Bill's Speeches

MATTER OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS

SPEECH TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

 

MATTER OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS

 

THURSDAY, 19 MARCH 2015

 

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This is a most important matter of public importance.

 

It is a matter which, whilst there is political debate and disagreement on certain aspects, I remain confident that there is more goodwill on this topic across the parliament than ill will.

 

Although I do not pretend that the opposition agrees with everything that the government is doing in handling this matter.

 

Labor made that choice to make this a matter of public importance today because we are concerned that progress in terms of Closing the Gap and the general tone of political debate about Indigenous policy in this country is stalling.

 

We do not say this likely. We acknowledge the government is doing some things in some areas.

 

But we saw a debate last week with the Prime Minister's comments about the debate raging about closure of small communities and there was reference to it being a “lifestyle choice” and that the taxpayer should not be expected to back in a lifestyle choice of Indigenous Australians who live in small communities.

 

I actually believe that there is interest with the Prime Minister in terms of the general progress of Indigenous Australians.

 

But I do not think anyone thought that those particular comments advance the cause at all.

 

So it was on that basis that I spoke to a range of Indigenous leaders in our community because whilst it is easy just to attack a stupid comment there are more serious matters at stake here.

 

How do we make sure that Indigenous policy remains in the mainstream of political debate?

 

The problem with unwise comments, to put it at the most generous, is that it allows polarisation of political views.

 

I know that the Prime Minister himself has a genuine interest in matters to do with Indigenous policy and even if we might disagree with the cuts that the government has made the greater concern for me is that Indigenous politics is going backwards in this country, and I would suggest today in this matter of public importance that there are a range of opportunities for us to pursue, and I hope that when the government speakers do not do their usual of saying that it is just Labor's fault.

 

But there are opportunities which we collectively need to work together on.

 

So I wrote to the Prime Minister, after speaking to Indigenous leaders after his comment was reported, and I said it is overdue for us, meaning Tony Abbott and myself, to meet with the range of Indigenous leaders together in this country.

 

There is a lot of talk in Australia about the need for bipartisanship.

 

On some issues it is possible; on some it is not. Bipartisanship does not make the same headlines as conflict -I understand that.

 

But on this matter of Indigenous policy I have now said to our Prime Minister on six occasions from the last third of last year after interim reports were released by hardworking parliamentary committees in terms of constitutional recognition, we need to sit down with Indigenous leaders in this country.

 

I acknowledge that Ken Wyatt is here. He is doing a great job. I acknowledge Alan Tudge is here. He is very committed.

 

I acknowledge that there are many people—all the Labor people here from our Shadow spokespeople in health and Indigenous affairs—people who will speak in this debate are doing great work.

 

But what we need to do is sit down with leaders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and get the debate about Indigenous policy back on track.

 

Today is the seventh anniversary of the signing of the Closing the Gap health equality statement.

 

It is a foundation goal of the Closing the Gap framework.

 

Sometimes in politics people like to talk about the right of freedom of speech—it is very important—the right to join a union, the right not to join a union.

 

There is plenty of talk about rights here. But I think there is a basic right also which does not get enough of a discussion.

 

It is the right to grow old.

 

This is not a right which is equally allocated to citizens in Australia.

 

Depending upon whether or not one is an Indigenous Australian or not, the right to grow old is different, and that is unacceptable to all of us.

 

We need to have this discussion on how we can improve the Closing the Gap targets.

 

A big part of that is constitutional recognition.

 

We need constitutional change that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can support, vote for and proudly own.

 

I know that whenever you talk about constitutional change in this country there are different points of view, and that is understandable.

 

Changing the Constitution is a venture not taken on a lightly.

 

But the last time we changed the Constitution was back in 1977.

 

It required both political parties to support it. Constitutional recognition for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our Constitution will require both of the major parties to support it.

 

I am concerned that this debate is drifting off course, as with earlier examples I have used.

 

I think it is important that the Prime Minister of Australia and myself meet as a matter of priority a gathering of Indigenous leaders in this country, a range of Indigenous leaders and we talk about how we can have genuine change.

 

Now the Prime Minister has taken an interest in this matter.

 

That is undeniable.

 

I have had fruitful meetings with him.

 

But it is not enough to specify that we may want the referendum at a date no later than 50 years after the previous referendum in 1967.

 

We need to settle the question, and in settling the question we cannot do this without talking to the leaders of Indigenous Australia, and in settling the question it has to be more than symbolic change.

 

I understand there are some on the conservative edge of Australian politics who see that any change to our national birth certificate—the Constitution—should be viewed very suspiciously. I know there are some who jealously guard against saying that if we start extending a ‘bill of rights’ and codifying it then we create a litigation nightmare and somehow the Constitution has changed.

 

I ask those constitutional conservatives to pause, to reflect, to give some room for their leader, the Prime Minister, to sit down with me and Indigenous leaders to identify how this nation can put our first Australians on the national birth certificate.

 

We should not have such low expectations of achieving no change at all or very little change. I am not radical in terms of constitutional change.

 

I understand that we have to bring non-Indigenous Australians on the journey. But I am concerned that without constitutional recognition Indigenous politics in this country will go backwards.

 

It is a test not of Indigenous Australia but of this parliament and Australia as a whole.

 

When it comes to talking with Indigenous leaders, I believe there is space available in the political debate for the Prime Minister and I to meet with Indigenous leaders without it being breathlessly seen through the spectrum of whether Tony Abbott will alienate the right of his party or whether Labor is moving too fast or too slow.

 

The media of Australia have in most cases been very supportive of this debate.

 

Let us all together create the room to have a gathering with leaders across the spectrum of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia to agree that we want to make sure that Indigenous politics and policy are at the centre of our national debate.

 

Not everything can be fixed by everyone sitting around the table, but I think most things can be.

 

If we do that gathering then I think that, subsequently, the Prime Minister and I should meet and talk about the unacceptable rates of incarceration in this country.

 

It is not beyond our wit and wisdom in this country to change the ratio that currently exists.

 

A young Aboriginal man is more likely to go to jail than university.

 

No-one wants that, no-one from any side of politics.

 

There is no moral superiority from any particular point of view on this issue—we all agree—but Labor is suggesting that we need to get together with Australia's Indigenous leaders from the range of groups to talk.

 

And, more than just talking, we need to listen.

 

When it comes to the 'lifestyle choice' debate, I accept that there are points to be made about access to education, there are points to be made about living securely and safely and there are points to be made about jobs.

 

But where the debate is going off-track is that I do not believe sufficient listening is being done by people in power. I include the parliament, I am not saying it is just the government.

 

When it comes to Closing the Gap targets, incarceration and dealing with family violence in Indigenous communities we are beyond the time for just talking generally, one-liners in press conferences and press releases and fly-in fly-out visits.

 

What we now need to do is sit down together—both sides of politics, the Prime Minister and I—at a gathering of Indigenous leaders in this country and say all right we need to understand your view.

 

We do not necessarily need a lot more research or a whole lot more talking, we need to understand what your view is.

 

We need to set a the task of work that we measure.

 

We have got Closing the Gap—remarkable accomplishments—and Labor has called for a justice target to be added to that.

 

But it is overdue for Tony Abbott and I to sit down with Indigenous Australia and convince them that we are fair dinkum about constitutional recognition.

 

Indigenous Australia has little to convince us of. Our challenge is to convince Indigenous Australia that we are listening.

 

ENDS

 

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