Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 March 2023


Closing the Gap, National Apology to the Stolen Generations: 15th Anniversary

10:03 am

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clocks in line with informal arrangements reached by senators.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

I start by first acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and paying my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and I want to particularly acknowledge First Nations senators. I will speak briefly because I believe it's important that Senator Dodson and Senator Stewart give the balance of the government's contribution today.

Fifteen years ago, on his first parliamentary sitting day as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology on behalf of the nation to Australia's Indigenous peoples—in particular the stolen generations. In acknowledging the past, Prime Minister Rudd said we were laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians, and part of that future was a commitment to close the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in health, education, employment and life expectancy within a generation.

Well, today we still have a long way to go. The last Closing the Gap annual report, tabled a few months ago, shows that gaps not only persist but in many areas are widening. This includes the number of children being school-ready, rates of incarceration and deaths by suicide. For too long, policies designed in Canberra and imposed on First Nations communities without meaningful consultation have failed to deliver the outcomes which we hoped for. We have tried to close the gap but we have done so without listening sufficiently to the voices of First Nations people.

This government takes responsibility for doing better. The Albanese government's first Closing the Gap Implementation Plan details the next steps that the Commonwealth will take towards achieving the targets and priority reforms of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. It shows all Australians what tangible and practical actions are being taken in partnership with the Coalition of Peaks to achieve progress. New measures in the 2023 implementation plan include support for water infrastructure to provide safe and reliable water for remote and regional Indigenous communities; a partnership with the Northern Territory government to accelerate the building of new remote housing; funding for the national strategy for food security in remote First Nations communities; support for family violence prevention and legal service providers; more on-country education for remote First Nations students, including greater access to junior rangers and culturally appropriate distance learning; and additional support for boarding for rural and remote students.

While the implementation plan sets out our immediate path for action, long-term and lasting progress requires structural change. This year Australians have the opportunity to be part of that change. The referendum for a Voice to Parliament is about two things. It is about recognition and it is about consultation. The Voice will give independent advice to the parliament and government, making recommendations on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Community led, empowering, inclusive, respectful and culturally informed, it will work alongside existing organisations and traditional structures.

Before I conclude and leave—as I said—the majority of the contribution to the First Nations colleagues that I have the privilege of serving with, I want to make some observations as the Minister for Foreign Affairs. As well as having so much to gain within Australia from closing the gap and achieving reconciliation, we have much to gain in the world by elevating the experiences and voices and wisdom of First Nations people. This is a national asset, and it is a source of our strength. It opens new ways to engage on shared interests with partners in our region. In the countries of the Pacific to which I have travelled I have been welcomed by traditional owners, and the centrality of traditional custodianship, of custom, of leadership in the Pacific way is something we should respect in our regional engagement. It is something we should be sharing with the Pacific family by elevating the perspectives and voices of First Nations people across communities across the blue Pacific.

Yesterday I had the privilege of announcing Mr Justin Mohamed as Australia's inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People. Justin is a Gooreng Gooreng man from Bundaberg with extensive experience across many roles. He will lead the Office of First Nations Engagement in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Together they will work in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to progress Indigenous rights globally and help grow First Nations trade and investment. This new position ensures, for the first time, that Australia will have dedicated Indigenous representation in our international engagement.

(Extension of time granted)

Elevating First Nations voices in our international engagement makes us stronger in the world. I was very proud to attend the United Nations General Assembly with Senator Pat Dodson, and I'm very proud that today, on International Women's Day, in New York the Australian delegation for the Convention on the Status of Women is led by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. That is a great thing.

Today is about closing the gap, but it is about more than that. It has greater ambition than that. It is about our nation, it's about achieving our full potential as a nation, and that can only happen when every Australian has the chance to realise their own potential.

10:10 am

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

Closing the gap is a powerful concept because it bridges from the symbolic to the practical. The concept of closing the gap is to establish and pursue measurable, verifiable targets to achieve genuine equality in outcomes, in outcomes that are real to people's lives, in outcomes that are real to the opportunities that they and their families and their children have. That's why it is important that each year we assess progress, speak honestly and address directly the challenges that come with closing the gap. It is a stain on Australia that the gap exists and the gap is as wide as it is. It is a stain that successive governments of different persuasions have invested significant sums of funds, energy, policies in attempting to address, and in some areas some success has been achieved. But too much of it has not been closed. The gap is too wide and, we must acknowledge, in some areas is still widening.

The Closing the gap report that was handed down late last year, as I acknowledged at the time, was the first such report following the new national agreement and implementation plan that had been released just 12 months earlier under the previous government. It had involved a long and genuine process of engagement and consultation to establish new targets in genuine partnership with First Nations peoples. It had worked closely with the Coalition of the Peaks, and I want to again acknowledge them for their work in the establishment of the targets and the process against which closing the gap policies and measures are now pursued.

It is pleasing to see that against those measures there are new priorities and, importantly, new, more granular targets in place which reflect very genuinely the input of First Australians to establish them and to identify their priorities. But, most importantly, it is about giving that direct focus on the attributes that we seek to achieve change through in terms of genuine closing of the gap and the changes that are necessary to do so. In too many areas we are not making progress, and in some we are even going backwards. School readiness, adult incarceration rates, suicide rates are all highlighted statistics that paint a bleak and continually concerning picture. Sometimes, indeed, they present as contrasts in the Closing the gap report, if we genuinely get into the data.

We've seen significant growth and achievement in terms of the percentage of children enrolled in preschool. Target 3 was identified as being on track, improving. Similarly, target 2, as identified by the Productivity Commission, concerned babies born with a healthy birthweight in 2019. It's improving, on track, according to the Productivity Commission's assessments against targets. And yet we see in target 4, the rate of children commencing school who are developmentally on track, going backwards, worsening. Much work is required to drill down below those types of statistics and understand: if we are achieving more babies born with healthy birthweight; if we are enrolling more children in preschool; what are the causes that are seeing fewer children commencing developmentally on track when they begin their school education. The same types of questions can be posed across a range of areas in relation to incarceration, employment, health and other types of outcomes that are assessed in detail through closing the gap. That's why this is a valuable process: because it has set transparent targets for government; because they are transparently assessed independently by the Productivity Commission; because it is done with direct engagement with community, as it should be; but, ultimately, because we can use this information and analysis to see what is working, but to see where things are failing and to pursue the types of policy changes through consultation and engagement with all those affected that can help us to genuinely close the gap. We owe people no less than to remove such a stain on Australia.

10:15 am

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to begin by restating the Greens' support for closing the gap and equity in First Nations health but also for First Nations people more broadly. As a proud Yamatji-Noongar woman, I'm proud to be the portfolio holder for the Australian Greens on First Nations issues.

First Nations people are overrepresented in our health system but also across all systems. We get sicker, we die earlier, we are poorer, we are arrested and locked up more, we have our children taken away from us more and we are less likely to finish school. On top of all of that, we are more likely to experience poverty and have less money. But make no mistake: this was not always the case. For thousands of years First Nations people managed their land and we managed ourselves. We looked after ourselves. We followed our cultural protocols and practices. We are, and were, deeply connected to our country, our culture and our community. This has changed since colonisation across various parts of our wonderful country.

First Nations people have been subjected to countless policies from successive governments since Federation, both with good intentions and with bad. Unfortunately, when the intentions have been good, such as with the Closing the Gap initiative, the results have been average. But, when the intentions have been bad, the results have been catastrophic for First Nations people. It is these policies that have resulted in the circumstances we are facing today, which the Closing the Gap initiative is aiming to address. They are the impacts of government after government telling First Nations communities what they need instead of listening to them, working with them and allowing First Nations communities to do what they have done for generations.

Unfortunately, what the last Closing the gap report showed is that many of these gaps not only continue to exist but are growing. In key areas, such as health, education, incarceration, life expectancy, suicide rates and children in out-of-home care, we are in fact going backwards, and this is shameful. Four out of the 18 socioeconomic targets are on track—only four—which is absolutely disgraceful. For the other 14, either they are not on track or there is no new data, so we don't even know if they are on track or not. This in itself is a huge problem that needs to be addressed.

We are pleased to see the investments into closing the gap in the 2022 October budget, specifically in the areas of health, housing and justice. However, since its inception, governments have invested millions into closing the gap and, as I said earlier, only four of the 18 targets are on track. We absolutely need to see progress. Now the current government has released its implementation plan, which sets out a plan for making progress towards these 18 targets. This plan includes more funding. The Greens welcome this. Of course we want to see these gaps closed, but the reality is that nothing is happening. We are not seeing the results we need to.

What is integral to the success of closing the gap is not the amount of money that any government chooses to invest in it, although—don't get me wrong—that does go a long way. It is the involvement of First Nations people that is integral. First Nations people need to be deeply embedded as we tackle these issues. From housing to health to education to incarceration, it's not enough that First Nations people just provide some input and then go away and all the decisions are made at government tables. We cannot do the same things we've done before and expect different outcomes. As the Minister for Indigenous Australians said, more of the same is not good enough.

We need to do things differently by working in partnerships with communities to get better results. We need to make sure that cultural protocols are followed, that cultural differences and nations are considered and that information is communicated in language. The only way we can do this is by having First Nations people in the driver's seat and involved in driving this process every step of the way. This is key not only in achieving the targets but also in respecting our sovereignty and our self-determination.

I'm disheartened that this could not have been a more positive speech; however, I look forward to working with the government on making actual progress on these 18 targets, because First Nations people deserve better than this. Further, the government needs to implement the recommendations of the Bringing them home report and the deaths in custody report. These reports have been collecting dust for decades.

10:20 am

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

N (—) (): Labor loves that it was one of their very own who delivered the Stolen Generations apology. Kevin Rudd did the hard sell on the apology, telling Australians it was necessary for us to move forward together as a nation. However, Anthony Albanese has decided to turn us backward as two separate nations divided by race. That's the real endgame. That's ultimately where the racist Voice to Parliament will take us. Labor is committed to implementing the Uluru statement in full, so the Voice is only the first step. The next step is truth-telling, but Labor can't bring itself to tell the truth about its plans for the Voice. Labor can't admit the truth that they're elitist, out of touch.

Aboriginal industry, which concocted the Uluru statement, has for decades been responsible for the failure to close the gaps. Labor won't admit the truth that the uncounted billions of dollars that the Aboriginal industry has stolen from taxpayers has failed to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are living in the violence, plague, and economic and social dead ends we call remote communities. The truth is that this industry is made up of thousands of corrupt and dysfunctional Aboriginal corporations and land councils. The truth is that these organisations are only interested in lining their own pockets and using their power to punch down on the truly disadvantaged Aborigines they despise and the few good people who are really trying to help them.

The truth is that, like 80 per cent of Aborigines, this industry's leaders don't live in remote Aboriginal communities, and they're not remotely disadvantaged. They've done very well for themselves—better than most of us. The truth is that these leaders are the very same failures and frauds who are now eagerly looking forward to well-paid, constitutionally protected jobs with the racist Voice to Parliament. The truth is that this mob doesn't even have the discipline to follow the Prime Minister's script to downplay the powers and scope of the Voice. They started that way, but their naked greed for race based constitutional power has been on full display recently. What an embarrassment for the Prime Minister!

Megan Davis last week made it very clear that of course the Voice will have tremendous power. This was always the true intention. She's effectively admitted what constitutional experts have been saying for some time now: that the courts will play a significant role in determining the powers of the Voice. That's right: this woman, appointed by the Prime Minister to advise him on the Voice, anticipates challenges in the High Court over the Voice's powers. She has directly contradicted the Prime Minister, who has been telling us that only parliament will do it. The truth is that parliament will be repeatedly held hostage in a series of constitutional crises while the unelected High Court extends the Voice's powers. The Prime Minister and his mob of Voice cheerleaders also keep repeating the lie that the Voice is necessary in order to close the gaps.

The truth is that a voice filled with the same frauds who have failed Aboriginals in remote communities for decades will close nothing. The truth is that these frauds have a vested interest in keeping those gaps as wide as the Grand Canyon—otherwise, they won't have the excuses they need to keep demanding more and more power and money. And the truth is that Anthony Albanese will just roll over and let it all happen. Another truth is that every parliament to come will be paralysed for months while activists demand to expand the powers of the Voice and take each parliament to the High Court if those demands aren't met. So much for moving forward together. The truth is that the Voice a racist black nationalist vehicle for chaos, lies and an Australia constantly in conflict.

Australians must reject this racist Voice that will take us backwards more than 50 years. We must prioritise helping those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are in real disadvantage in neglected remote communities. The only way to really close the gaps is to close those communities down and help the poor people who live in them to go where they can take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities that the rest of us have. If you want some real truth-telling, let us have an audit on all the money stolen by the Aboriginal industry—where it's all gone and why it's failed to close the gap. Let's have some truth-telling about the sexually abused children in these communities that you don't do anything about. Let's give them a future.

10:25 am

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

nator DODSON () (): I rise to note the 15th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations and the Commonwealth's Closing the Gap implementation plan 2023. The apology from the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, at the time was a momentous occasion for the nation, a huge step forward for reconciliation in Australia.

We should never forget our history—the good, the bad and the ugly—but we also need tangible action to address the poorer outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is why the tabling of our government's first Closing the Gap implementation plan under the national agreement is important. It is a strong demonstration of our commitment to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

I was grateful to attend several events in honour of the anniversary of the apology and speak with survivors of the stolen generations from right around the country. It is both humbling and motivating to hear their stories, their optimism and their hope. In statements today we must not shy away, though, from the landscape that is before us. While there has been some progress, the efforts of previous governments have been ineffective. The data speaks plainly of a stagnation in addressing the needs of Indigenous communities. Progress across most socioeconomic outcome areas has stalled. Some have even gone backwards.

In the midst of all of this we must not lose sight of the very real human cost of inaction. Aboriginal lives must not be treated like some beads on a departmental abacus. Closing the gap demands a spirit of transformation, genuine partnership and focused attention on outcomes. The government, in partnership with the Coalition of Peaks, is committed to securing real and transformational change for First Nations peoples.

The new 2023 implementation plan is about exactly that. It gives purpose and direction to our efforts to transform government, in line with the national agreement's four priority reforms. We are investing $424 million in additional funding to Closing the Gap across water infrastructure, food security, family violence and health. This is a top-up of the $1.2 billion in practical initiatives already being implemented following the October budget.

These announcements are significant: real funding and real investment in Aboriginal communities on the issues that matter most. But the implementation plan is also about accountability and transparency, by bringing together the actions that each department is taking over the next 12 months. Perhaps the most significant is that the implementation plan exists in a context that is in need of broad structural reform.

What has been missing is the Voice. It's the missing piece. A key element of the government's commitment to improve outcomes in closing the gap is its pursuit of a referendum to establish a voice to the parliament. It is grounded in evidence. Outcomes for our people are simply better when we have a say, have choice and make decisions about our lives. The Voice will do exactly that. Consistent with the national agreement, the Voice will be transformational and will better enable First Peoples to be engaged in decision-making and priorities.

This prospect should attract bipartisan support, especially given that these priority reforms were agreed by the previous government. The 2023 implementation plan and up-and-coming referendum promises a truly transformational moment for First Nations and real, lasting change: recognition in the Constitution and ability to make representation, to the government, into the parliament on matters that affect First Nations peoples and a matter for which a voice is needed to improve the outcomes in this closing the gap space.

10:29 am

Photo of Jacinta Nampijinpa PriceJacinta Nampijinpa Price (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to take this moment to recognise that it has been 15 years since the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. I would also like to acknowledge the current neglected generation who are being left to languish in dysfunctional circumstances because of their race, which, I believe, is an absolute crime. The rights of Indigenous children in this country are being left in dysfunctional circumstances because of their race. I also acknowledge the Indigenous voices in parliament. My colleague who spoke before me has had a long career as an Indigenous voice in parliament, and to parliament prior to that.

Fifteen years ago, in his apology, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called for a future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity. He called for a future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners with equal opportunities with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Just 15 years later, the new Labor government seeks to divide us. The new Labor government doesn't want us to be equal. They don't want is to be equal partners. They don't want us to have equal opportunities. They don't want us united with an equal stake in shaping our future. They want us constitutionally divided by race. They want to give one group, based on nothing but their differences, special privileges to stall, to halt, to hinder the work of governments if they don't like what they're trying to do.

This is not how you close the gap. This is how you increase the gap. This is how you open up a new one. This is how you open up the gap between the Aboriginal industry, the professional activist class and the vulnerable Australians living in remote and rural communities across Australia, out of sight and out of mind to Canberra. This is how we open the gap between the middle class and elite Aboriginal Australians in the cities and the marginalised Aboriginal Australians in remote communities.

Two years ago, during my tenure as the Director of Indigenous Research for the Centre for Independent Studies, our research uncovered where the gap truly exists. The gap does not exist between Indigenous Australia and everybody else; it exists between those in remote communities whose first language is not English, who still live by their traditional culture, who are out of sight and out of mind to places like Canberra and everyone else, including urban Aboriginal Australians, who, in the major cities and towns, have access to services and have better educational outcomes and health outcomes. That is where the gap truly exists. That is where the focus should be, not suggesting all Aboriginal people are disadvantaged because of their race. I would consider that a racist concept.

In my report, I highlighted that the approach that has governed Indigenous affairs for a number of years, focusing on symbolic gestures and separatist thinking behind the Voice to Parliament, is not working. Now, what has changed? The separatist thinking behind the Voice has gotten stronger. The call to give the divisive politicians' Voice more teeth has gotten louder. The push for division has gotten stronger. If the Aboriginal industry, comprising of service providers, bureaucrats, academics and politicians, is truly serious about closing the gap, then it must be prepared to no longer exist and ween itself off the millions of taxpayer dollars it relies upon to exist. Only then will the gap truly have been closed. The Voice does not seek to do this. The Voice seeks to constitutionally enshrine the gap, because a voice suggests we will always be disadvantaged as a matter of our racial heritage. It's such a shame. If this government is serious about closing the gap, it will not widen it by continuing this push for a divisive, dangerous and costly politicians' Voice. It will move away from the ideological race-based thinking and it will look for real solutions to real problems and treat all Australians equally, regardless of racial heritage.

10:35 am

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

I also rise to speak to the failing Closing the Gap statement on the anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations. By now we are getting used to what this report contains year after year—the so-called gap between First Nations people and non-First Nations people in this country. The gap is not closing but actually widening in a number of areas.

One of these areas is the removal of our children, the stealing of our children. Another one is suicide. These are not separate from each other. You cannot take a child from its mother without causing trauma. You cannot remove a child from a family, from a community, from its culture, from country without causing lasting, deep and intergenerational trauma. My people are dealing with this trauma every day. This is why I have not stopped calling on the government to fully implement the recommendations of the Bringing them home report. My own mother was a commissioner on that report, and I will keep the pressure on day-by-day until we finally see action.

You don't need to go out looking for new solutions. The solutions have been there for 26 years. Just on the weekend, on Sunday, I was asked to support a young single mother with a disability who had just given birth, and shortly after, her baby was taken away—a baby that belongs with its mother. These first hours, days and weeks are essential to forming bonds between mother and baby to establish breastfeeding and so much more. You can't get that back.

The so-called child protection in this country is many times more likely to remove a black child than a white child when all other circumstances are the same. It is done with such good intentions! Well, those good intentions are destroying our families and communities. It is a continuation of the stolen generations and it is also an act of genocide—genocide, in this country. According to the UN, genocide is a crime 'committed with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part'. Taking our children is an intent to destroy us as the First Peoples of this country. It is an act of genocide.

What our families need when struggling from systemic oppression is support. This support should, wherever possible, be provided by First Nations community-controlled organisations in culturally safe ways. I cannot tell you enough about how amazing Grandmothers Against Removal are. No-one supports them. You don't hear their voice. Even government departments deny a meeting with the elders, the grandmothers who are fighting to get our children out of this system. They have safely and caringly supported and kept babies and mothers together with no support, with no funding. Real support cannot be provided by just another one of your colonial institutions, where blackfellas don't feel safe and at every moment feel like they are doing something wrong, in not fulfilling another one of your colonial criteria, and are risking being reported and having their child taken.

If Labor is serious about its former Prime Minister's apology, where it has a morning tea and celebrates 22,000 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care, then it should look deeply into the practices of the system that has been created to destroy First Nations people in this country. You're attacking our children and the mothers and the fathers of these children. When are you going to implement the recommendations from the Bringing them home report, which provides you with all of the self-determining solutions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices that you so care about? What do you say about 22,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in out-of-home care? Do you say sorry again?

10:40 am

Photo of Jana StewartJana Stewart (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last month we marked 15 years since then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology for the cruel and unjust policies and practices that tore apart Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families across the nation, impacts of which are still evident today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sat with their family and friends, in the gallery and together on the lawns of parliament and watched on their screens in workplaces and schools right across the country. I chose to watch the apology with my community at the Aboriginal Advancement League, a proud and longstanding Aboriginal rights organisation in Melbourne's north. The hall was so full it was standing room only. It was a truly significant moment for our country, one seeped in optimism and hope for a better future for all Australians, for a country in which we can all live happy, healthy lives with equal access to employment and education opportunities.

Tragically, but not unexpectedly, there have been significant and damaging consequences from the neglect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the last decade by the former government. The 2023 Closing the gap report sets out the truth of the matter: the gaps are widening.

As I have spoken about in this chamber, I remember sitting in a classroom when I was 15 or 16 years old and the teacher talking about the Closing the gap statistics. As one of the only Koori kids in the classroom, it felt like the teacher was painting a picture of my future as a First Nations person, with dire statistics on health and life expectancy for First Nations people, for my people. It's hard to articulate what it is like to read about and listen to someone tell you that you're going to die 10 years younger than your peers, that you are less likely to finish high school and go to university and that I was more likely to be unemployed and have a chronic health condition than my peers. But this was the reality 20 years ago. Not much has changed since, and it's an absolute shame that we must continue to speak the truth now.

While the opposition leader seems to think that public policy doesn't have any unique impact on the lives of Aboriginal people in this country, I certainly beg to differ. If you need more proof about why the Voice to Parliament is needed, this is it: it's 10 years later and the statistics are getting worse. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains of Australian Early Development Census has dropped from 55 per cent to 35.2 per cent. The target for healthy birth weights for babies has gone from being on track to not on track. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deserve better.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians need a seat at the table to work in partnership with government to come up with the solutions for our families. This is one of the only things that has proven that the evidence is there to suggest that positive outcomes are possible and can only happen when we have a seat at the table. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to closing the gap—and not just on an ad hoc way or when there's opportunity to cause division to win some political points, like the Peter Dutton opposition. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to doing things differently, and we're just getting started on this work.

In our first budget, back in October 2022, the Albanese Labor government committed over $900 million to closing the gap. Earlier this week the Minister for Social Services announced more than $50 million of funding to help address the overrepresentation of First Nations children in out-of-home care by five per cent by 2031. It's something I'm deeply passionate about as somebody who has worked in the sector. This includes a delivery of innovative, community-led ideas from First Nations communities to design service models that better support families and supports organisations and workers to be better able to deliver prevention and early intervention services that are culturally safe, trauma and healing informed. We're determined to close the gap.

We will continue to deliver on the Closing the Gap implementation plan in partnership with the Coalition of Peaks and state and territory governments. We will continue to target investment where it will make a real and tangible difference to the lives of Aboriginal people.

I want to acknowledge the Aboriginal organisations around the country, and particularly those from my home state of Victoria, who shoulder the burden of this work. I want to thank each of you for your tireless advocacy for our mob. Thank you. To really and meaningfully move forward as a country, we must accept the generous invitation set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to walk together for a better future for all Australians.

10:45 am

Photo of Kerrynne LiddleKerrynne Liddle (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge, on International Women's Day, the contribution of all women and, in the context of this contribution, the enduring, valuable contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and my fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander senators.

We of course all agree that it is right and just to focus on closing the gap in life expectancy. In our cities and in our regional and remote communities the statistics demonstrate the real divide and consequences of not being effective in closing the gap, but we know that the data is an issue, and so it is likely much worse. However, closing the gap must not be the work of a single entity or group. Closing the gap will only work when all of us are involved and understand how we benefit from that outcome. Non-Indigenous Australians must remain critical to be part of the solution. It is well and good to have a well-funded strategy, but if on the ground it is not happening, because the very people charged to help them fail to act, then the gap won't close; it won't matter what we do.

I speak again, and I feel like I'm going around and around in circles, about the family that I came across in Alice Springs about two weeks ago. It's a lived example where I heard of so many gestures of concern for those people living on the slab, and they've been there for two years. These 20 women, children, elderly and those with serious medical conditions remain on that slab today, with exposure to the elements and greater risk to their life experience and expectancy—not just from the last two years, but they remain on the slab today. Their life and life experience may have been diminished as a consequence of this but not their hope.

It is known that the social determinants of health are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes. Without a roof and action, nothing will change for these people, and every day their life experience will remain on the wrong trajectory. These people haven't fallen through the crack; they have fallen through a cavern of apathy. People have driven past their plight. They have dropped off medical supplies, picked up people and dropped them back there, and nobody has seen it as their responsibility to take the greatest step of advocacy and get a roof over their heads so that they can control their own destiny and improve their own outcomes. These people have been invisible in plain sight. It's 40 degrees in summer and minus temperatures in winter. There is no shelter and no running water. There's an open fire to cook on. There's nothing to address their basic needs. It's unfathomable. Just imagine living like that for two years let alone overnight.

This is certainly not the way for any person in Australia to live, nor in the middle of a town whose economy, tragically and increasingly, is fast becoming more solely reliant on welfare. The economy in Alice Springs has been devastated by welfare. The tragedy and irony of this story is those service providers funded by the Northern Territory and Australian governments. They're engaging with this family. They know their circumstances. But they've failed to provide an integrated, effective response and a timely response to ameliorate this situation. It highlights the deficit in local service delivery, planning and coordination currently obvious among many funded agencies, and not just in Alice Springs or Central Australia; it's even in South Australia. If these issues and limitations are not addressed as a matter of urgency, then the potential to maximise effect from any financial investment or effort is significantly constrained.

Whatever the excuses or reasons, what resulted here was a family and their children enduring two years of the consequences of bad service provision, with the likely deteriorating health and wellbeing, and we know the link between environment and wellbeing. The Prime Minister, in reference to health, said he would leave no one behind, and I very much look forward to seeing that promise delivered by engaging with the Northern Territory government to get the right outcome for this family.

The lack of effort to ensure high-level accountability will continue to fail to deliver the right outcome and continue to leave families falling between the gaps in service coordination and far from the reach of anyone's ability to close the gap in life expectancy. Demanding good governance within these organisations is critical if you really want to close the gap. We saw the inability to get a faster response when the Stronger Futures legislation was— (Time expired)

10:50 am

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

I want to acknowledge the speakers who went before me and associate myself with the remarks of Senator Dodson and Senator Stewart. It's an absolute privilege to serve with you both in this place. And I want to acknowledge the remarks of all the speakers who went before me and, in doing so, note that I am standing here not as an Aboriginal person, but as someone who wanted to make a contribution to this debate as a representative of the state of South Australia. I think it's important that we all seek to be part of this debate not just in this chamber, but in our communities as well.

2023 marks 15 years since the first Closing the Gap report was delivered to our parliament. The past 15 years have been marked with plenty of good intentions but, on far too many indicators, these good intentions haven't been enough. The latest data update for this year shows us that the gap remains unacceptably wide. It's not closing fast enough. Indeed, in too many places we're going backwards. Of the new data we received this month, nine targets are not on track and just two are on track. Combined with the existing data, it shows there are 11 targets that are now not on track and four that are on track.

It was Nelson Mandela who said:

There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.

We should all be sitting pretty uncomfortably in this truth when we look at the data as it affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The target for healthy birth weights for babies has gone from being on track to being not on track. That means we have gone backwards. And we've seen that the target to increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth who are in employment, education and training is also not on track. The AEDI data remains unacceptable as is the proportion of people attaining year 12 or equivalent qualification. It's not okay.

All children in this country deserve to grow up safe, healthy, happy, nourished and valued. Those are their fundamental rights as little people among us. But this isn't happening. Their rights aren't being met. I know there is no shortage of goodwill to close the gap, but what we have been doing in Australia just has not been working as fast or as effectively as it should have been, and it is our children who are paying the price.

I note today that the new Closing the Gap implementation plan, which was launched last month, sets a clear path forward for achieving the targets and priority reforms. The Albanese government is also making significant changes in the delivery of First Nations policy and providing additional support for communities to get ahead, and I acknowledge in particular the support provided for communities in my electorate, including the significant commitment to Aboriginal health infrastructure right across my state, including in places like Ceduna and Murray Bridge. Our policy work also includes over $400 million in additional funding to provide safe and reliable water for remote and regional Indigenous communities, to accelerate building of new remote housing in the Northern Territory and to bolster the national strategy for food security.

But, as Senator Dodson said in his remarks earlier today, we also need structural change. This year we have a chance to forge a different path. In the referendum that will be held towards the end of this year, I hope Australians join me—join us!—in voting yes because a voice enshrined in the Constitution will mean more consultation and new partnerships. It will mean Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get a more genuine say in the matters that affect them, and a real hand in shaping the solutions. And that's important because we know that when they do policy works better.

Of course, the Voice is just one part of what is needed. That generous offer, given to us, was about more than voice. It's about treaty and it's about truth too. I want to reaffirm as a senator for my state my commitment to all three and my government's commitment to all three. We must continue to remain devoted to this challenge and double-down on our efforts, always, to make our country a fairer place for children, but especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, where there is no doubt in the statistics before us, in everything we know, that we are currently failing them.

10:54 am

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, acknowledge the comments that have already been put to the chamber regarding Closing the Gap. As Senator Smith said, it is more than 15 years since the Commonwealth and a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled peak organisations, state and territory governments, and the Australian Local Government Association came together and agreed that more needed to be done and entered into the Closing The Gap partnership.

Much has been done over the years, and there have been very good intentions to work together to close the gap. But unfortunately the latest report shows that, while in some respects we are making progress, in others we are not and in others still we have actually gone backwards. For example, while 89.9 per cent of Indigenous babies are now born with a healthy birth weight and 96.7 per cent of Indigenous children are enrolled in preschool, only 34.4 per cent of those children in school are developmentally on track or school-ready. These are not good statistics, and the statistics show that there are still too many children in out-of-home care, too many suicides, too many adults in prison, too many poor results in the health statistics and too many unemployed or underemployed people.

But while everyone is focusing on what we're not doing and the areas we're missing, what I'd really like to do is focus on what is actually happening on the ground in small communities or being done by individuals and groups that are making a difference in their communities, because from that we can learn, and we can actually try to progress to close the gap. For example, there are so many Indigenous people at the moment who don't have their birth certificates. There is an organisation based out of Glen Innes in northern New South Wales called Pathfinders National Aboriginal Birth Certificate Program. The organisation gets no government funding, yet they work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to help them to access their birth certificates at no cost, because, without a birth certificate, you can't get social services, you can't enrol in school, and you can't vote and have your voice heard. So, this program is so vitally important.

Through the hard work that Pathfinders are doing to help progress this—and I acknowledge Rosemary Curtis OAM for her work with Pathfinders—they've noticed other gaps that they're trying to fill, such as converting a former villa in Armidale into independent living accommodation for young people who are in care and purchasing a disused hotel in Glen Innes to convert to a rural foyer and a centre for education and employment options. These sorts of things will help close the gap in those communities, and they're doing it with no government funding.

Another important program is Blackrock Industries. Steve Fordham, who was invited to this year's job summit, has managed to get employment for 111 Indigenous men who were incarcerated. Of those 111, Steve has seen only one put back into prison. It is a success story, but unfortunately his funding ceased on 1 July 2022, and he's been told that his program is not eligible for the new Indigenous Skills and Employment Program. But we will be looking to see if we can rectify that.

Another fantastic program, in Dubbo—RED.I—is changing lives. I spoke in this chamber about Tyron Cochrane and Jolie Orcher, whom RED.I helped to get to New Zealand to compete in Golden Shears. RED.I also purchased the Wilcannia store, and they've seen the purchase of clean fruit and vegetables go from 50 kilograms a week to 500 kilograms a week in this largely Indigenous community. They are employing their own people, they are providing career pathways for people, they are working with people to get them housing. These are programs that will help close the gap.

10:59 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 serve all people of Australia. I want to celebrate especially the Aboriginal people of this country. There is a higher proportion of Aboriginals in the NRL's elite athletes, higher than across the community. There's also a higher proportion in the AFL. Scientists, lawyers, parliamentarians, government—Aboriginals are part of these groups and doing a fine job. They're doing well in business, people like Warren Mundine; in carers roles—people like police, nurses, doctors—and the previous speaker mentioned Steve Fordham from Blackrock Industries who's doing a phenomenal job, and now he has been gutted by the bureaucracy. I note Ash Dodd in Queensland who is sponsoring the Collinsville coal fired power station project. Senators like Nampijinpa Price and Kerrynne Liddle are telling the truth, which is so important.

Senator Pauline Hanson is uneasy with praise but probably watching in her office. When I was first elected, I approached the office of our party in the suburb of Albion. I was met at the door in our car park by three Northern Territory Aboriginals who had come down specifically to meet with us because, they said, 'Pauline Hanson is the only one who understands the Aboriginal plight and the only one willing to stand up and say so and speak out for what they need.' I will say that, if the Howard government had adopted her policies, we would now have no gap or a little gap. The Caucasian and Aboriginal people I have met in travelling through every Cape York community and the people I have met in other Northern Territory communities are quietly getting on with it and doing a stellar job. They're closing the gap. I'll tell you about an Islander who was on a council in the Torres Strait. He told me that Closing the Gap perpetuates the gap because the consultants that feed off this program actually have to maintain the gap in order to keep their money. That is what perpetuates the gap.

There are many challenges our nation faces, and every problem I see around our country is due to government. I am ashamed of governments, state and federal, and churches who blindly assumed they knew what was best for the Aboriginals—good intentions maybe, but arrogantly and ignorantly paternalistic and patronising, cruel, damaging, stultifying. I am angry with the Aboriginal industry. Communities tell me of Noel Pearson interfering, land councils acting as effectively robber barons controlling land, water, resources and funds. Billions of dollars every year supposedly go to the people on the ground, but are interceded by these robber barons. The Aboriginal industry is perpetuating victimhood, but, worse, fomenting hate and separation because that's what their industry is based on and they want it to continue.

The current government is proposing the Voice to instil and make racism systemic, separating and dividing. It follows and perpetuates a disgraceful legacy of paternalism and victimhood which harms all members of our Australian community. Actions need to follow words. We need to unify, not separate. Solving problems requires listening to people to understand their needs. Giving people their freedom to get on with their lives builds responsibility and freedom. We need to give the Aboriginal people freedom, especially in the Aboriginal communities. Addressing all of Australia's problems begins with acknowledging government as the cause of the problems, and the solution is getting government out of people's lives, honouring and respecting our Commonwealth of Australia's Constitution.

I want and look forward to uniting Australia into one nation. Worst of all, the Voice will perpetuate the hollow, deceitful policies of Labor, the Greens and, to a lesser extent, the LNP. It's a dishonest distraction that will perpetuate the gap, perpetuate the cruel infliction of punishment and deprivation. We need policies for lifting all Australians. That requires policies for restoring sovereignty, implementing sound and honest governance based on data and facts—honesty policy—and, first of all, listening to understand people's needs. Then, instead of doing things to look good, actually do good.

11:05 am

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

I would like to contribute to the debate on the Closing the Gap statement and the Closing the Gap implementation plan that our government is implementing. Before I do that, I want to acknowledge the contributions to this debate from Senators Dodson and Stewart. I associate myself with those comments but extend my respect and thanks to them for being so generous with their contributions and assisting senators, on this side of the chamber, to uniquely understand their perspective and understand how deeply affected this Closing the Gap statement can be for communities, and to understand that this is a time to acknowledge some very difficult outcomes and to really reckon with the fact that we have not closed the gap and that we have a lot of work to do.

When it comes to housing, health, education and employment, the fact is that, year after year, when this statement is made we have to recognise that we are not closing the gap and that there is a lot of work to do and that no government has been able to wrestle with these issues in a way that puts First Nations people at the heart of decision-making. That is something that no government has been able to do and it's something that our government is seeking to do. At the last sitting of parliament, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians introduced our first Closing the Gap implementation plan. The plan provides details on the next steps the Commonwealth will take towards reaching the targets and priority reforms of the national agreement to closing the gap.

The implementation plan that many have spoken about today commits more than $400 million of additional targeted spending, including investment of $150 million over four years to support First Nations water infrastructure, ensuring that communities have safe and reliable water in remote and Indigenous communities. There's funding for the national strategy of food security, funding for family violence prevention and legal service providers, and extra support for those impacted by family violence. There's also a boost to the on-country education program for remote First Nations students. This includes increased access to Indigenous rangers.

This is a plan with a whole-of-government approach, and that's incredibly important for getting this right. It brings together all of the actions each department and agency is taking to achieve the Closing the Gap outcomes in one place. This plan is a significant step forward in the Albanese Labor government's first set of investments laid out in the 2022 budget, which committed over $1.2 billion over the next six years to these programs.

It's interesting, when we talk about closing the gap, that there are so many different areas of public policy that need investment, that need commitment and that need delivery, whether it's health care, health infrastructure and treatment, improving access to early education for Indigenous families, immediate boosting for housing and essential services or community-led justice reinvestment initiatives. These are all programs that deserve support across the parliament, funding that our government is committing and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of First Nations people.

Finally, I'm incredibly proud and privileged to work with communities in North Queensland, particularly in Cape York and the Torres Strait. We're also delivering a new TAFE Health Hub, on Thursday Island, to make sure that we have skilled healthcare workers in the Torres Strait to deliver those outcomes.

What we know and what I'm being told on the ground by First Nations people in their communities is that, in terms of getting the delivery of these programs right, for too long governments, even those with the best intentions, have made decisions on behalf of First Nations people without asking communities what they need or how best to deliver it. This is why consultation must be at the centre of the approach of every Commonwealth government and it's why a voice for First Nations people matters, directly, in what affects them.

11:10 am

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

These are complicated and sometimes sensitive matters, and I'd like to acknowledge all the contributions that have been made—varying as they may be—across the chamber. When you look at Australia's success—and we have been a very successful country—Australia has not been a good country, in broad terms, for Indigenous people. That is a fact. In terms of the representation that I seek to offer the people of New South Wales in this chamber, in New South Wales we have the largest Indigenous community in Australia. It's a community that I try to engage with, and it is a community which is spread right across our community, ranging from remote western New South Wales to up and down the coast. There is also a heavily urbanised population in Central and Western Sydney.

I indicated in my first speech to this place that I would engage on these issues because I regarded them as very important to our country's soul. I don't think we have made the progress that it was imagined would be the case when the initial apology was issued some 15 years ago. Having said that, I think it was good that when the apology was issued there was some attempt to address those issues within an institutional framework. But, as has been well documented, that initial framework was driven by bureaucrats with insufficient input from the community.

What has happened in the past few years is that, under the coalition and the Labor Party, there's been a much greater effort to put the communities' requests at the vanguard of the Closing the Gap agenda. Only two years ago, there was a significant rewriting of the Closing the Gap framework, and we can see from the latest report issued by the Productivity Commission that there has been some progress in relation to babies being born at a healthy birth weight and children being enrolled in preschool. But of course there have also been some disappointing results in relation to imprisonment, and, as has been referred to by many of the speakers in this debate, there has been a very disappointing position when it comes to children being removed from their homes. That is a great shame, and that is something that we ought to work on with vigour.

It's been very clear to me that over these past 250 years paternalism has failed completely, and that is one of the reasons that I have been of the view that the Voice was a concept worthy of very detailed consideration. One of the reasons that has come into my mind recently as I've travelled around regional New South Wales is that the country needs new institutions. We need new institutions to help close the gap because, particularly in remote and regional parts of Australia, the communities have not been given the opportunity to participate in decision-making about service delivery on the ground. That is why I believe that, as part of the detail that has been sought from the government about the Voice plans, it is very important that we understand exactly how the local and regional voice structures will work, because I think they will be key to making improvements on the ground.

When you speak to people in communities about what they are looking for from government, it is very common to hear things like: 'Well, we want to participate in the judgements that are made about our community. We want to have a say in service delivery.' It might be Aboriginal medical services. It might be a bus timetable. I think these are the sorts of things that, if done properly, could make a real difference over the long run. So many Indigenous people in these communities say to me, 'There was a program that was about to work and it was abolished by a government,' or, 'It was doing good things and it disappeared.' There has not been enough considered decision-making, and the whole point of this exercise, of course, is to ensure that we move to a shared decision-making model which is community led, because we know that paternalism has failed.

So I always welcome an opportunity to make a contribution on these issues. I look forward to participating in the debate to be held later this year in relation to the Voice.

11:14 am

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the lands and the waters on which I speak today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I would also like to acknowledge elders past, present and emerging in my home state of Western Australia. I appreciate deeply the wisdom and the perspective that they share with me as I undertake my role as Greens health spokesperson.

I look at the collective action and progress on the Closing the Gap targets with dismay and deep frustration. I will focus my contribution today on access to health services and access to disability support services, including the NDIS, and particularly the ability to access these essential services while in prison. We must increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility. That must be an absolute priority for government at every level. We must also do so much more to reduce the number of First Nations people confined within the prison system.

Australia has the most people in for-profit prisons in the world. When I talk to members of the community, they are surprised to learn that people in prison do not have access to Medicare. They are shocked that Australia's universal healthcare system is in fact not universal at all. Health care is essential to the enjoyment of the human rights of all people, including people in prison. On average, people in prison experience significantly poorer mental and physical health than those in the general community and have more complex, longer-term health needs.

Healthcare services in prisons are funded by the state and territory governments, which effectively means that people in custody do not have access to any federal health care, including the Medicare system and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Extending Medicare services to people in prison would be a first step towards achieving better physical and mental health outcomes for people in custody. Introducing Medicare into prisons has broad support from Medicare and legal organisations. We must get this done.

Additionally, those in prisons have extremely limited access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Disabled people are overrepresented in the prison system. As a starting point, I would love to get our disability service provisions in this country to a place where every disabled person can access the therapies they need if they find themselves in prison, and the moment people are released from prison they have disability supports and services in place to enable them to thrive.

Today I am calling on the government to include in their Closing the Gap statements in the future an implementation plan and pathway to allow prisoners to have access to Medicare, the PBS and the NDIS. In closing, I will simply say this: Voice. Treaty. Truth.

11:18 am

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to speak on the Closing the gap report. I note the historic moment last month when our government stood with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Coalition of Peaks to table the second Closing the Gap implementation plan. This joint tabling shows our commitment to partnering with Aboriginal controlled organisations and our commitment to working with First Peoples for practical action. Closing the gap is as much about how we work together with communities as it is about how much we invest in communities and how those investments are made on the ground in partnership with self-determined Aboriginal organisations and communities.

Last month the Closing the gap joint tabling coincided with the 15th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. Fifteen years ago, Prime Minister Rudd said, 'I am sorry,' on behalf of our nation. This was a significant page of truth-telling in our history as a nation, and it was acknowledged to be a historic moment in which the pain and the burden of members of the stolen generations could be told on the national stage. Of course, the apology was not the end but just a beginning towards a real voice for First Nations, towards treaty and towards truth. We are implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, and we are proud to be doing so.

We're committed to the partnership with the Coalition of Peaks to deliver the Closing the gap implementation plan. Our government's first Closing the gap implementation plan details the steps that we'll take. Closing the gap is not just about making statements. It needs real action, real funding and real links to people on the ground in community. That's why we're investing an additional $424 million in funding towards closing the gap.

It is wholly unacceptable that in Australia today many First Nations communities still don't have access to clean water, and so we will be investing $150 million over four years to support water infrastructure and provide reliable water for remote and regional Indigenous communities. We're also working with the Northern Territory government to build new remote housing, with an investment of over $100 million as a Commonwealth contribution, because, quite frankly, everybody deserves good housing, particularly in a country as rich as ours. Everyone deserves affordable and accessible food; it's an essential right. So for the next two years we're investing in the National Strategy for Food Security in Remote First Nations Communities. Tragically, we know that family and domestic violence disproportionately impacts First Nations women and children. So the plan seeks to prevent and respond to family violence in a trauma-aware and culturally responsive manner. The plan includes funding towards supporting families impacted by violence. Education is a pathway to more opportunities, and it should be accessible everywhere. So we'll be investing in boosting on-country education as well, increasing access and providing a choice for culturally appropriate distance learning. We will also invest more to support boarding education for rural and remote students. All of that, of course, is on top of the record $1.2 billion we committed in the October budget.

This plan is about partnership between governments and self-determined Aboriginal communities and organisations. The Uluru Statement from the Heart reflects this sentiment of partnership. It's an offer to bring us closer to reconciliation as a nation. It will lead to better decision-making and it will lead to better outcomes. I have faith in the Australian people to vote yes in the referendum and take our nation forward. All of this work is about enabling self-determination and full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Closing the gap is a commitment that all of us need to make in this place to work together to respect the voices of First Nations people and to invest in their futures. It's our commitment that we'll do just that.

I conclude by saying that I feel huge pride in serving in the Senate with my friends Senator Jana Stewart from Victoria, who's sitting next to me; Malarndirri McCarthy; and the father of reconciliation, Senator Pat Dodson. We're richer for their contribution.

11:24 am

Photo of Fatima PaymanFatima Payman (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri elders and knowledge holders who have paved the way for those here now, those following proudly in their footsteps and those yet to come as custodians and owners of country. I acknowledge Whadjuk country as my home base where I live, care for and maintain continuing reciprocal relationships with all who share this land. Sovereignty has never been ceded. It always was and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.

I'm proud to be part of a Labor government that's committed to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. More than 60,000 years of wisdom from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is all around us, if we care to listen. This year we mark the 15th anniversary of the National Apology to Stolen Generations when the words of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reverberated across Australia: 'I am sorry on behalf of our nation.' Truth can be hard, but it helps us to move forward together. There is a long way to go. As we saw in the last Closing the gap report a few months ago, the gap not only persists but is getting bigger. The Albanese Labor government's implementation plan reaffirms that Closing the Gap is a top priority and reflects our unwavering commitment to working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In May, it will be six years since the Uluru Statement from the Heart was delivered after the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. Later this year, all Australians will have the opportunity to vote yes for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. The Voice is about recognising First Nations people in our Constitution. It's about consultation. Recognition is the what and the Voice is the how. This above politics. It's about people, and it will bring us all together. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deserve to be recognised as custodians of this country, recognising that truth will unify our nation and help us on the journey towards reconciliation.

The Voice will help achieve real practical outcomes and improvements for First Nations people working to close the gap. Since colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been told what to do. The Voice will change that. It's about listening, because local solutions are always better for local issues. I'm optimistic about our future as a reconciled country that proudly recognises our more than 60,000 years of continuous culture. I'm optimistic that, by working together with First Nations people, we can close the gap. I acknowledge my fellow Labor senators, Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Jana Stewart and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, for all their contributions and work towards the Voice to Parliament.

11:27 am

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

First, I want to acknowledge my colleague Senator Cox's contribution to this debate and echo and reinforce all of the words in her contribution. It's clear that, after decades and decades of government failures to close the gap, governments are still not actually listening to First Nations families. When will that change? Despite royal commission after royal commission, report after report, government policies are still literally killing First Nations peoples. When will we collectively say that another report is not the answer and enough is enough?

It's a fact that governments across this country continue to steal First Nations children from their families and take them away from their culture and country. Those same governments show up in chambers like this and claim they care about closing the gap. Despite what has ended up being many empty promises from politicians, despite the candles arranged outside of Parliament House in 2008, which blazed the promise of sorry, the first step, governments still aren't listening. As the Grandmothers Against Removal movement will say, if sorry means anything, it means don't do it again.

First Nations communities and organisations don't want more empty promises. They actually want action, empowerment, resources and self-determination. Removing a child from their family is often the first step down a path of a lifetime of injustice, trauma and long-lasting harm that spans lifetimes and generations. The appalling rate of removal of First Nations children is nothing other than a continuing act of violence against those families, with the so-called child welfare institutions across this country that are not culturally safe for First Nations families.

The ombudsman in my home state of New South Wales recently released a scathing report on the extent of my home state's child protection department and its failure to achieve or even persist with its five-year strategy to reduce overrepresentation of First Nations children in out-of-home care. The report found that the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice failed to report transparently on what it did to implement its own strategy and in fact abandoned its own strategy halfway through. The ombudsman found:

It was apparent to us that at some point within its five-year timeframe, DCJ effectively abandoned the AOS. DCJ did not report on what had been achieved by the AOS in the time it was operating, and nor did it announce that the strategy was being abandoned or why.

They didn't even bother to implement their own strategy, and it shows, because between 2017 and 2022 the proportion of First Nations children in out-of-home care actually increased from 38.4 per cent in June of 2017 to 43.8 per cent in June of 22. I say again: if 'sorry' means anything, it means you don't do it again. You don't, as the New South Wales child protection system has done in the most recent five years, make the problem worse and take more First Nations kids proportionally than ever before.

As a state MP in the New South Wales parliament I introduced a Greens bill to prevent First Nations child removals or to at least radically reduce them. That was based on implementing the findings of the groundbreaking Family is culture report that looked at well over 1,000 First Nations child removal cases and came up with hundreds of recommendations. I only did so after a direct request from First Nations communities and organisations across the state who saw that there was no action happening from the state. We then worked together on the bill. Tragically, the Liberal-National government and Labor both refused to support the bill, which would have kept more families together and prevented at least a significant part of that trauma and tragedy of separation. The government could save lives today by implementing those reforms, by listening to communities and acting on them.

I want to turn now to another key failure across the country, which is the ongoing practice of locking up children. First Nations children as young as 10 years old, some still with their baby teeth, are still being locked up in brutal institutions where we know they are being tortured in territories and states across the country. When will we raise the age? When will we come together as a nation and commit to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody? When will we finally start listening to, empowering and resourcing genuine self-determination for First Nations communities? That's how we close the gap.

11:32 am

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

r McKENZIE (—) (): As the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, I rise to add my contribution to this important issue of closing the gap and acknowledge the Prime Minister's statement on the anniversary of the National Apology. Australia has had a rich and complex history, a history marked with adversity and struggle for many Australians, including our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We are one of the most culturally diverse nations on earth, and I am pleased to see so many people recognising and embracing the connection to the land we live on and the culture of our First Nations people.

The anniversary of the National Apology gives us the opportunity to reflect on past injustices, to grieve with those we have left behind and to take account of where we are today. It has been 56 years since the 1967 referendum, 47 years since the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, 31 years since the Mabo decision and 15 years since the National Apology. These pages are marked in history as significant progress in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I would also like to acknowledge that these achievements are made without a bureaucratic voice but through a growing number of Aboriginal voices in this place and increasing embedded engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our democratic institutions right across our country.

The Nationals welcome the release of the government's 2023 Closing the Gap Implementation Plan and we welcome the Prime Minister's promise of more than $68 million over two years for support to women and children experiencing family, domestic and sexual violence, and more than $21 million over five years to support families impacted by violence. We note with great interest the $150 million over four years for the National Water Grid Fund to support First Nations water infrastructure and provide safe and reliable water for remote and regional Indigenous communities. The government's record on water policy and infrastructure leaves many in doubt about the effectiveness of this government's commitment.

We welcome the Commonwealth's contribution to a one-year partnership with the Northern Territory government to accelerate the building of new remote housing, but the Nationals know that a one-year commitment for important infrastructure like housing does not go far enough, nor does it recognise the life cycle of housing construction and asset maintenance. Anyone who lives in regional and remote communities across Australia understands that it is housing maintenance that is the most challenging issue in rural and remote Aboriginal communities.

We welcome the commitment to boost on-country education for remote First Nations students and support for boarding for rural and remote students. I again call on the government to support the Yipirinya School in Alice Springs and the funding commitment we made in the election to build a boarding facility for kids coming from town camps to access education in language at Alice Springs. As minister, I was able to broker the historic Barkly Regional Deal between the Barkly Regional Council, the then Gunner Territory government and the federal government, in the wake of the rape of a two-year-old in Tennant Creek. Sadly, whilst many of the infrastructure projects have been completed, the one measure of that regional deal, which was to map the provision of services into that community between all levels of government, find the gaps and then service the gaps so that we do this better, in partnership, is the one thing that hasn't been done. It was one of the cheapest things in that whole deal, so I really commend to the current federal government, the Northern Territory government and the Barkly Regional Council to complete that work for the benefit of the whole Barkly region.

The Nationals represent more Indigenous citizens than any other political party in this place. We understand the very real issues facing them and have a particular understanding of remoteness. We will continue to be a strong voice for Indigenous people, and we welcome the recognition of the apology today in the Senate.

11:37 am

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

I rise today to speak to the Closing the Gap ministerial statement and the anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. I've been in this chamber long enough to know the history of how having this debate became a practice. When I first arrived in the chamber, it shocked me that the Closing the gap report was delivered in the House—senators didn't attend, and business just went on here. The whole point of giving an apology to the First Nations people was to think about how we speak about our history, how we respond to the reality of our time and how we make time to go on the journey of the heart, the mind, the soul and the finances to make sure that this is a just nation for all Australians, particularly First Nations people. Every time we do this, now that we all get to contribute to this debate, it is a mindful moment for us all here, as senators and as members in the other place, to think about the way in which we want our country to go forward. It's a vital time. It's a solemn time. In these moments, we reflect on the best and the worst of our history and the long pathway back to reconciliation with our First Nations Australians.

We still have so much work to do. It's clear we haven't closed the gap. Thank God we started paying attention to it at some point. The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying by suicide is not on track; in fact, it's worsening. Improving birth weights, increasing year 12 and tertiary education completions, addressing rates of adult incarceration, children in out-of-home care and youth unemployment—these vital and fundamental things that are embedded in the life of our First Nations people are all off track. It gives us a sense of the scale of the task. But today we redouble our efforts. We do not turn away, we do not look away, despite our shame, despite our fear, despite our sadness and the grief that this is a reality of our nation in 2023.

I visited Wilcannia in 2022. I met with First Nations community representatives on the banks of the mighty Barcoo River to hear directly from them what their community needed. I heard terrible stories of youth suicides, of poverty, of deprivation. But I also was mindful of the blistering smiles of one young girl whose joy overflowed like the river. Sadly for that young woman growing up in Wilcannia, the average life expectancy for men in her town is 38, and for women it's a little bit better at 41 years. This is our Australia in 2023. We can do better. I heard that the spirits of the town ebbed and flowed along with the water level of the Barcoo River and that the drought and COVID had both ravaged the town. But hope remained, and there was pride in their achingly beautiful country. They needed change in the way that we walk alongside our First Nations brothers and sisters.

We desperately need reconciliation to ensure that our people, the Indigenous people of Australia, have the same opportunities and same go at life as non-Indigenous Australians. It's not just about money. I know the costs of the many programs that have been named are significant. These programs are important and valuable; they are investments. Labor has invested $1.6 billion in additional support for First Nations communities since coming to office. The $1.6 billion package is designed to drastically increase funding for clean water in remote communities, for food security, for housing and education, for health care for First Nations communities across the nation. It also includes two dialysis buses for the far west of New South Wales, the communities of Menindee, White Cliffs and Wilcannia who begged me to hear their pleas because they couldn't face the round trip to Broken Hill. They were travelling hundreds of kilometres each week to get the life-saving treatment they needed. We need a circuit breaker. We need a voice to parliament. It is not radical reform; it is just another important step in the right direction.

11:42 am

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was a great honour to be in this place 15 years ago as Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology to Australia's First Nations stolen generations on behalf our nation. The apology acknowledged that the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments had resulted in the forcible removal of First Nations children from their families and, as said at the time, inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians. But the removal of First Nations children from their families was also part of an attempt in other moves through the history of our nation to wipe out the culture, economy, language and spirituality of Australia's First Nations people. But, as we know, First Nations Australians are resilient, and today we find ourselves in a place where, through Uluru Statement from the Heart, we have a generous invitation from First Nations people to make First Nations people part of our national Constitution so that we can show ourselves as a nation that didn't start at federation when the colonies came together but can look back 60,000 years to their laws, customs and culture, and create a national statement that invites all Australians to belong to that profound history.

I would love to say that in the 15 years since the apology we are further towards closing the gap, but as we know, the data shows we're not on track. Given our history, I don't find that to be at all surprising. We haven't as a nation fully and properly reset our institutional arrangements so that First Nations people have a voice and the capacity to negotiate with government and parliament on behalf of their own communities.

We know not only that governments at the state and national levels need to redouble their efforts to improve outcomes but that we need to do more. Our gap is not closing fast enough, and we will not let this stagnation stand. Our implementation plan for closing the gap invests $400 million in additional funding, but we also need to make sure that First Nations people are with us at the heart of that decision-making every step of the way. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are already leading the way, transforming health and community services and policies and programs, and rebuilding them with the foundations of culture, community and connection to country. Community led solutions respond much more effectively to current and future needs. They do this in holistic and robust ways using cultural knowledge and practices to restore and build up the wellbeing of their communities.

It is high time that our nation acknowledged that it is Aboriginal people, our First Nations people, who are best placed to lead and create their own solutions. It is why constitutional recognition is so important at the vote this year. It is why acknowledgement and empowerment through our constitution is so important. It is high time for constitutional recognition. It is high time for voice, treaty and truth.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

11:47 am

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That further consideration of the documents be listed as a general business order of the day.

Question agreed to.