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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 844

Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (17:37): I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Nine years ago today, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd rose in this place to right a great wrong and to deliver the long-overdue apology to the stolen generations. In the following February, to mark the anniversary of that address, Prime Minister Rudd delivered the first Closing the gap report to the national parliament, and it made very sobering reading. It was not a partisan report. It did not seek to ascribe blame to either Labor or Liberal, or any party. Instead, what it made clear was this: there has been no greater failure in public life in this nation than the failure of governments—both state and federal, Labor and Liberal—to ensure our First Australians enjoy the same quality of life as all other Australians.

And, so, it is right and proper that every single year in this place we are reminded of what we have achieved and we are reminded of where we have fallen short, and we are reminded of what is working and of where we need to do better—until we are no longer just closing the gap but until it has been eliminated, and until all the peoples of our first nations enjoy equality as with all those in our nation. Again, this year's report confirms we are falling short, with just one of the seven targets on track to be met.

The Closing the Gap targets emerged from the December 2007 COAG meeting, when first ministers agreed to close the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians by embracing seven key targets. Sadly, this year, nine years after this parliament received its first report on progress to achieving those targets, just one of seven Closing the Gap targets is now on track to be met—that is, halving the gap for the number of Indigenous students completing year 12 or its equivalent. Five of the remaining six other targets are not on track. These are: closing the gap in life expectancy by 2031; halving the gap in literacy and numeracy by 2018; closing the school attendance gap by 2018; and halving the unemployment gap in the same year. The seventh, which is a target of 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025, shows mixed results nationwide.

It is not to say that there has been no progress or that we are going backwards. Whilst there is still much more to do, I think it is important to recognise the achievements, as well as our failures. Too often in this place there is a tendency to say that it is all too hard and that the disadvantage faced by our Indigenous Australians can never be overcome—that we should all just give up.

There can be few more important pointers to a nation's progress than its ability to prevent the avoidable death of a child. While the target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is not on track, the Indigenous child mortality rate has declined by 33 per cent over the last 17 years. Overall, the total Indigenous mortality rate has declined by 15 per cent between 1998 and 2015. Eighty-seven per cent of all Indigenous children were enrolled in early childhood education in the year before full-time school, and the attendance rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is 83.4 per cent. Whilst the targets to halve the gaps in reading and numeracy are not on track, half of the eight areas for years 3, 5, 7 and 9 literacy and numeracy do show statistically significant improvements.

The one area of significant improvement is that the proportion of Indigenous 20- to 24-year-olds who have achieved Year 12 or equivalent increased from 45.4 per cent in 2008 to 61.5 per cent in 2014-15. And that was over a period where there was little change for the rest of the population. However, there has been a decline in Indigenous employment, with the Indigenous employment rate at 48.4 per cent, compared with 72.6 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. So the report card reads: some improvement, but a long way to go. It is a long way from even being given a pass. So the message, again, today is that we must try harder—much, much harder. But, above all, we must neither lose hope nor lessen our resolve.

Earlier today in the Labor caucus I was privileged to witness a welcoming ceremony conducted by Senator McCarthy and Linda Burney from the other place. I was also privileged to witness a deeply moving speech by Senator Pat Dodson. As leader of the Labor Party in the Senate, can I say what a privilege it is to serve with such extraordinary representatives of their community and of their people. Behind me is Senator Dodson, a man who has dedicated his life to reconciliation—to real reconciliation—between our peoples. I look forward to his contribution shortly. He gave a deeply moving speech. It was a speech that reminded us that nine years ago the Australian people exhibited and demonstrated an overwhelmingly positive response to the apology delivered by Mr Rudd. That was a heartening affirmation of the genuine desire of the Australian people to achieve genuine reconciliation.

Senator Dodson reminded us that, with the right political leadership, we could transcend the politics of fear and guilt towards a reconciliation based on truth telling, healing and justice—that wrongs can be righted. He also reminded us in the Labor Party of the impact that great Labor men and women have made in changing opinions and changing lives. Kim Beazley Senior brought the Yirrkala bark petition to the parliament in 1963 and helped pave the way to the 1967 referendum. There was the backing by the trade union movement for Vincent Lingiari's historic land rights struggle. A decade later, there was the tall stranger, Mr Gough Whitlam, pouring a handful of sand through Vincent's fingers, and the Racial Discrimination Act. Also, we had Bob Hawke's Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Paul Keating's nation-changing Redfern speech and his response on native title to the Mabo ruling, Kevin Rudd's national apology, and Julia Gillard's commencement of the constitutional recognition process. Today is a day of bipartisanship, but I do want to say these are achievements that make me proud to be a member of the Labor Party.

But I also share with all members and senators my sadness and my shame that so many of my fellow Australians, so many of our first peoples, continue to be denied their full place in this nation. Until a report is produced in this place confirming that all who live in this country have the same opportunities in education, the same access to health care, the same chance to see their grandchildren and their children grow up and thrive we must do everything we can in this place not only to close the gap, but to eliminate it once and for all.

I want to close with some of Pat Dodson's words. He reminded us today in the Labor caucus that as parliamentarians we consider challenges on a daily basis and we respond expeditiously. This is called political pragmatism. But, as he said, the new way forward cannot only be about pragmatics, it must shift to principle and honour. It is time for all of us to listen, to understand and to act, and it is time to make our word our bond.