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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 10

Mr GARRETT (1:05 PM) —I second the motion. Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise to speak on this motion, which is a call for leadership in Aboriginal communities but which, by its wording, is a pointed reminder of the need not for Aboriginal leadership but rather for leadership from the federal government. There have always been, and there remain, many outstanding Aboriginal leaders who can and do speak for their communities. It is true they may not always agree on every aspect of Indigenous policy, but I remind the House that it was the Prime Minister who, at the beginning of his previous term in office said that he was committing his government to addressing the vexed issue of Aboriginal disadvantage. Three years later, the Prime Minister again signalled, at the beginning of this term, a new approach to Indigenous affairs, and it is the government’s track record and policy approach that is in the spotlight.

It is really only through provision of leadership at the highest levels and through the engagement of this parliament that Aboriginal people, wherever they live, will gain better health and education, genuine representative bodies which advance their aspirations and, also, open consultative processes where the deliberations by government on their lives take place. We in this parliament should aim for nothing less.

The negativity of this motion and its wording is very disappointing. It seeks to deny that Indigenous people should have representative bodies by which their voice can be heard. This is a preposterous suggestion and profoundly in opposition to what I would hope were the core values of all parties in the parliament. Labor policy is clear: there should be a newly elected national body for Indigenous Australians.

Yet, following the change of mind by the Prime Minister’s department about agreeing to proposed Labor amendments to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill 2004, Aboriginal people now face the prospect of there being no avenue for democratic representation at all. It seems the situation will be that a person is handpicked by the government to an advisory body, or nothing. Aboriginal people have given feedback to members on this side of the House that they are alarmed, saddened and angry about this truncation of their rights. They expect more from this government.

The motion refers to education, yet the Howard government’s record in supporting Indigenous education is poor. Under Minister Vanstone, there has been no real commitment to increased support for Indigenous education and no clear plan to work through Commonwealth-state bottlenecks where they occur. In fact, there was little mention of the issue at all by the government in the recent election.

On the issue of health for Indigenous people, which remains in a truly depressing state, the AMA’s call for a rapid and immediate injection of Commonwealth funds has been ignored. Awash with surplus moneys and aware of the very great need, what actually has been done? Some point to the amounts already spent in providing health services, especially to far-flung communities. The comparisons are futile, to the extent that Indigenous health is in a parlous state and requires substantial resourcing—and, yes, health care is expensive, especially for remote communities.

Access Economics, in the report Expenditures on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, estimated that Indigenous health needs were underfunded by $452.5 million a year. Closing this gap would require an increase in spending of less than one per cent. Where is the will? Where is the money? Today’s Financial Review article title said it all: ‘A shocking picture of poor health’.

This government has had nine long years. In that time, it has walked away from the principles and possibilities of reconciliation. It has denigrated the historical record of Aboriginal suffering and displacement. It has ignored its own reports and the voices of many Aboriginal people, some of whom were in the House last week, attempting to be heard.

It is of acute concern that the debate, ostensibly about new ways of redressing the problems Aboriginal people face, has been recently filled by ideologues and right-wing pundits, who throw around emotive phrases like ‘living museums’ or ‘land socialism’ to explain current circumstances, with the implicit message that it is the Aboriginality of Aboriginal people that is the cause of much misery. This motion, in a less sophisticated way, attempts the same thing. It cannot contemplate that there are many Aboriginal communities where people work hard, continually trying to find the balance between the modern world and their traditional responsibilities, or that the primary responsibility for leadership to better assist Indigenous people lies with the Howard government.