DOCUMENTS - Closing the Gap - Consideration

Nine years ago the apology and our commitment to closing the gap married the symbolic and the practical. After a tumultuous decade of denial under the long term of the Howard government Prime Minister Rudd's apology was cathartic. The positive response of the whole of the Australian public was heartening, affirming that with the right political leadership we could transcend the politics of fear and guilt as a nation and work towards reconciliation based on truth telling, healing and justice. Wrongs could be righted. Both initiatives in their own way related to the quest for change, transformation and fundamental equality. The effect of the apology was powerful whilst being symbolic. Prime Minister Rudd at the commencement of the 42nd Parliament pointed to a future:

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

As we look over the nearly 10 years of the Closing the gap report it is time to reflect on the past decade and ask: what has been achieved, are our Indigenous nations better off and where is our nation up to on the road to reconciliation, to social justice and to shared equality? We need to draw upon the inspiration provided by the courage, the spirit and the commitment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders when we think of the national challenge of closing the gap. We also need to draw inspiration from the efforts of senators who have served here in the past and also members in the other place who have sought to make a difference to the disadvantages that persist in our communities. Both sides of the chamber have made meaningful contributions but so much more needs to be done.

Closing the gap remains a serious and difficult challenge for our Aboriginal nations and for our parliament. Today's report tabled by the Prime Minister is an accounting process and it seemed to me that the Prime Minister, to his credit, was willing to be transparent, to identify some of the major shortcomings, the disappointments in this ninth report and the smattering of occasional and partial success stories. For example, I am pleased to note that there is a positive consistent trend in the attainment of year 12 qualifications, though there are many disappointments.

I share his particular sadness and disappointment that infant mortality rates, which in previous years seemed to be improving, have from today's reports slipped back once more. Far too many mothers and fathers in our communities have suffered the awful, unspeakable loss of their young ones. We must increase our efforts to reach the target of halving the gap in infant mortality. I particularly note that rates of attending antenatal care in the important first trimester are highest in the outer regions but lowest in the major cities.

The health statistics are troubling. In particular I note the following hard facts, each of which has a story of pain and suffering behind it. Indigenous mortality rates from cancer are rising, and the gap is widening. The most recent Indigenous life expectancy figures were published in late 2013 and showed a gap of 10.6 years for males and 9.5 years for females. There has been no significant change in the Indigenous mortality rate between the 2006 baseline and 2015, nor in the gap since 1998. Cancer mortality rates are rising, and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians from cancer is widening. The health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is improving, but the current rate of progress will have to gather pace if the life expectancy target is to be met by 2031. We know that many promising beginnings in reversing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage have fallen short in delivering transformative, lasting change.

Given the recent history of defunding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, lasting change in the right direction seems unlikely. The overarching funding cuts of $500 million pointed out by the Audit Office, resulting from the amalgamation of different portfolio initiatives into the central agency of Prime Minister and Cabinet, have not helped the process of change. We know from the Audit Office review that the Indigenous Advancement Strategy is a shambolic failure of top-down centralised decision-making that leaves our Aboriginal nations on the margins as policy fringe dwellers, waiting for scraps from the big house. There have been documented funding cuts, very poor processes of consultation and negotiation, and weak evaluation of program progress. Even the recently announced evaluation investment is not new funding; it is taken directly from the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

The gaps will not close across the board until attitudes at all levels are transformed in reality, not just in rhetoric. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been crying out for greater control, whether that be called empowerment, self-determination or, as referred to by the Prime Minister in his statement today, 'Do things with us, not to us.' A key question is whether 'do things with us' is really the approach that has been adopted by the bureaucrats of the department for which the minister and the Prime Minister are accountable.

The department has been focused on the laudable goals and objectives of the Closing the Gap agreements—initiatives such as getting kids to school, getting people to work, making communities safer, bridging the life expectancy gap. These have program funding, targets and protocols attached to them. However, the outcomes, as seen in this Closing the Gap report, are evidently disappointing.

These targets are really important. The public sector promises of change in both approach and regional engagement, however, have come packaged to the Indigenous nations without respect for their sovereign status, ignoring the commitment contained in the national apology that heralded respect in drafting, together, the next chapter of our relationship. The apology promised a partnership of equals. We are still confronted by persistent, deep matters of discrimination, racism and injustice that prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations from celebrating the nation-states' iconic and cherished treasures and from feeling that they can make it work in broader society. This affects the mindsets of people at all ends of the policy and program continuum, from policymakers to service organisations and even to the recipients of programs.

What we know is that there is a continuing gap in understanding significant matters to do with recognition of the sovereign status of the Indigenous nations: how this nation was settled without agreement, and to what extent will the original nations of this land be enabled to have their own voice within the deliberations of parliament on these matters that concern them greatly now and well into the future. Those matters include land, language, community, welfare, justice and service delivery, to name but a few.

Closing the gap into the future requires a commitment by all governments to engage in respectful dialogue to explore a way ahead to address these troubling statistical reports, and to negotiate an agreed way forward with the first nation peoples. This is at the heart of the Redfern Statement, tabled in here not so long ago, which was re-launched at the Closing the Gap breakfast this morning, which states that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak representative organisations have a deep concern that 'the challenges confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be isolated to the margins of the national debate' and that 'the transformative opportunities for government action are yet to be grasped'. At the program delivery point, in the community health centres, the schools or the local councils, this would look like a commitment to co-design, and it is accepted across the Western world as the only way forward to address entrenched disadvantage.

Let me highlight some of the major features of the Closing the Gap report that gives me a troubling sense that there is insufficient engagement, consultation and negotiation by the government and the service providers. School attendance for 2016 is at 83.4 per cent, similar to 2015, while attendance rates for non-Indigenous students have been steady at 93.1 per cent. Have the parents of our schoolchildren been effectively engaged on this issue at the local community level? That is the question I ask. Do our children have the community models and rightful aspirations to see schooling as important and worthwhile? The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 is off track. The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is, in the words of the report 'not on track'. In 2014-15 the Indigenous employment rate was 48.4 per cent, compared with 72.6 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. In our remote communities, only 35.1 per cent were employed. As the Prime Minister said in launching the report:

We have come a long way since the referendum, but we have not come far enough.

Healing the injustices of the past needs a national dialogue to explore a settlement of these matters and to determine an agreed way forward with the First Nation peoples. Included in this dialogue is the necessary topic of restitution. In some states this is currently being contemplated, with redress schemes to cover compensation for victims of sexual abuse—and rightly so.

It is past the time to act on the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report and provide restitution to those still alive who were taken away from their families and from their descendants. The Closing the Gap report gives us cause to pause in order to note the marginal improvements and persistent failings. We need to be able in this place and in our communities to re-imagine the possibilities of transformation and positive change. This is not about the ethnicity of the Aboriginal people. This is about poverty. This is about the cultural dimension of the issues that we are discussing, because they are central and essential to the discussion. Our identity as Aboriginal and Islander peoples cannot just be put in a box and labelled as poverty, making us to be just any other poor or marginalised Australian. We are and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We need to recognize that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are cynical, frustrated and angry at the directions of public policy and the status quo treatment that government tends to give on matters that are of great consequence for them. We need new ways of thinking, talking and acting. We need to be freed from constantly leading you to understanding us. We need to be freed from explaining ourselves to you. We need to be freed to do the things that are important to us and which will still be important in decades to come. As the Leader of the Opposition in the other place said today in talking directly to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples whose lives are documented in this report: 'You belong to a tradition of sporting brilliance, in the face of racism from opponents, teammates, administrators and even spectators. You belong to humanity's oldest culture—more famous around the world than ever before. You do not belong in a jail cell for an offence that carries an $80 fine. You do not belong strapped in a chair with a hood on your head. Not dying in the back of a windowless van, away from your family. Not in some bureaucrat's office begging for money. Not on the streets with nowhere to go. You belong here, as members of this parliament, as leaders of this nation. Recognised in the Constitution, teaching in schools, building homes and caring for land. You belong here, growing up healthy, raising your children in safety, growing old with security. You belong here, strong in your culture and language and country. You belong here, equal in this great country, equal partners in our common endeavour. This is your place. Our future is your future—Australia's future.' I welcome this sad, distressing and disappointing report for once more bringing to this place our need to act.

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