Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Ministerial Statements

Closing the Gap

10:11 am

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

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

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

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. This year marks 16 years since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the Apology to the Stolen Generations. The apology was, of course, a profound gesture for what it said about the past conduct of Australian governments, but the Rudd government also seized that moment of national healing to look to the future and to set in place the mechanism for measuring our collective efforts and improving the lives of Indigenous Australians: the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. In so doing, it set in place a mechanism to hold itself and future governments accountable.

Now, 16 years on, we see that only 11 out of 19 socioeconomic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that are measured in the annual Closing the gap reportare improving. Just four are on track to meet their targets. The Productivity Commission has made it clear that the current approach is not working, and this is a point made by many others, including Tom Calma, who said:

Bureaucrats and governments can have the best intentions … but if their ideas have not been subject to the 'reality test' of the life experience of the local Indigenous peoples who are intended to benefit … then government efforts will fail.

This was the logic underpinning our government's effort to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in our nation's Constitution. Of course, we respect the result of last year's referendum and, as the Prime Minister has said, this government remains determined to move reconciliation forward while focusing on our immediate responsibilities: closing the gap, self-determination and tangible outcomes, particularly in jobs, housing, education, health and justice.

We must deliver real jobs with real skills which mean real opportunities for First Nations people. That is why we are moving on from the failed Community Development Program. It created no real opportunities. It built no futures. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister and Minister Burney announced the creation of our Remote Jobs and Economic Development Program. The program will fund community organisations to create 3,000 real jobs with proper wages and decent conditions in remote areas, and these jobs will be developed in partnership with Indigenous communities that deliver services and infrastructure that communities want. This is an undeniably better approach.

On housing, the government has worked with the Northern Territory government to escalate construction of remote housing to address the worst overcrowding rates in the country. Together we have achieved a 200 per cent increase in the rate of delivery of Commonwealth funded housing, building 100 homes in 100 days in 2023.

In his speech in the House the Prime Minister outlined a number of areas of investment by the government—in health, education, training, housing, and vital services such as safe and reliable drinking water—which we believe will help close the gap. In addition, the government is establishing a National Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People. The commissioner will be dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights, interests and wellbeing of First Nations children and young people. The commissioner will also be tasked with drawing on and highlighting their strengths, their sense of hope and their ideas for change. We recognise that in order to drive generational change we need to improve the lives of young Indigenous people.

In pursuing this progress we are inspired by the determination of the late Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue, who we lost this month. Like those of so many Indigenous people of the world's oldest continuous culture, hers was a story of survival, of persistence and of remarkable grace. Throughout her life and career she carved, through painstaking efforts, sometimes heated negotiations and often the hard work of compromise, a path for generations of Indigenous leaders to follow. Upon her passing, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, remarked that she and many other young Aboriginal women in the 1980s and 1990s looked at Lowitja and saw possibility. Her legacy is a reminder that progress is never easy. The path towards reconciliation has never been a straightforward one, but she showed us it is one of possibility. Reconciliation and justice happen only when people of goodwill and determination commit themselves to making the possibility of a better future a reality. On this 16th anniversary of a just apology for past wrongs, and in honour of Dr O'Donoghue, let us recommit ourselves to fulfilling the possibility of all Australians.

10:16 am

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

I too acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand and pay my respects to all elders of the oldest continuing living culture in the world, of which we should be so proud. I acknowledge all Indigenous senators and members in the other place too.

This year the tabling of the Closing the gap report is yet again a stark reminder of the challenges that we—and I use the term 'we' deliberately; it's all of us who make up the Australian parliament, along with state governments, state parliaments, local governments and right across the community—face if we are to achieve the ambition is set out in the Closing the gap report. Sadly, we stand here with a report which shows key targets going backwards: in children's early development, rates of adult incarceration, rates of children in out-of-home care and, sadly, rates of suicide. In fact, of the 19 socioeconomic targets only four are on track to be met. This is a far cry from the aspiration set by the parliament, quite rightly, 16 years ago on the occasion of Prime Minister Rudd's apology to the stolen generations and the renewal of that hope and ambition by each of his successors as Prime Minister. There should be no doubt that failure to achieve the targets set out in the Closing the gap report is not the result of a lack of good intent or determined effort by successive governments and ministers, working with partners, to shift the dial; yet, despite those good intents and efforts, here we are again. It is becoming a harsh reality that turning hope and aspiration into outcome is not something that can be achieved by the words, however genuine, we say here today, or have uttered on previous occasions, when we sombrely note the Closing the gap report. It will take more than words.

As the Leader of the Opposition said in his address to the House on the Closing the gap report two weeks ago, the coalition welcomes the government's $707 million commitment to creating 3,000 remote jobs over three years. It is an admirable aim. It is, however, not the first time we have heard from governments—frankly, of both persuasions—about significant job-creating programs replacing previous incarnations of job-creating programs, all full of the same hope and promises. We—'we' again, right across the board—would all wish to see more jobs in remote communities, because it is clear that meaningful work and engagement in community are key to turning around what is a tide of disadvantage. They are critical not only for the individual but for the immediate and wider family of any individual. These are pathways to engagement with education, training and work, all of which we know feed better health outcomes and lower interaction with the justice system. We are concerned about the lack of detail in the jobs programs announced. Two weeks after them being announced, we're yet to see the details. I hope—and I expect this whole chamber and parliament will also hope—that this does not become another vision which fails to deliver the much-needed outcomes that First Australians deserve.

We should also acknowledge positives. While they are thin within this report, they are there and the work of many to achieve them should be acknowledged. The report points to targets that are on track, across reducing the number of young people in detention, increasing preschool enrolments, and employment outcomes. These are all welcome and, again, are a function of efforts right across parliaments and governments. But the progress is slow or, in some cases, non-existent as we work towards targets that go backwards. I acknowledge the reforms of former minister Ken Wyatt to break down and localise Closing the Gap goals and targets, and that work must continue. National progress will ultimately only come via local outcomes.

It should also be acknowledged that this is the first report since the outcome of the referendum last year. That outcome does not, I believe, speak to any lack of desire from Australians—certainly not from their elected representatives right across the land—to see First Nations Australians, especially those in remote parts of our nation, share the standard of living that most of us enjoy. If anything unites 'yes' and 'no' voters from last year, I suspect it is a common desire for tangible outcomes and real progress. It is that common desire that must see us all work collectively to achieve those outcomes.

So I would urge all in this chamber, in the other place and in parliaments across Australia, and those whose lives are dedicated to improving circumstances of our First Australians—I thank them for their efforts and work—to come together in a redoubling of our collective effort, to work cooperatively and constructively towards the hopes and aspirations of Closing the Gap. Failure to come together, failure to do so, would, I fear, see us again—not just next year but the year after and many years hence—standing here again lamenting the lack of progress against these important targets. It is important that we measure these targets and that we report on them, but we must also bear responsibility to achieve outcomes to meet them.

10:21 am

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

I'd like to start by acknowledging that this is Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. It always was and always will be. I honour their old people, their elders past and present and their future leaders.

I rise to speak on the ministerial statement on Closing the Gap. I note that this statement was made in the other place on the 16th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, an important time for remembrance and reflection for our First Peoples of this country, who endured such a devastating time individually and collectively, and for our future generations, who still feel the deep and profound trauma for their survival.

The destructive nature of this legislative policy never disappeared. The testament to that is the fact that I am standing here today. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Against all odds, my family line has survived. This policy tore families apart, destroyed communities and actively attempted to sever First Nations' connection to country and culture, a culture that has sustained us for over 65,000 years. In many ways, we are still trying to recover from what we lost and to protect what we have left, which is why standalone legislation for the protection of cultural heritage is vital. Fundamentally, at the core of this policy, were two ideas: that First Nations people were 'less than' and not worthy of existence, and that the government knows best how to manage our people.

The Productivity Commission's Review of theNational Agreement on Closing the Gap, released earlier this month, showed two elements of those core ideas that were behind the policy that led to the stolen generations are, in fact, still ever present today. This report found that governments have largely not fulfilled their commitments and have failed to understand the nature and scale of change that is needed to meet their obligations under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

This report makes four recommendations that are largely aligned with the four priority areas of this agreement. They include power sharing, supporting First Nations data sovereignty, rethinking government systems and culture, and stronger accountability. This report shows what we have known for a long time. In fact, as First Nations people, we live this every day. The gaps are still not closing. It is a scathing and, to be honest, very distressing read. But we, as First Peoples, didn't need another report to tell us that governments are failing to understand what communities need. We are offered lip-service every time government ministers and their officials come into our communities.

The report states that actions by governments 'exacerbate, rather than remedy, disadvantage and discrimination'. This is the definition of institutional racism. It shows how government departments and systems are reinforcing the disempowerment of First Nations people right across this country. These are the racist attitudes that led to the stolen generations, and these are the same attitudes that continue to keep our people out of schools, in hospitals or out of universities and workplaces. This government cannot sit around and continue to make small incremental changes. We have the most progressive parliament to date. There are wall-to-wall Labor governments on the mainland and there is prime opportunity for the radical overhaul that we so desperately need if we have any hope of meeting all of the 17 targets in Closing the Gap. Every day that passes without a government seizing that opportunity to make meaningful structural change is a conscious decision that this government makes not to improve the lives of First Nations people.

First Nations people have the solutions in our communities. They know what we need. They have done this for 65,000 years and governments need to support and enable community-led solutions. Closing the gap is not a day. It's not a breakfast. It's not an event. It's not even a campaign. It is a way that we strive to keep governments honest in this country and for us all to make changes that are necessary. In the words of the late Mr Yunupingu in his 1988 Barunga statement: 'Let's make this right.' Let's make it right. First-nations people have been calling for a chance to do things differently and actually make some meaningful change, but we have two start now. We need this government to be courageous, we need them to stop making lame excuses and we need to make the big structural changes that is going to see the gap close within a generation.

I am standing here as a First Nations senator. I've come to this place against all the odds and I'm going to keep fighting for my people to make sure that within that generation we are going to see that policy and legislative change.

10:26 am

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

Well, here we go again—more taxpayers' money, more failure to close the gap. The Voice to parliament referendum was a divisive event that should never have been allowed to happen, but it produced two good outcomes. The first was the rejection of racial division and special privileges based on race by an overwhelming majority of Australians. The second was the exposure of the corrupt and unaccountable Aboriginal industry and its failure to close the gaps. Many more Australians are demanding answers to why the hundreds of billions of taxpayers' dollars absorbed by this industry over the years has not closed the gaps. They are demanding answers to why Aboriginal leaders and activists live in mansions and drive luxury cars while other Indigenous Australians live in poverty. From where do these Indigenous elites get all their money and privilege? And why isn't support getting to the Indigenous Australians who most need it? Where is the accountability for all of this money?

My office is still inundated with calls from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians from all over the country, demanding answers. The answers are simple: the industry is a racket, a scam preying of the despair of Indigenous Australians in remote communities dominated by poverty and violence, a scam preying on the Australian taxpayer. It's a racket invested in keeping a part of Indigenous Australia in poverty to justify its very existence and to keep the gravy train chugging along.

I have worked with ethical Indigenous leaders to demonstrate some of the corruption of this industry. I've tried to table evidence of this corruption in the Senate but the politicians who are part of this racket won't allow it. I've written to the responsible ministers demanding accountability for this corruption, with no response coming back. I was finally met by the Department of Social Services—tasked with investigating this corruption. They asked me not to talk about it anymore and assured me they were pursuing the matter with all due diligence. They then handed it over to the toothless Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, known as ORIC. ORIC had previously handed the investigation to the DSS on the basis that it didn't have the capacity or expertise to do so.

These delays have been going on for years. The individuals who are subjects of the investigation are still allowed to run an Aboriginal organisation receiving taxpayer money. They're still allowed to remain in positions advising this Labor government. The gap will never be closed as long as this industry is allowed to exist. The only way to get to the bottom of why the gap is not being closed is to conduct a comprehensive audit of this industry's failures. I'm not the only one calling for this audit, but I'm calling for it on behalf of many Australians, Indigenous or not, who are demanding it. Recently other senators like Senators Price and Liddle have been calling for it too, but I've been a lone voice for it since 1996. Labor and Greens senators denied it, and Senators Jacqui Lambie, Tammy Tyrrell and David Pocock refused to support it. They don't want anyone looking at the books. They don't want any accountability for hundreds of billions of dollars wasted over decades. How can they account for approximately $35 billion to $40 billion a year spent on three per cent of the population with little or no real outcomes? Eventually the racket will be exposed for the scam that it is, and those people responsible for it will pay.

Closing the gap requires a return to the principle central to Australian democracy—equality. I have always called for equality among all Australians, and I was condemned as a racist by the same people who have been part of this racket. Assistance should be based on individual need, and all individuals should take responsibility for their own actions. Stop blaming white Australians and colonialism. A person's cultural background or skin colour should never entitle them to more assistance than any other Australian. Equal rights for all and special rights for none, equal laws for all and special laws for none—it is the only way it is fair. It's the only way to close the gap and empower all Indigenous Australians equally. Again, I put forward that I want an audit done on where the money has gone, and I hope that this parliament—if it is really fair dinkum about Indigenous Australians—will support this audit and call for accountability. (Time expired)

10:31 am

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

There are good, decent, hardworking Australians across this country who know that First Nations people want to achieve the best not only for themselves but for their families and their communities. To hear this Senate and the previous speaker paint in one swipe the degrading attitude towards First Nations people in this country is an absolute slur on this parliament.

First Nations people in this country want to live better lives. They want to live longer lives. They want to live lives without being incarcerated. They want to live lives that give their children a future felt with love, compassion, warmth, security, a home and a house to live in. That's no different to any other Australian in this country. But the reason why we stand here every year in February is to remind the country that inequality still exists; that is why we do this in this parliament. No political party is to blame for the complete disadvantage and poverty that exists out there, but all parties have to take responsibility for improving it.

The attacks on the referendum are completely unfounded. It is part of our democracy to have referendums in this country. We had one on the republic, and we have had them on numerous pieces of legislation that have impacted this Senate. That's what referendums are. Again, it lessens the integrity of this chamber to attack the fact that we had a referendum. We took it to the people because the people who asked us to put the question to the rest of Australia had worked on it for decades, and they do not deserve to be treated in such a fashion by this chamber. They are people who have worked hard to rise above their circumstances to achieve their educational degrees. Call them what you like, but they have a right to put to this parliament a better way forward for the people they live with and think they have an answer to. The country didn't accept that; the country said no. We on this side accept that response, but for some reason there still seems to be this conversation and dialogue. They have to keep burying down the very people who wanted to find a solution for, and give a solution to, this parliament for a way forward. They are now treated so badly, and they do not have to be. This parliament, this chamber, should not do that. We stand here because we still have problems with trying to achieve equality in the First Nations space.

The Prime Minister has announced 3,000 jobs as a way forward, especially with the Community Development Program, which we know has not worked. I certainly hope members opposite will work with us very strongly to achieve the economic goals and aims that we want to see to improve equality for First Nations people. This should actually be above politics. Inequality, disadvantage and poverty should not be something we should all think we're better at trying to improve. We should all work together on that, and that's what this opportunity is all about. So I'm hoping, with the next 12 months, we look at all the things that we want to achieve. The jobs initiatives, the $30.2 million for remote training hubs in up to seven remote locations, the $10.7 million to continue funding for the Justice Policy Partnership, the $20 million for community wi-fi services across 20 remote communities, and the $24 million to expand the Junior Ranger programs, will be supported here.

I thank SNAICC, the peak body, the national voice for our children, which has been calling for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's commissioner for many years. I thank them for their advocacy. We are now going to appoint a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children's Commissioner to work with our families, very aware of the issues of our youth across the country. But let's not lower the standards of this Senate, this chamber, in running into the ground the very people who want to put solutions to the parliament on a way forward for their families.

10:36 am

Photo of Jacinta Nampijinpa PriceJacinta Nampijinpa Price (NT, Country Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

The Closing the gap annual report and the three-year review on the National Agreement on Closing the Gap released recently over a critical period for Indigenous affairs in Australia. During the last year, all Australians were asked to give their view on how they would like to see governments across the country approach the issue of Indigenous disadvantage. The referendum was a rare opportunity for a single portfolio area to be given a national spotlight for information most would consider niche to be presented to the public, and for all Australians to contribute in a fashion, delivering their own recommendations to government.

The first recommendation of the Australian people is to approach these issues as one united Australia, focusing not solely on race but on need. We must address disadvantage where it exists, not at a racial level but where specific help is needed. If the target of Closing the Gap is to be reached, we must do away with the idea that there exists a silver bullet, a one-size-fits-all solution, to Indigenous disadvantage, a remedy that will work just as well for someone living in remote Australia as it will for someone in a capital city. I believe that the next step in our approach to Closing the Gap requires a restart of sorts, a fundamental rethink of our approach to Indigenous disadvantage. That begins with a closer look at the organisations and bodies that exist right now.

This year we marked 15 years since the first Closing the gap report was tabled, yet Aboriginal on Aboriginal violence remains an all too real problem that others would seek to ignore. It's on the streets of Alice Springs, throughout the Northern Territory and across the country. The rates of domestic violence within Indigenous households are devastatingly high. Drug and alcohol abuse are all too common. Children are often abused, sexually assaulted and treated in unthinkable ways, yet many still prefer to ignore that in this chamber. Education rates are low. Traditional owners struggle in their fight to use their own land for economic opportunity, and, as we have seen recently, organisations and individuals exploit them for personal gain. Clearly something is not working, and I believe that only a thorough audit of those organisations will reveal what that is.

Likewise, only a thorough audit will show us where some groups are having success and how that might be emulated. I believe, as does the coalition, that only a royal commission into Indigenous child sexual abuse, which others want to ignore, will reveal the full extent of the problem and what we must do to put an end to it. Accountability and transparency are fundamental to the approach that Australians have asked us to take in addressing Indigenous disadvantage, and it is accountability and transparency that must form the basis of this next stage in addressing Indigenous marginalisation and disadvantage.

Each year members of this parliament rise to speak about the annual report. It is a tradition that I fear will continue for far too long. I mean, eventually we want to get to a point where we are not addressing this report because the gap will have closed. I hope we will make this year different. I hope that we will use this opportunity not simply to mark yet another report, but to mark a new approach. Well, I hope that we begin a fundamental rethink of the current method, a questioning of the premise from which we launch our fight for real change and an end to the separatism that has characterised our approach so far.

I believe what the coalition believes: we can close the gap, but it starts with change not more virtue signalling and empty gestures. No more putting all our eggs in the one basket. No more grand silver bullet approaches to disadvantage. We will close the gap if we come together and focus on need, not race.

10:41 am

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

The annual Closing the gap reportshowed only four of 19 Closing the Gap targets were on track and four have been getting worse. The Productivity Commission's report on the Closing the Gap agreement was damned. It called for a complete overhaul of the way First Nations policies are developed and implemented. This is not new or surprising to First Peoples in this country. 'Closing the gap' has long been a dirty word in our communities because this approach has been a failure from the start.

Closing the Gap was Howard's initiative—the same man responsible for the intervention and who sent the Army into our communities. It focuses on our deficits rather than the strength, power and beauty that is our birthright. The government need to start thinking about and addressing their own deficits, their own gaps in understanding and appreciation of the knowledge and cultural authority of the oldest living culture on the planet.

Governments will continue to fail on justice for our people until we have self-determination. The systems aren't broken; they are designed to take away the power of First Peoples and harm us. It is by design that power sharing doesn't happen. The partnership agreement with the Coalition of Peaks is a step towards this, but it is still not self-determination. Self-determination means giving grassroots First Peoples and sovereign nations real decision-making power for what is best for our families, children and country. We don't need more overpaid commissioners, ignored reports, token advisory bodies or so-called partnerships that governments continue to ignore. Governments have no clue what is best for First Peoples in this country. They need to admit they do not have the answers—we do. That is why self-determination through treaty is the only viable pathway forward.

Treaties from the grassroots up will give each language group the ability to negotiate an agreement that works for them. That is how this country can move forward and find unity and heal. It is the pathway to peace. Treaty will help us come together as a country, recognise the sovereignty of First Peoples and begin to fix the ongoing injustices our people face from your system.

It is beyond disappointing to see Minister Burney and the Prime Minister dodge questions in recent weeks about their commitment to truth and treaty. This government needs to come clean with First Peoples and everyone in this country and begin telling the truth. Albanese's and Burney's statements have shown that Labor—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Thorpe, refer to MPs in the other place by their correct titles.

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

The Prime Minister's and the Minister for Indigenous Australians' statements have shown that Labor intends to kick the can down the road, dodge questions, delay progress, say treaty is a state responsibility and hope people forget that they've broken yet another promise. Trifecta of Labor prime ministers: shame on you! This is a basic human right that everyone in this country takes for granted. Three per cent of the country has to wait for this report card to show us, yet again, that we have no rights in this country.

Closing the Gap continues to frame First Peoples in comparison to whiteness—your whiteness—and white achievement. We are only considered successful when we subscribe to the colonial system and its individualistic values. We have to go begging for basic human rights in 2024—begging for governments to stop taking our children and to stop locking us up. First Nations women are the most incarcerated women in the world. Our babies, as young as 10, are getting locked up at higher and higher rates. And you wonder why we're not meeting targets for early childhood development and why First Nations suicides are at crisis levels.

You expect us to come to your morning teas and get excited about the new commissioner, Closing the Gap and saying sorry. Our sovereign rights, as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, continue to be denied by this government. We need truth and treaty so we can heal and move forward in a way that respects human rights and international standards. Stop the genocide of our people, Labor. Stop using the native police to get there. (Time expired)

10:47 am

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

Sixteen years ago, on the first parliamentary sitting day of a new Labor government, First Nations communities around Australia embraced a formal apology for the unjust and inhumane treatment experienced by our mothers, our fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers, and our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers—in particular, the stolen generations. On that day in 2008, our country turned a new page in Australia's history, focused on moving forward to the future with confidence and with hope in the new relationship between the Commonwealth and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A key part of this work has been undertaken through the Closing the Gap framework, which aims to reduce disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Aboriginal people on key health, education and economic opportunity targets. The Productivity Commission's review into the progress of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, released earlier this month, was not the message of headway and optimism that I know many wanted it to be. I have already spoken in this chamber about the review, and I hope to emphasise its message of sovereignty and self-determination. We know that the same old paternalistic assumption of 'government knows best' has not worked. For decades, government organisations and agencies have engaged with communities by consulting on a predetermined solution. It is no surprise to many of our mob around this country that this approach does not deliver any real outcomes. As First Nations leaders have said since long before my time, we have the solutions to the issues that we face. Our mob are resilient and innovative, and we will continue to be so in all matters affecting our lives.

The Albanese Labor government understands that, if we truly want to enable better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, government must do more than just consultation and partnerships. We must empower First Peoples with shared decision-making and focus on working with communities to identify priorities and co-design the best approach to achieving them. We are advancing on this front, and the experiences, needs and solutions of First Nations Australians are becoming a centrepiece of the national conversation.

The Albanese Labor government reaffirms our commitment and our determination to make practical progress for the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians under the Closing the Gap agreement. Since coming to government, we've begun the change—to treat politics differently. We will continue to deliver on the Closing the Gap implementation plan by working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, not by telling mob what they need.

A good example of our government doing this happened in just the last fortnight, when the Minister for Indigenous Australians announced that we will establish a national commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people—something that has been long called for by our community. The commissioner will be appointed as early as mid-2024 and will focus on evidence based programs and policies to deliver results for First Nations young people, because supporting our young people to get the best start in life will shape not only their futures but also the futures of our communities. Promoting the voices of First Nations children through this commissioner will unlock the productivity that we know exists there now and will into the future. It's important that we get this right, for our kids.

When the Labor government pledged to bridge the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in 2008, this nation turned a new page in our history. This government will add to our significant delivery of better health, housing, education and employment services, and ensure that all First Nations Australians can live longer, healthier and happier lives. I could name the long list of actions that this government is undertaking, but I will let the actions speak for themselves.

Of course, there is a lot more to be done on economic empowerment of First Nations people, and we are getting on with this job, too. We will continue to build economic strength in all of our communities, giving our children the opportunities and the safe and prosperous futures that they deserve. That is what is most important. Australia has nothing to lose by elevating First Nations people, knowledge, systems and businesses, but we have so much to gain as a nation.

10:52 am

Photo of Kerrynne LiddleKerrynne Liddle (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Child Protection and the Prevention of Family Violence) Share this | | Hansard source

So, here we are again: another year on, and not a lot has changed—not enough, if your life depended on it; not enough, given the level of resources directed at it. In any language, on any measure, it's just not good enough. How is the gap to be closed when the targets for the next generation are the ones that are not on track, and in fact they are going backwards: justice; child development; children in out-of-home care; and health and wellbeing, including suicide? I'm going to focus on those four targets, because they're the ones that are worsening.

Justice is outcome 10. A read of the report shows it outlines strategies that relate to when an individual is already in contact with the justice system, rather than to what keeps them out of it. If you were to drop into the Alice Springs courthouse today—like I did a little while ago—there would likely be more children in the courthouse than there were in child care. If you actually look for yourself, this devastating reality is in plain sight, and if the Labor Party, the Greens and Senator David Pocock and the do-gooders got amongst it, they'd see it, too. As the shadow minister, my focus will be on children being in school rather than on the streets and on adults who can be at work and not on welfare, and not on an employment program that's not really employment. When we do that, the cells, the courtrooms and the correctional services will be less crowded with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Thriving children is outcome 4. Your cognitive ability and capacity to learn is directly impacted by your exposure to trauma, substance misuse and violence. When you have been roaming the streets all night to avoid the chaos at home, there's little hope of respite unless someone responsible and accountable steps in. Families keep it together when they get help when they need it, from people experienced to deliver it. Replacing parental responsibility with government programs is not a sustainable long-term solution. It's more honest and meaningful when we stop counting enrolments and start counting attendance, and when we focus on outcomes, not outputs.

Outcome 12 is on children in out-of-home care. Children exposed to violence, or who experience violence, make up the greatest number of children now in the care of the state. When progress is made on the drivers that contribute to family violence, every headline number, in reports just like this one, and every life should change for the better. When you are more likely to be removed before the age of one, and the system locks you in and your family out, then the challenge for recovery and healing is so much harder. For the children, for the families, for the taxpayer, more focus on the work to reunite families, where it is safe to do so, must be where much of the work is done, because that's better for everyone.

Outcome 14 is suicide and mental health. None of these outcomes can be addressed in isolation, because the ultimate demonstration of failure is when an individual loses all hope. The service delivery silos, competition for resources and inaction on calling out those services who are not delivering as they should just add to the scale of harm. Stop shying away from talk about sexual abuse, because that only protects perpetrators and does nothing to help survivors break their silence. Want to close the gap? Don't close your mind from making the tough decisions. When Labor and the Greens do things that make them feel good, rather than doing good, people get hurt. Things don't change, and gaps don't close.

The foundation of this government's Closing the gap report is the announcement of 3,000 so-called real jobs and $700 million—another long-promised announcement, complete with a slogan, 'Real jobs, proper wages and decent conditions', and, in true Labor style, an absence of detail and no real modelling. The key to improving lives is addressing domestic and family violence, and addressing that would be better for everyone, not just Indigenous Australians. The target of reducing all forms of violence by 50 per cent by 2031 simply won't be achieved without the reintroduction of the cashless debit card, because removing it has caused chaos. The statistics will tell you that the levels of violence have gone up.

The Closing the gap report is all about strategies, statistics and statements. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want the same things as everyone else, and often that is forgotten in this debate. It is the most marginalised within this cohort who need our greatest attention and must remain our focus. Without greater accountability across all governments and service providers, there won't be the scale of change that is needed. It starts with examining and auditing what is bleedingly and painfully obvious.

10:57 am

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The lack of progress in meeting our Closing the Gap targets as a country is clearly a blemish on our nation. The dismal statistics reflect our failure to recognise our past and are a manifestation of the pain still felt and disadvantage still experienced by so many First Nations people. It's crystal clear in these statistics and the Productivity Commission report that our current approach is failing. We cannot just keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We must do better.

Many would think that the nation's capital wouldn't have the same failures seen throughout the rest of the country. Unfortunately this is far from the truth. An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in the ACT is almost 25 times more likely to be sent to prison than a non-Indigenous person—25 times. This is the highest rate in the country. We're the fourth worst in the country for Indigenous children in the child protection services, right here in Canberra. It's the same story when it comes to health. It's the same when it comes to financial outcomes. The fact that we allow this to happen in a jurisdiction as small as the ACT is a disgrace, and it seems clear to me that it is not enough of a priority for some of the ACT's elected representatives.

You have to look at the work of somewhere like Winnunga, the only Aboriginal community controlled health organisation in the ACT, the work that Julie Tongs and her incredible team do in our community for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and for other Canberrans. I'd like to take the opportunity to recognise her and the whole team at Winnunga.

The ACT showed the strongest support of any jurisdiction for the Voice at the referendum. I think that the ACT government should take this as an endorsement from Canberrans to move forward with a truly independent Indigenous elected body—a body that is not under the thumb of the government and that can provide frank and fearless advice to government on what is going wrong and how we can fix it here in the ACT.

This goes right to the heart of the Productivity Commission report. We have to end tokenistic engagements. We have to start putting the power to solve these persistent problems into the hands of communities in a meaningful way. Time and again First Nations people, and especially elders, have shared with me their extreme frustration at the totally inadequate support for fundamentals like health and housing that can help change the future outcomes for their children and grandchildren. Again, the ACT falls behind the rest of the nation in these areas. We have fewer GPs than some rural and regional areas, the lowest bulk billing rates in the country and the highest gap fees by some distance. There are at least 3,100 people on the social housing waitlist, and public housing stock is in a condition that the CFMMEU national secretary has called Third World—here in Canberra.

I believe the only way we will start to see the gap close is by solving these core issues of health and housing, and by putting the power and the responsibility of creating community led solutions into the hands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There's much work to do in this space, and, again, I would like to acknowledge people here in the ACT who are working tirelessly and have done so for decades to solve these problems. It's up to elected representatives to give them more power and more agency to implement those solutions.

11:01 am

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

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are hugely talented in the NRL, the AFL, arts, business, science, sport and politics, with a higher proportion of Aboriginal people in the Federal Parliament than across Australia. I've driven to all Cape York communities twice and some three times. I've flown or boated into Torres Strait Island communities where people really care for each other, but government control removes meaning from life and suffocates that care. I have enormous faith in Aboriginal and Islander people. Why doesn't the government? Aboriginal people are resilient after surviving Australia's harsh environment for thousands of years. They don't need mollycoddling.

The Closing the gap annual report is clear—a total failure in closing the gap. Only four of 17 targets have been met or have achieved goals, and some gaps are actually worsening. Labor-Greens and Liberal-Nationals governments fail to listen to or meet people's real needs. Patronising paternalism and top-down approaches suppress, torment and destroy Aboriginal people. In reporting to parliament on closing the gap, successive prime ministers and opposition leaders duck and weave, using broad, fluffy motherhood statements to portray vague, insincere aspirations devoid of data and specifics—lies. The governmental view that it knows best is clearly wrong.

So where's the solution? For the 2022-23 financial year, total resourcing for the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the NIAA, was $4.5 billion on programs. The result was rank failure. Where did the money go? This government continually refuses to audit government spending in this sector. Why? What's being hidden from scrutiny? Last October in Senate estimates hearings, I asked whether money would be more effective if it went directly to Aboriginal communities. I meant it. The NIAA said that it sometimes allocates money to communities. I meant directly to communities, bypassing agencies for direct allocations to communities via a transparent, objective formula.

When I travel across communities in Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory, listening to local Aboriginal people, it's clear they know the answers. I was told that many, many activists, advocates, consultants, lawyers, academics, contractors and public servants rely on keeping the gap wide open, because they work the system, and their livelihoods depend on the program's ongoing failure. They depend on the gap being maintained, not closed, to perpetuate the need for their roles and accompanying salaries.

Reportedly, Mr Ian Trust chairs Empowered Communities, an Aboriginal organisation and alliance of 10 Aboriginal regions that lobbied hard for the opportunity to review funding decisions with government. In 2017, more than half of the funding considered was found to be duplication and misdirection. Of $1.98 million spent, $1 million was wasted. With sensible local representatives in charge, this model develops responsibility and ownership. Mr Trust supported the cashless debit card and objected to the Albanese government's capricious decision to take it away without consulting the people. Despite extensive evidence of alcohol related harm to Aboriginal children, the McGowan Labor government ignored his calls for severe alcohol restrictions in his home town. Why won't governments listen and learn?

The Australian people spoke decisively when we overwhelmingly rejected the divisive Voice referendum 60-40. We, the people of Australia, do not want race to decide rights that should apply to all Australians, yet some states and territories are still actively considering introducing voices and/or treaties. That's a big middle finger to the Australian people's decision. South Australia's One Nation MP, Sarah Game, is sponsoring a bill to repeal the South Australian voice legislation, which clearly has no public mandate. I applaud Sarah Game's initiative.

When will this government accept the advice from grassroots Aboriginal groups as to what does and does not work based on real-life experience and go beyond that to give communities real autonomy? It's time that leeches and bureaucrats sucking on the teats of the Aboriginal industry realise that their time is up and that we're coming for them. Senator Pauline Hanson opened this debate 27 years ago and remains at the fore of pushing for equitable treatment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the same as for all Australians. Now in the Senate we have Senators Nampijinpa Price and Kerrynne Liddle joining us in speaking common sense and truth.

The government needs to consider bypassing state and agency grants to fund communities directly to develop autonomy for real improvement. As a senator to the people of Queensland and Australia, I serve the people of Queensland and Australia. I support it as the quickest and most powerful way to develop responsibility, ownership and progress. This solution is based on autonomy, human community and responsibility being keys to closing the gap.

Question agreed to.