Standing up for Canberra

Closing the Gap

I begin by acknowledging the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and of my electorate of Canberra. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

It is a sobering experience to each year read the Closing the Gap report, and to have the opportunity to reflect on it in parliament.

The report was born out of a campaign that started 10 years ago, a campaign that brought together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians in mutual commitment to ensuring that by 2030, any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child born in this country will have the same opportunity as other Australian children to live a long, to live a healthy, to live a happy life.

Each year we see some progress towards meeting the Closing the Gap targets, but each year we are also reminded of the uncomfortable and persistent reality that the gap in Indigenous disadvantage remains. This year the report is no different. This year we are confronted with the fact that we are currently on track to meet just two of the seven Closing the Gap targets—just two of them. The report shows that progress in closing the gap in a number of key areas, including employment, life expectancy and reading and numeracy, has stagnated.

The good news comes in the areas of infant mortality and year 12 attainment. The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track, and this year's report tells us that, over the longer term, Indigenous child death rates declined by 33 per cent and the gap narrowed by 34 per cent between 1998 and 2014. Immunisation rates for Indigenous children are high. By the age of five, a higher percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are immunised than other Australian children. That is an incredible statistic, and I would like to commend all of the organisations and health services who have worked so hard to achieve this, especially the Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and their peak body, NACCHO. In my own community, the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service does great work in this area, particular in pre- and postnatal services.

We also had good news in the space of year 12 attainment. An increasing proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are completing year 12—up from 45.4 per cent in 2008 to 58.5 per cent in 2012-13. This means the target to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020 is on track. Over the past decade, there was a 70 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education award courses, and there is almost no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university graduates, which is a terrific result.

These figures are impressive. They are uplifting. They deliver a sense of accomplishment and pride. But these are the highlights in what is a very mixed report. As nice as it is to dwell on the successes, it is so much more important to focus on the areas where we are not on track. We are not on track to close the gap on life expectancy by 2031. Indigenous Australians will still die on average 10 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians. Here we are, in one of the most affluent countries in the world, and Indigenous Australians are dying, on average, 10 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians. We are not on track to halve the gap in employment by 2018. The results on reading and numeracy are mixed, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students on track to achieve national minimum standards in just four of the eight areas measured in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. And there has been very little change in the rate of school attendance, with states and territories recording less than one per cent change in school attendance from 2014 to 2015. Not a single state or territory where the government's flagship $126.5 million truancy program operates is on track to meet the school attendance target.

When this report was released earlier this month, we heard many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders express their frustration at the lack of progress, and this frustration is understandable, and it is shared, because, as the deadline for many of these targets fast approaches, we do not have time for complacency. The federal government and the state and territory governments must strengthen their resolve, must work together, must do more and must do better.

One thing that we know is that cutting front-line services is not the answer. Whether it be in health services, legal aid services or family violence and crisis services, cuts to front-line services not only stymie progress but also put at risk those gains that have already been made in closing the gap. I do believe there is bipartisan commitment to closing the gap, but as a member of the opposition I cannot help but feel the government's actions do not always match their rhetoric in this space. When speaking on this report, my colleague the member for Blair, who is also the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, outlined his frustration at the government's decision to cut funding from the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, who are a national voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We have also been frustrated by the government's decision to walk away from its commitment to the Gonski funding model and to needs based school funding. As we know, one of those elements is indigeneity. We need to ensure that every child is given the best educational opportunities to succeed later in life. We have seen those significant improvements, and we need to ensure that we continue to make those improvements and gains and that they do not regress in any way. That is why Labor is committed to fairer needs based funding for schools, with extra support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The government was committed to this model prior to the last election but it has now abandoned its commitment.

Labor's policy will guarantee the individual attention and targeted programs that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students deserve so that they can be their best, so that they can reach their potential. I was proud to be in the chamber when the Leader of the Opposition committed, at the first COAG meeting under a Labor government, that the first item on the agenda will be setting new targets to close the justice gap, tackling the appalling and absolutely shameful incarceration rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We cannot close the gap while Indigenous incarceration and victimisation rates are at national crisis levels. And that is where they are: at national crisis levels. These statistics are just breathtakingly appalling. Right now, if you are an Aboriginal man you are 15 times as likely to be imprisoned as a non-Aboriginal man. It is unacceptable; it is appalling; it is shameful.

Labor's target will focus on preventing crime, reducing violence and victimisation and boosting community safety, and that will not just be in remote communities; it will be in our cities, our suburbs, our regional centres. We call on the government to also adopt this target, to put an end to those appallingly high incarceration rates and victimisation rates. Most importantly, we cannot close the gap without genuine and respectful engagement and partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That is why we must maintain momentum to recognise our nation's first peoples in the Constitution. Labor is committed to a referendum on Indigenous recognition within the first year of taking office.

Stan Grant last week spoke at the National Press Club, which was a very stirring and moving address that really focused on a number of the key issues that have been identified in closing the gap. In his speech he said:

How many prime ministers are going to leave office and say that their biggest regret would be that they didn't do enough for Indigenous affairs?

We've heard that from Bob Hawke, from Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. … "What is your biggest regret?" "Oh, I could have done more".

I tell you one of the problems here, and that is why our issues seen to be something separate? Why is it pushed off to the margins of policy?

Closing the gap is not easy or straightforward, but we must persevere; we cannot have it in the margins of policy. Our failure in this respect would be our greatest shame. If governments of all levels strengthen their commitment, if they work with and listen to Australia's first people to achieve these targets, it will be the most significant political achievement of our lifetime.

Download a copy of this speech.