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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1179


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (20:17): At the heart of our country, our democracy and this parliament is a profound injustice. People now recognise that Australia was not terra nullius; it was not unoccupied when white settlers first came here. People now recognise that our history is one of violence and dispossession, which many people in this country and many First Australians feel deeply.

The story we tell ourselves now could be so different. We could as a country have a prouder story to tell ourselves. We only have to look across the way to New Zealand where they recognised the injustices of the past and then struck a treaty that gave due recognition in principle and in fact to the first inhabitants of that country to see how we might start to take the first steps if we wanted to. But unfortunately we continue to deny that great injustice that is still at the heart of our country. And we continue to live with it every day.

When we compare the health of the first New Zealanders with the health of the First Australians, we can see very clearly that the failure to right that injustice is connected deeply and intimately with the health and wellbeing of people who are living right here and right now. What the Closing the gap report that we are speaking about here today evidences is that many things are getting worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. Unsurprisingly, that is what happens when you rip desperately needed funding from the sector—and I will say a bit more about that in a moment.

But what we know from this report is that some things have in fact got worse. We know that we are not on track for progress on closing the gap on life expectancy in a generation, and that is something profound to recognise. Here, in modern wealthy Australia, we are not on track to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.

There has been some progress and some suggestion that we are on track in this report to halving the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade. That is worth celebrating. That is very important. But what we also know is that we have not met the target to ensure access for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities to early childhood education; we are not on track to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for Indigenous students; and we are not on track to halve the gap in employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. And it is clear from this report that we will not meet our commitments to closing the gap unless we significantly change what we are doing.

One of the areas where we have made some progress—and you can see the disjuncture between the progress we are making and the actions the government is taking—is smoking. We have made some progress in cutting smoking. So what does the government do? They cut funds to the programs that address smoking in Indigenous communities.

Now, you ask anyone in the community and they will tell you that cutting funding to this program, when we are making progress, is an absurd thing to do and one that will hurt and that will have an impact. And we are not talking about minor cuts here. At a time when we are told we are not on track to close the gap we also have a government that takes $534 million out of programs—$168 million out of health programs alone; $34 million worth of cuts to legal aid and policy reform programs; and, appallingly, cuts to the National Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Services of $3.6 million over the next three years. Of course, the impact of those cuts is only compounded by other cruel cuts, such as the Medicare co-payments that the government is intent on pursuing. What is becoming crystal clear as you put the pieces of the puzzle together is that those who are the worst off will continue to bear the brunt of this government's agenda. If we keep doing what the government is proposing then we are going to keep getting results like this report back.

For example: this year the government has said there is a renewed focus on school attendance, but there is no recognition of the health and wellbeing issues that keep kids from being able to go to school. It is all well and good to say, 'We're going to force you to turn up,' but what are we doing about making sure that once they are there they learn and they stay? For example: we know that glue ear leaves many children hearing impaired and that it affects their learning, but that is still not being addressed. If you drag a kid to school but then you do not fix their ears so that they can hear and learn we are not going to close the gap.

Shamefully, we know that incarceration rates are still soaring and yet the government cuts legal aid and refuses to put in place a justice target. The government must include a justice target as part of the Closing the Gap targets. That would involve recognising the role of community services and early intervention in reducing the high incarceration rates of Aboriginal Australians, who make up 28 per cent of our prison population—28 per cent!

One of the things that we should do if we are intent on closing the gap is actually ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples what they think we should do and involve them. I suggest to the House that going and asking a billionaire—Mr 'Twiggy' Forrest—is not going to yield results, as opposed to going and asking people on the ground what they think we should be doing. When you go and ask a billionaire, you get the same answers back that we have heard the government espousing: so, a further tightening of income management, for example, even though we see very clear evidence that income management is not working. And that is no surprise, because you do not lift people out of poverty by taking away their rights and you do not lift people out of poverty by treating them like second-class citizens. But that is the approach the government persists with against all of the evidence. And if we persist with an approach against the evidence and if we persist with cutting funding we are going to keep getting reports like this back.

I conclude by saying that there is a much better story that we could be telling as a country if we took steps towards recognising our First Australians, if we took steps towards having a treaty—as other Commonwealth countries have done—and if we took steps towards properly funding the services that will make a difference in areas like family violence and health. Then we could be up here celebrating progress. It causes me great sadness that instead of celebrating progress we are marking the fact that we are not on track to close the gap of life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.