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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 158


Ms GILLARD (LalorPrime Minister) (10:18): by leave—On behalf of the nation, I present the fifth annual Closing the Gap statement. I am here today because the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of this country have decided to walk the path of reconciliation together. Because the workers of Wave Hill said no and the voters of 1967 said yes. Because in a proud Labor tradition, Gough Whitlam poured the soil and Bob Hawke handed Uluru back. Because Paul Keating inscribed native title in our laws and Kevin Rudd said our nation was sorry. Because this government intends that our Constitution must speak for all Australians and the gap that separates our opportunities and living standards must be closed.

Closing the Gapis a plan of unprecedented scale and ambition, a plan not only to uplift the lives of Indigenous Australians but to do so in a shared endeavour of partnership and respect. That high level of ambition commits us to two decades of annual reckoning until we bridge the gulf that stands between us. Few if any of the men and women who sit in this parliament today will still be here when a future Prime Minister delivers the final Closing the Gapstatement in 2031. A short walk to this despatch box that we hope will mark the end of a monumental journey. Wherever we are on that day, the people of this land will want to hear one thing. That we have, at last, accorded Indigenous Australians the health care, education, job opportunities and community services they deserve. Above all, the opportunity unknown to many Indigenous people today—the chance to grow old. These goals require us to raise our eyes and lift our expectations—to invest, plan and think for the future. It is the work of an entire generation and work that has begun with us. So I account to the parliament and people of Australia today.

This is the fifth such statement since the task began in 2008. Already we know that some targets, like life expectancy, will be enormously challenging to meet, even with almost two decades still to run. On others, progress has been encouragingly swift. Across the board, our sources of data and information are stronger than ever before. The report I make today is especially significant because this year, the very first of the target deadlines established five years ago falls due.

In 2008 we pledged to deliver access to early childhood education to all four-year-olds in remote communities within five years. Well, the five years are up. I am proud to say we got it done. This target is on track and will be met on schedule. This means little children like Curtisha Kalinic, a preschooler at Robinson River in the Gulf Country, can now go to preschool. Her mum, Roberta, was never given the opportunity to attend school when she was a girl, let alone preschool. Think about that: an Australian woman young enough to be just now making a family of her own, a woman who, in our own lifetimes, while we did our exams and gained our qualifications, was denied the chance to go to school. Yet already Curtisha, her daughter, has completed preschool. She knows how to hold a pencil, listen to the teacher and adapt to the formal routines of the day. She is ready for school, ready for the future.

The mistakes made in one generation are being repaired in the next. The gap is being closed. So for all the challenges we will inevitably encounter between now and 2031, this is a moment to savour. Not just because we reached a target but because we showed what we can do together.

Preschool only takes us to the schoolyard gate. We must ensure that progress flows through to the other targets relating to later schooling and employment. One of the first things we need to do is to ensure that improved access to early childhood education is accompanied by improved attendance rates at school, that the children who reach the school gate enter and stay there until education has done its transforming work.

Supporting regular school attendance will be one of the 2013 priorities of the Stronger Futures program in the Northern Territory. It will also be one of this government's early priorities as we implement the National Plan for School Improvement, in partnership with states and territories and the non-government sector.

The National Plan for School Improvement complements Closing the Gapphilosophically and practically. Both programs are about cultural change and generational change. Resourcing schools according to their need and measuring them according to their success. Thus, with reliable data, we can swiftly see what works and what does not work. With reliable data we can turn access into attendance, attendance into achievement, not just in preschools but right through the educational journey.

Encouraging progress is also being made on two other Closing the Gaptargets. In 2008 the nation set itself the challenge of halving the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020. In 2006, just 47 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged between 20 and 24 had a year 12 or equivalent qualification. In the 2011 census that had risen to 54 per cent, a level of progress that puts us ahead of schedule to meet our Closing the Gaptarget. Yet, when it is compared with the 86 per cent rate in the non-Indigenous population, it is clear that substantial further improvements will be needed if our target is to be met in 2020.

Another Closing the Gaptarget is now also within sight. In 2008 leaders pledged to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade. I can report that real progress is being made and, if current trends continue, our target will be met. This is a precious human achievement. Babies will live who might have died. Infants will thrive who once would not. And the tragic reality of Indigenous children dying before their fifth birthday at twice the rate of other Australians will become a sad relic of history.

Behind these positive trends lie a lot of hard work and a lot of investment: improvements in antenatal care; access to public health services; immunisation; and neonatal intensive care. Anyone who says things cannot change: you are wrong. Anyone who says change is not a matter of extra staff or extra funding: you are wrong too. Time and effort and resources are saving lives today.

I can also report encouraging progress on another key indicator: Indigenous employment. Our pledge in 2008 was to halve the gap in employment between non-Indigenous Australians aged 15 to 64 years and Indigenous Australians. This is one of the truly vital indicators, because each job not only brings opportunity and esteem to the person who secures employment but also models habits of work and self-discipline to children, younger siblings and the wider community. So every job advances a virtuous cycle.

The 2011 census shows progress since the previous census in 2006. The number of Indigenous Australians in mainstream employment has risen from 42.4 to 44.7 per cent, a small but encouraging increase. There was a particularly striking rise in mainstream employment in the Northern Territory—from 21.3 per cent to 30.3 per cent. This reflects the progress made by Indigenous Territorians who are seizing the growing economic opportunities in their communities. Overall, Indigenous employment has been rising steadily since 1996 and the long-term trends are positive. However, with the rate of non-Indigenous employment standing at 72 per cent, it is clear that a massive and unacceptable gap remains.

Last night I attended a dinner hosted by Reconciliation Australia, along with business leaders representing organisations who have signed Reconciliation Action Plans. Around 1.7 million Australians now work for an organisation with a plan in place. This is reconciliation in action, happening every day, right across the country.

On the final of the five Closing the Gap indicators—literacy and numeracy performance—progress is more mixed. On year 3 writing, for example, 78 per cent of Indigenous children reached or exceeded the national benchmark in 2012. That is well on the way to the non-Indigenous level of 96 per cent—a gap of 18 percentage points. In year 9 writing, however, the 2012 gap is almost double that—35 percentage points.

Overall, significant disparities remain between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Most troubling, some results such as year 3 reading actually declined in 2012 after improving between 2008 and 2011. Overall, only three out of eight indicators in reading and numeracy are tracking as expected and the other five will need considerable work. So NAPLAN will continue to challenge us with its annual output of hard, clinical data.

I cannot conceal that these literacy and numeracy results are a source of personal disappointment. Last year's optimism gives way this year to a starker realism. Yet that is how Closing the Gap will be. The setbacks that make us aim higher. The successes that make us glad we did.

In 2013, we will reach our first formal Closing the Gaptarget and can see two more within reach. These results show that the gap is not only closing but closable. They are proof of what we can achieve when we work together. When we hold ourselves strictly to account. When we end decades of chronic underinvestment. When we genuinely involve Indigenous Australians in the design and delivery of programs. At the same time, I am acutely conscious that gains can be contingent. Yesterday's breakthrough can be today's failure if we let our vigilance falter.

Progress on Closing the Gapis hard enough without taking retrograde steps and undoing the good work that has already been accomplished. This is why I am very concerned about the alcohol policies adopted by the Country Liberal Party since it came to government in the Northern Territory. I am concerned about plans touted by the Liberal National Party in Queensland to wind back restrictions in that state, too. 'Tragedy' was the word Noel Pearson used to describe the Newman government's plans. I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among Indigenous communities are starting to flow once again.

The government will take action in response to any irresponsible policy changes that threaten to forfeit our hard-won gains. We saw the Banned Drinker Register dismantled by the Northern Territory government on 29 August last year four days after the Northern Territory election. Yet we know the register was working. According to the then Northern Territory government, after its first year of operation, alcohol related assaults dropped in Darwin, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine. There were 10,000 fewer antisocial instances reported. People felt safer walking around their home towns.

Now, since it was pulled down by the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory, we are hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions to the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol related accidents and abuse. People are witnessing more alcohol related violence. In and around Alice Springs over the Christmas-New Year period there were at least five alcohol related deaths. Former banned drinkers are now again on the long list of alcohol related offences coming before the Alice Springs Magistrates Court each day.

Today I call on the Country Liberal Party to reinstate the Banned Drinker Register, immediately. I call on the Liberal National Party to exercise extreme caution in reviewing remote community alcohol restrictions in Queensland, too. Every Australian who puts the interests of Indigenous children first and the alcohol industry second will support this call.

Let us always remember: closing the gap is not inevitable. Keeping it closed is not inevitable either. We must guard our gains and never allow a backward step. Closing the Gapis reconciliation in the sense that when we truly embrace our shared humanity and equality, we embrace equal rights to services and support. Let us also remember that Closing the Gapis not the solution to every problem in Indigenous communities.

So many of the problems faced by Indigenous Australians since 1788 are not just issues of material deprivation. They are matters of the spirit. Matters of fundamental justice and human understanding. So as we comprehend a complex and sometimes bitter past, we must also pursue reconciliation by finding the right words to express our coexistence in this ancient land. No specific act or event will make us reconciled, but each sign and gesture plays its part in our healing and brings forward the moment of its accomplishment.

Half a century ago, this federal parliament made possible the first step in the journey we now know as reconciliation. In 1963, all Indigenous Australians were able to vote in a national election for the first time. In 2013, I hope this will also be the year in which our parliament delivers another landmark on the journey of reconciliation—an act of recognition acknowledging the unique and special place of our First Peoples.

This act will be a down payment on that great piece of unfinished national business: constitutional recognition. It is a vital opportunity for this parliament to show its commitment to recognition. It is a striking way to attune and prepare our nation for the profound decision that lies ahead.

I believe that constitutional recognition is fundamental to the process of reconciliation so that all Australians can feel pride in our Indigenous heritage and understand its centrality in our national story. Without it, that story will remain incomplete and the soul of our nation will remain unhealed.

We also know that amending the Constitution is far from easy. Just eight out of 44 attempts have enjoyed success, and only two of those eight referenda concerned social issues. The most shining example of those attempts—and the most relevant to us now—is the referendum of 1967. It was a time of healing, uniting our nation in empathy and accord as never before.

I want this constitutional amendment to be equally unifying, so I am determined that the referendum will be held only when the nation is ready. As the nation's leaders and representatives, it is our job to do all we can to bring that unifying moment closer. That is why my government is investing $10 million in a campaign, led by Reconciliation Australia, to build support for constitutional recognition. It is why there is a joint select committee to secure multipartisan consensus for the bill and on the timing and detail of constitutional reform. And it is why we are proceeding first with the 'act of recognition' this year.

As referendum day draws closer, so too may all Australians draw closer. Reconciliation is a journey, but it must also be a journey with a purpose and an end. That journey is not yet over. Yes, we are far from the days when the Aboriginal activist William Cooper sought to petition the king but the federal government of the day refused to forward the petition to London because it would serve 'no good purpose'. Now we have a good purpose, an abiding purpose. Now we share a purpose that goes to the very integrity of this nation, its founding, its history and its future.

Closing the Gapis part of that purpose since our democratic temper rejects notions of inherited privilege and equally drives us on to eradicate inherited disadvantage. Here in this country we believe everyone must get a fair go—the oldest and the newest Australians alike. In that hope, I present the fifth annual Closing the Gapstatement to the parliament and the people of Australia, proud of our successes, more determined than ever to remedy our failings and cautiously optimistic for the long road ahead.

I present a copy of Closing the Gap: Prime Minister's report 2013.