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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 162

Mr ABBOTT (WarringahLeader of the Opposition) (10:41): What we do today is important in the life of our parliament and in the life of our nation. These Closing the Gap statements force us at the start of every parliamentary year to address the issue of Indigenous disadvantage. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was right: as long as there is serious Indigenous disadvantage in our country, it constitutes a stain on our nation's soul. Until the first Australians can fully participate in the life of our country, we are diminished as a nation and as a people.

The Prime Minister talked about proud Labor traditions—and that is fair enough. But I do want to point out that reconciliation is also a proud coalition tradition. The 1967 referendum, such a landmark in our nation's life, was a coalition initiative. This current project, this vital Closing the Gap project, is not a Labor project. It is not a Liberal project. If it is to succeed, it must be a national project.

It flows from that great day in our nation's life and in our parliament's life when the historic apology was made by the former Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, in this building just on five years ago. The former Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, made a resonant declaration on that day:

…unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

What the former Prime Minister said was right then and is right now. It must be accompanied by even greater substance. That is what this Closing the Gap process is designed to achieve.

The Prime Minister has given us some good news today: money is being spent, construction is going ahead, staff are being deployed, we have more Indigenous year 12 graduates and infant mortality is lower. But I do welcome the Prime Minister's frank admission that in at least some areas there has been regress as well as progress. We need this level of candour if we are to achieve genuine progress and genuine closing of the gap. How much difference are all our efforts really making to the lives of Indigenous people? Are they better housed? Are they better nourished? Are they better educated? Are they more able to participate in the life of our nation? Some are, but many are not. I share the Prime Minister's concern about actions in the Northern Territory in respect of the Banned Drinker Register. I note that this was an initiative of the former Howard government particularly sponsored by the former minister, Mr Mal Brough, and it should be preserved.

The sad truth is that it is easy to spend money but it is hard to make a difference. That is why it is so important that we focus not just on what is happening here in this building, what is happening here in the administration, but on what is happening on the ground. The focus should not only be on what government is doing; it must also be on what people are doing in response to the initiatives of government. It does not matter what we do in this place—all our fine words, all our noble sentiments, do not matter if adults are not going to work and if children are not going to school. I remain disappointed that the statistics for school attendance and work attendance in Indigenous communities are not being published on a regular basis. We should know who is present and who is absent every day, and we should publish those percentages as a way of regularly updating ourselves on the health of civil society in these communities. This is the best test of a functioning civil society: are the adults at work, are the children at school and is the ordinary law of the land being enforced?

I know, because I have been in remote Indigenous schools in Coen and Aurukun, that the rolls are taken every morning at about 9.20 and they are taken every afternoon after lunch. The school knows who is there and who is not, the school knows what percentage of kids are there and what percentage are not. We should know too, not to stigmatise communities—that is the last thing we would want to do—but to see where progress is being made and to see where progress has yet to be made. I applaud the Prime Minister's confirmation today that the first Closing the Gap goal, access to preschool, is being achieved. Access is important, but attendance is what really matters. I hope that in the next Closing the Gap statement the Prime Minister of the day is able to report attendance figures for preschools, attendance figures for primary schools, attendance figures for high schools and attendance figures for the various work projects under way in all of these remote places.

Quite apart from government's efforts, there has been progress, and I welcome the Prime Minister's confirmation today that since 2006 we have seen a two percentage point increase in Indigenous employment in the mainstream. There has been a 10 per cent increase in the Northern Territory. I applaud the employers of this country for the efforts they have made in this very important field of practical reconciliation—Rio, a pioneer in this area; BHP, a pioneer in this area; Coles and Woolworths and our banks, pioneers in this area. I particularly applaud the efforts of Andrew Forrest and Warren Mundine to boost Indigenous employment. Their insight, to start with a guaranteed job rather than with a trained potential employee, has the potential to transform Indigenous employment. Perhaps, over time, it has the potential to transform employment programs more generally. That is why the coalition has committed to funding four trial sites to test how well these ideas might translate into real progress.

I applaud all the efforts that are being made by so many people to bring more Indigenous people into the heart of our national life. I welcome the presence of more Indigenous people in the Territory parliament—people like Larissa Lee, Francis Xavier Maralampuwi and the incomparable Bess Price. I believe that they will safeguard the real interests of Indigenous people in the Territory, along with people like Alison Anderson and Adam Giles.

I applaud the efforts of the Prime Minister to bring another Indigenous person into this House. I acknowledge and welcome the efforts her office and my office have made to ensure that this parliament can shortly, with I hope unanimity, pass the act of recognition that the Prime Minister referred to in her remarks. I believe it would help us immeasurably as a parliament and a nation to have more Indigenous people in this place to support the work of my friend and colleague Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck. I applaud the work that has been done over so many years by the people in the public gallery today—I notice Mick Gooda and Tom Calma.

There is a new spirit in this land. There is a new spirit which reaches out to embrace the Indigenous people of this country—so different from the spirit abroad when the Prime Minister and I were young. It is a tribute to so many people in this place and around our country that that is now the case. I want to particularly single out the work that has been done in Cape York by Noel Pearson, Richie Ah Mat and everyone associated with the movement there—people like Allan Creek in Coen, Derek Walpo in Aurukun and Greg McLean in Hope Vale. As many will know, and as you might recall yourself, Madam Speaker, I have tried to support Noel Pearson's work with deeds as well as with words—as a teacher's aide in Coen in 2008, as a truancy assistant in Aurukun in 2009, as a builder's labourer in Hope Vale in 2011 and last year, along with Warren Mundine and my shadow minister Senator Nigel Scullion and a team of Australia's leading business people, I participated in the Books and Mortar project to refurbish the school library in Aurukun. I should acknowledge and welcome the presence on that project of Michael Chaney from the National Bank, Nev Power from Fortescue, Gerry Harvey and Katie Page from Harvey Norman, David Peever from Rio, Graham Hodges from the ANZ, Richard Goyder—one of our admirals of industry—from Wesfarmers, and Elizabeth Henderson from Westpac.

A mighty transformation has taken place in that school. Thanks to better teaching methods, the progress in that school is little short of miraculous. I saw it in 2009; I saw it in 2012. The progress is simply stupendous. I have seen it; I have heard it; I can bear witness to it.

Should the coalition win government, I reiterate my undertaking to spend a week every year helping in an Indigenous community. It will be good for me. It is important that our national leaders remain grounded in the real life of our country. I think it might even be good for the public servants, who make so many of the decisions that impact on our daily lives, to see at close quarters, much closer quarters than usual, the places upon which their decisions impact.

I wish to reiterate that the test of progress here is not the laws we pass, it is not the money spend, it is not the programs we institute. It is whether the children are going to school, the adults are going to work and the communities are safe. That is the test. The real challenges that we face are not just in this building. They are in the country, the communities, the suburbs and the regions of our nation. Real change does not happen in this building, although it may start here. Real change happens in all of the places where Australians live.

In the end, for all of us, black and white, our lives should be ours to make. Noel Pearson's cry, 'our right to take responsibility', should echo around this chamber. It should always be in the forefront of our minds as we consider how best to make our country whole.