Statement: Closing the Gap

15 February 2017

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respects to their elders past and present and future. It was incredible to stand in the Great Hall of Parliament House yesterday to witness the handing of the Redfern Statement to the Prime Minister. The statement was presented in a coolamon, used by Indigenous women to carry food and water, and precious babies. This, indeed, was a special and precious baby being delivered by Jackie Huggins and Rod Little, the co-chairs of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. The Redfern Statement was made last year by Indigenous leaders. It is a way forward for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And when the Indigenous community say, 'We have the solutions,' this government must listen. There was recognition this morning of Paul Keating's celebrated Redfern address in 1992. There was recognition of Kevin Rudd's apology to the stolen generation in 2008. There was recognition of Jenny Macklin's work in setting targets for improving the lives of Aboriginal people. And there was acknowledgement of our current Indigenous parliamentarians—Pat Dodson, Malarndirri McCarthy, Linda Burney, Jacqui Lambie and Ken Wyatt. There was hope, and inspiration. But the House itself delivered the reality check, and it came in the form of the ninth annual Closing the gap report.

Australia is not on track to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; in fact, the gap is widening and deaths are increasing when it comes to cancer and child mortality. State and federal governments are on track to meet just one of seven targets in this strategy, with setbacks in the areas of unemployment and child mortality. The only improvement that has been made, and thank goodness there is at least one, is an improvement in the number of Indigenous students finishing year 12. Yet, this government wants to slash $30 billion from our schools, much of it targeted at that very aim of improving outcomes for Aboriginal students. In fact, in my electorate of Paterson, where $43 million will be cut from school funding, one school—Kurri Kurri High School—has made incredible strides with Gonski funding in regard to its Aboriginal students. With the help of a specialist full-time teacher, Aboriginal students at Kurri Kurri High have improved their writing results by 200 per cent. It is simply an outstanding outcome. But, because this government has gone back on its word to deliver the full Gonski rollout, Kurri Kurri High stands to lose $1.1 million—simply astounding.

During the Abbott reign of terror this government also slashed $500 million from Indigenous funding and instigated what it called the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, and what a disaster that has been. There has certainly been no advancement for Indigenous Australians, and this has been backed up by the Australian National Audit Office report into this strategy, which said it is quite simply a shameful indictment on the Liberal government. The ANAO says the strategy was botched from the beginning. Not only did the government rip more than $500 million from the Indigenous affairs budget; the entire process has been completely shambolic, leading to widespread confusion among Indigenous organisations, who were not consulted or communicated with in any way.

This is what happens when you impose solutions instead of working with communities. The Closing the gap report yesterday told us that the lives of Indigenous men are 10.6 years shorter than their non-Indigenous counterparts. For Indigenous women the gap is 9.5 years. There has been mixed progress across other target areas—child mortality, early education, school attendance, student reading and numeracy, employment and year-12 attainment—but by and by the news is not good.

In my own electorate of Paterson, home of the Worimi, the Wonnarua and the Awabakal people, Aboriginal disadvantage is as great as anywhere. Probably the most telling statistic comes from an extensive report prepared by Maitland City Council in 2013. I thank Maitland City Council for that research, which sets out to identify that disadvantage and look for solutions. That statistic is the median age of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Maitland. That median age is just 18. In comparison, the median age of non-Indigenous people is 36. What does that really mean? It means that more than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Maitland in my electorate are under 19 and only six per cent are over 60. I find that so astounding and shameful. In this age when non-Indigenous Australians are living well into their nineties, we have very few Indigenous Australians living anywhere near that age and a tiny percentage living over 60.

That report from Maitland council has a number of other telling statistics. The suburbs with the highest disadvantage were also the suburbs with the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Indigenous people in Maitland are 12.4 per cent less likely to complete high school and three times less likely to obtain a tertiary education. The unemployment rate is 11.7 per cent higher for Indigenous people, and the labour force participation is 4.6 per cent lower than for non-Indigenous people. Indigenous people earn 30 per cent less in weekly income and 12 per cent less in household income despite having bigger households. Indigenous people are twice as likely to rent their homes and almost half as likely to own their own homes outright. These sound like statistics just rolling off a page, but they are people. They are our first people.

The one light shining in the report and one that reflects the closing the gap findings overall is that more people are staying on to year 12, and I find that so encouraging. I am very moved by this, and I am pleased that my colleague Linda Burney is with me. Thank you, Linda. In 2006, the percentage of Indigenous students completing their HSC was 17 per cent, and in 2011 that percentage had risen to 22 per cent. That is still well below the non-Indigenous percentage of 34 per cent, but it is improving.

These are mostly economic indicators, but they result from health, education and employment disadvantage—indicators in which we are not closing the gap. I add my voice to the call to listen to Indigenous people and to actually hear what they have to say. The Redfern Statement tells us that Aboriginal people have the solutions. The $500 million cut to Indigenous programs and front-line services made by this Liberal government has had very real and damaging impacts, and that cut must be reversed. I want to point out an excellent piece that was written in today's Sydney Morning Herald by Michael Gordon. It sums up for me, very well, what happened yesterday:

The Prime Minister is a glass-half-full politician and he chose to focus on the positives when he presented the report to Parliament on Tuesday… This reflects the idea that you make progress by celebrating success, but the self-congratulatory tone was out of order and it won't work if the deeper question of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is not addressed.

This, to me, is the critical point: yes, we must celebrate those successes; it is important that they are acknowledged. But getting back to what Michael Gordon said again:

Each is important, but these are incremental steps when a paradigm shift is required.

And that paradigm shift is truly what we talking about here. It is not the imposition of ideas by us, non-Aboriginal people, to Aboriginal people. It is the complete reversal of that idea: the idea that Aboriginal people are masters of their own destiny. They have the solutions. They have the ideas. And it is up to us to be humble enough to sit at their feet and hear their solutions and work with them to help us both create a better Australia that we will all benefit from. This is not just for the benefit of our first peoples; this is for the benefit of all people who live in this great country so that we can make it an even better country.