Closing the Gap: Prime Minister's Report 2014

I would like to begin by acknowledging the first Australians as the traditional custodians of this land and paying my respects to their elders, past and present. I would also like to particularly acknowledge the Woiwurung and Wathawurung people, the traditional owners of the land that encompasses the electorate of Lalor, and I acknowledge the presence of the member for Hasluck this morning.

The last time this parliament sat, I was pleased to be in the House and see the bipartisan recognition of the importance of the sixth Closing the Gap report. To see both sides of parliament commit to better outcomes for Indigenous people, not only in terms of numbers on a page but in terms of real and tangible improvements, shows how far we have come when these sorts of aims are shared and are no longer a source of conflict or debate.

When we established the Closing the Gap targets in 2008, we did so with a long-term view: to end the disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We pledged this not only on behalf of ourselves but also on behalf of those who would come after us—years and decades after us—because this is not a problem that can be fixed in an instant. It requires our time, resources and, most importantly, our commitment. So, while I am pleased to see this new era of bipartisan support, I am at the same time worried that some of the former Labor government's policies and reforms in this area are being undone—in health, in justice and in education.

For example, the reduction in funding to health programs and infrastructure, particularly in rural and remote areas, can only hurt Indigenous people. Same, too, with the $13.4 million cut to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal aid, an incredibly short-sighted move, in my humble opinion, and one which I know is already causing great concern in my community. As a former educator, it concerns me that one of the first acts of the Abbott government was to cut all funding to the First Peoples Education Advisory Group. The group, a cross-sector expert panel that sought to provide education advice to the government, was working on the very issues we are addressing here today—closing the gap. It is therefore very disappointing that the Abbott government has walked away from continuing this important work.

It is also very concerning that the government has refused to fully commit to additional financial loadings for students under the Better Schools plan. The loadings seek to address disadvantage head-on and, importantly, recognise the continuing disparity by providing extra assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. It is about targeting funding to targeted needs.

These cuts to health, justice and education services are short-sighted and raise questions about the government's real commitment to closing the gap, because, as the report shows, while we certainly have had some success, we still have such a long way to go in ending the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We are not there. In abolishing the gap in employment outcomes, we are not there. In terms of halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy for Indigenous children, we are not even close. The most recent NAPLAN results support this finding and show that, despite some encouraging gains in literacy, Indigenous students continue to be left behind. This is not good enough. As my colleague Senator Peris said in her speech on closing the gap, equality in education is essential. It is the great equaliser. And it is the government's responsibility to ensure that every Australian child has access to a quality education regardless of background or bank balance.

Without adequate commitment from government to improving outcomes in education, in health, in employment and in justice, we will not meet the most important target of all: life expectancy. This gap is estimated to be about a decade between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and represents the years of inequality in services, in health and in education that Indigenous communities have faced and continue to face. I think there is always a risk that when we talk about these sorts of things in such dry and removed language we can forget what we are really talking about. We need to remind ourselves that, when we are talking about life expectancy gaps, what we are really talking about is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being denied the chance to grow old. It is unfair. It is appalling. It is heartbreaking. So, when we say we need to do better and we need to do more, let us not forget what we are really talking about here. Real people in real communities have been left too far behind for too long. By being better, by doing more, we can create better outcomes and create more opportunities. We can change lives.

While it is so important that we acknowledge the work still to be done, we do need to acknowledge and celebrate some of the successes in the report. We need to recognise that we are on track to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five. If improvements continue at the same rate, this will be achieved by 2018. We need to recognise that we are on track to ensure access to early childhood education for every Indigenous child living in a remote community, with 88 per cent of Indigenous children in 2012 enrolled in preschool. This is an encouraging result. And we need to recognise that we are on track to halve the gap in the number of Indigenous kids completing year 12.

The Victorian Aboriginal Education Association recently celebrated the achievements of the 384 Koori students who completed their VCE, VCAL or VET in 2013. This is up from 257 students just three years before. And not only are more Indigenous students completing year 12 studies in Victoria but more are going on to tertiary studies. The percentage of Aboriginal students going from year 12 to university has increased from 22 per cent to 40 per cent over the past five years. This is a momentous leap and a profoundly life-changing outcome for these students.

In acknowledging these successes, we also need to recognise the people whose work, day by day, is closing that gap inch by inch: the teachers, the nurses, the doctors, the community workers, those in the not-for-profit sector and, most importantly, people in Indigenous communities themselves. In my own community, I would like to recognise the work of the Gathering Place; the South Western Melbourne Medicare Local; the Western Region Health Centre; the schools that have embraced the Wannik individual education plans for Indigenous students, which have led to such great outcomes; and other local agencies who are deeply committed to closing the gap within our community. Without the efforts of these people, without their dedication, we would not have much to celebrate.

But they do need our support. In particular, they need those things I mentioned earlier: our time, our resources and our commitment. So I would like to take this opportunity to ask of the government, the opposition and every single parliamentarian in this place that we continue to hold ourselves to account, that we continue to always aim high and that we never forget our role in ensuring that every Australian gets a fair go.

That is why I am particularly proud to be a member of a party and a member of a parliament that is committed to ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a place of honour in the Australian Constitution. It is the next important step in a long road of reconciliation for our parliament. In 1963, Indigenous Australians were able to vote in a national election for the first time. In 1975, Prime Minister Whitlam acknowledged the rights of Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people and poured that profound handful of sand.

As Mr Abbott noted some weeks ago, it was 1992 when Prime Minister Keating made the Redfern speech, a watershed moment which acknowledged the pain of our past and committed our nation to doing better. It was 2007 when Prime Minister Rudd said sorry and reminded us that both symbolism and actions have a role to play in achieving true reconciliation. It was in 2013 that under Prime Minister Gillard parliament passed the act of recognition, the fruition of years of work that have in turn led us to our next step.

The next step of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is more than words on a page. It is about acknowledgement and recognition and it serves as a permanent reminder as to what has been and what should be. The referendum is our next opportunity to bring every Australian with us on that long road to true reconciliation.

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