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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 528


Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (11:51): Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, it is always a pleasure to speak when you are in the chair, because I know you will be nothing but impartial.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Mitchell ): Flattery will get you everywhere, mate!

Mr PERRETT: I also rise to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012, and I thank the preceding speakers. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners and thank them for their continuing stewardship both here and throughout this nation. It is particularly important to speak today on this bill as we make significant progress in reconciling the link between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with the fifth annual Closing the Gap statement made this week by the Prime Minister.

My very first day in office here in Canberra as a parliamentarian started at nine o'clock with a welcome to country—the first ever welcome to country, despite the 80 years of Canberra being the capital. There had never been a welcome to country until Prime Minister Rudd organised that welcome to country, which was a very moving event and also a very wet event, I seem to recall—there was water leaking through the roof, which made for an interesting morning. Then we moved from there to the apology to the stolen generations, which was surely an apology that was heard around the world and heard in every home, black or white, in Australia. It was a significant day and a further step towards the reconciliation that is occurring, that will occur and that must occur for this nation to be a truly great nation.

This legislation before us, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill, is also significant, and I am glad to see it supported on both sides of the chamber. I will just quote some of the things that it will do:

Recognising that the continent and its islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters;

Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Every Closing the Gap report that I have heard since 2008 has indicated that it will require many years of complex steps towards annual reckoning until we repair the gulf that is currently separating both the health and the lifestyles of Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians—a gulf that sees way too many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders die young and live without their dreams and aspirations being realised and without the dignity that our first peoples deserve.

In my home town of St George I grew up with a significant Indigenous population. I went out there for a week before Christmas to stay with a mate who is an Indigenous bloke, Peter Brown. As you do when you catch up with mates, we talked about what people are doing. My first speech listed my Indigenous friends who had died. When I went back out there at Christmas, we just added to that list of people. I am very young—47—and, sadly, there were so many people my age that should be running around working and contributing to society but had passed away, often in sad circumstances.

The Gillard Labor government's plan is to not only improve the lives of Indigenous Australians as the Closing the Gap report acknowledged but to achieve this in a shared ambition of partnership and respect, which is surely the only way forward. Signs and symbols are important. Anyone of faith or anyone who knows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture knows this. This Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill, whilst not a solution to all the issues that have plagued and pervaded Indigenous communities over the last 225 years, is a positive step towards this nation achieving true reconciliation. Signs and symbols are very important. As a passionate republican, I would like to see Australia achieve a situation where we have an Australian as our head of state. It will not fundamentally change what Australians do in their day-to-day business but, as a passionate republican and as a member of the party that is committed to Australia being a republic, I know that signs and symbols are very important. Obviously, they are not everything, but they are very important when combined with the real achievements associated with Closing the Gap.

There is much work ahead of us to ensure that we meet these targets by providing Indigenous Australians with health care, education and job opportunities, better access to pre-schools than ever before and the opportunity to receive the community services they deserve. The Closing the Gap report identified this nation's commitment to reducing Indigenous Australians' disadvantages and lists the associated practical and real building blocks for action—and sadly, as we saw in the report this week, measures the regress of those key targets.

As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, chaired by the member for Blair, Shayne Neumann, it has been my privilege to be involved with some of the inquiries, which in many ways have been heartbreaking. One was 'Doing time, Time for doing', which was about Indigenous views on the criminal justice system. It really broke my heart going to prisons and hearing horrible data on the incarceration rates. And then there was 'Our land, our languages: language learning in Indigenous communities', which was a bit more uplifting in terms of the positive opportunities and some of the positive, practical reconciliation steps that are taking place at the moment.

The Australian Society for Indigenous Languages recognises that significantly improved circumstances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can only be achieved by improving their literacy and standard English proficiency, by improving school retention rates and learning in all subjects, by a reduction in antisocial behaviour and by progressing towards the Millennium Development Goals. I would like to commend the work of Dr Chris Sarra, who was a year behind me at Kelvin Grove Teachers' College. He has now gone on to do so much work in Indigenous education.

I have confidence that the bill will also assist in improving incarceration rates in some small way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, perhaps by improving the spirit and connection and hopefully in some small way reducing antisocial behaviour and increasing education and, therefore, job opportunities. Sadly, the incarceration rates, which have been in the media recently, show that there were 7,979 prisoners who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as at 30 June 2012. This represented just over one quarter, or 27 per cent, of the total prison population, an increase of four per cent between 2011 and 2012. So some of those key indicators that we cover in Closing the Gap are not heading in the right direction. These figures are a clear indication that we need to make changes to help our Indigenous communities. As I said, we definitely do not need whitefellas in Canberra saying 'Thou shalt do this'. It must be in partnership, there must be consultation and there must be local Indigenous leaders guiding and leading. Hopefully the changes put forward in this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 are part of the process.

In my electorate of Moreton there is a significant Indigenous population, particularly in the suburb of Acacia Ridge. I know that suburb well. My grandfather moved there in the 1940s. He lived in a tent there before he built his house. It is a place I used to go to for school holidays and I have seen in that part of my electorate a fantastic attitude by Indigenous groups towards helping their communities.

The Aboriginal and Islander Independent Community School, which most people just call the Murri school, in Acacia Ridge is a private school. When I was a union organiser, I used to go there to do enterprise bargaining, and I am now proud to be their federal representative. It is a community run private school established in 1986. The school aims to promote the development of Indigenous students as independent and skilled people who are culturally, morally and socially responsible and, in particular, employable and capable of self-fulfilment and contributing to society. It is definitely an education success story. The Murri school has seen a significant move towards eliminating barriers that impede Indigenous students in some schools in terms of their access to and participation in mainstream primary and secondary education. These achievements are something we can aspire to achieve throughout Australia, and that is why the Gillard government has invested so heavily in education and employment. I am so proud of its GFC responses, which have been about investing in education.

Another school in my electorate, Southside Education, is a model school for educating young women, particularly those who have had babies while at school. The school educates a significant number of Indigenous girls who have started their families early or come from troubled homes. It is an amazing school. They have got a creche just around the corner so people can go and breastfeed during the breaks. They have got a multidisciplinary team of teachers, counsellors, youth workers and family workers. Some of their students are homeless as well, so it can be quite a challenge.

I see that the member for Newcastle, who was also a teacher, is in the chamber. One of the bugbears is also home work. It is a bit hard to worry about homework when you are worried about your student and their child having a place to stay that night. It is a wonderful school and I particularly commend the work of the employees there. Each year I am fortunate to have a student from Southside Education do work experience in my office. I am always astounded by their outstanding and positive attitude to life despite some of the horrific stories they talk about in terms of where they go to at night when they leave my office. But they still turn up with a professional attitude and it has been great for me to have some work experience students from Southside Education.

Two other schools I would particularly like to mention are Watson Road State School and Acacia Ridge State School. And there are many other schools in Moreton that have significant Indigenous populations. They are fantastic entities for education and make a great contribution.

I am proud to speak today in terms of the Gillard government's actions but I also acknowledge the Howard government's efforts in terms of reducing the flow of alcohol into some Aboriginal communities. As the husband of someone who has worked in child protection for 23 years, too often I have heard the horrible stories associated with big drinking days in Indigenous communities—in Queensland only, obviously. I have heard horrific stories from my partner about what can happen on big drinking days in Indigenous communities. We would all acknowledge that the cycle must be broken and we must close the gap by reaching education targets and improving access to health. We can identify that improving knowledge and employment, while still maintaining Indigenous languages, has positive implications for capacity-building in Indigenous communities—particularly through community involvement and employment resource management, particularly in the mining industry but also in the arts, tourism, broadcasting and interpreting.

In Queensland we have many Indigenous communities that will benefit in some way from the introduction of this bill. The Gillard Labor government is dedicated to providing equal opportunity and closing the gap. Sadly, the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, has not shown our Indigenous community the respect required. I think he was particularly heavy-handed, perhaps with the lord mayor, Graham Quirk, in closing down the embassy in Musgrave Park in South Brisbane, an area that even under Joh Bjelke-Petersen was recognised as a significant part of the Indigenous culture. Yet one of the first things that Premier Newman did was to send in the police to dismantle that camp.

There are the little things such as scrapping the Premier's Literary Award, which had a component for Murri writers and which was a slap in the face for the Indigenous community. Now, sadly, the Liberal-National Party government is contemplating changes to the grog rules, which will result in kids suffering and will result in families suffering. The member for Ryan is shaking her head. The reality is that the Northern Territory data show that in the Northern Territory there were 10,000 extra criminal activities—

Mrs Prentice interjecting

Mr PERRETT: Yes, well, self-determination is great comfort to a kid that has not had a parent who is sober, to a kid that has been abused because no-one in the community is sober and child abuse is rampant. That is a great comfort to that child! Shame on the Liberal-National Party government in Queensland for contemplating these changes to the grog rules. These cuts will be felt in every Indigenous community and it is a shameful thing for Premier Newman to have done. I commend the bill to the House.