Closing the Gap Report Statement to Parliament

February 14, 2017



Yanggu gulanyin ngalawiri, dhunayi, Ngunawal dhawra. Wanggarralijinyin mariny bulan bugarabang.

Today, Mr Speaker, we are meeting together on Ngunuwal land and we acknowledge and pay our respects to their elders past and present.

And pay our deep respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gathered today - including our Aboriginal Members of Parliament - and all across Australia, who have been the custodians of these lands and whose elders hold the knowledge of their rich and diverse cultures.

I also welcome the First Ministers and their representatives from the states and territories who have gathered with us today to demonstrate that the responsibility - indeed, the opportunity - for closing the gap in partnership with our communities’ rests with all levels of government, and with all Australians.

The lives, the occupations, the dreams of Aboriginal and Torres Islander Australians are as diverse as those of all other Australians - and stretched across this vast land, from the most remote communities to the heart of our capitals, to our national Parliament, our First Australians are showing that they can do anything, as they inspire us with their resilience, their courage and their enterprise.

Last year Chris Sarra proposed three principles that would help make a difference in Indigenous policy. He said: “Do things with us, not to us. Bring us policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism; and acknowledge, embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australia.”

And I am pleased that Chris has agreed to join the new Indigenous Advisory Council along with Andrea Mason, Susan Murphy, Ngiare Brown, Roy Ah See, and Djambawa Marawilli.

I thank Warren Mundine and the retiring members for their work.

Mr Speaker, nothing brought a quiet moment of humanity to the 2016 election campaign more than the handing of the title deeds to Belyuen Elder, Raylene Singh, 37 years after the Larrakia people submitted a claim to what had always been theirs.

For families like Raylene’s, despite their old people passing on before the Kenbi land claim was settled, the past continues to live in the present.

And acknowledging past wrongs enables healing to begin. We saw that with the National Apology to the stolen generations, delivered by Prime Minister Rudd who also joins us today on the ninth anniversary of that moment in history was recognised yesterday here in the House.

Acknowledgement requires the humility of acceptance of the truth.

On that hot dry day on the shores of the Cox Peninsula in Darwin, we acknowledged that the Larrakia people had cared for their country for tens of thousands of years, that their songs have been sung since time out of mind, and that those songs held and passed on the knowledge of Larrakia customs and traditions.

Acknowledgement is the seed from which hope and healing grow.

It is that acknowledgement that fifty years ago, saw the Australian people vote overwhelmingly to change our Constitution so that the Commonwealth could assume powers in relation to our First Australians.

And while many issues divide us in this place, we are united in our determination to ensure that our Constitution is amended once again to recognise our First Australians.

Changing the Constitution is neither easy nor a task for the faint hearted. The Referendum Council will conclude its consultations this year so that then Parliament can complete the work of formulating and presenting the recognition amendments.

The success of the 1967 referendum also meant that First Australians were counted equally in our official population – alongside all other Australians in the Census.

This provided our first understanding of the survival and the resilience of our Indigenous peoples, but also the depth of that gap between their situation and other Australians.

The leaders of these times challenged us to think well past statistics.

The Freedom Riders like Charles Perkins.

Vincent Lingiari and his fellow workers at the Wave Hill ‘walk-off’.

Eddie Mabo and his fight for native title.

Mr Speaker, theirs are the shoulders among many upon which a new generation of Indigenous leaders stand today.

And last night the Prime Minister’s courtyard was abuzz with enthusiasm, with positivity, and the hope of leaders challenging us to again think again past the statistics.

Bright, determined women and men stood tall, as successful people in their fields of work, proud of their heritage, anchored in their culture.

While we must accelerate progress and close the gap, we must also tell the broader story of Indigenous Australia - not of despondency and deficit but of a relentless and determined optimism.

That being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian means to succeed, to achieve, to have big dreams and high hopes, and to draw strength from your identity as an Indigenous person in this country.

As Prime Minister, Mr Speaker, I will continue to tell those stories - to talk about the strengths of our First Australians.

We have among us five Indigenous Members of Parliament, who bring this same pride, this same strength here to the heart of our democracy.

Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Member of the House of Representatives, and now the first Indigenous Minister to be appointed in a Commonwealth Government.

As well as Linda Burney, Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Senator Jacqui Lambie.

Yet even with the determination of our First Australians to create a better future, even with successive Commonwealth and state governments investing more resources and even with tens of thousands of dedicated Australians seeking to contribute and engage, we still are not making enough progress.

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

Mr Speaker, I present today to the Parliament and the people of Australia, the ninth Closing the Gap report.

This report demonstrates that all Australian Governments have much more work to do.

The proportion of Indigenous 20 to 24 year olds who have achieved Year 12 or equivalent is 61.5 per cent - up from 45.4 per cent in 2008. This target is on track to halve the gap.

A new target for Indigenous 4 year olds enrolled in early childhood education is 95 per cent by 2025.  The data shows that in 2015, 87 per cent of all Indigenous children were enrolled in early childhood education the year before full-time school.

We have seen improvements in reading and numeracy for Indigenous students but this target is not on track.

Last year, 640 more children needed to read at the Year 3 benchmark to halve the gap. This year, that figure is around 440. The literacy gap is narrowing and achievable, and through the individualised learning plans agreed at COAG, First Ministers have committed to improve these results.

The national school attendance target is also not on track, around 20 per cent of the gap in school performance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students can be explained by poor attendance. But there are examples of real progress with families and communities.

In the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, the APY Lands, Principal Matt Green spoke to me of the fierce rivalry in community football. But he said he was more interested and focused on the fierce rivalry to attain school attendance targets. And with the help of our Remote School Attendance Strategy, championed by Minister Nigel Scullion, Matt is driving cultural change in Fregon. The Strategy is working. RSAS schools show a higher attendance rate in 2016 compared to 2013.

We have made great gains in improving the key factors that influence the health of Indigenous children.

But we are also reminded of the fragility of life, and the heavy burden of responsibility of families, communities and governments.

I am very saddened and disappointed that the target to halve the gap in Indigenous child mortality is not on track, with the 2015 data being just outside the target.

We must redouble our efforts to reduce smoking rates during pregnancy, continue to improve immunisation rates, lift rates of antenatal care, reduce fetal trauma, and keep our children safe.

Rates of attending antenatal care in the important first trimester are highest in outer regional, and lowest in major cities.

Ken Wyatt as the Minister for Indigenous Health - a field in which he has had many decades of experience - will work wisely and collaboratively with our state and territory counterparts, and the community health sector, to get this target back on track.

We have seen improvements in reducing mortality from chronic diseases, however the mortality rates from cancer are rising. The overall mortality rate has declined by 15 per cent since 1998, and life expectancy is increasing. However, it is not accelerating at the pace it should and therefore, as in previous years this target is not on track.

The employment target is not on track either, but 57.5 per cent of those living in major cities are employed.

5,000 Indigenous job seekers have been placed into real jobs through our Vocational Training and Employment Centre network.

Almost 500 Indigenous businesses were awarded more than $284 million in Commonwealth contracts thanks to our Indigenous Procurement Policy.

I want to thank state and territory governments for agreeing to explore similar procurement policies to help the Indigenous business sector thrive.

Mr Speaker, the telling point, the data tells us that there is no employment gap, no employment gap between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians with a university degree. A reminder of the essential importance of education.

If we look at the long-term intergenerational trends, we see that Indigenous life expectancy is increasing, babies are being born healthier, more people are studying and gaining post-school qualifications and those adults are participating in work.

These are achievements that families, elders and communities can be proud of.

But incarceration rates, and rates of child protection are too high.

63 per cent of Indigenous people incarcerated last year were in prison for violent offences and offences that cause harm. Central to reducing incarceration is reducing the violence and of course, protecting the victims of violence.

Our Third Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children includes measures to support Indigenous victims, and stop the cycle of reoffending.

Our Prison to Work report commissioned in last year’s Closing the Gap speech has since been delivered, and adopted by COAG. Working in partnership with Kuku Yalanji man, Jeremy Donovan, we have gained important insights into the cycle of incarceration. In response, COAG agreed to better coordination of government services especially in-prison training and rehabilitation, employment, health and social services.

Mr Speaker, children should always be treated humanely, with love, and especially when they are in custody. The confronting and appalling images of children shackled and in spit hoods shocked our nation, and as Prime Minister, I acted swiftly.

While the work of the Royal Commission into juvenile justice and child protection continues, governments across Australia are taking steps to ensure children are always treated appropriately.

To provide the independent oversight, my Government will ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and I am pleased to inform the House that Bunuba woman, June Oscar AO, has been appointed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. The first woman to take on this role.

June brings tremendous knowledge, and has been a formidable campaigner against alcohol abuse, shining a light on the devastating consequences of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Mr Speaker, the issues are complex and as we know, the solutions are not simple.

Indigenous Affairs is an intricate public policy area.  It requires uncompromised collaboration with Indigenous people and national leadership. It needs buy-in from states, communities and most importantly families.

I am pleased that COAG has agreed to progress renewed targets in the year ahead, and I invite the Opposition and the crossbench to participate, particularly all of our Indigenous Members of Parliament.

The national interest requires a re-commitment to the relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

But there can be no relationship without partnership.

And there can be no partnership without participation – and we heard that very eloquently this morning at the Redfern Statement breakfast.

Mr Speaker, I firmly believe that people must be involved in the process in order to be engaged in the outcomes. It has to be a shared endeavour.

Greater empowerment of local communities will deliver the shared outcomes that we all seek.

So my Government is reforming the way the Indigenous Affairs portfolio operates, moving from transactional government, to enablement. From paying for services, to linking funding to outcomes. From a one-size-fits-all mindset for program design, to local solutions.

Indigenous families and communities must be at the centre of this approach.

We have started the journey, but there is much work to do.

I welcome Professor Ian Anderson into my Department, who will play an important role in leading this new way of working, along with people like Anne-Marie Roberts, who leads a team of passionate and committed staff working in communities across the nation.

The Indigenous-led Empowered Communities model is now in eight regions across the country.  I met their leaders last month, and it is clear that this approach is generating strong Indigenous governance, and empowering Indigenous people to partner with government and companies.

These models, and others such as Murdi Paaki in Western New South Wales, and Ceduna in South Australia, are being driven by local Indigenous leaders.

Where communities are ready, we will work with them to build capacity and ensure more responsibility for decision making rests as close to the community as possible.

Mr Speaker, my confidence in this comes from seeing firsthand how this approach is working at the community level.

I have met mothers like Norma and Lena from Western Australia, who have lost children to suicide. These women have bravely shared their stories, working tirelessly with leaders like Pat Dudgeon, Gerry Georgatos and Adele Cox to find locally-driven solutions.

I met Corey McLennan, and the leaders of Ceduna and the Far West Coast as well as Ian Trust from the Kimberley, who have co-designed the trial of the new Cashless Debit Card with the government.

We hosted Charlie King and the ‘No More Campaign’ to end violence against women. In an historic display of support, Parliamentarians, all of us, linked arms and walked with Charlie to end this scourge of violence against women.

And I could tell you, Mr Speaker, many more stories of self-reliance from Fregon, Redfern, La Perouse, Scotdesco, Brisbane, Darwin, Perth. It’s a very long list as we know.

We can learn as much from these successes, as we can from failures. To do so, we must have a rigorous evaluation of programs so we know what is working and what is not.

So we will expand the Productivity Commission to include a new Indigenous Commissioner to lead the Commission’s work of policy evaluation.

And the Government will invest $50 million for research into policy and its implementation. This will be designed in partnership and with the guidance of the Indigenous Advisory Council.

So much is published about Indigenous communities, and as many Indigenous Australians have said to me, not nearly enough is published for Indigenous communities. So the data and research we have, and the evidence we need to build, will be made available to Indigenous communities to empower leadership and support community led-programs. It will assist Government in its next phase of the Closing the Gap, which must focus on regional action and outcomes.

Mr Speaker, I ask that we give credit to the quiet achievers - the Indigenous people who are working on the front line of family violence, who are enabling people with disabilities to gain the services they need, who are starting businesses, employing others, innovating. All people who have expressed their deep desire to work together as committed Australians.

And I ask that you seek out people like those I had the honour of addressing last night, every day, Indigenous Australians achieving extraordinary things.

Like the Kongs—a family of firsts. Marilyn and Marlene were the first Indigenous medical graduates from Sydney University. Marlene became a GP and public health expert, Marilyn became the first Indigenous obstetrician and their brother Kelvin, the first Indigenous surgeon in Australia.

I ask that we share these stories and those of the entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists, teachers, nurses, servicemen and women, social service workers, writers, accountants, public servants, Ministers, Members and Senators. Again, their callings and achievements as diverse, as magnificent, as inspiring as those of other Australians.

Let us tell the stories of Indigenous achievement and hard work. Because those stories are true markers of progress.

They inspire and encourage and they make a difference.

This Parliament, Mr Speaker, has the opportunity, using the knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous people to embark on a new approach to Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

My Government will not shy away from our responsibility and we will uphold the priorities of education, employment, health and the right of all people to be safe from family violence.

We will not waver in our quest to achieve these outcomes.

But we will have the humility to admit that we must travel this road together, with open hearts and a determination to ensure that our First Australians, and all Australians, will be able here, more than anywhere, to be their best, and realise their dreams.


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