Shayne Neumann MP
Federal Member for Blair

Australian Labor
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Closing the Gap - Eight Years On

22/02/2016

I acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, the traditional custodians of the land upon which we are meeting, and pay respects to their elders past and present.

I rise to speak on the eighth annual Prime Minister's Closing the Gap report.

It is eight years on and the report on our progress as a nation into closing the gap in Indigenous disadvantage is both sombre and disturbing.

We saw many respected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders express their understandable frustration with the pace of progress to reduce Indigenous inequality, but, most importantly, we heard their frustration at a process many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel they do not have a stake in.

The lack of real and meaningful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities puts at risk the long-term progress we have made. A co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, Dr Jackie Huggins, said there was:

'… lack of engagement, not a general commitment to the needs and the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their community'.

Dr Huggins went on to say that she could not remember such a 'low point' in our history.

She was not alone in expressing such sentiment. The father of reconciliation, Professor Patrick Dodson, warned:

'Closing the Gap hasn't got a buy-in from Indigenous communities. Without Indigenous participation it's going to be doomed to fail'.

This should trouble us all.

It should make us very uncomfortable because what began eight years ago as a joint effort of governments, organisations and communities is failing to live up to the rightful expectation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that they would be equal partners in this generational endeavour.

We cannot close the gap unless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are engaged as genuine partners in our national effort. One cannot happen without the other.

Engagement has become somewhat of a buzzword for governments.

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have heard the promises of 'a new relationship' and 'a resetting of relations', it does not reflect their lived experience. Genuine engagement is as simple as it is difficult. It is not lack of goodwill nor an absence of good intention from government.

Perhaps no government has done it exceptionally well, but there are tangible examples of what can be achieved when partnerships based on mutual respect and responsibility underpin and drive the process.

The result is meaningful outcomes of which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have ownership—for example, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan. It was developed under the previous Labor government in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health experts, organisations and communities. The plan produced a framework for the long-term future of Aboriginal health over the next 10 years. Last year we welcomed the implementation strategy that will put this plan into action. It can be done, and we await the government's commitment to funding the health plan. We hope they will do so in the budget.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples was established six years ago as a national representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Its members include more than 8,000 individuals and more than 180 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. It is an important vehicle for communication in the national discussion about the aspirations of Australia's first peoples.

This government had a choice: to support and engage with the national representative body, or not, and this government chose 'or not', ripping away $15 million from this peak representative body. In fact, it went one step further and completely defunded the congress. I am profoundly disappointed in the government's decision. As I have said time and time again, I urge it to change its position, and I urge it to refund the congress.

Another report was delivered in the same week as the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap address to parliament.

Among its pages were illuminating and shocking statistics measuring our national progress towards reconciliation. The state of reconciliation in Australia report, from Reconciliation Australia, reveals that almost all Australians—86 per cent—believe the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians is important, yet 33 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, one in three, had experienced verbal racial abuse in the six months before the survey. Shockingly, many Australians did not believe that past race based policies of governments and institutions have created today's disadvantage.

If we are to close the gap in Indigenous inequality, we must confront the truth of our history and acknowledge the unequal burden of that history borne by our First Australians. We must face up to the collective responsibilities of all of us and confront the scourge of racism where it exists in our communities. At the heart of our efforts must be respect. What is reconciliation without respect? What is recognition without respect? This is the platform from which we must all begin. Despite the best efforts of communities, organisations, businesses and governments, it remains a shameful fact that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is more likely to die earlier and to find it more difficult to get a job than another Australian.

The Prime Minister's report labels it a 'mixed result'. There are signs of modest long-term changes that ought to be acknowledged. Generational change takes time. We remain on track to halve the gap in infant mortality rates. It appears we are on track to halve the gap in year 12 attainment. These are important fundamental building blocks for future progress, but let us not sugar coat this. It is not a mixed result. It is not. Of the seven Close the Gap targets, we are on track to meet just two—maybe, just maybe, two. Without new data it is not entirely clear that we remain on track to meet the target to halve the gap in year 12 attainment.

One of the things this report makes so important is the need for accountability in relation to government policy. It is not to make ourselves feel better about our labours; it is about accountability. When progress is stalled in the key areas of health, education and employment, there must be candid and transparent reporting about what is true if we are going to achieve Closing the Gap targets. We will not make progress with pretty words. The Prime Minister's report was replete with words of encouragement, but it offered little in terms of evidence based analysis.

Nowhere was this more evident than in reporting against the employment target. We are not on track to halve the gap in employment by 2018. Shamefully, there has been no reported progress against this target. The report states that, although no progress has been made against the target since 2008, Indigenous employment rates are considerably lower now than they were in the 1990s—more than a decade before the Closing the Gap targets were agreed upon. There has been no new data that the government can report since 2012-13, though the minister for Aboriginal affairs assures us he has created 50 jobs a day for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This is not transparency. It is not accountability. It is not good government.

Under the 'Accelerating progress' heading the government lists the Indigenous Advancement Strategy as driving Indigenous employment. I am not sure how they can accelerate progress when they have gone backwards on this target. There was not a word about the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations that were defunded when the government ripped more than half a billion dollars away under their Indigenous Advancement Strategy—the jobs that were lost and services that were cut to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

These have real and devastating impacts on our ability to close the gap. The government seems to think it can cut its way to Closing the Gap. You cannot do so. There are things that we can do, and Labor has already outlined substantive policies that will improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This need not be a partisan endeavour. There should be real and substantive change and recognition in the Constitution. I would be thrilled if the government would work with us to put policies, including constitutional change, into practice. There need to be justice targets. When three per cent of Australia population is Indigenous and yet 25 per cent of our prison population is Indigenous, that is a shame, a tragedy and a national disgrace.

Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls to stay in school by partnering with the Stars Foundation to provide mentoring is critical, and I commend state governments who wish to undertake this. I urge the government to take up Labor's commitment in this regard: resourcing schools with additional funding to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and giving them the best educational opportunities in life. A hundred and ninety-five thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schoolchildren will benefit from Your Child, Our Future and Gonski funding of a Labor government. I urge the government to take up that commitment that Labor has made.

Developing a new justice target in Closing the Gap and changing the government's broken promise to recommit itself to a justice target is critical, as are investing in alternative approaches like justice reinvestment, which Labor will do; reducing incarceration rates and victimisation rates; improving community safety; supporting domestic violence services; and funding outreach optometry and ophthalmology services to close the gap in vision loss and eliminate trachoma. The test for the government is how they translate these fine words into practical and credible action. They cannot cut their way to Closing the Gap.