Speeches

MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS - Closing the Gap

February 25, 2020

Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (18:10): 2008 was a very proud time for our nation, and I consider myself very privileged to have been a member of this parliament at that stage, where we came together collectively to apologise for past wrongs committed by successive governments against our fellow Australians—Indigenous Australians. Prime Minister Rudd's speech at the time truly reflected the spirit of our nation. It was an historic moment. The truth is, though, that past laws and policies have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians, entrenching systematic disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


I think we were buoyed with optimism by the hope of what occurred in 2008. It was a defining moment, as we made the commitment as a nation to close the gap—to improve the gap in the quality of life between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But the simple fact is that it is yet to be achieved. Twelve years later there is still much work to be done. While there has been some improvement in two areas—in early childhood enrolments and year 12 attainment targets—the overall result is by and large still well short of the mark.


The goal for 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds to be enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 is close to being reached, with 86.4 per cent enrolments in 2018, compared with 91.3 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. Clearly, that is a tick. And over the decade the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged between 20 and 24 obtaining year 12 or the equivalent has increased by 21 per cent, with the target being to halve the gap of year 12 attainment rates by 2020. That's clearly on track. While these should be recognised and commended, the poor results in health, employment and other areas, such as education, are a significant concern and certainly overshadow these gains.


Take the target to halve the gap in child mortality rates for Indigenous children under the age of five by 2018, for instance. It has not been met, with 141 per 100,000, compared with 67 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous children. It's simply an indictment on us that we haven't been able to make a significant dent in that statistic by changing the mortality rate.


The target to close the life expectancy gap within a generation is just not on track, with Indigenous males having 8.6 years less life expectancy than non-Indigenous males. And, likewise, Indigenous women have 7.8 years less life expectancy than non-Indigenous females. We can't take any joy in that at all. The target for non-Indigenous employment was also not met; Indigenous employment rates are around 49 per cent, compared to 75 per cent for the non-Indigenous Australians.
The target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by 2018 has not been achieved. The gap actually starts in the first year of schooling and widens as it progresses into high school. We need to do something about that. There has always been some improvement in literacy, but the target to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018 is simply not on track at all. Clearly, an investment in education is not just an investment in our nation; quite frankly, an investment in education is an investment in prosperity for all of us. It is an investment in the country. You can't just make that investment and say we are seeking to improve the productivity of the nation by investing in and looking at the results of non-Indigenous Australians. It has to be an investment in all Australians, and the results must be attainable.


That's why I remain appalled by this government's approach to education funding. They have cut billions of dollars from our schools, particularly public schools, including those that service remote communities that have a high Indigenous enrolment. The member for Sydney points out very clearly that the Morrison government went further by cutting $500 million from programs aimed specifically at reversing Indigenous disadvantage in education. That is something that should concern all of us. If this government is serious about addressing Indigenous inequality, they must also have a close look at their policies and their decision-making when it comes to funding appropriate needs-based services. The disparity in living conditions for non-Indigenous Australians and Indigenous Australians is so high as to make clear that the current approach is simply not working.


In order to address the challenges facing Indigenous communities, we must absolutely acknowledge the involvement of self-determination. They deserve the right to be able to make decisions on matters that affect them and their communities. In highlighting the power of self-determination for Indigenous communities, I want to draw on the legacy of a friend, the late Aunty Mae Robinson, a remarkable woman. It was a privilege for me to know her and to work with her. Aunty Mae broke many barriers. She was the first Aboriginal to graduate from a school of education in the 1980s. She went on to have a lasting impact in my community. She taught at local primary schools. She was involved in the development of the first Aboriginal studies syllabus, through the University of Western Sydney, and she worked tirelessly to inspire Aboriginal youth and to provide them with the opportunities to succeed through access to education.


In concluding, I would like to share some commentary provided by the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council, an organisation in my community which does a great job servicing Indigenous people living in Liverpool, Fairfield, Cumberland and the Sutherland local government areas. Melissa Williams is the CEO of the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council. She successfully puts the matter in perspective when she says: 'Closing the gap related problems are often provided by non-Aboriginal organisations. Well meaning though these services may be, their goal is to provide a suite of services to a broad based target group.' Speaking of her organisation, she says: 'Our remit is for a much smaller, focused result: services provided to Aboriginal people, controlled by Aboriginal people'.


Accordingly, it is with this new approach moving forward that I offer bipartisan support to work for a real and actual positive change in our Indigenous communities. If we are to be a proud nation, we must be prepared to work with the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to reverse the entrenched disadvantage. The current situation of First Nations people is just intolerable. We can and we must make a change. We must make a difference. We must work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to actually deliver the services they need to help advance the future prosperity of their communities.

WE'LL PUT PEOPLE FIRST