DOCUMENTS - Closing the Gap - Consideration

I note the Minister for Indigenous Affairs' reporting of the Prime Minister's statement on closing the gap and thank him for conveying that report to the Senate. I had the opportunity to sit in the chamber in the other place and hear the Prime Minister's address and the Leader of the Opposition's reply. It was an important event and one that showcased the significance of first nations peoples in the contemporary politics and policies of our parliamentary processes.

The Kevin Rudd apology and the subsequent Closing the Gap national commitments are indicative of a decade of national commitments and partnership aimed at fundamentally changing the status and position of first nations peoples when measured against the status of other Australians. The apology was the first step. In the international experience of making good after crisis and conflict, whether it be in Germany or South Africa or East Timor, the steps of reparation and reconciliation are well understood. The apology is a crucial step because it opens up the healing process. But it does not end it. It requires a sense of acceptance by the victims of hurt, accompanied by a parallel sense of recognition from the victors that they have done harm and caused injury. Then there is the need for a state of reparation or restitution—making good. Internationally, this has been through agreements on practical measures to ease the burden inflicted by the wrong, through cooperative projects in social and educational, political and economic arenas. That is what the apology and the closing the gap process are all about. It is fundamental to any process of truly reaching a stage of reconciliation that combines the delicate threads of our national fabric.

On a day when first nations people are being measured microscopically against a set of criteria and outcomes which successive governments have failed to meet, we in this place should step back and take stock of ourselves as leaders. We should recall that really it is axiological change that the first nations people want. They want a relationship based on justice, institutional participation and critical participation in their own solutions to the problems that they are confronted with. I said this morning on a radio program that closing the gap is not a game between the Labor and Liberal parties, or the other parties; it's about the future of Aboriginal people having equality of life in this country and about the wounds of injustice that they have encountered since colonialism being healed. For all of us in politics it is about ensuring that we can collaborate in an effective way with the states and territories and work in direct partnership with Aboriginal organisations to get these results. I heard the minister say much about this.

The government has been quick to blow its trumpet of success—this is the most successful report since 2011. I do not belittle the positive elements of which the minister has spoken, but, while the life expectancy gap remains, it is hard to be positive. While people remain in poverty—incapable of paying their bills or rent and facing eviction to the streets—we all remain diminished. Of course it's welcome news that in today's report three of the seven targets are on track—any progress, as microscopic as it might be, is refreshing—but we are a long way from closing the gap in 2031.

I welcome with great relief that there is at last some measure of improvement in three areas, as reported by the Prime Minister. The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track. The target to have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is on track. The target to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020 is on track. However, the four remaining targets, including the essential target to close the 10-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, are lagging. Far greater attention needs to be focussed on intergenerational trauma, anxiety and frustration with the lot in life that many of our people have been subjected to. As well, three of the remaining four targets—to halve the gaps in employment, reading and numeracy, and school attendance for Indigenous students—are due to expire in 2018. We know the minister is in some further discussions about refreshing these goals. We look forward to those outcomes.

It is paramount that the first nations peoples participation in closing the gap on all fronts is fully resourced and that they are not passive recipients at the end of a conveyor belt of service delivery. They want to make their own contribution, and many have and ought to be acknowledged for the roles that they have played.

The minister made reference to the Prime Minister's comment that he is taking measures to turbocharge the Indigenous business sector. I respectfully suggest to the minister, given his fishing background, that he trade in the oars that he has been using to row this dinghy called closing the gap and put some decent turbocharged outboard motors on it to enable those without hope or belief that the government is committed to closing the gap to take the government seriously and see merit in participation in these endeavours to close the gap and ensure that their own lives have got some equality.

We are faced with this huge challenge. It's hard to understand a government that talks about not renewing the remote-housing funds to communities, and we've had a discussion about that today. But housing is one of those essential planks to all these other imperatives and social determinants of a good life and quality of life. If the government cannot see its way clear with the states to find an agreement about this, then many of the good intentions the government's got will fail, unfortunately, and many of our people will be left behind in these remote parts of the country and not share in the benefits or the positive outcomes that the minister so often brings to our attention in this place.

Minister, this is a good report, but it's one that obviously needs more work, more collaboration. As I've said, it needs some turbocharged motors on the back of that dinghy.

Stay up to date by subscribing to my newsletter.