Bill's Speeches

SPEECH - RESPONSE TO THE CLOSING THE GAP REPORT - CANBERRA - MONDAY, 12 FEBRUARY 2018

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I thank the Prime Minister for his remarks.

I acknowledge with respect the traditional owners of this land, from the Ngunnuwal and Ngambri people here in Canberra. 

To the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in the north.

From the Yawuru people in the North West, to the Yuin in the South East.

From the Noongar peoples of the South West to the Meriam Mir of the Torres Strait Islands.

This parliament, and modern Australia, is built on what is, was and always will be Aboriginal land. 

I join the Prime Minister in acknowledging elders here, including so many Indigenous leaders in the galleries. 

I also particularly today want to acknowledge the surviving members of the Stolen Generation and I'd like to briefly reflect on the apology which took place ten years ago. 

When you think about it, ten years on, the Apology in so many ways speaks for itself.

I do think it should be recognised that without the bravery and decency and leadership of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and the vital support he got from Jenny Macklin, it may not have happened.

And I think like so many of the best moments of this parliament, the process afterwards makes you wonder what the problem was beforehand.

It is also a monument to the bigness of the spirit of our fellow First Australians, particularly members of the Stolen Generation.

I don't know if the rest of us have the capacity to empathise, but imagine belonging to a Stolen Generation who had endured all manner of indignities and injustices, all kinds of trauma and tragedy. And I wonder if the rest of us, when at long last the government finally asked for forgiveness, could somehow find it in our hearts to grant it. 

Yet somehow the Stolen Generation found it in their hearts to grant forgiveness, in the spirit of healing.

Looking back on that remarkable day, there are two things that we ought to remember.

One, there were plenty of people who said it could not and should not be done.

That somehow, saying Sorry would be divisive or counterproductive, that it would diminish our history and burden us with guilt.

And the lesson to all those who spoke against the Apology then, just as it was for those who argued against Land Rights, who argued against Mabo, who argued against Native Title, just as it will be the lesson the next time that people talk about ‘black armbands’ or the ‘Aboriginal industry’, the lesson of ten years ago is that there is nothing to fear from recognising and owning the failures of the past, nothing to lose from an honest debate about our nation’s history and the way we mark it.

In fact, that it is how we move forward, it’s how we learn, it’s how we continue to grow as as a people that understand our past and are intent upon a better future.

But there’s a second thing I think we should remember. We must remember that the  Apology was so much more than a set of well-chosen words.

I believe that it was more than just an expression of sorrow and regret: it was a declaration of intent, it was a promise for action.

The continuing weight and meaning of the Apology comes from what we do now, from our actions, from the changes we drive, the gaps we close,  the unfinished business that we resolve.

And that’s what I would like to talk about today: unfinished business.

In the past ten years, state governments around the country – both Liberal and Labor – have established different forms of compensation schemes for the members of Stolen Generations.

I do not say that they are all perfect and I recognise that there is work still to be done.

But for around 150 surviving members of the Stolen Generation who were the direct responsibility of the Commonwealth Government, namely: First Australians in the Northern Territory and the Koori people of the ACT and Jervis Bay.

They have received no financial compensation, whatsoever.

They are still waiting for saying sorry, to be matched by making-good.

It’s time that the Commonwealth lived-up to its rhetoric, it's time that the Commonwealth stopped out-waiting the survivors. 

So today I announce that a Labor will establish a Stolen Generations Compensation Scheme.

To each of these survivors removed from their families, countries and culture we would offer an ex gratia payment of $75,000.

As well as a one-off payment to ensure the costs of funerals are covered.

Compensation is not about restoring people to the position they would have been in before what happened. But it is about resolving some of the unfinished business of the Apology. 

And this follows an original recommendation from The Bringing them Home report, now 21 years old.

Regrettably, this fund comes too late for many members of the Stolen Generations - today I acknowledge those who are no more, who did not live to see justice done.

I also recognise that the trauma of forced removal ricochets down the generations.

So a Labor Government would provide $10 million to programs that assist with the healing of Stolen Generation members and their descendants, nation-wide – to be administered by the Healing Foundation.

These programs support:

  • intergenerational healing
  • family reunion
  • and return to country.

This money would also provide some modest support for older members of the Stolen Generation, including help with aged care services for those who, understandably, cannot bear the idea of moving to yet another facility and another institution.

Mr Speaker

Reconciliation is not just about confronting the past – it’s about making sure mistakes are not repeated.

I think that most Australians would be surprised to learn that there are over 17,500 First Nations’ children growing up away from country and culture.

This is twice as many as ten years ago.  How can this be?  Twice as many. 

Mr Speaker

I think most Australians would be surprised to learn that in 1997, 20 per cent of the children in out-of-home care were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But today, it’s 35 per cent and growing. 

How can this be? Thirty-five in every 100 children in out-of-home care are Aboriginal kids. 

And the Northern Territory Royal Commission into Juvenile Detention reveals that for far too many young people from broken homes, incarceration is a dark dead end indeed.

The responsibility for tackling this doesn’t just belong to the Territory Government, any more than the problems of youth detention stop at one set of state borders.

We all have to do better.

It's why Labor has listened to First Australians and long called for justice targets, to reduce incarceration rates and improve community safety.

I actually think that most Australians would be surprised to learn that a young Aboriginal man of 18 is more likely to end up in gaol than university. 

And in the same vein, to encourage the government to urgently sign-up to the Remote Indigenous Housing Agreement with the States because having a roof over your head is just essential to one's health, education and family safety.

And it’s why, in our first 100 days, a new Labor Government will convene a National Summit for First Nation Children.

We will bring together the members of the Family Matters Coalition, Indigenous-Controlled Organisations like SNAICC, State and Territory leaders, frontline service providers. And we would use that summit:

  • To address the diaspora of First Nation children being placed in out-of-home care
  • To tackle the madness of massive over-representation of First Nation people in youth detention
  • To better understand and the curse of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and other health issues disadvantaging children’s development and their consequent life opportunities.
  • And to focus on giving every child the best start in life - ensuring they grow up healthy in strong families and safe communities. 

Haven’t we learned that children in out-of-home care lead different lives to the world we know, lives of trauma and broken trust.

And in this place, we often talk about achieving a certain goal by 2028 or 2030 – but these kids who are being neglected are the adults that we hope will help us meet our targets.

We are putting our faith in these kids getting a great education, finding decent jobs, being role models to others.

But surely if we’re going to ask and expect that, we need to do more to provide a better start in life and at home.

And I believe this is involves bringing everyone to the table, listening to Aboriginal people and frontline organisations, about how we tackle addiction, conflict, violence and poverty.

Mr Speaker

We all welcome the improvements in this year's Closing the Gap report.

I concur with the Prime Minister that it's heartening to see the goals for reducing child mortality, improving early childhood education back on track, and Year 12 attainment remains strong.

And I do acknowledge the progress of the procurement strategy.

Mr Speaker

In this place we should certainly celebrate the successes, the blue sky, and there are many positives.

But we also need to face up to the fact that, on too many fronts, progress remains far too slow.

In the critical areas of reading, writing, numeracy, school attendance, finding good jobs - we are not on track.

It is hard to bid for a business contract if reading, writing, numeracy, attendance at school and surviving family violence is so difficult.

And I think the most confronting, harsh reminder of the road ahead is that there has been no significant change in Indigenous mortality rates in the past decade.

We love to spend a lot of time in this place talking about rights; the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of enterprise.

But what about the right to a fair trial?

What about the right to a roof over your head?

What about the right to control your own life?

What about the right to grow old?

Every member of this place would agree that Australia can do better - and we have to.

So before the talk of refreshing targets moves any further, we must also be very clear about one thing: falling-short is no reason to lower the bar.

It is uncomfortable for any of us to stand in this parliament and admit failure.

I imagine it is hard for any Prime Minister of any political persuasion to stand in the people’s house and say too many of the First Australians endure second-class opportunities and suffer from third world diseases.

And it should be hard for us as parliamentarians, it should be uncomfortable – to say it and to hear it.

But protecting our sensibilities is no reason for lowering our sights.

We the parliament, the nation’s leaders, must be held accountable.

If a government cuts $500 million from Aboriginal services, it should have to answer for that.

If a government walks away from a national agreement that is successfully building houses in communities, delivering local jobs and apprenticeships and skills, it should have to answer for that.

If a government talks about partnership – in health, or justice – but doesn’t match its words with resources, it should have to answer for that.

Today can never be about pretending that low expectations and insufficient efforts somehow carry the virtue of pragmatism.

When it comes to Closing the Gap, we cannot be content with aiming for anything less than proper equality.

In one vital respect, the promised “refresh” however offers us all a new opportunity.

The unmissable message from first Australians this past ten years - and indeed, for far many more years than that - is nothing about us, without us.

The most powerful improvement occurs when Aboriginal people take control of their lives, when governments support Aboriginal leadership and direct resources to those organisations.

I have seen myself that’s particularly true in health, where great, Aboriginal-controlled programs stand-out among disappointing results overall.

We know what does not work: government invitation-only events, top-down decision-making, hand-picked sources of advice, bureaucratic, centralised service provision and the exclusion or minimisation of Aboriginal participation and authority.

At Redfern, just over 25 years ago, Paul Keating had the wisdom to say that the problems started with us, the non-Aboriginal Australians. Today let us respect that the solutions must be authored, owned and controlled by Aboriginal Australians.

This has to include a meaningful say for the First Australians in the decisions that affect their lives – a Voice to parliament.

I know that the ‘Statement from the Heart’ at Uluru caught many parliamentarians by surprise.

I acknowledge it was not the proposal for change I expected, it was not an idea that had been canvassed by various parliamentary committees or the public service.

But with our shared record on this question, as we look at our inadequate progress on Closing the Gap, who are we in this parliament to simply reject it, out of hand?

After years of parliaments delivering well-intentioned, incremental disappointment, who are we to suddenly say this idea is simply too big and too bold?

Who are we to say that we are only capable of minimalism or symbolism?

Who are we to say that because previous constitutional referendums failed at the end of the last century, we should endure the longest drought of constitutional change in this country’s history? That change is simply too hard?

Who are we to tell 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from 12 regional dialogues to go back to the drawing board and try again, because we here don't like it.

Mr Speaker

It’s time for us to better and braver than the path of least resistance.

It’s time we took from the statement from the heart, into our hearts.

It’s time we worked together to deliver its on key recommendations:

  • A voice enshrined in the Constitution
  • A declaration to be passed by all parliaments- Commonwealth and State, acknowledging the unique place of the first nations in Australian history, their culture and connection.
  • And a Makarrata Commission to oversee a process of agreement-making and truth-telling.

I know some have characterised the concept of a Voice as a ‘third chamber’ of the parliament - that is lazy logic. That does a great disservice to the authors, it does a great disservice to our First Australians.

It was not what the delegates from Uluru were seeking, it’s not what Labor is advocating now.

Nor will a Voice supplant the presence or the First Australians here, in this place.

Like the Prime Minister, I am very proud that we now have First Nations members represented in more numbers than ever before in this parliament. And I am very proud that Labor has so many First Nations Caucus members - and the parliament could do with more.

But let us not sell them short, every member of Parliament - First Australian or otherwise - understands they have a duty to represent all their constituents and they come with their loyalties to the parties that have supported them.

We cannot ask them, expect them, to carry the weight of this issue on their own.

We cannot have a process of consultation with Aboriginal Australia which relies on the ability of political parties to elect First Australians.

The truth is that the Statement from the Heart calls for what both sides of this House say we are committed to – genuine partnership, ‘with not to’, real empowerment, solutions constructed by First Nations people.

I think we owe it in this parliament to move past misleading scare campaigns, so can get recognition back on track.

It was in August or September, after Garma, I wrote to the Prime Minister proposing we establish a Joint Parliamentary Committee to put momentum behind Makarrata and to work towards finalising a Referendum question.

That invitation stands and after 8 months, we appear to be resolving the process of a Joint Committee but the work of that committee should be about establishing how we advance the Voice.

Members of this parliament mightn’t feel totally comfortable with what was proposed at Uluru.

But in this place, we do not get to choose what the people tell us. In this place we listen to what the people tell us and we implement their will.

And let me be very straight, we want bipartisanship. But bipartisanship cannot mean an agreement to do nothing. It cannot be used as an alibi for the lowest common denominator.

I ask the government to reconsider their rejection of the Statement from the Heart. 

But if we cannot work on this together - the next Labor Government will instead, as a first step, look to legislate the Voice to parliament.

I say to the Prime Minister and the Government: we will work with you, but we will not wait for you.

We will begin the detailed design work in opposition, working with Uluru delegates and many other First Nations people who've led the thinking on this issue.

And if we form a government we will sensibly move to finalise legislation which establishes the Voice and includes a clear pathway to constitutional change. Enshrining that basic principle that you don't make decisions about people without talking to them. 

In fact, I think it'll be easier for a referendum to succeed and harder for a scare campaign to be run if we already have lived legislative experience of such a body.  

Mr Speaker

In conclusion, for ten years and four Prime Ministers this has been a day of words and sometimes we've heard good speeches in defence of not-so-good results.

It is always difficult when constructing a discussion about the nation's progress in partnership with First Australians 

If you just talk about the problems you're accused of not looking at the successes, if you talk about the successes you're accused of not understanding the problems. It is a mixed record, I understand that.

But one thing I know is that when we work with First Australians, when we genuinely empower First Australians to take control of their lives, when we don't have top-down but bottom-up decision-making we will get it right more than we will get it wrong. 

I understand, fundamentally, this parliament is for all Australians and this parliament is also charged to make sure that we spend scarce taxpayer resources most wisely, most prudentially and most effectively 

But the best way to be prudential, effective and equitable is to do it with the people upon whom the decisions are being made.

We can close the gap, it is not too hard and it will be the First Australians, as ever, who will show us how. 

So with hope and heart, let us pledge again, ten years on, to greater co-operation, better results, stronger progress and the Voice of First Australians entwined in every decision.

Then we will close the gap.

I thank the House. 


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