Closing The Gap

I begin by acknowledging that we meet on Ngunnawal country and pay my respects to the elders past, present and future. I welcome the opportunity to speak once again on the Closing the gap report, despite the fact that his report is a sober reminder that we have a long way to go before we achieve true equality for our First Australians.


Nine years after the framework was agreed, only one of the seven Closing the Gap targets is on track to being met. While year 12 attainment by 2020 is on track, the education, employment, infant mortality and life expectancy targets are not. Our First Australians live with worse health and education outcomes, fewer employment opportunities, inadequate housing options and the lasting effects of intergenerational trauma. That is not helped by the $500 million in cuts to programs and frontline services that this government has implemented, despite a promise that there would be no jobs or services lost. The government has cut funding from local providers, which has not fostered any independence; in fact, it has undermined hope.

I just want to turn to the impact of the targets on the ACT. An article yesterday in The Canberra Times yesterday found:

… the report showed gains in education, but Aboriginal employment fell nearly 10 per cent to 62.9 per cent between 2008 and 2014-2015 … The ACT mirrored national success in improving year 12 attainment rates, one of the few bright spots in the yearly measure of progress. It had the second-highest increase in young Indigenous people reaching a year 12 or equivalent level of education, rising 26.1 per cent to 82.7 per cent in the six years to 2014-2015. … The ACT out performed other states and territories in NAPLAN measures, and was the only jurisdiction on track to meet a goal of improving the gap in numeracy and literacy for all tested school grades.

Despite the achievements in the ACT, as I said, the report still makes for sober reading, with only one of the seven Closing the Gap targets on track to being met.

In highlighting the contents of the report I also want to acknowledge the outstanding speech made by the Leader of the Opposition in the House yesterday that proposed a shift in focus. He said:

I do not seek to present a balance sheet of the good and the bad—not a list of top-down programs imperfectly managed; not the same old story of reports written but not read. Instead, I believe in a new approach.

We must forget the insulting fiction that the First Australians are a problem to be solved and, instead, have a new approach to listen to people who stand on the other side of the gap; a new approach that, from now on, the First Australians must have first say in the decisions that shape their lives; a new approach that means a stronger voice for the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples and the resources– most importantly– to make it happen; a new approach to extend ourselves beyond handpicked sources of advice; a new approach to be in the places where our First Australians live and work and play… Not treating local consultation as a box to be ticked but applying the wisdom of people who know. Understanding and recognising there are many Aboriginal nations across this country … And all of these nations have the right to have control of their future.

As we know, many of the current targets are due to be renegotiated. Yesterday in his speech the opposition leader suggested the inclusion of some new targets, including a new national justice target that will be developed in cooperation with state and territory governments, law enforcement agencies, legal clinics and social services and, most importantly, guided by community leaders, elders and Aboriginal representative organisations. To address the appalling incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians and the tragedy that so many young Indigenous Australians are destined for jail over university, the opposition leader recommended a target for reducing the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.

We have also got a 440 per cent increase in Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. That is shocking. It is a blight on our nation. Hence that recommendation. One in three children in statutory out-of-home care are Indigenous. Indigenous children are nearly 10 times more likely to be removed by child protection authorities than their non-Indigenous peers. Labor is also calling for the government to properly fund Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Implementation Plan.

As I said, this was sobering reading, but I did welcome appendix A, which is at the back of the report, that shows Indigenous representation in Commonwealth public sector agencies. It shows agency by agency the targets they have for that representation as well as the reality of that representation as at 30 June. I went first to Defence because prior to entering politics I spent 10 years consulting in Defence and I had the great pleasure of working in the Australian Defence Force Cadets organisation. It is a youth development organisation. It gives young Australians—there were 22,000 at that stage—the opportunity to get a taste of the Australian Defence Force and, most importantly, to boost their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-discipline and to work in a team.

There are a number of cadet units specifically targeted at young Indigenous Australians. I had the great pleasure of going to Bamaga, Nhulunbuy and Thursday Island to see those programs in operation up there. The young Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal cadets loved being cadets. They found it gave them so much in terms of those skills, self-esteem, confidence and self-discipline. It also gave them the opportunity to be with like-minded people and learn a whole lot of new skills.

With that background in the defence organisation and also because I was involved in writing the first Defence Reconciliation Action Plan as well as the updates on its implementation, I was very keen to see how Defence is performing. Navy has a strong Indigenous presence, but I was quite disappointed to see that, for the Department of Defence—that is, in the civilian space—the target is 2.5 per cent Indigenous representation and yet by June 2016 it was just 1.8 per cent. The ADF—and this excludes ex-active reservists—aimed for 2.7 per cent and the reality was only 1.8 per cent representation. Active reservists had a target of 2.5 per cent and had 1.7 per cent representation.

I was also surprised to see that the Australian National University, despite the fact that it had a target of 2.5 per cent, had zero representation as of 30 June 2016 as did the Australian Research Council. The Department of the Environment and Energy deserves a big tick because their target was 4.5 per cent and they had achieved 6.4 per cent. The Department of the Treasury is another disappointing one: 2.5 per cent and yet 0.2 per cent in terms of representation there.

We do need to listen to Indigenous Australians. We do need to do more to be able to employ them in our public institutions, our cultural institutions, our bureaucracy and our places of democracy that shape and implement public policy. The Closing the gap report has a chapter on employment and there is a really lovely section I will quote from a young woman who was a Defence Indigenous Development Program participant. Her name is Kelly Curry and she said, 'I am very proud of the people we have become and the new outlook we have on life.' That is something we want for all Indigenous Australians. It comes from being born fighting fit. It comes from being safe. It comes from having a roof over your head—not a substandard housing option; a roof over your head. It comes from being healthy. It comes from being literate. It comes from being numerate. It comes from being educated. It comes from employment. It comes from economic development. It comes from being empowered. It comes from access to opportunity and equality. It comes from a new approach that listens to First Australians, gives them a stronger voice that they can control, and recognises that they have the solutions —a new approach that fosters hope, that builds on a sense of belonging and that builds on a sense of respect, recognition and resources.

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