DOCUMENTS - Closing the Gap - Consideration

I also rise today to make some comments on the 11th anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations. The Prime Minister handed down his Closing the gap report. Eleven years is a long time, but I remember the time of the apology vividly: I was sitting up in the House with a mother who had been taken away from a community on the Trans-continental Railway line and sent to the infamous Roelands Mission in Western Australia.

Throughout Australia, First Nations peoples were using art, music, stories and songs to tell stories of First Nation's society and to share stories with non-Indigenous Australians. Musicians, led by people like Yothu Yindi and Archie Roach, were travelling around the country singing the songs of First Nations peoples. People were beginning to understand what Richard Flanagan meant when he said, 'What Black Australia offers to the nation is not guilt about our history but an invitation to our future.'

Everything that Aboriginal people, First Nations people, have done or benefited by has mainly been through their own efforts and their hard fight to achieve it. The largesse of governments is very seldom something that we experience. Through Prime Minister Rudd, some ten years after the Bringing them home report, the nation apologised to the thousands of Indigenous people who over many generations were stolen or forcibly removed from their families, their countries, their languages and their cultures. This historic process had been found to be genocidal by the late Sir Ronald Wilson, a former High Court judge and commissioner of the Bringing them home report. It reminds me of what Bill Stanner wrote when he said, 'The white man's got no dreaming. He goes another way.'

The movement for a better and more equal society led to the establishment of the Closing the Gap framework, the first national framework to tackle entrenched Indigenous disadvantage in our nation's history. The new framework was accompanied by record investment in Indigenous affairs. Eleven years have now passed. Today, after much delay and dysfunction, this Prime Minister handed down his Closing the Gap report. It was a poignant reminder of the failure of his national leadership and that of his predecessors Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull. Over the last few years commentary has rightly focused on the languishing Closing the Gap framework, with targets not being met and some targets expiring last year. It is clear that the thinking that informed the Closing the Gap strategy has unravelled. The soaring rhetoric here in the parliament has not resulted in changes on the ground.

Today I'd like to draw your attention to a key question: who actually closes the gap? In my travels around Western Australia I visit many Aboriginal community controlled organisations. Recently I drove to Fitzroy Crossing. I went to Marninwarntikura, the women's resource centre in the Fitzroy Valley. Marninwarntikura is a Walmajarri word. They call themselves 'women who belong in this region, these countries and each other have come together'. They are a team of competent, powerful, First Nations women, experts in the needs of their communities and the social and economic determinants that shape their lives. These women are not fly-in, fly-out workers. They know the families that face these challenges. They know the families that care for those struggling in their communities. They know the effects of the intergenerational trauma on their community. They know it too well. They know that an inconsistent, paternalistic government can only wreak havoc on their communities.

In my home town of Broome I see community workers daily putting in long hours to close the gap. I today offer them my respect. I respect the teachers at the Broome school, teaching Yawuru, my language. I respect the coaches on Friday night basketball at community centres. I respect the health workers of the Aboriginal medical services, running programs to support fathers and grandfathers to foster happy, loving relationships with their children and grandchildren. I respect the four-wheel-drive bus driver covering hundreds of kilometres on corrugated roads to make sure kids in remote communities get to schools. I call out to the mob at the Kullarri Patrol, ensuring First Nations people get home safely at night and off the streets; to the women of Nagula Jarndu, creating real jobs through textiles and design; to the housing workers at Marra Worra Worra, providing ground-up, community led housing services at Fitzroy Crossing; to the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, working tirelessly with elders and anthropologists to respect the remains from the eroded banks of the Fitzroy River and put them to rest. Most of these people are at the coalface. They very rarely come to Canberra. Who actually closes the gap? It's the people working at the grassroots, led by First Nations peoples, with a deep understanding and lived experience of the needs of their communities.

I acknowledge the strong and assertive work being done by peak bodies and representatives in dragging the government to a historical national partnership agreement. These peak representative bodies have a vital role to play assisting frontline organisations to deliver their services and collate national data. Their national leadership is essential and worthwhile. But there is a deeper challenge here, and that is to properly recognise that we can only close the gap in the communities of Australia if the communities of First Nations people have direct ownership, authority and control over the impact of their lives. Building self-determination and practice is going to come from empowering Aboriginal controlled organisations on the ground and making sure that they are resourced to service their communities. Self-determination is going to come from bureaucracies moving away from their entrenched institutional racism and starting to move towards respectful co-design processes with First Nation leaders to develop culturally and socially sound programs and policies.

After 11 years it is clear that we need to build and shift in the way we think about these issues. It is a paradigm shift that's required. Vision and leadership are required to understand it. When considering our pathway forward, we must remember that there was a time not long ago when every decision of every Indigenous person was determined by officialdom—which school you went to, which partner you could have, which child you could keep, which house you could live in, what time you had to be out of town and which boss you were indentured to. Through the long lens of history it is easy to understand why First Nations people are weary of centralised government decision-making. These policies and practices entrench our disadvantage and frustrate our hopes for jobs and economic development. The call for self-determination is not some new abstract concept. It's deeply informed by history. Our vision for the future must recognise this call and respond in kind. This is the simple reason why organisations like Marninwarntikura, the women's resource centre, work well. The answer is in their name, as I've said. These women belong to the region, their country and each other. They've come together to fix their communities.

The call for self-determination must not go unheard. It is unfinished business. Today's report shows that the Australian nation has made little or no progress. In fact, we've gone backwards on the number of targets that are on track.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): Senator Dodson, I'm so sorry. Your time has expired. I'd like to give you another 20 minutes. Is there agreement from the chamber?

Senator Scullion: Yes.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Minister. Senator Dodson, please carry on.

Senator DODSON: I've only got a few more—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: You take as long as you like. You've got free rein.

Senator DODSON: Don't give me that permission! In the years since the apology we've not managed to change the social, economic and political framework for First Nations people. I acknowledge what the minister has said about the progress that is being made and the work that he diligently tries to achieve. We just disagree on processes sometimes. It's fundamentally because the mainstream—and it's the bureaucratic functions—refuse to acknowledge that they are a major part of the problem. I accept and respect what Senator Siewert has said. If there is a collective of the parties of this parliament and if we commit to giving local communities and regions the power and authority they need to get the job done on closing the gap, then we will see progress. We must keep in our minds those who actually close the gap and give them the capacity to take it forward. We must empower those who directly service their communitiesand deliver the changes that will lead us together, across Australia, to bring economic, social and health indicators for First Nations peoples closer to the norms of the mainstream of Australia. Whilst we do that, we should always allow for the unique genius of the First Nations peoples to shine through, to help our nation find a path and honour.

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