Bill's Speeches

Close the gap

Madam Speaker.

I rise to respond to the Prime Minister – and I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this place, and our continent, and pay my respects to elders past and present.

I spent last Friday at Nhulumbuy, on the Gove Peninsula in East Arnhem Land.

Nhulumbuy is a place full of good people, under tremendous pressure.

It is a company town – and the company is about to leave.

For the traditional owners of East Arnhem land, the Yolgnu people, closing the Aluminium refinery at Gove will mean widening the gap in employment, health and education opportunities for Aboriginal people.

Last week, a few kilometres out of Nhulumbuy at Yirkala, I met with representatives from the Rirratjingu nation.

51 years ago, bark petitions from their lands at Yirkala became the first Aboriginal documents to be recognised in this place.

From Yirrkala came the first formal challenge to the discriminatory fiction of Terra Nullius and the first assertion of Native Title.

Today I bring more powerful words from Yirrkala to this place.

Last Friday, in the shadow of job losses and the expected closure of his region’s only hospital and school, Djawa Burrawanga of the Rirratjingu people, looked me in the eye and said:

‘It makes me sad. Because we have worked so hard for our opportunity. We just want our chance, for health, for jobs, for school’

There was barely a tremor in his voice – but you could tell how much it meant to him, and his people.

‘This is about citizenship’ he said, ‘Because we are all Australians’.

My conversations last week, reminded me that Closing the Gap has never been about guilt – or shame.

But always about justice and inclusion, opportunity and equity.

Madam Speaker, in the last six years, we have made great progress.

As a nation, we have moved past the false choice between ‘practical’ and ‘symbolic’ reconciliation.

We now understand, as the Prime Minister has said, that they are ‘two sides of the same coin’.

That’s why Labor, in Opposition as in Government, will be steadfast in its support for according our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a place of honour in the Constitution.

And this time last year, the 43rd Parliament passed the Act of Recognition - the first step in what Prime Minister Gillard called a ‘great piece of unfinished national business’.

A chance, as Djarwa told me last week:

‘for us all to be, true blue’.

An important facet of this legislation was the $10 million we gave to Reconciliation Australia to fund a national awareness campaign.

A campaign that will help the Australian people adopt this cause as their own.

One that will build the groundswell of support essential to Constitutional change.

We want people to understand that in changing our Constitution, we have to offer more than a nod of recognition.

Labor believes that the proposed constitutional change should be guided by the recommendations of the expert panel, namely:

1.       Remove Section 25 - which recognises that the States can ban people from voting on the basis of their race;

2.       Delete section 51(xxvi) - which can be used to discriminate on the basis of race;

3.      Insert a new section 51A – one that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian Government’s ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

4.       Adopt a new section 116A, banning racial discrimination by the commonwealth; and

5.       Insert a new section 127A, one that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country’s first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia’s national language.

I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister commit to bringing a form of words to the Parliament this year – and we shall work with him on that task.

Because the second, equally important, element of the Act of Recognition was the legislative timeline.

This reform depends upon a sense of urgency and momentum.

If we prevaricate – or dither – we risk missing a unifying moment.

We risk abandoning the field to those who prefer to use Australian History as an instrument of division.

People whose appetite for conflict divides our nation.

Those who would prefer to maintain the shameful ‘great Australian silence’ than face the truth, learn from it, and grow.

We must be resolute – and swift. Because justice delayed, is justice denied.

This summer, many Australians, touched by the tragic death of Daniel Christie, spoke out against the scourge of the ‘coward- punch’ and alcohol-fuelled violence.

But this is not a problem confined to late nights in King’s Cross.

In remote communities across Australia, grog plays a sinister part in domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In Government, Labor took a strong stance on managing alcohol- related violence.

My Honourable friend, the Member for Lingiari, knows better than anyone the controversy that surrounded our often- unpopular measures.

Our national leadership on Alcohol Management Plans resulted in a six year decline in alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory .

But tragically, as Senator Peris has said, the rivers of grog are flowing again – and violence is being borne along in their current.

In the last year, alcohol-related violence is up 15 per cent, domestic violence is up 21 per cent.

We know there are 23 new Alcohol Management Plans, ready and waiting for government approval.

So today, I call on the Minister – and the Prime Minister – to take action and approve these plans.

Do as we did and put in place a comprehensive approach to tackling alcohol abuse – that addresses the harm, reduces supply and supports communities.

We shall support you every step of the way.

The Labor Party is determined to take a bipartisan, positive and constructive approach in every facet of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy.

But as a parliamentarian – and a believer in the good we can do in this place– I always wonder when people say that any matter is not about politics, empowerment and change.

Surely the great and noble challenge of closing the gap, strengthening communities, opening up new opportunities and making our nation a better, and more equal place is precisely what politics is for.

And if we take the view that the best approach to building a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is somehow ‘off limits’ for robust discussion and debate – we risk turning this national priority into a mere cliché.

Proud democracies like ours are built on the contest of ideas.

And our Parliament should always be a place where policy proposals are subject to rigorous analysis.

So while Labor is eager for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy to be a discussion characterised by consensus and bipartisanship.

While we welcome the end of the damaging acrimony and division that characterised the debate on Native Title.

We remain committed to advocating our position – and laying out our vision– for a better future for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Labor party will stand by the Closing the Gap targets, the detailed funding arrangements and the rest of the design framework that we laid out and negotiated in Government.

Targets that were rightly developed in close consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

And we hope that the 44th Parliament will build on the progress of the 42nd and 43rd.

But the challenge of Closing the Gap does not belong to the Parliament alone.

It is a task for the nation – and the work of our generation.

Success will only come when Aboriginal people are central to the political process – not just subject to it.

I want to assure the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, that Labor will assess each of their policy proposals on their merits and offer suggested improvements where we think they are possible.

But we will also continue to voice our priorities – and identify issues that we think deserve attention.

Because we worry when mooted Education funding ‘reform’ puts additional support for schools with Aboriginal students at risk.

We worry when talk of ‘consolidation’ leads to a reduction in scholarships for Aboriginal students.

We worry that remote schools are starting this year with fewer teachers than last year.

We worry when funding for successful job, housing and health initiatives vanishes in the name of ‘cutting red tape’.

It’s easy to dismiss reporting procedures as ‘bureaucracy’.

But very often the information gathered in this process helps build better policies.

If we work off the detailed measurement procedures that are already in operation, we can make informed, not anecdotal, judgments about allocating scarce taxpayer resources.

We only need to talk to Aboriginal people to see that they know the challenges, the pitfalls and the history much better than we do.

Let us empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, teachers, nurses, not- for-profits and business to tell us what works– rather than demanding policies that fit the rhetoric of the moment.

An approach that empowers, not directs from the top-down.

Aboriginal people deserve better than being told it’s as simple as: ‘Go to School, Go to Work’ and ‘Obey the Law’.

One size does not fit all.

And sometimes the tone of a message can be as effective – or harmful - as the content.

We should remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the victims of so much exclusion and marginalisation, have every right to be suspicious of supposedly ‘universal’ policy pronouncements.

We must remind ourselves that there is a fine line between good intentions and ‘we know better’ paternalism.

Most of all we should be aware that phrases like ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘carrot and stick’ have a different and more sinister meaning for a people who have historically been denied basic understanding and fair treatment.

So instead of each party seeking to wrest control of the rhetoric.

Let all of us in this place: Coalition, Labor and Crossbench agree to guarantee the future of the Closing the Gap framework.

Let us all retain a policy approach built on consultation and empowerment and consensus.

Let us all put in place policies that Aboriginal Australians can be proud to own – and advocate.

Let us all provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the tools and resources to complement the solutions they own.

Let us all support reforms designed to reach beyond the life of a Parliament, and the term of a government.

Concrete goals with detailed reporting.

Goals that hold Prime Ministers, Governments and Government agencies to account.

I say this not in the spirit of partisanship, but in the spirit of bipartisanship.

For the first time in the history of our Federation, we are on the right path.

Last year, the first Closing the Gap target was met.

Every pre-schooler living in a remote community now has access to early childhood education.

And that first success opens the door for the next.

Because with early childhood education comes an understanding of the formal routine of school, respect for teachers and, most importantly, a love of learning.

That’s the first step in halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade.

It’s the first step in getting children going to school – and enjoying it.

We need to continue investments that build a lifetime love of learning.

Programs that work like the Home Interaction for Parents and Youngsters Program that Labor funded in 50 disadvantaged communities.

A program that supports parents to prepare their children for school and has already improved learning outcomes by 30 per cent in some children.

It works because it draws on the whole community to help the next generation feel ready – and excited – for school.

Because we want Aboriginal children everywhere to experience the thrill of putting their words on a blank page and turning it into a story.

To experience the satisfaction of testing a hypothesis and solving an equation.

To immerse themselves in art, history, drama, geography and PE.

This transformative experience – the life-changing moment when school ‘clicks’.

The pride and self-respect it confers.

That love of learning that can change a life forever.

That feeling, that self-belief, that motivation, will drive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Year 12 achievement up far more effectively than limited interaction with a time-poor truancy officer.

And with that increase in attendance and Year 12 completion will come a boost in employment outcomes.

Opening the door for Aboriginal people to experience the benefit and dignity of rewarding work.

Giving them the chance to get good jobs, jobs with security and opportunities for advancement and further learning.

Jobs that allow them to provide for their family and fulfil their potential.

Jobs that give them the chance to buy their own home, own a car or take a family holiday – things that most Australians take for granted.

This is how we break the hope-killing cycle of welfare dependency and unemployment and build a virtuous circle of improved education outcomes and better jobs.

The two targets I am yet to mention are perhaps the most important and the most challenging.

We owe it to our nation to halve the gap in mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under five within a decade.

And I am pleased that after 5 years of the Closing the Gap framework - we are on track.

Because when any Aboriginal parents lose a beautiful, precious little child to preventable, treatable diseases – we are all diminished.

We owe it to ourselves to close the life-expectancy gap within a generation.

When disadvantage robs Aboriginal people of the right to live a long, healthy and happy life full of meaning – our country is a poorer, meaner place.

And so long as these problems touch one of us, they touch all of us.

That’s why it is vital that we get COAG agreement on a new National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Health outcomes.

And implement the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan for improved health outcomes.

A framework developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from across the country.

New research has shown that Closing the Gap in education, employment and health would also deliver an extraordinary boost to the Australian economy.

Including $16.5 billion of economic gains in our regional and remote areas.

So in making our country a better and more equal place, we can also help deliver a new generation of prosperity.

In 2013, Labor proposed three new targets to be added to the Closing the Gap framework.

The first, aimed at increasing Indigenous participation in higher and further education. A natural extension of the existing education targets.

The second ensuring that 90 per cent of eligible Indigenous Australians will be receiving funded support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme by 2020. Making sure that Indigenous people will get the full benefit of this scheme.

And the third, developed in consultation with legal aid groups aims to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – especially young people – who are arrested, tried and incarcerated.

Since the election, the Government has sent a spectrum of signals on these new targets.

I invite the Prime Minister today, let us work together to get these signed off by COAG – and embedded in the long-term funding structure alongside the existing targets.

I beseech the Government – please don’t start again just because you can.

Please don’t go back to a blank piece of paper, just to enhance your claim to authorship.

Please don’t turn your back on the consultations, the policy work, the testing and the lessons learned in the name of ideological purity.

Please repay the trust and forgiveness that Aboriginal communities have shown by honouring the commitments we made.

Together, let us build on the foundation we have laid and let the closing of the gap be a cause that all of us can proudly own.

Not an achievement that belongs to a Coalition Government – or a Labor one.

But a monument to the decency, compassion and imagination of the modern Australia.

Let us be all be able to say of this Parliament – I was there when the work continued.

Madam Speaker,

Today is the sixth Closing the Gap statement – the final one will not be until 2031.

So we have a long journey in front of us, through unknown territory.

But I am confident we are on the right track.

And, to invoke the wisdom of the world’s oldest living culture, we can only make a path by walking.

There will be setbacks, stumbles, diversions and delays.

But they will all be outshone by moments of joy and healing.

Together, let us commit ourselves to the pursuit of the next great unifying moment.

Together, we can build an Australia at peace with its past and itself.

Together, we cannot fail.