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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1819

Ms REA (11:41 AM) —It is indeed with pleasure that I rise to talk about the Prime Minister’s Closing the gap report that has been introduced into this parliament. By beginning, I welcome the Prime Minister’s initiative of first of all producing this report and giving a commitment to introduce an update every year to the parliament and allowing parliamentary scrutiny of this very important issue—closing the gap for Indigenous life expectancy and, indeed, Indigenous wellbeing in our community.

The report focuses on three key policy initiatives or imperatives which the government believes are fundamental if we are to address the many areas of vulnerability and disadvantage that Indigenous people face in this country. The three points focused on are: to address decades of underinvestment in services, infrastructure and governance; to rebuild the positive social norms which underpin daily routines, such as going to school and work, and which foster community led solutions; and to reset the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Before I go into the detail of the report and highlight some of the very important information that is raised there, I acknowledge the speech of the previous speaker—the member for Lyne—and say that, as the member for Bonner and as someone who represents a fairly significant Indigenous population within Brisbane City, I am very well aware of the vast majority of Indigenous people who live in urban areas, and I know my colleague the member for Oxley would acknowledge that. In fact, I know the member for Lyne was quoting from the report, but I have had reported to me that if you take all of the urban areas in this country roughly 70 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban areas. That is not in any way to ignore or diminish the very significant issues faced by Indigenous people living in remote and rural communities. As local members acknowledge the difficulties faced by Indigenous people in urban areas, I want to assure him that we on the government side also understand that issue and are constantly advocating on behalf of the Indigenous communities within our electorates.

Before I go to the bulk of the report, I want to focus on some of the myths and criticisms that have developed around the government’s approach to closing the gap. In particular, it is often said that this is once again a case of all talk and no action, that the apology was simply a symbolic gesture and one that has not really led to any real detail or substance in addressing the issues of Indigenous people. I acknowledge those criticisms and in doing so I would like to address them on two grounds. First, I believe that this report reflects quite a significant amount of action that has resulted in the government’s commitment to this issue. I will go into that detail a little later on. But I also want to address what is often referred to as a false dichotomy about symbolism versus action. Symbolism in itself is action—to actually stand up and say sorry to somebody is a very important action. It is not just a gesture—it is actually acknowledging a problem, it is actually admitting a problem and it is actually publicly stating that you want to do something about that problem and that you apologise to the people you believe have suffered as a result of actions in the past.

Can I emphasise, particularly coming from Queensland and being a great fan of that wonderful game of rugby league, that there was last weekend what could have been considered a symbolic gesture in the season opening game played at the Gold Coast between the Indigenous all stars team and the NRL all stars. It might have been seen as a symbolic gesture, but it was a most powerful initiative to try to deal with the issue of reconciliation, acknowledging the role and contribution of Indigenous people in this country from all aspects of society, including on the sporting field. Unfortunately I was not able to go to the game as I was at a function in my electorate, but my 15-year-old son kept me updated on the scores through text messages. He was excited about the game, like many people in Queensland, not just because it was a great game of rugby league and not just because they were two teams chosen very significantly on merit and skill that were evenly matched but because it was an emotional response to the acknowledgement that Indigenous football players have been a fundamental part of our sporting community, and having that game kick off the rugby league season was a significant emotional event. I think the response of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people through their attendance, through their watching on television and the support given through many rural and remote communities as well as across the south-east areas of Queensland, is a very good indication of how what can possibly be interpreted as a symbolic gesture can be in fact a very significant action towards reconciliation between these two very important cultures in our community.

I want to focus on some of the very significant parts of this report that definitely need highlighting. Again, I guess it is important to start by acknowledging the problem, by admitting the problem, and never forgetting the very unfair and disadvantaged situation that many Indigenous people have found themselves in in this country. It important to remind ourselves that at the time of the apology, as the report says, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy at birth was estimated at 17 years. Indigenous children were 3½ times more likely to die before they reached the age of five. It is important to remember that those issues of life expectancy and parents, families, facing the death of children under five is a very real consequence of inaction on the part of governments and often discrimination and exploitation on behalf of the whole community. The six targets identified in the report around life expectancy and mortality rates for children are early childhood education, literacy, numeracy, education, ensuring that more Indigenous students get to year 12 or its equivalent, and looking at halving the gap in employment outcomes—six very important targets that address the statistics I have just referred to.

But of course the most important thing to begin with in an action plan to close the gap is to make sure that we get the data accurate. That in itself is an action, and I am pleased that the government has committed $46.4 million over the next four years to get the data right. We all know that the rush to do something, the impulse to get an outcome, can often lead to misdirection. It can often lead to funding programs or activities that are not necessarily hitting the mark. Unless you spend the time to get the data right you will not get the outcomes that you want, no matter how eager or how keen you are to see improvements in this area.

At the time, the emergency response in the Northern Territory was very controversial and there were many people on my side of politics and in the community more broadly who were concerned about the approach. I am pleased that in this report we see that the government has refocused on its responsibilities under the response and that the way it targeted the funding and the resources that were deployed as a result of the response has seen some really positive outcomes. In the health area, for children there have been ear, nose and throat consultations and surgery and nearly 2,000 dental services.

Education is an issue that has been highlighted by almost every speaker on this report. It is a very important part of giving young Indigenous kids the opportunities that unfortunately their parents, grandparents and other ancestors never had. Education plays a fundamental part in redressing the gap and trying to create a better balance of opportunities. I am really pleased to see a couple of practical approaches that have emerged out of this report. The Sporting Chance Program, an academy for kids where there is encouragement to participate in sport—something we know that most kids love doing—is linked to attendance in schools. Nine thousand students have gone through the Sporting Chance Program and as a result there has been an increase of around six per cent in attendance at school. We know that sitting in a school is not necessarily the way that you are going to learn if you do not have the nourishment and sense of wellbeing to absorb and process the information being presented to you, so throughout 67 Indigenous communities there have been delivered 2,600 breakfasts and 4,400 lunches. A fundamental part of any child’s learning is that they are well nourished and have the capacity to sit and concentrate in the time they are at school. Once again, this is a great and very practical initiative, and the spin-off is that 197 people—79 per cent of whom are local Indigenous people—have been employed to deliver those meals.

There are some very positive trends in this report that show that the government’s commitment to this very important issue is not just one of symbolism; it is a very practical approach which is delivering real outcomes. Housing is an area which has been focused on and which some people have tried to cast in a negative light. At the end of January this year 7,700 dwellings were under construction and 475 had been completed—and that does not necessarily include the 50 houses that have been built as a result of the response and the 60 that are under refurbishment. There have been changes to the CDEP, with employment programs that mean Indigenous people are being paid proper wages for the work that they are doing. In fact 1,500 properly paid jobs have come out of the reforms that have been made to the CDEP.

Before I conclude, I also want to acknowledge quickly the development of the minority business supply council. This is an issue that is very dear to my heart. As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs I participated in the inquiry which made the recommendation to the government that it establish this council. To our credit, the minister did respond positively. The supply council has been developed and, as a result, 3.3 million contracts have been signed with Indigenous businesses since last September—a massive figure. It is a reflection once again of a very positive policy having great results. But it is also a reflection of the enormous amount of enterprise within the Indigenous community and among Indigenous people in remote, regional and urban areas. They were already out there working hard to try and develop their own enterprise skills to develop businesses that would support their family and the community. Through a significant government policy, 3.3 million contracts were signed within the space of just a few short months—a very significant achievement.

Of course, Closing the Gap is not simply about the government providing services to Indigenous people. It is about acknowledging the very important contribution of Indigenous people to developing our society and it is about restoring respect and showing a proper appreciation of their role in this country. I therefore applaud the development of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. I applaud the minister’s lifting of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and I acknowledge the significant number of cultural and heritage programs, particularly the support for Indigenous languages, which are also referred to in this report. I commend the Prime Minister’s report to the House.