reforms. As well as the annual reports, the Productivity Commission will also present an independent review once every three years. After each report by the Productivity Commission, an independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led report will deepen the data and give us a picture of the change happening on the ground.

The first Commonwealth Closing the Gap Implementation Plan, with more than $1 billion worth of new targeted measures, lays the foundation for the work ahead. The plan is an overview of Commonwealth actions to close the gap, aligned to the four priority reforms and the 17 socioeconomic outcomes set in the national agreement, including new target areas such as justice and Indigenous languages.

The measures we're funding reflect a sharpened set of priorities. These are priorities that have been offered and agreed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves. The first of these new priorities is to collaborate better by building better structures for genuine partnership and joint decision-making. The second priority is to build up Indigenous organisations, to empower community controlled sectors to do what they already do best—deliver the services that support closing the gap. Included in this implementation plan is $38.6 million for an Outcomes and Evidence Fund. It will support genuine co-design between government and Aboriginal controlled organisations and other local providers to deliver the best possible services for families and children. Our third priority area is about transforming government to help us understand in detail how our systems can, knowingly or otherwise, perpetuate racism, so as to ensure we can overcome it. We won't be able to close the gap without doing so. The last priority area of reform is about data. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations need to be able to collect, analyse and use their own data to meet their own needs.

In this new plan, one measure has meant perhaps more than many others. That relates to the stolen generations, a shameful chapter in our national story. Last week, the Prime Minister announced that the Commonwealth is investing $378.6 million in a new scheme for stolen generations survivors who were removed as children from their families in former Commonwealth territories—in the Northern Territory and the Jervis Bay Territory and here in the ACT. It is a long-called-for step, recognising the bond between healing, dignity and the health and wellbeing of members of the stolen generations, their families and their communities, to say formally not just that we're deeply sorry for what happened but that we will take responsibility for it.

Other aspects of the Commonwealth implementation plan include tangible actions that are directly linked to clear targets that we'll be held accountable for in the years ahead: measures that are new, in the priority reform areas of justice and languages, and measures that need continuing investment to deliver a longer-term impact. The Commonwealth is providing an extra $254.4 million towards infrastructure to better support Aboriginal community controlled health organisations to do their critical work.

The plan also has a new focus on justice, bringing people together in a justice policy partnership to meet new targets. By 2031 we will reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults incarcerated by at least 15 per cent and the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in detention by at least 30 per cent. To help get to this target, the government is investing $9.3 million to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services to better manage complex cases in coronial inquiries. There is also $8.2 million for family dispute resolution programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

We have also set a target to see a steady increase in the number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken between now and 2031. That is why we are committing $22.8 million to support this effort.

To ensure the best start in life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, the Commonwealth is investing more than $160 million, including $122.6 million to lift participation in quality and culturally appropriate early childhood education and care. In school education, we are investing $75 million to support building on-country boarding schools, $26 million for city-country school partnerships, and $25 million to make sure primary school kids are taught using the best evidence based programs. To keep women and children safe, the plan is also investing in supporting Indigenous families with complex needs. These specific programs and payments are in addition to the many other streams of funding, programs and support—often targeted, such as school based funding—to provide real focus and assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in lifting and improving outcomes.

We cannot expect to see clear improvements overnight, but we believe the approach we are taking now gives us the best chance. This Commonwealth implementation plan and the proposals in it form one part of a larger whole. There are 10 implementation plans like it—one for each jurisdiction, the peaks and the Australian Local Government Association. All of them will be tracked and further shaped as we learn more about what is working and what needs to improve.

The Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process final report has also been submitted, following 18 months of extensive engagement and co-design. We will further consider the details of the final report and respond in the future, following consideration by the cabinet. An Indigenous voice can add to the many other efforts being made to achieve the Closing the Gap outcomes by providing further avenues at the national, local and regional levels for Indigenous voices to be heard, including to provide feedback to government on closing the gap.

Once a model for the Indigenous voice has been developed, all governments will need to explore how we can work with the voice to ensure that these views are considered. Whilst we know these outcomes won't happen overnight, we are working together, right now and continuously, with the Coalition of the Peaks, alongside the states and territories and local governments, to navigate the road ahead. We know that there are many years of hard work ahead for all of us, as we have tough years behind us. We have to learn from each other, and we will, together, do so. And, in doing so, with this new approach we should have confidence that, step by step, we can, as a country, make the differences that are necessary for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and peoples.

I thank the Senate.

9:42 am

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

I begin by acknowledging that we meet on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, land that was never ceded. I pay my respect to their elders, past, present and emerging. I also pay tribute to Minister Wyatt, Ms Burney, Senator Dodson, Senator McCarthy, Senator Lambie and Senator Thorpe. I'm privileged to count Linda, Pat and Malarndirri as friends and to have learnt so much from them.

Over the past month, our nation has celebrated the talent, hard work, integrity and achievements of Australian athletes. Few have inspired us more than Ash Barty winning Wimbledon and a bronze medal in Tokyo, and Patty Mills leading the Boomers to Australia's first-ever Olympic men's basketball medal. Their pride as representatives of Australia is as obvious as their pride in their Aboriginal heritage. There is their sporting heritage, their stated love and respect for Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Cathy Freeman, and their cultural heritage as traditional custodians of the land we now call Australia, inheritors of the oldest continuing civilisation on earth, being proud of who they are, claiming their space and not seeking to accommodate anyone's discomfort. I make these observations not to pretend sport can close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It can't. And we need to be careful in thinking sport can overcome racism on its own, just as we need to be careful not to promote an expectation that, to be valued in our society, Indigenous Australians need to be Olympians. What then happens to the little Indigenous kid who isn't a star athlete? What happens when Indigenous athletes don't want to be boxed in and express views that some don't like?

But there is something happening in sport. We see athletes the world over taking the knee together, conveying to each other and their fans that black lives matter. People who might not have come together in other circumstances are finding themselves on the same team, relying on each other, each person engaging with an act of respect and in an act of leadership. Old expectations of racial solidarity would not have brooked that. The message many are sending is: we are a team, we stand together and an attack on one of us because of race is an attack on us all, on all of our shared humanity. We see it here in Australia in the respect and affection of the Boomers for their captain and in how the AFL is seeking to improve its response to acts of racism. It is heartbreaking and unacceptable that we see overt acts of racial abuse in Australian sport, just as it is heartbreaking and unacceptable that structural racism is still so persistent.

A critical part of overcoming racial abuse and structural racism is action. Just one example in my home town is that the former captain of the Adelaide Crows has been banned from playing for six games after making a racist slur against an Indigenous player from another club. This action could be taken because an Adelaide Crows official reported the comment. The chair of the Indigenous Players Alliance, Des Headland, said:

Previously there's been a lot said in club rooms and change rooms that gets swept under the carpet.

…   …   …

In terms of the official, I take my hat off to them. That's leadership, that's courage. It's courageous for people to stand up and call this out.

It is an individual deciding to take the risk of standing up against racial abuse and the team and the code backing that individual—something we didn't see enough of when Nicky Winmar was abused by players, media and fans and something we didn't see enough of when Adam Goodes was booed out of football. We all could have and should have done more. It took years for the AFL to reflect on how Mr Goodes was treated and to offer an apology.

In a speech about Closing the Gap, why do I bring this up? It's because, at its core, Closing the Gap is about leadership, here and beyond. It's about courage. It's about each of us deciding to do what we can. It's about saying to leaders, 'We will not accept that our First Australians have dramatically fewer opportunities and consistently worse outcomes than other Australians.' It is about refusing to tolerate racial abuse or systemic racism. It is about those of us who are not First Nations people educating ourselves and not just relying on First Nations people to do the educating. It is about the leaders of our government looking within themselves and deciding they will no longer contribute to the stubborn gap, that they will actively work to overcome it. The gap between us cannot be sustained if we close the gap within us. Each of us can be leaders in our own families and communities, and we should act as though what we do makes a real difference—because it does. We should seek to find the common humanity in all of us and we should refuse to abide by any threats to that common humanity.

The national government has a particular responsibility to lead, and that leadership is lacking. For eight long years this government has shunted its responsibility for progress on Closing the Gap to states and territories, future parliaments and future generations. I wish on this that Mr Morrison would do what he so rarely does and actually take responsibility. There is no leadership without responsibility. It is more than two years since the government said it would change its approach to Closing the Gap and it's now reset most of the targets, effectively shifting the goalposts on prior failures. The next Closing the Gap statement will be a critical test.

For now, I offer these observations. Three targets—family violence, suicide and digital inclusion—do not have any comparison data for the non-Indigenous population. Even if the adult incarceration goal were to be met, the rate would still be more than 11 times higher than for non-Indigenous Australians. Even if the youth incarceration goal were to be met, the rate would be more than 12 times higher than for the non-Indigenous population. Only three targets out of 17 are on track: children born healthy and strong—that is, birthweight—preschool and youth detention. I will say, however, that Labor does welcome the establishment of a stolen generations compensation scheme. It was Labor that took reparations for the stolen generations to the last election, and we welcome the Morrison government coming on board with this. We will look very closely at its delivery.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commenced the effort to close the gap as part of his Apology to the Stolen Generations. Labor now seeks to continue and expand on that tradition. Listening to and empowering First Nations people will be at the very core of Labor's approach to closing the gap and to reconciliation: delivering treaty and truth, fulfilling the promise of Uluru. The Uluru statement called for a national process of treaty and truth-telling overseen by a makarrata commission, along with a constitutionally enshrined voice to the parliament. Our party is committed to the Uluru statement in full. We are committed to a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament and to establishing a makarrata commission as a matter of priority, because a clear and accurate telling of Australia's story is essential to reaching our full potential as a nation.

The disparity in First Nations employment outcomes is connected to other quality-of-life outcomes, such as health, education and housing. That is why we will strengthen economic and job opportunities for First Nations people and communities, including by scrapping the Community Development Program and developing a new remote jobs program in partnership with First Nations people and communities. A Labor government would get behind inclusive growth for Indigenous owned businesses, both domestically and internationally, and would reaffirm the importance of Indigenous rights and traditional knowledge in future international agreements.

Our First Nations peoples were the first traders on this land, they were the first exporters and they were the first diplomats, engaging with people from other lands. Should I have the honour of serving as foreign minister in an Albanese Labor government, this will be recognised at the heart of Australian diplomacy, as a matter of Australia's historical and future engagement with other peoples. Australia's diplomacy is a projection of our identity. It is a projection of our values as much as our interests. Our identity can only be complete when Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia are reconciled. As my friend Senator Dodson says, that is the full expression of our nationhood and the Australia I want to project to the world.

9:52 am

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to speak to the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap address in the other place. Before I do that, I'd like to acknowledge that we are all on stolen land. That's right: it's stolen land. There's been no treaty; it's still stolen. There have been no agreements; it's still stolen. So I'd like to acknowledge all of those survivors, our First Peoples, right across this country, who have maintained resistance and who have survived the mass murders and complete destruction of country, who remain here today to share their country, culture, song and dance with us all. I'd like to also acknowledge the black politicians in this colonisers' place. We know how hard it is to walk inside that building as First Nations people as well as politicians. So I acknowledge you all, and I acknowledge how difficult it can be sometimes to walk in two worlds.

The recently released Closing the gap report includes data on the progress made on seven of the 18 targets set out in the Closing the Gap agreement. It is hard to call it progress when three of these targets—the overimprisonment rates of our people, child removals and suicide rates—are going up. This report is telling us that the government's strategy isn't working. Our people know that. We've always known that. Mr Morrison isn't just failing in his leadership vacuum; things are getting worse. Over the last eight years of Liberal government, most key indicators have gone backwards.

What's more, the target to reduce imprisonment of First Nations people by at least 15 per cent by 2031 in the Closing the Gap plan is completely inadequate. If we were to follow this trajectory, parity on imprisonment will not be achieved until 2093. We'll be dead. None of us here today will see this happen in our lifetime. The Morrison government can't even succeed in working towards this extremely inadequate target. What the Morrison government have done is put the bar on the floor, walked over it and called this progress. That's just how they operate: smoke and mirrors. The Morrison government are pushing our people backwards. Every month more and more of our people are dying in police and prison custody. Thousands of our people, our women in particular, are being warehoused in jails on remand. That's right: they haven't even been convicted of a crime but they remain in prison. My heart goes out to every black woman in prison right now.

This Morrison government is taking our lives away, as our people are also at higher risk of dying in police custody. There have been almost 500 First Nations deaths in custody—two, I'm related to—since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its recommendations 30 years ago. We're not immune; no-one is immune. I want to stop and take a moment to honour their lives. Each and every one of them is loved and missed every day. So I'm going to request that the Senate please take a moment's silence for all the Aboriginal people who've died in custody. Thank you.

It's devastating that our young ones don't get to live the promise of their full potential, because the suicide rates of our young mob are astronomical, and it's devastating. Under the Morrison government, more First Nations people are dying by suicide; our people are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as others. What country do we live in where so many of our people don't see a future for themselves?

To all mob, particularly young mob, watching this today, know that you are strong, know that you are loved and know that you come from a very, very, very long line of warriors and country defenders. Your ancestors and the stories of your connection to country, culture, song, dance run through your veins. You are powerful and you are loved and you are needed. You are needed by your mob, by your culture and by your communities. And you are definitely needed to take up seats in this place. Look at it! Look at this place! There are the ancestors right there: they just smashed a glass behind this screen, because they are here with us too.

It's shameful that the targets on life expectancy are failing and falling so short. Our people are being killed by a system that tries to choke their potential from the moment they open their eyes. I cannot tell you how many funerals I attend each year. Our community hurts and it deserves better. We are strong and capable, despite current injustices. We carry with us over 65,000 years of wisdom and leadership. Our boys, on average, have a life expectancy 8.6 years less than non-First Nations boys; our girls, 7.8 years less. Come on!

Do you in there have a conscience? So many of our boys won't live to the age of 67—that's the age when plenty of you fellas in there are starting to enjoy the pleasures of your retirement. I hope you feel good about that, particularly those of you that are just there for your retirement and not there for the people anymore. We live in one of the richest countries in the world, but our boys in the Northern Territory and Western Australia have a shorter life expectancy than boys in conflict affected areas. How do you explain that to anybody? The report also showed that more First Nations babies are being stolen from their families. What you call 'out-of-home care' is too often, in fact, the forceful removal of our children. The stolen generations are not over. They continue to happen, right here, day by day. To this day, you take our children away from us to try and diminish our people and our culture.

Finally, the Morrison government have announced a compensation scheme for survivors of the stolen generations. The stolen generations compensation scheme that was announced is a much welcomed and very overdue move but, in practice, it falls way short of what we need. We Greens have done our research, we have done genuine consultation—not the tick-a-box, pick-a-blackfella, pick-a-box consultation that both major parties use; genuine consultation with members of the stolen gen—on what compensation should look like. We have arrived at $200,000 per survivor, but this is a starting point, because no amount of money can compensate for the pain caused by a series of racist, harmful government actions. Does the Prime Minister really believe you can make good with a measly $75,000, after ripping a child from their mother's arms and taking them away from their family and community, from country and culture, from language, song and dance?

The $75,000 offered to stolen gen members in the territories falls way short of what people need, and it comes way too late. The announcement doesn't include any provisions for the ongoing health needs of survivors. How much of the compensation money will have to be used to pay for health care and, in particular, access to mental health services? We know First Nations people who have been ripped from their families suffer from increased transgenerational trauma. Too many of our people have passed into the Dreamtime already and never saw any attempt at justice. For them, sadly, this comes too late.

The solutions to all of these problems—that we did not create—have been with us all along: when our people are in the driver's seat, we all prosper. We are hurt by the Morrison government imposing top-down policies and making decisions for us, thinking that they know best. This separates us from our culture and connection to country—things that are central to our health and wellbeing—making us sicker and die younger. Our people have been managing our own affairs for thousands of years. We must be in charge of our own destiny again. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we led the way in keeping our communities safe. But the Northern Territory government sent us body bags before they sent us PPE, assuming we would fail.

When decisions are in our hands, our solutions work and we take care of our communities. First Nations culture is about caring for everyone. We modelled this in setting up First Nations legal services and community health services back in the late sixties. Imagine a better society, where Aboriginal values and leadership are at the heart of decision-making. We can only be our best and create a country where everyone can thrive when we listen and acknowledge the truth of our past and present. Together, we can work to undo the damage that still causes First Nations people harm today. There is a beautiful tomorrow where we all can thrive and where First Nations people make decisions about the future of our country. This government cannot deliver this, and this is why it must be voted out. It was legal for Rio Tinto to destroy the Juukan Gorge site. This never would have happened if blackfellas had a say on their own country. Treaties provide a way to acknowledge past injustices, resolve differences and work out how to create a shared future. As a nation, we have an opportunity to create a 21st-century treaty which we can all be a part of and celebrate together.

10:05 am

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, I'd like to associate the Nationals with a lot of the commentary here this morning—particularly the proposal and comments of Senator Birmingham. I rise to comment briefly on the Closing the Gap Commonwealth implementation plan. That will make a genuine difference in the outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and, for the National Party, for those over half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who live and work in rural, regional and remote Australia, because the facts are: despite having the will—irrespective of the colour of government—and despite having the best of intentions, no matter what level of government, the statistics don't lie and none of us have done well enough, over a long period of time, to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can reach, as Senator Thorpe made mention of in her contribution, their potential.

So it is up to us—all of us—as leaders in this place and in state and territory parliaments and local governments, and in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community more broadly, to come together in partnership to make a real, credible difference, using evidence. Yes, it has taken a little longer than people might have liked, but the implementation plan that we have before us really clearly sets out targets, goals, programs and initiatives that, in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, will make a difference and close the gap, which is what we all want to see.

It is a new chapter of change, and it won't happen overnight. We won't be reporting groundbreaking changes in stats this time next year. But hopefully, over time, over years, over decades, with a shared commitment and a dedication to staying the course, we will turn that around.

It's a completely different way of doing things that we've done before. We've co-designed this, in collaboration across governments and peaks and bodies, in terms of not just the economic and social data for health but the cultural determinants of health, in recognition of the importance of identity, and that is a first.

We have piloted these sorts of three-levels-of-government approaches before. I was privileged to be the minister who signed off on the Barkly Regional Deal, a few years ago in 2019, which wanted to improve the productivity and livability of the Barkly through improved economic growth, social outcomes and culture and place-making. It was the first regional deal in Australia—a 10-year commitment of over $78 million—and my advice is that those 26 projects are proceeding incredibly well, which is fantastic.

Last week, the Prime Minister rightfully said that closing the gap is, at its core, about children. Whether it is about child safety, better education outcomes, better health and maternal outcomes or justice targets, it is absolutely putting children at the heart and centre of what we're trying to achieve. Quality education and quality teachers have the ability to enrich a child's life and have a profound and meaningful impact on a child's sense of place in the world, and these perceptions and connections are formed very, very early. If we want to close the gap, we've got to close it at the beginning—at the very beginning, right from those early years. It doesn't stop there. We need to continue those efforts, right throughout a child's schooling, and to give them the opportunities to participate in tertiary education that they need and deserve. We know that Indigenous kids, particularly those from remote and regional areas, are more likely to start school behind, with the gap only increasing through their schooling life, and, if you start behind, it is very, very hard to catch up. It is an additional obstacle during key formative and exploratory years. We must do better for these students and we can.

Last week our government announced a quarter of a million dollars to boost quality early childhood and school education for Indigenous kids. But it's not just about the amount of funding; it's about how that investment is focused. So we're targeting initiatives that improve literacy, because you can't really learn if you can't read and if you don't get those fundamental building blocks right at the start. Using evidence based approaches that we can scale up through communities, ensuring more Indigenous Australian children can participate in these programs, is at the very heart of our initiatives. We know that developing strong literacy skills from an early age supports that right throughout a student's schooling, so we've put $25 million into grants to scale up those evidence based programs. They'll be delivered in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, with a focus on maximising student engagement.

We're also delivering a range of measures to support different elements of digital inclusion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I will be working with the Minister for Indigenous Australians to that end to make sure that connectivity is experienced right throughout rural, regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Future actions will promote community led responses to build on outcomes that are designed and delivered in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and will be targeted to address any gaps in existing measures. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy will manage 245 community payphones and 301 wi-fi satellite phones in remote Indigenous communities. Indigenous media activities are also funded under the strategy, primarily through Indigenous broadcasting. Access to fixed-broadband voice services is provided to all Australians through our USG and USO arrangements, and the $380 million co-investment with states and territories on the Mobile Black Spot Program will continue to connect communities.

We have been specifically funding telecommunications infrastructure across northern Australia, with $68.5 million in dedicated funding for those projects. We also have a regional telecommunications review currently under way which is engaging with rural, regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities so that we can make sure our next tranche of policy initiatives meets their needs. As a former teacher, I know the impact that a quality education can have on a young person's life, and the doors that it opens are immense. We also need the basic infrastructure that underpins that, which isn't just physical but also digital. It's also about capacity, and the teachers that we'll be sending into those classrooms.

I'm proud the Nationals will be championing these measures that invest in children and provide the stepping stones required for a prosperous and equitable future where they will be able to walk in two worlds. We all need to assist that outcome. We must make a difference, and we can only do that with evidence and will, which I believe we have finally got to the table in what has sometimes been a difficult national conversation. We're all in this together. It's essential that we continue to put our shoulder to the wheel to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their children have a bright, prosperous and sustainable future.

10:13 am

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to speak on the Commonwealth's Closing the Gap implementation plan. I speak on behalf of many Australians when I say, 'Well, here we go again—more targets, more priorities, more reforms, more agreements, a new approach and, of course, a lot more money.'

Much treasure has already been expended, with very little to show for it. Targets have not been met, gaps have not been closed, and there has been failure on incarceration rates, life expectancy and employment. There has been failure on child mortality rates, children's literacy and numeracy, and school attendance. We can only hope the new approach in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap will work. And it might, but only because there is finally some focus on empowering Indigenous Australians to take an equal partnership in the effort to close the gaps. Finally, by sharing equal responsibility for closing the gaps perhaps we'll start chipping away at the insidious culture of victimhood which has been unjustly imposed on Indigenous Australians.

I speak for many Australians when I say we look forward to a future where there are no gaps. We look forward to a future when all Australians, regardless of race, are able to avail themselves of the great opportunities that come with living, learning and working in this great nation. Many Indigenous Australians have already broken this ground and discovered how fertile it is. Many have made their marks on our country's culture, history, identity and character. As I have said before, the majority of Indigenous Australians are not victims. They are capable, resilient and valuable citizens of this great nation, and we are a better country thanks to their contributions. Dare I even say that we look forward to a future when reconciliation is completed, when we can all finally agree that we are in fact reconciled.

Many Australians, Indigenous or not, would be forgiven for being sceptical about those prospects, because the gaps will not be closed and reconciliation will never be completed as long as we continue to indulge the disgusting politics of racial division. This allows the unaccountable Aboriginal industry to prey on Indigenous communities and feast on Australian taxpayers by perpetuating difference, entrenching disadvantage and fostering a culture of victimhood. For these businesses and bureaucrats it's a licence to print money. That's why they're cheering on cultural separation and division, supremely confident that this government and this parliament could always indulge it. There is nothing more racially divisive than the push to specifically recognise Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution and to legislate an Indigenous voice to parliament, with the aim to eventually put that in the Constitution, too.

One Nation will take every opportunity to speak on behalf of the many Australians who will never support Indigenous exceptionalism being enshrined in the Constitution and will strongly oppose this attempt to divide us by race forever. It took 66 years for our Constitution to be finally made colourblind, removing all specific references to Indigenous people. It may take less time to reverse this important achievement by, once again, singling out Indigenous people to be treated differently from their fellow Australians.

I have warned the Senate and the Australian people about the potential ramifications of recognising traditional ownership in the Constitution should we ever become a republic. Traditional ownership could effectively take the place of the Crown, and the vast majority of Australians would no longer have sovereignty over their own country or land. I have reminded the Senate that one of the essential foundations of a representative democracy is that every citizen is equal before the law and every citizen has equal political franchise—one adult, one vote. A voice to parliament would effectively give a minority of Australians more political power than the majority of Australians based, on race. In South Africa that sort of thing was called apartheid. Fortunately apartheid is something that has been banished to the past. Let's not revisit it in Australia. Recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution and creating a voice to parliament will only open new gaps while doing nothing to meet the targets of the government's new implementation plan.

As I noted earlier, we hope the new approach will work and the important targets will be met as soon as possible. We have hope in particular for commitments to incentivise or expand service delivery and child and family safety and education based on evidence that they work. Too much money has been wasted on approaches that didn't work, even after it was evident. We have hope for the improved health outcomes coming from a large investment in health infrastructure and equipment in remote areas. We have hope for positive outcomes with more resources going into alcohol and drug treatments. We have hope because there are practical measures that can make a positive difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians where there is a clear need to do so.

As I have said before, that's where the focus of this government and this parliament should be: on what Australians need to make a positive difference. We don't need to change the Constitution to make that positive difference. It would risk the progress which has been made towards reconciliation. It would risk the sovereignty every Australian rightfully has over this country. It would further divide the people of Australia at a time when there are already too many entrenched divisions over almost every other important issue. Let us not move backwards. Let us not revisit a racist past. Let us leave the Constitution forever blind to race and colour. Let us no longer condescend to Indigenous Australians by tolerating the culture of victimhood, which only entrenches disadvantage through generations. Let us show Indigenous Australians the respect they have earned and long deserved by treating them as equals, as individuals, and not as victims looking for a handout. Let us abandon the awful politics of racial division and work with Indigenous Australians to close the gap so that all of us can fully share in our nation's boundless opportunities and take responsibility for the course our lives will take.

I'm going to take a minute or two to give my opinion on the diatribe that came out of Senator Thorpe's mouth. As an Australian, I was born here and I am indigenous to this land. I'm native to this land. I was born here, as many Australians feel. To continually have it thrown up that I don't belong here or that it's stolen land, I think, is a slap in the face. Her comments, in broad parlance, about white privileged Australians—as she said to a couple of senators, white old privileged males—are not pulling us together. This is not working together for reconciliation. She does not acknowledge the Australians that were born here. She says that there is a rate of overimprisonment. As with any Australian, if you break the law, you have to pay a penalty for it, and that means imprisonment. People must take responsibility for their own actions.

When she speaks of children being ripped from the arms of parents, that is because children in these communities, at such a young age—babies and toddlers—are being raped by their family members. We don't speak up about that. Yes, they will be taken away from their families, as it is in white society. You cannot blame it on your cultural differences. These are children that need to be protected, and families are not protecting their children.

As far as education is concerned, I have visited these very remote communities. People can send their children to school at the expense of the taxpayers. They are given every opportunity for an education. They are given every opportunity to have privileges paid for by the taxpayers. Other children don't have that opportunity. Billions—hundreds of billions of dollars—have been thrown at this Aboriginal industry, and yet we still talk about it today. Nothing's changed. You have representation in the parliament. People claim to have Aboriginal backgrounds—fair enough. But I am also here to represent on the floor of parliament those Indigenous Australians, as every other senator and every member of parliament is. Do not continue to divide us by throwing more money out without accountability. Do audits on the system. Ask why the land council won't hand over their land to the Aboriginal people for their independence so they can move forward with their lives. We don't do that. Why is it shut down? There have to be questions asked. Don't be afraid to ask them and speak up on behalf of those Australians.

10:23 am

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Firstly, I want to pay tribute to my people, the Yawuru people, and to their resilience. They are the traditional owners and native title holders on the land from where I speak to you today, my electorate office in Western Australia in the town of Broome. I also acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, who are the traditional owners of the lands in Canberra.

I wish I could report that I was uplifted last week by hearing the Prime Minister talk about the Commonwealth's Closing the Gap Implementation Plan. Sadly, I was not so moved, and not only because the previous week the Productivity Commission had released the annual tables of data which again confirm that the lives of First Nations peoples continue to be blighted by poor health and disadvantage. No, it wasn't just the report card that depressed me. It was a telling sentence in the accompanying media release from the Prime Minister and his Minister for Indigenous Australians that cast a pall. They said their plan to close the gap was about 'real reconciliation'. That one sentence told me that the thinking of this government in relation to First Nations peoples is as stagnant as it was 25 years ago, when John Howard was Prime Minister—the prime minister who gutted the Native Title Act, the prime minister who rejected the social justice package that was meant to accompany the Native Title Act, the prime minister who refused to say sorry to the stolen generations and the prime minister who destroyed ATSIC. It was Prime Minister John Howard who used to run the line we heard again last week from Prime Minister Morrison, that service delivery will deliver real reconciliation.

But before I grapple with the question of how the government's agenda to close the gap will do little to achieve real reconciliation, let me remind you just how wide the gap remains after eight years of a coalition government. The Productivity Commission's latest data are woeful. Whereas non-Indigenous females, on average, can expect to live to 83.4 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a life expectancy of 75.6 years, a gap of 7.8 years. Indigenous men die younger than Indigenous women, but the gap between them and non-Indigenous men is worse, 8.6 years. The data is just as dismal in early life. The proportion of Aboriginal children assessed as developmentally on track is only 35.2 per cent, against 56 per cent of non-Indigenous kids, and the proportion of those who attain year 12 is 63.2 per cent for Indigenous youth, against 85.5 per cent for non-Indigenous youth. The figures for tertiary qualifications and employment are just as bleak, but the statistics that have always startled me have to do with incarceration and what is euphemistically called 'out-of-home care'. They show no signs of improvement. Out of every 100,000 Indigenous adults, more than 2,000 are in custody. For the rest of the population, the figure is 156. Whereas 56 out of every 1,000 Indigenous children are in out-of-home care, only five out of every 1,000 non-Indigenous kids have been removed from their families.

This government is now hoping that its partnership with the states and territories, the Coalition of Peaks, and Indigenous organisations and communities will lead to better outcomes. I want to congratulate Patricia Turner, the lead convener of the Coalition of Peaks, for her sterling role in getting the government to practice its mantra of doing things with First Nations peoples and not to them. This is how a true democracy would deliver for its citizens if it truly respected and accepted them as such. So let's not be fooled by this government's other mantra, that its latest agenda to close the gap represents real reconciliation. While First Nations peoples remain unrecognised in the Constitution, the expectation that the Federation will respond positively to their citizenship needs is at odds with our past experience.

For all the fanfare last week about implementation plans, governments are still to agree on new targets to do with Indigenous interests in inland waters and community infrastructure. The first target prescribes a 15 per cent increase in Aboriginal land mass subject to Indigenous rights and interests and a 15 per cent increase in their rights or interests in the sea. The second target would aim for parity in infrastructure, essential services and environmental health. The Joint Council on Closing the Gap met last Friday but couldn't reach a consensus on either target. The meeting agreed to defer further consideration until November, when I hope that goodwill will prevail. But this demonstrates the perennial challenge of negotiating at a table which rests on the unresolved legacy of terra nullius and the denied sovereignty of First Nations peoples. First Nations peoples don't want to be mere recipients of largesse from the public purse. We can all quibble about the targets and tut-tut about the perennial failure to achieve them, but sovereignty, recognition and a treaty, the real substance of reconciliation, are the bedrock on which to build a better quality of life for all in this nation.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart said that the ancient sovereignty of First Nations peoples 'can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood'. It spoke of the torment of our powerlessness. The national agreement goes some way towards acknowledging this truth. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the national constitutional convention at Uluru, the plaintive pleas of the powerful statement that emerged from there remain unanswered, as in fact and as in the spirit in which it was given. The Prime Minister's report last week said that the government had received the final report from Professor Dr Marcia Langton and Professor Tom Calma about a co-design voice. A voice to be enshrined in the Constitution was, of course, a fundamental demand of the Uluru statement. If this government wants a voice, it must release the report from the co-design process so that the public has an opportunity to view and explore the proposal and, secondly, begin the process for the referendum to embed the voice in the Constitution, but it refuses to give us a timetable on either of these matters. 'Some might want this process to be faster,' the Prime Minister told the parliament last week. Well, he might be right. The government has to come clean to the Australian public: will it or will it not support a constitutionally enshrined voice to the parliament? Stringing the parliament and the public along, as the government continues to do, is nothing short of cowardice, and it's a disgrace that it has not even embraced the other fundamental statement of the Uluru statement—the call for a makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement making and truth-telling.

On this side, the Labor Party remains unwavering in its commitment to implementing the Uluru statement in full. Let me be very clear: we support a referendum to enshrine a voice to parliament in the Constitution. Our leader has committed to this in the first term of a Labor government. We will also commit to establishing a makarrata commission to progress the other two critical elements: truth and treaty. I appeal to the government to join with Labor. Let's do something worthwhile for once on behalf of the First Nations peoples. Then we can really start closing the gap towards real reconciliation.

10:34 am

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

[by video link] I'd like to acknowledge the Larrakia people on whose land I stand for this address of Closing the Gap. Baginda Yamalu Yindi, nagarna Yanyuwa li-anthawirriyara. I pay respects to elders past, present and emerging but also to all Australians who are witnessing what we are discussing in the Senate and seeing the many diverse views and thoughts in regard to how we want to improve the lives of First Nations people. The parliament hasn't got it right. Australians haven't got it right. But what's important is that we respectfully listen to the diverse views that come forward, which are really a reflection of what we see across Australia. Some of those views that have been expressed are incredibly hurtful as well and I think that it's important first off, Madam Acting Deputy President, if I can just pick up on some of the commentary by Senator Hanson. I think it's really important, Senator Hanson—and this message is directly to you—that First Nations people do not—

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

Senator McCarthy, I await with interest what you are about to say, but I do ask you to make your remarks to the chair.

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

Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. This is certainly in response to previous speakers, in particular Senator Hanson: the First Nations people of this country certainly do not see ourselves as victims. It's certainly not a position that we want to be in. When women are in incredible pain of domestic and family violence—and that's all women who experience it—they certainly don't want to be victims. I think we have to be really careful with the language that we use in the Senate and in the Australian parliament, in terms of trying to lift people from circumstances that, usually, are beyond their control. It's the kind of leadership that this Senate needs to portray in the language that we use, and I did want to pick you up on that, Senator Hanson, because we're certainly not victims, in terms of wanting to stay victims, but we've certainly experienced unfair and unnecessary statistics, which are what closing the gap is all about. That's why it is important that the Australian parliament addresses it and acknowledges the imperfections of our ability to get it right.

The fact that we still are able to address it as a country every year on a particular day, which is now in August, says and sends a message to all Australians that it matters that we try to improve the lives and the disadvantage of First Nations people in this country. And we should never, ever be ashamed and should be unafraid to try and continue to address it, no matter how difficult and complex the circumstances. That is really a reflection of the thousands of languages that our people have across this country, and also the hundreds and hundreds of different First Nations groups across Australia. That is the most beautiful thing about speaking on Closing the Gap: I, as a Yanyuwa Garrwa woman, surrounded by my clans of the Mara and Kudanji peoples, linked closely with the Ngukurr mob, with Numbulwar mob, with Groote Eylandt mob and the songlines and the kujika that travels. That's what we can share with the rest of Australia: the stories that none of you are aware of unless you enable us to speak, to have a voice to speak to you, and not only for us to speak to you but for your hearts to be open to listen and your ears to be empty of the sand that seems to consistently block you from hearing our stories.

The Prime Minister followed Labor's lead by committing to reparations for the injustices done to those removed as children from their families in Commonwealth territories, in the Northern Territory, in Jervis Bay and in the ACT. I do thank the Prime Minister for hearing the voices of those stolen generations mob. It's taken a hell of a long time, but, if you're sincere in making sure that this mob here in the Northern Territory in particular are dealt with respectfully and immediately in terms of that, then it will go a long way to bringing about a great deal of healing for those families.

I acknowledge the more than 600 people who attended the Going Home Conference here in Darwin in 1994. This event brought together hundreds of First Nations people removed as children to discuss common goals of access to archives, compensation, rights to land and social justice. I acknowledge all those who told their stories in the Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. I acknowledge the work of people like Mrs Cubillo and Mr Gunner, who braved the complexities of our legal system to take on the Commonwealth over its historical policies of forced child removal. While their legal claim was unsuccessful—and I remember that day—the need for justice and reparations for survivors of the stolen generations was recognised by the Australian community and governments.

After the legal decision was handed down in this case in 2000, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee delivered its report into the stolen generations, recommending the establishment of a reparations tribunal to address the need for effective reparation, including the provision of individual monetary compensation. Yet it wasn't until 2006 that the first stolen generations compensation scheme was set up in Tasmania, by the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Act 2006. Then, in 2008, the first stolen generations compensation case was successful in the Supreme Court of South Australia. The Trevorrow judgement recognised the existence of the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families and the detrimental long-term effects of the policy on removed children and on the wider community. We are still experiencing an even greater removal of First Nations children. These legacies and past policies have a profound impact and they do matter.

Of course, in 2008, we had the national apology, and parliament was opened for the first time with an acknowledgement of country. But stolen generations survivors in the Northern Territory had still not received reparations or justice. In April this year, stolen generations survivors from the Northern Territory launched a class action against the Commonwealth. Eileen Cummings is one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action—a daughter of a Ngalakan woman and Rembarrnga man, who was born in Central Arnhem Land. Her story echoes so many. She was taken from her family at five years old and taken to Darwin and Croker Island, where she was forbidden to leave and prevented from speaking her language or to practise her culture. I don't know how you can arrive at a dollar figure on the trauma and harm caused by tearing children away from their families, not just on the children but also on the families and the wider community. But I certainly hope the redress announced last week goes some way to acknowledging the harm caused by these policies.

We should also reflect on the harsh reality that First Nations people are far more likely to have their children removed from their care than non-Indigenous Australians. We still have an incredibly long way to go. It appears the Prime Minister has heard some of the voices calling for change and recognition, but this still does not acknowledge broader issues: the high incarceration rates of First Nations people, the Black Lives Matter rallies across the country and the sadness and the trauma that still exist for those who lose family members way too early. Only last week I lost a family member, someone who was a strong elder in our community, and our family is still grieving. He should never have passed away so young. He was an important elder who did so much for our people. I remember him. I remember my other noughaby, my other kuku, my grandfathers, my uncles, my grandmothers, my kurdi, who passed away in recent months, who should be here with us. Renal disease, kidney disease—just about every member of my family has some chronic disease. That is what this Closing the Gap statement is all about: trying to help and give hope to First Nations people who so desperately want to be not only seen as equals in Australia but also respected for the beautiful, diverse and strong culture that we have as First Nations people, to be respected and to take our place with dignity, to be the people that we're here to be, without racism, without being locked up and without being kept in hospital—and to play on the sporting fields like Patty Mills and Ash Barty. That's the Australia we want for First Nations people. Thank you.

10:44 am

Photo of Andrew BraggAndrew Bragg (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'd like to associate myself with almost all of the remarks that have been made this morning, and I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners. I want to address three things. The first is this national agreement. I also want to talk about some of the financial commitments that have been made and the way forward on the Indigenous voice to parliament.

The first thing I'd say is that I think the fashioning of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which is being done in conjunction with the state and territory governments and the Coalition of the Peaks, is a genuine attempt to try to move from the idea of 'doing to' to 'doing with'. For people who follow these issues closely, the success the Indigenous community has had in managing COVID-19 provides a very good example of why it's important to put Indigenous people in control of their own affairs, and I think it is quite a simple concept. So much of the effort of the new national agreement and partnership is going into community capacity building and Indigenous decision-making and control. I think it is a very important and urgent reform. People are aware that priorities have been identified out of the 17 Closing the Gap targets. As I say, I think a good deal of the additional financial contributions are going into building up the capacity of Aboriginal medical services, health services, childcare services and the like.

It is important that the data is clear and that we can all be held to account here. I do think that getting the Productivity Commission involved to help us track and better understand the progress that is made in these areas is critical. People who have looked at the recent report done by the Indigenous productivity commissioner, Mr Mokak, would know that the Productivity Commission's view is that this is not a question of how much money is spent in this area; it is a question of getting the investment right so that it provides the outcomes that the community is seeking.

I want to turn to the billion-dollar commitment that has been made as part of the Closing the Gap agenda. I think supporting the justice targets and the language targets is very important. There is $378 million to support the stolen generations, where people had been stolen from Commonwealth territories—the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. This is an important commitment, and I know that it has bipartisan support. No-one is saying that $75,000 can replace your life, but I think it is an important gesture. There needs to be—and I think there is—additional support put around that. I urge the other states of Australia to put in place a system which is at least as good as this. I do welcome the bipartisan leadership from the Commonwealth. Indeed, the Commonwealth has led in the past. The Commonwealth was the first jurisdiction to put in place a land rights regime in the Northern Territory, which was decades ahead of some of the other Australian states. I think it's important, where there are states that have not put in place redress schemes for the stolen generations, that they do so quickly. It is only fair.

In relation to language, $22 million has been allocated to supporting Indigenous languages, recognising that Indigenous languages are endangered. In fact, they are some of the most endangered languages in the world. I think supporting the idea of children's books is important. I've had my own experience with this in engaging deeply with the work of AIATSIS, which is an organisation that was set up by the Menzies government to conserve and preserve Indigenous culture and language. AIATSIS has been working with local communities to ensure that languages are preserved and then able to be used.

One such concept that I'm aware of is the Dhurga dictionary, which has been published by the Yuin people of the South Coast of New South Wales. Some of the community elders have developed a dictionary which is now being used around towns like Moruya, which is incredibly transformational when you think that the kids that go to those schools will learn basic Dhurga, as well as learning English. The traditional owners were kind enough to allow me to use their language for some work I've been doing lately.

The other thing that is being put on the language agenda is the dual naming of places, which I know in the past has caused some consternation. But, if people are serious about reconciliation, I think it's a very fair and very reasonable idea that you could have dual names for places. I think, in fact, that it would only enrich us all.

Finally, I want to turn to the issue of the voice to parliament. Effectively, the idea of having an Indigenous voice, which was put forward formally by the Uluru Statement from the Heart and had previously been put on the agenda by the Cape York Institute, is simply that you would consult Indigenous people over laws and policies that are made about them. I think that is an entirely reasonable and quite conservative idea. I don't think it was handled well at the time, in 2017, when the Uluru statement was handed down, but I do think that there has been some important progress since then.

Senator Dodson and Mr Leeser co-chaired a report which was a bit of a framework for how a voice could be developed. The government followed the progress of that report. In recent times Marcia Langton and Tom Calma have been asked to develop a report in conjunction with Indigenous communities about what, in fact, a voice would be.

A voice at the local level could be about giving advice on service delivery, again working in conjunction with Indigenous communities to drive capacity building and control. The second thing it would be is a national voice which would provide advice on laws and policies. I've often thought, when I've sat in the Senate and we've dealt with things like native title amendments: 'Wouldn't it be good if we knew what the people who these laws are made for thought about these proposals?' I think we could do so much better in this space if we had a national voice to advise the parliament and the government about national Indigenous issues. I'd say to the people who are concerned about this: why on earth would we be afraid of getting more advice from citizens? I think it is such a good idea.

That co-designed report is sitting with the executive government, with the minister. I think that is the meat on the bones for the voice. I hope that that report can be the basis for us putting in place a voice in conjunction with a referendum to be held in the next term after a process to consider constitutional amendments.

We are getting towards the point where we need a process where Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people can put forward their views on what they think would be the most appropriate way to put the voice in the constitution. There is a range of different models that people should be able to look at and consider that take into account the concerns of constitutional conservatives and the like. My view is that you can definitely put in place an obligation on the Commonwealth to consult with Indigenous people on laws and policies that are made about them, which is effectively a voice. Then you could legislate the voice, thereby maintaining parliamentary supremacy.

I know these are important issues. I agree with the Prime Minister that we shouldn't be trying to rush this reform; it's too important. It's very important that we work with the Labor Party to maintain bipartisanship. I'd like to acknowledge the Labor Party's efforts in this area. I ]think they've been very good. This is an important reform that shouldn't be rushed. I'm glad it won't be. I'd like to thank the Senate for its time this morning.

10:55 am

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

I rise today to make a contribution to the debate on the government's Closing the Gap implementation plan. I acknowledge that we are meeting here today on stolen Ngunawal country and that sovereignty over this land was never ceded and continues to need to be addressed.

The latest plan to close the gap simply can't accomplish its targets until we address issues around past injustice, colonisation of this land, sovereignty and treaty. The continued legacy of colonisation in this country, its ongoing impacts, have to be addressed if we are going to truly close the gap, because they are what has led to this huge gap developing in the first place. First Nations peoples continue to experience dispossession and oppression. Deaths in custody serve to remind us that the period of violence and injustice has in fact not yet finished. Until the first injustice, the massive injustice of the fact that we stole this land, is resolved, none of the other injustices can be properly addressed. We cannot claim that we have closed the gap and we will not close the gap. Resolving this means negotiating and enacting treaty and treaties in this land. We need to address the issue of sovereignty. We must ensure that sovereignty is recognised through a treaty- and treaties-first approach. First Nations peoples have been traumatised over generations by the actions and policies of successive governments denying them their rights. We must not forget that.

Every year, when we talk about Closing the Gap, I make sure that I also raise the issue of the Close the Gap campaign's report. It used to be called the shadow report. They have again done a report. This is their 12th annual report. This year it's titled Leadership and legacy through crises: Keeping our mobsafe. This year's report was produced by the Lowitja Institute, Australia's national community controlled institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. They make 15 recommendations, with a lot of subrecommendations. They remind us:

In our annual reports we often repeat our recommendations—

that comes as no surprise, I'm afraid to say—

and we remain steadfast and persistent in the expectation that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, being and doing will be respected and understood. The time for governments to deliver has long passed.

They also say:

Self-determination is critical and to ensure that change occurs, our voices must be heard by governments at every level of society. We perpetually recommend the same approach: to involve us, to listen, to reform and invest. Be it in systemic reform, policy design, service delivery, evaluation or agreeing upon funding, "nothing about us, without us" will be the only successful approach.

That remains true in this report as well, because we are still not delivering on some of the key areas that need to be addressed. There are countless examples of government policies that continue to deny First Nations peoples their rights and undermine Closing the Gap.

Across the federal government and the state and territory governments, governments continue to turn away from raising the age of criminal responsibility. I'm absolutely ashamed and embarrassed by the fact that they are still dragging their feet. The new Closing the Gap plan includes targets to reduce the number of First Nations people in prisons by at least 15 per cent. It is just unconscionable that you could limit yourselves to this. How are we still locking up children? How can we meaningfully achieve any targets for getting children out of prisons, even when the government has this measly target, while we are locking up children of 10 years of age?

It is unconscionable, and I totally support the comments and acknowledge the massive contribution Senator Thorpe made in this chamber this morning where she clearly highlighted this issue. Incarcerating children doesn't help them; it brutalises them. Children do not belong in jail. We need more investment in prevention through justice and social reinvestment. We also need ongoing secure funding for Aboriginal legal organisations.

It is shameful that the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments have shown disregard for the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory and that most of its recommendations in fact remain unimplemented. It is no surprise that the Don Dale royal commission recommendations have been so thoroughly ignored, unfortunately. It's 30 years since the deaths in custody royal commission, and more First Nations peoples are dying in custody than when the commission was called.

The language used in the new Closing the Gap plan is clear: this is a plan that was developed by ministers, departments and governments with First Nations peoples; it wasn't developed by First Nations peoples. First Nations peoples need to be in the driving seat. We cannot close the gap until First Nations peoples have control over policies and genuine community-led decision-making. I do congratulate the people and the organisations that have been driving this agenda and have been taking it up to government continually to address this issue of closing the gap. My comments are not meant to cast a slight on them at all. They have been driving this agenda and, if it weren't for their commitment, we wouldn't be where we are now. But we still have a long way to go.

The government say they are listening to First Nations peoples, but when it comes to social policy that impacts on First Nations peoples what they're actually doing is listening to the billionaires. The cashless debit card dreamed up by a millionaire harks back to the old ration days. There is no consent to this card in First Nations communities. It is making peoples' lives harder. Their fundamental right to choice and control and to make their own decisions has been taken away from them. What did I just comment on earlier? We need to ensure that First Nations peoples are supported and ensure that they are the ones making the decisions. The government knows that the cashless debit card doesn't work, because evaluation after evaluation has shown that, but it continues to pour millions into it. How about putting the millions into addressing treaty, addressing injustices and addressing the criminal justice system to make sure that it's not locking up 10-year-olds?

First Nations women are also disproportionately impacted by punitive programs, such as the punitive ParentsNext program. ParentsNext is not culturally safe for First Nations parents and results in a disproportionate number of First Nations parents losing their payments. Programs like these directly contradict the Closing the Gap objectives. We need supportive approaches that are led and delivered by First Nations peoples. The cashless debit card and the ParentsNext program entrench and exacerbate poverty in First Nations communities. It is plain hypocrisy to claim that the government are committed to closing the gap, to make promises about community decision-making and to make promises about working with First Nations peoples when they are not listening to First Nations peoples when they say that these programs are punitive and that they don't work. The evidence shows that they don't work, but this government continues to pursue these programs. So, on the one hand, they are here with their implementation plan, saying they're committed to closing the gap, while, on the other hand, their very programs and actions undermine those commitments. It's so clearly contrary to what First Nations peoples are saying to them. At the same time they claim they are listening to First Nations peoples, they are delivering programs that undermine the very implementation plan that we are talking about today.

There needs to be significant change in this country. We need to start it by acknowledging that we stole this land, that sovereignty was never ceded and that we need to have treaty and treaties in this country. Then we need to make sure, as part of that process, that the truth is told. Then we need to make sure that we have policies and programs in place that are led and delivered by First Nations peoples if we are going to close the gap.

11:05 am

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

I acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present and to their emerging leaders. I acknowledge that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land and that sovereignty has never been ceded. I want to also associate myself with the statements made by Senators Wong, McCarthy and Dodson, and I also want to say to Senator Siewert: your advocacy on behalf of First Nations peoples will be missed in this chamber when you leave.

I want to start by really challenging the government's response to Closing the Gap, because, as I think both Senator Dodson and McCarthy have outlined, it's built on a failed system. That system has failed, and so we're not really going back to the fundamentals to look at how we need to change things. Despite the Prime Minister saying that we want to do things with Aboriginal people, when you continue to build on a system which has failed, you will never be working hand in hand with First Nations people.

In order for us to re-establish the system, we have to come to grips with the truth. We do need truth-telling. That is the fundamental start: to acknowledge the past wrongs that white people colonisers did to our First Nations people. That's the starting point, and we've never acknowledged that. We've said sorry to the stolen generations, but even that, as proud as I was to be in this parliament and to hear that address, is not enough. We've got to go right back to truth-telling, from the day we as non-First Nations peoples set foot into this country, and move on from there, because that's where true partnerships will emerge from. That is the starting point.

When I look at Western Australia and I see all of the massacre sites which really only a handful of people know about, it's disgraceful. They are part of our history, and they're not that old in Western Australia, sadly. Those generations involved in the massacres and the people who perpetrated those massacres are only a few generations away. It's still living memory.

One of the other issues I want to challenge is the notion that I heard from the Prime Minister last year and this year—it really got up my nose and, sadly, it was repeated by Senator Birmingham in this place—that the government wants First Nations children to be proud. Well, they are proud. It really bugs me to hear that. My granddaughter—a Gija person from Warmun, from stolen generations—is a proud young Aboriginal woman. How dare the Prime Minister of this country somehow think he needs to fix her belief in herself? She's got a strong belief in herself. I'm incredibly proud of her.

A couple of months ago, along with Senator McAllister and Senator Siewert, I had the absolute privilege of being invited to a meeting in Broome held by Kimberley women. It was on June Oscar's report, which the government has made no comment on—a landmark report, based on research and interviews that haven't been done in 30 or 40 years. June Oscar, in her role as commissioner, went across the country, listening to what young Aboriginal girls and women were telling her, and she produced this report, which is from their voices across this country. The Morrison government doesn't have the respect to even respond to that report, but the Kimberley women did. We had about 100 women in the room from all over the Kimberley, and they were so powerful. They took June Oscar's report and they looked at how it might work across the Kimberley. Everyone participated: young women, older women, women from all over the Kimberley.

On day 3, they invited the state minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Stephen Dawson, to come, and they told him very clearly they didn't want a seat at his table. They weren't interested in that. They wanted him to come to their table. That's what true listening is about. It's about acknowledging First Nations people, where they are and how they want that partnership to develop. They were very powerful and they told the state in no uncertain terms what the expectation was. The pride and the respect in that room for each other was palpable. You could feel it in the air. I think some women had come from Senator McCarthy's country. They brought an amazing dance and spirit with them and it lifted the room. It was very, very powerful. It's appalling that the Morrison government completely misses that complexity and the respect that's there. We've just had two Aboriginal women elected to the state parliament in WA, both from the Kimberley. The respect, love, support and pride for those women to be successful was huge. So, Mr Morrison, don't speak to First Nations people about respect and about who they should be, because they already are. We're just not watching, we're not listening and we're not working in the right ways.

As long as we have punitive measures that harm Aboriginal people, such as the cashless debit card, the CDP, and ParentsNext, we are not in a partnership. Those measures are not about partnership; they are punitive measures. I've attended most of the Senate inquiries we've had on the cashless debit card. When we were in Kalgoorlie, who did we hear from? The local councils. Since when do local councils in Western Australia deliver social services? They don't, but it didn't stop them from having an opinion. What I heard in those cashless debit card hearings was all about the deficit agenda. Sadly, that's what I heard from the Prime Minister in his Closing the Gap address, and it was repeated here by Senator Birmingham—the deficit model—instead of stepping back and saying: 'We have responsibility here. We have created some of this harm. We have created these appalling statistics.'

In WA, it is shameful that we are still locking up children as young as 10 who actually don't commit crimes that get them a custodial sentence, but, because we don't have a good bail system, they end up in custody for stealing a piece of fruit or stealing a couple of chocolate bars in a shop. I can say right here and now that, as a young white kid, I stole chocolate bars from shops. Did I end up in juvenile detention? No, I didn't, because the colour of my skin is white. Yet today, right across Australia—it's only the ACT so far that has moved on this—we are still locking up 10-year-olds. If that doesn't do harm, I don't know what does. They're babies; they've barely got their permanent teeth. They're just kids, beautiful kids, and we are locking them up. So I don't quite know how we've met the youth detention statistic in Closing the Gap. I bet it's because we are only looking at children who receive a custodial sentence, not all the ones that we've held in custody awaiting their opportunity to go before a magistrate at the Children's Court. There's the CDP. We have seen some insulting programs across this country. We've seen people breached.

All that those measures are doing is casting First Nations people further into poverty, because they all involve the withholding of money. That is not about working in partnership. That's not about respecting the place that First Nations people are in. That is not about creating partnerships for the future. That's about continuing to be the colonising government that does punitive harm to First Nations people. When you grow out of that system and survive, it shows what an amazing person you are.

11:15 am

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I speak to the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap address and associate myself with the heartfelt comments made by my colleagues Senator Thorpe and Senator Siewert. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the many lands that we are here from today and pay my respects to elders past and present. I'm on the land of the Gadigal of the Eora nation, but no matter where we are in this country we are on stolen land. I do this acknowledgement in full recognition of the fact that we are still so far away from justice for First Nations people.

As we strive for justice and equality, First Nations people and their voices must be front and centre of the struggle, because there can be no social or environmental justice without racial justice and there can be no racial justice without First Nations justice. Australia has a colonial past and a bloody history that is tainted with dispossession and violence. This violence against First Nations people has never ceased. It continues to this day in the settler colonial systems and structures of this country. The depth and breadth of prejudice against First Nations people is still rooted in law enforcement and societal attitudes and institutional systems.

It is also, sadly, rooted in this parliament and this chamber. Listening to this morning's debate, I hear a lot of sadness and reflection but I also hear some ignorance and malice. There are still members of this place who refuse to acknowledge the systemic racism, who refuse to acknowledge the suffering and our collective need to address it. The 2021 Closing the Gap report shows that almost all key indicators have gone backwards since the Liberals came into power. Rates of suicide have worsened, and thee are rising numbers of First Nations children being removed from their families and of young people and adults in prison. It breaks my heart as a mother and as a human being that almost 19,000 First Nations children are currently removed from their families, 11 times the rate for non-Indigenous children. The violence that I speak of is inherent in our systems that are still taking babies away from their families, the systemic failure that ensures that ever more First Nations people are being imprisoned and the structural inequalities that push people to the brink.

From 2016 to 2019, almost a quarter of deaths of young First Nations people were by suicide. First Nations young people and children are constantly told to be resilient. It's actually not anyone's job to tell First Nations people to be resilient. They know what resilience in the face of colonial oppression looks like. But, Mr Morrison, it is your job to upend the systems that continue to perpetuate injustices against First Nations people. You've only come to the table on reparations to stolen generations after hundreds of survivors said that they would sue the federal government for compensation. It's still too little and too late. The racist harm and violence caused to people through stolen generations cannot even begin to be addressed by the insufficient reparations that have been announced by this government.

First Nations' disadvantage results in their shorter life expectancy and poorer health. They're disproportionately over-represented in prisons. It's been 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, yet we are still in a horrific place where ever more First Nations people are dying in police custody. Almost 500 First Nations people have died in custody since the royal commission. If this isn't a call to change the system, then I don't know what is.

In his address, Mr Morrison never once mentioned climate justice. We know that remote communities and people connected to the land are most affected by the climate emergency we're in. Two centuries of colonisation have wrecked the millennia of care of country by First Nations people. There can be no environmental justice without First Nations justice.

The target set for reducing imprisonment of First Nations people is also so utterly inadequate, and there is no immediate new funding to support the government. This needs to be addressed. This government and their predecessors have tinkered around the edges but have never committed to what grassroots First Nations people have been demanding for years—for decades. Put First Nations communities at the grassroots level, in the driving seat, and fully fund their work. Commit to and start a process for treaties. That will be a start towards the healing and justice that is so needed in this country.

11:20 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'm very pleased to be able to speak on this Closing the Gap statement today, because closing the gap with our First Nations peoples is such a fundamental thing that we need to address in Australian society. I want to acknowledge that I am speaking today from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation from my office in Brunswick. I want to acknowledge their elders, past and present, and I want to acknowledge all First Nations people, all around the country. I want to acknowledge that the land that we're all on is sovereign Aboriginal land. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land. I also want to acknowledge the First Nations people whom I am very proud to be able to share the Senate with: my colleagues Senator Lidia Thorpe, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator Pat Dodson and Senator Jacqui Lambie.

I'm very aware that I am speaking today as a person with immense privilege. I have the privilege of having always had a roof over my head, good health, good education, and being very confident of my own abilities. As a white person I've never experienced racism. I haven't experienced intergenerational trauma. I can only imagine and empathise with people who haven't had the same privilege and commit to using my privilege to working alongside First Nations peoples for justice. I am a product of the settler colonialist project that is Australia. I live on stolen land. I work on stolen land. Australia was violently wrested from First Nations peoples who had lived here for 60,000 years or more. People were massacred. They were poisoned. Food systems, life support systems, culture and families were ripped apart, destroyed. The very existence of our First Nations peoples was denied through the concept of terra nullius.

When I was growing up, my understanding of the First Peoples of this land and the First Nations of this country was extraordinarily limited. The culture I grew up in, which still pervades mainstream Australian culture today, was that First Nations peoples were basically peripheral to mainstream Australia, that they were primitive peoples living in the outback or fringe dwellers on the edge of towns, and there was a process of assimilation going on, that we whites were superior and that eventually they, the blacks, would assimilate with us and become like us. I now know just how wrong, how damaging and how destructive these mainstream cultural attitudes were—and still are—to our First Nations peoples.

I find it extraordinary to think that it's only in my lifetime that the First Peoples of this country were finally recognised as citizens of Australia. At the time I was born, First Nations babies were being taken from their parents. They were being taken—stolen—from their community, their culture and their language. And they were being fostered with nice white families like mine, or corralled into children's homes that did their best to destructively hammer their blackness out of them. This is Australia's violent history of dispossession, and it's ongoing: the number of First Nations people in custody, the suicide rates, the early deaths, the child removals and the massive numbers of First Nations people, including children, who are brutally imprisoned. The deaths in custody show that this history of dispossession is an ongoing present reality.

The huge gaps between First Nations peoples and the rest of us show that this is the case: we are still a colonial country and our First Nations peoples are still treated as second-class citizens by most people in this country. There is still racism against our First Nations peoples. It is still rife in our community, as Senator Hanson's contribution this morning made clear. We are never going to close the gap unless we acknowledge that this is our reality, unless we acknowledge our history and unless we acknowledge the ongoing injustices in Australian society. We will never close the gap until we can tell the truth and then move on together. We cannot undo the past. The past has occurred. We are now a multicultural community of over 25 million people here in Australia. But what we need to do is acknowledge the truth, acknowledge the dispossession and the trauma and then commit ourselves to making amends.

While we are still celebrating Australia Day, instead of acknowledging it as Invasion Day or Survival Day, while mainstream Australian culture doesn't acknowledge this truth, doesn't acknowledge that we are living on stolen land, doesn't commit to a process of decolonisation and doesn't acknowledge the underlying racism that pervades our country, we are not going to close the gap. We are never going to close the gap until we have leadership that commits to decolonising, commits to truth-telling, commits to treaties and commits to genuine self-determination by First Nations peoples, rather than ongoing neo-colonial control. We need leadership that acknowledges the racism that is still rife in our communities, and we need leadership that then says we need powerful, antiracism strategies to address it. We need leadership that commits to protecting country and to genuinely consulting with, listening to and not overriding the wishes of First Nations peoples—leadership that is actually First Nations peoples alongside other peoples.

We need to be managing country hand in hand with our First Nations peoples and, for example, not proceeding with fracking vast tracks of unceded land in the Northern Territory without consent. We need to be protecting our precious forests and their wildlife, rather than destroying them without consent. We need to be taking urgent serious action to slash our carbon pollution to zero so that we can have climate justice, and it can be racial justice as well. We need to be protecting country, protecting our future, making sure that we have a safe climate for all of us to be living in. We need to be protecting the web of life, to be respecting and nurturing the entanglement of relationships between every living creature and every part of the world that we are a part of. We have to do this for all of our sakes, for Australia's sake. We can never be at peace with ourselves as a country until we do.

All of us have so much to gain by truly acknowledging and valuing our First Nations peoples as First Peoples who are the traditional owners and custodians of all of this land and who maintain that ownership and custodianship of the land. We can learn, we can listen and we can embrace wisdom and knowledge and commit to protecting country. We can celebrate culture and then work powerfully and creatively together in our evolving shared culture, proudly rather than hypocritically. It's only by doing that that reconciliation with our First Nations peoples can become a reality and we will truly be on the journey to closing the gaps that are currently impacting so harmfully on all of us.

11:29 am

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

This morning, at the outset of this speech, I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land our parliament meets on today, the Ngunnawal people, and the traditional owners of Perth, where I hail from, and the Whadjuk people within the Noongar nation as well as all of the wonderful First Nations communities of Western Australia. It is a great honour to be a representative in this place, working alongside the likes of Senator Pat Dodson, for those people and communities.

As we all know, we have a long road to closing the gap in life experiences, life expectancy, social health and economic outcomes for First Nations people here in Australia. Today, I want to talk about a different gap. It's a gap that, when addressed, makes such a critical difference to closing the gaps that have been outlined in the Closing the Gap statement on all those health and social outcomes. It also closes a gap for all of us as Australians. That is the importance of our nation celebrating, learning about, resourcing and respecting First Nations culture and people, and how much we still have to learn. We've come some way, and a long way, but not nearly far enough. It's evident in our cultural institutions, our schools and our communities. I want to lay on the record that we're all the poorer as a country for not having done enough of that. I include in that the importance of the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

As I reflect on my own life as an Australian, I remember, in 1979, the 150th anniversary of the centenary of the so-called foundation of Western Australia by British colonists. I remember the celebrations at school and the re-enactments. I recall them very vividly. They were done with blindness, as far as I could see from a child's eyes, to the many First Nations people of Western Australia and to the frontier wars and massacres that took place across the state. I would spend my childhood holidays at Rottnest Island, ignorant at the time to the fact that it was a place of misery, slavery and incarceration, a place of chains and death for many hundreds of First Nations men from around the state. I recall the common parlance of appalling racist language across the community and in the playground.

As a background to my childhood and growing up, I finally learned of the ongoing structural marginalisation of First Nations people in my home state, in a real sense, when I went to university at UWA. I knew of this in my heart, but I'd never really had a chance to learn about it. I spent some time studying African history at about the same time as the end of apartheid. This was in the 1990s. I learned about the restriction of South African people's movement, their removal from homelands, the law acquiring them to have papers to go anywhere, the stealing of wages, the stealing of children and so on. I also learned that the many laws of South Africa that were still evident at the time of apartheid, the laws that I had studied, had been copied from my own home state of Western Australia. With my eyes peeled back anew, I could see the many layers of this legacy etched into the daily life of First Nations people in my home state and, indeed, for all of its citizens, whether in the remote communities of the Kimberley or the strong First Nations communities in the Wheatbelt, where they've nevertheless been dispossessed from country in the process of clearing and agriculture.

With my eyes opened anew, I have had the chance to reflect now on how far we've come in the last 30 years and what we have learned from First Nations communities, and it is with the deepest, most heartfelt sense that I say today how much richer my own life as an Australian is for the opportunity to share in First Nations culture and in the many diverse local cultures from my own home state of WA. I believe fervently in what First Nations people have achieved in coming together with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I have no fear of its implementation and I really do not understand why this government has sought to block its aspirations. Its implementation can only do great good for our nation. As that statement said:

With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood.

I believe very much that all Australians have a great deal to gain from the expression of that constitutional change and structural reform, including in the way that we debate issues and listen in this place. I don't see constitutional recognition, or indeed a voice to parliament, as a controversial or difficult thing. After all, it is the job of this place, through our Senate committees, to listen to the voices of all Australians. It should appear simple enough, in the same way we are able to have a parliamentary joint committee for corporations, a redress committee or an economics committee, to have an approach and a committee that listens to First Nations people on their terms and utilises their cultural paradigms as it does that. It's done in plenty of other parliaments around the world.

I have to say, in touching on the Uluru statement, that in Western Australia we have almost as many First Nations people in our prisons as Victoria does, which is pretty astounding when you consider the difference in our population size. So I very much want to endorse the principle of makarrata, so that we as a nation can come to terms with our future and reflect on our colonial history and the frontier wars and First Nations peoples' struggles in that regard. In that context, I want to commend the production of York that I recently saw in Perth at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

As I reflect on what the Greens were just saying in this debate, I want to say that we can't hector the rest of the country into this but we can embrace the notion that we all have so much to gain in the full expression of ourselves as a nation. I see this in my six-year-old son's pride, curiosity and joy in learning about First Nations culture at his own school and reading their stories. It is a far cry from my own childhood and a real reflection of the future I hope we can all achieve as a nation.

11:39 am

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] As I give this contribution remotely, I begin by acknowledging that I do so from the lands of the Kaurna people, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. As a South Australian senator, I also acknowledge the 39 Aboriginal language groups that make up the state I represent, as a senator. I pay tribute to Senator Dodson, Senator McCarthy, Senator Lambie and Senator Thorpe, as well as Minister Wyatt and shadow minister Burney in the other place, and I reaffirm my commitment to voice, treaty and truth.

On the whole, this year's Closing the Gap data makes for difficult reading. Of the set targets aimed at addressing Indigenous disadvantage, only three are on track—children born healthy and strong, preschool and our youth detention. Closing the Gap is an area of public policy where a spirit of bipartisan commitment is crucial, and I acknowledge all senators in this chamber who share that commitment genuinely. But taking a bipartisan approach doesn't mean avoiding appropriate scrutiny. Indeed, it is only continuous scrutiny and accountability that will pave the path to change that we so desperately need to see.

Two years ago the government said they would change the approach to closing the gap, in partnership with peak First Nations organisations. As Anthony Albanese has done, I acknowledge the role played by Pat Turner and the Coalition of Peaks in this work. But we still don't have data or a measurement of progress on the four priority reforms. Some of the targets lack serious ambition. We should not and cannot settle simply for improving the lives of our First Nations people while maintaining stark inequalities between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians. Of the Closing the Gap targets that we don't have data to measure progress for, this is deeply concerning. Every one of the Closing the Gap targets is important, from ensuring that families and households are safe and youth are engaged in employment and education to making sure First Nations Australians are empowered to maintain their distinctive cultural, spiritual, physical and economic relationship with country. All deserve our full support and determination, and we must recommit to removing racial discrimination and disadvantage across all areas of our society.

There is a glimmer of hope in some of this year's data, because one target which the data shows we are on track to reach is an absolutely crucial one for all of our futures—to ensure that children are engaged in high-quality and culturally appropriate early childhood education in their early years. This target is for the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling to reach 95 per cent by 2025. Data from the Productivity Commission estimates that, based on 93.1 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the age cohort being enrolled in a preschool program, that target will be met by 2025. Our long-term efforts towards closing the gap require getting early childhood education right. We know that it is in the first thousand days of a child's life where critical brain connections are formed and that, during these first thousand days, children need the opportunity to develop well to access the all-important fundamentals of play based learning, nutrition and nurture. Early education can play a role in ensuring that these fundamentals are met for all Australian children, and, for children experiencing disadvantage, it is especially important that we get this right. Of course, this must be done in support of families and in support of the irreplaceable and essential relationship between children and their families. Let us never forget the disastrous policy failures that have come out of this place to achieve the very opposite. Let us never forget that it was only 13 years ago that we gathered here in this place to finally say sorry to the stolen generations.

While there is better news in this year's Closing the gap report about early childhood education enrolment rates, there of course remains so much work to do. It is of some comfort that the outcome area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being born healthy and strong, which aims to increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies with a healthy birth weight to 91 per cent by 2031, is also on track, subject to caveats. But, if we are to truly give all Australian children the best possible start in life, we have to make much more progress on issues such as the devastating overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system. This year's figures show us we are a long, long way from any meaningful progress on this issue. In fact, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the system increased from 2019 to 2020. In my state of South Australia, rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in the system are almost 12 times that of non-Indigenous kids. Just think about what that statistic means, because, whatever the individual circumstances that underpin that statistic, it should move all of us to tackle the disadvantage and discrimination faced by First Nations people in every aspect of life.

When it comes to levels of social and emotional wellbeing, we are not on track to meet the target of a significant and sustained reduction in suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That represents far too many unbearable losses for far too many families, and, tragically, we were reminded, earlier this year, on the 30th anniversary of the handing down of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in April, that more than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since 1991. There is so much work to do, and, although these words can feel hollow, having been uttered so many times in this place, the time for announcements and for promises is long past.

Labor is committed to closing the gap; we are determined to see it through, and I am proud to be from a party that shares that genuine commitment. Labor believes every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child must grow up with the same opportunities as those of non-Indigenous children. That's a right of all Australian children. Labor has a plan to turn the tide on incarceration and deaths in custody by building on the previous success of justice reinvestment programs which address the root causes of crime, including rehabilitation services, family and domestic violence support, homelessness support and school retention initiatives. Labor will provide specific standalone funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, to ensure that First Nations people can access culturally sensitive supports when they need them.

We also know that, as crucial as the tangible measures that underpin Closing the gap are to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we also have a duty—an enormous duty and responsibility—to fully embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart, 'Voice. Treaty. Truth.' Labor's commitment to Uluru is solid. Our commitment is to the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to take a rightful place in their own country, as it was put, and a voice must be coupled with a makarrata commission with responsibility for truth-telling and for treaty. We must fully reckon with our past so we can walk together towards a more equal future.

In closing, I want to acknowledge and associate myself with the earlier contributions of Senators McCarthy and Dodson and to dissociate myself, in the strongest terms, from the contribution of Senator Hanson, which was offensive, hurtful and divisive. There is no place for it here or indeed anywhere in Australia. I am, as a senator and as a human being, committed to listening more to and learning more from our First Nations Australians, striving to do better by them and by our history, and striving to be part of a better future, and I would urge all senators to do the same.

11:48 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I acknowledge all people of our nation. Earlier this month, I returned from more than two weeks listening to the people on the ground in all communities across Cape York—communities like Coen, Laura, Lockhart River, Port Stewart, Bamaga, Seisia, Umagico, Injinoo, New Mapoon, Thursday Island, Saibai Island, Badu Island, Weipa, Mapoon, Napranum, Aurukun, Pormpuraaw and Kowanyama. That followed previous visits to cape communities, to Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and to Aboriginal community gatherings in southern Queensland.

I now turn my comments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I acknowledge people like Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price, and Jacintha Priscilla Rose Geia, who has taken responsibility for her life and recently graduated from university after battling with domestic violence. I acknowledge Bruce Gibson, Hope Vale business owner and a leader on the cape. I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the NRL and the AFL, whose participation at elite levels of their sports exceeds their proportion in the general population of all Australians. Aboriginals and Islanders are excelling in this country at times—just like other members of the community. And I acknowledge and wholeheartedly endorse Senator Pauline Hanson's speech and comments earlier this morning.

Now, I'm no expert on Aboriginal and Islander matters, yet I am a human and I know what I see in any community, regardless of race, colour or religion. Let me share some insights. What is happening on the ground in Cape York are some exciting new improvements, yet there is a perpetuation of the misery and squalor that for too long has characterised some Aboriginal communities.

The first topic is native title. Recognition of previous occupancy is needed. White and black people on the cape speak with a common voice, saying that native title has added another layer to negotiations for development and people largely accept that. What is not accepted is the inability of Aboriginal people to have rights to use their land due to the Native Title Act. I quote from a member of my staff, who visited with me on the cape: 'An unusual feature found in the preamble to the Native Title Act is a significant overemphasis on the influence of United Nations principles, which do nothing to tangibly benefit Australia's Indigenous people.' The Native Title Act, as told to me by Indigenous leaders and community members, is recognition but otherwise offers little more than window-dressing. It is hindering Indigenous people from advancing their interests in our society. Aboriginals are not able to achieve ownership of their own homes if the area falls under native title. It's hurting the very people it was meant to serve. Maybe the meaning is beyond the Aboriginals and the whites in this country and has everything to do with the United Nations. It's locking up land. The Aboriginal leaders and members of communities say, 'What is the point of having native title when Aboriginals lack the right to use the land and cannot use it as collateral for starting a business?'

The next one is closing the gap. In my experience, we tend to achieve that on which we focus. Instead of focusing on a gap, which will perpetuate the gap, we need to focus on standards applicable and expected in every community and measure progress towards that. A prominent islander who earned my respect through our hours of discussion—and he's involved in government—expressed it well when he said bluntly that focusing on the gap perpetuates the gap because there is a whole industry that exists only while the gap exists. Those people—consultants, agencies, lawyers, politicians and ministers—exist only because of the gap. They have an interest in perpetuating the gap, and they do perpetuate the gap. The money, authority and power needs to be taken out of the hands of the Aboriginal industry and given to the Aboriginals and islanders in the communities. This Aboriginal industry—by the way, Aboriginals use those exact words for the people holding them back—makes money from people's misery and perpetuates the misery.

The next point is on data and facts. Some in the Aboriginal industry exist because of poor data and the lack of consulting people on the ground in communities. Some exist because they misrepresent the data. Misrepresenting the data, altering the facts, hides the problem, and that prevents a suitable, robust solution. When data is accurate, we need to use it in context and convey it accurately. Above all, we need to dig down to the core problem. That's where the opportunities for advancement lie. Those who misrepresent data in the belief that they need to exaggerate the misery to get something done about it, in fact, derail efforts and perpetuate the misery because they cause further new miseries. For example, deaths in custody tell a story about our whole nation and need to be dug into properly, not taken out of context.

The core issue on the cape is shoddy governance and a confusing mismatch and alphabet soup of federal, state and local government programs that are riddled with waste, duplication and, from what we're told—and it seems entirely plausible—corruption. As a result, taxpayer money is wasted. Taxpayers are funding billions of dollars each year for Aboriginal programs, yet only a fraction reaches the Aboriginals and islanders on the ground in communities. Much is lost in waste. Much apparently is stolen or selfishly redirected, as is power, as are resources and as is control, for personal benefit.

We need to improve governance to ensure everyday Aboriginals receive and efficiently use the money and ensure that taxpayers get value for their money. Those funds will be more effective when granted with sound intent, instead of patronising paternalism. We need to give more autonomy to those communities to take responsibility. These people in the communities are crying out for authority over their own lives and communities. I remind the Senate of something I've said many times. Maria Montessori said, 'Whenever one sees a lack of responsibility, there is a lack of freedom.' Across the cape, to varying degrees depending on the community, people are crying out for self-determination. People and communities need self-determination. Australia needs these communities to have self-determination. Aboriginals in many communities are ready for freedom because that brings accountability.

One further issue needs to be mentioned—past injustice. The murdering of Aboriginals and islanders, the capricious, heartbreaking stealing of land and destruction of houses, and the fracturing, relocating and deaths of families in large numbers, as recently as the 1960s: this is a blight on our history. Yet that is what it is—history. It is to be remembered but not used politically nor to foment guilt today. Guilt is a negative energy and, when used to drive, it ultimately drives negative consequences. In some of the communities, and with some individuals and groups, we could feel and I acknowledged the deep sorrow, continuing sadness and ongoing grief amongst Aboriginals and islanders. While past injustices to Aboriginals still weigh heavily, the current generation of Australians are not responsible for this. We are, though, responsible for the poor state and federal governance. That is our responsibility as voters.

I turn to Indigenous voice. Only one community said that it was adequately consulted on the Indigenous voice to parliament. Others had not even heard of it. Those who had heard of it reported to us that either the consultation was shallow and brief or the proposal will divide communities. Councillors said, for example, 'That voice will be for Aboriginals and not for islanders.' That spurred the thought in them that if Aboriginals have a voice then islanders need a voice. They could see what was happening. At its heart, a special voice for a specific group only separates and alienates that group.

I want to talk about culture. The first step in assisting Aboriginals to lift communities is to understand the Aboriginal culture. I do not understand many aspects of Aboriginal and islander culture, yet I can see and know that I do not know and that I do not understand the culture. I can see that cultural aspects are crucial for lasting solutions and progress. This is fundamental. It is the arrogance and ignorance in this building that proclaims solutions without understanding culture. After listening closely to the people across the cape recently I was shocked by the patronising paternalism heard in the other chamber last week. Instead of politics denigrating other parties, or exaggerating and sometimes falsely representing an initiative of the speaker's party, we need to focus on the data, core issues and solid plans, with unity between state and federal governments that puts people's lives and livelihoods ahead of the party politics that is again infecting some of today's speeches. We need a focus on Aboriginal and islander issues with the intent of freeing these people to be accountable and proud. That starts with real listening, real understanding and real involvement with authority. (Time expired)

11:58 am

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I begin by acknowledging that we meet on the land of Ngunawal and Ngambri people, the traditional owners of the lands which parliament meets on today. I'm also calling in from Cairns, the land of the Gimuy Walubara Yidinj people in Far North Queensland. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I also pay my respects to the elders past, present and emerging of the lands of Cape York, Mornington Island and the Torres Strait islands. I am so lucky to live in this region and to learn from their stories and their spirit.

For eight long years this government has kicked the can down the road on responsibility for and progress on closing the gap. It has been more than two years since this government said it would change its approach to closing the gap. I fear that this change is in approach only. It isn't a change to make change; it's a change for change's sake, to shift responsibility and accountability so that this government can say that it has done something, when nothing has been achieved.

There has been no measurable progress on the bar this government has set itself on the priority reforms of shared decision-making, building the community controlled sector, transforming government organisations and shared access to regional data. These are meant to be the backbone of working with First Nations organisations and underpin the path to self-determination, but this hasn't moved beyond rhetoric.

The new targets in Closing the Gap include the social and cultural factors that determine overall health, and this is important: things like housing, access to services, child protection, family violence, culture and language, and land and water rights. As Anthony Albanese said in his speech in the other place earlier this week:

There is no pathway to ensuring First Nations Australians live as long and as healthy lives as non-Indigenous Australians without steadily addressing each of these interconnected targets.

More than half a year after the new Closing the Gap agreement was signed, First Nations people are still far more likely to be jailed, die by suicide and have their children removed than non-Indigenous Australians. Only three of the 17 targets that have been set are on track.

Today I'd like to focus on one of those targets—housing. Target 9 of the Closing the Gap agreement is:

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in appropriately sized (not overcrowded) housing to 88 per cent.

Indigenous Australians make up three per cent of the Australian population but accounted for 20 per cent of all persons who were homeless during the last census. Labor has consistently called on the Morrison government to outline a plan to address the severe overcrowding in First Nations communities across Australia. Nationally, in 2016, 78.9 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were living in inappropriately sized housing. This is just what we know through census data, but you don't need data to tell you that this is an important issue. You can see it with your own eyes. The shocking thing is that we know that many ministers of this government and many MPs and senators who are members of this government have visited remote and regional communities and have seen overcrowding firsthand. The Morrison government knows how important this is, yet the Prime Minister takes no responsibility for this target.

I was disappointed but not surprised to discover last week, after the Closing the Gap speech was delivered, that there is not a single cent of new funding for housing in remote Indigenous communities in this country. There is no new funding for the Northern Territory, Western Australia or Far North Queensland—the cape and the Torres Strait. There are no details about how this Morrison government will achieve this target. The COVID pandemic has shown us that housing is crucial to health and wellbeing. You can't isolate from the coronavirus if you don't have adequate housing and you cannot live a healthy and meaningful life unless you have the housing you need. It is a crucial first step to supporting the health and economic outcomes of First Nations communities. What good are this government's empty promises for a better future for First Nations people when there literally aren't enough houses to go around?

In 2018 the coalition government walked away from the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. This was a 10-year agreement that saw the Commonwealth government, under Prime Minister Rudd, commit $5.5 billion over 10 years to address the shocking levels of overcrowding and poor housing conditions in remote communities. Prime Minister Turnbull and then Treasurer Scott Morrison walked away from this agreement. Mr Morrison refused to recommit to the partnership when he became Prime Minister.

Instead, in the lead-up to the last election the Morrison government did what they have always done—made an announcement. They announced a one-off payment of $105 million—such a drop in the ocean compared to the 10-year funding agreement. This funding is for communities in Cape York and the Torres Strait, but when you break it down it equates to only four or five houses for each community. This announcement was made by Warren Entsch and Nigel Scullion, the former Indigenous affairs minister. It led to a lot of people believing that this was a short-term solution and there would be an announcement from this government in future budgets. Well, there hasn't been a further announcement. There is no funding, and the $105 million? Not a single house has been built with that funding.

We know that overcrowding is getting worse while this government sits on its hands, but, instead of doing anything about this, the local member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, told the ABC that he doesn't hold a building licence. That was his excuse for not getting these houses built or delivering any future funding for this basic right of our Indigenous communities. The government should be investing in social housing and in Indigenous housing. It would be a win-win for our country and for the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, and it would also create jobs to make sure that we've got training and apprenticeship opportunities for young people in communities. That's exactly what a Labor government will do, if elected. Anthony Albanese has already announced a $10 billion social housing fund to build 30,000 affordable houses, and $200 million of that fund will go to repair and maintain housing in remote Indigenous communities. I was so proud when that announcement was made. Yet, during the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap speech last week and at his press conference, where he appeared to shout and rant at journalists about this process, we heard nothing about remote and Indigenous housing.

We know that there is a need to deliver the Uluru statement, and it comes back to truth-telling and treaty-making. But we need to tell the truth about what's happening right now. In communities in regional and remote Queensland, we have babies living in houses with 20 other people. There cannot be a situation where Australians think it is acceptable for a minister in this government to visit a community like that and leave not wanting to fix it. We do need to fix this. We need to fix it straightaway. It is not something that can wait for an election announcement or for the Prime Minister to need something to announce to help himself in the polls. This is something that should be done because it's the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do to fix overcrowding in our communities. It is a target in Closing the Gap, but there's no funding from this government.

Every time the government get up in this chamber and they speak about closing the gap and all of the things that they are doing and the way that they're working with First Nations communities, I can't help but think that none of these achievements will actually have any impact unless we fix housing first. Housing is a basic human right, and our First Nations communities deserve the dignity of a good home, a house to live in, somewhere to raise their family, a place to come back to at the end of the day. They deserve to have these homes on their country where their cultural ancestors started their lives and where their lives will end one day.

12:08 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I begin by acknowledging the Palawa people, the traditional custodians of the land from which I am streaming today. I pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

For eight long years the government has shifted its responsibility in progressing closing the gap, deflecting it to the states and territories and leaving it up to future cohorts. It has been more than a year since the new Closing the Gap agreement was signed, yet First Nations people still have significantly higher incarceration rates, are more likely to die by suicide and are more likely to have their children removed than non-Indigenous Australians. These are statistics that we should not be comfortable with.

Disappointingly, only three out of the 17 targets are on track to being achieved. There's also no measurement on the progress of the four priority reforms which aim to change the way governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and are designed to strengthen their culture. These include: sharing decision-making, building the community controlled sector, transforming government organisations and sharing access to regional data. These reforms are meant to be the pillars for working with First Nation organisations to support the path to self-determination. I'm concerned that these have not moved beyond discussion. These are real commitments, and with political will we will improve all 17 targets and bring Australia into line with Closing the Gap. We need sustainable leadership and meaningful reform.

We do welcome the additional funding announced by the Prime Minister last week, but he has also clearly walked away from implementing a voice to the parliament. This is despite the fact that, at the beginning of his term, it was allegedly high on his agenda. Now there is no hope that the Liberals will get a legislative voice to the parliament before the next election. As always, Mr Morrison promises a lot but fails to deliver. They're clearly against the enshrined voice that is being called for by the Uluru statement. The Prime Minister also promised a new approach, and we welcome that, but previous history causes us to question this: is this new money he has announced or is this another rehashed announcement that is full of spin?

This is a government that never follows through, and this is something that is too important to miss the mark on. As we stand, Australians have done a great job of protecting Indigenous communities from the spread of COVID-19. However, there is currently limited data available on vaccination rates in Indigenous communities. It's important to ensure that comprehensive data is collected so that vulnerable communities do not fall through the gap. Despite Indigenous people aged 55 and over being classified as a 1b priority group since late March this year and Indigenous people aged 16 and over since June, vaccination rates are very low. According to data obtained by the Guardian from the Department of Health, approximately 24 per cent of the eligible population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been vaccinated and just over 10 per cent of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated. This compares with 41.4 per cent of the general population aged 16 and over who have received at least one dose and 19.7 per cent of the general population who are fully vaccinated.

The fourth priority reform under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap is shared access to data and information at a regional level. If we are to implement this reform and improve the health outcomes of Indigenous Australians, we need a higher level of detail in the data on vaccination rates. These priority reforms need to move from rhetoric to action—to ensure that, in the short term, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are safe from the threat of COVID-19 and to improve longer-term health outcomes so that they live as long and as healthy lives as non-Indigenous Australians. The targets set out by the national agreement must be addressed holistically, as all of the targets are interconnected. The Morrison government must ensure that they lift their game so that more than three indicators are on track.

Labor's plan to close the gap will take action to address inequality through policies that strengthen First Nations' economic and job opportunities. The First Nations population is young and rapidly growing, and there will be a surge in the number who will be joining the working-age population in the coming years. Having a job bolsters our economic independence and is crucial to determining our wellbeing. All Australians should have the opportunity to share in Australia's good fortune. However, currently, First Nations Australians have significantly lower rates of employment and workforce participation, and higher rates of unemployment.

To improve the economic and job opportunities of First Nations people, Labor will double the number of rangers by the end of the decade to 3,800 to help protect and restore both our biodiversity and our cultural values. The Indigenous rangers program will provide valuable employment for Indigenous people in regional and rural communities. The program maintains connection to country, grows local economies and protects and restores the environment. As part of this program, funding for Indigenous protected areas will also receive a boost of an additional $10 million each year to improve biosecurity, biodiversity and management of cultural sites, and Labor will deliver the $40 million of cultural water promised in 2018 but not yet delivered by the Morrison government.

To improve employment opportunities on another front, Labor will also set a target to increase First Nations employment in the Australian Public Service to five per cent by 2030. In the private sector, Labor will support the continuing work of some of Australia's largest employers in increasing the rate of First Nations employment, to prevent the ripping off of the First Nations arts and crafts which robs Indigenous artists of their income—

Debate interrupted.

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

Thank you, Senator Polley. You will now be in continuation. I shall now proceed to senators' statements.