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Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Page: 159


Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (09:49): I rise to respond to the Prime Minister's heartfelt words. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this place and, indeed, our continent. I pay my respect to elders past and present. Before I commence my prepared remarks let me say on behalf of Labor that we welcome the initiative that the Prime Minister has just proposed with regard to setting a target in terms of school attendance. He will have our support.

I spent last Friday at Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula in East Arnhem Land. Nhulunbuy, as the Prime Minister knows, is a place full of good people but under tremendous pressure. It is company town and the company is about to leave. For the traditional owners of East Arnhem Land, the Yolngu people, the closing of the refinery at Gove will mean, in that region, a widening of the gap in employment, health and education opportunities for Aboriginal people. Last week, a few kilometres out of Nhulunbuy, at Yirrkala, I met with representatives of the Rirratjingu people. Fifty-one years ago bark petitions from their lands at Yirrkala became the first Aboriginal documents to be recognised in this place. From Yirrkala came the first formal challenge to the discriminatory fiction of terra nullius and the first assertion of native title.

Today, I bring some more powerful words from Yirrkala to this place. Last Friday, in the shadow of job losses and the expected downgrading of the region's only hospital and school, Djawa Burarrwanga of the Rirratjingu people looked me in the eye and said: 'It makes me sad, because we worked so hard for our opportunity. We just want our chance for health, for jobs and for school.' There was scarcely a tremor in his voice but you could tell how much it meant to him and his people. He said, 'This is about citizenship, because we are all Australians.'

My conversations last week reminded me that closing the gap has never been about guilt or shame but always about justice and inclusion, opportunity and equality. I believe in the last six years that we have made some significant progress. As a nation we have moved beyond the false choice between practical and symbolic reconciliation. We now understand, as the Prime Minister has said, that they are two sides of the same coin. That is why Labor, in opposition as in government, will be steadfast in support of affording our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a place of honour in the Constitution. At this time last year the 43rd Parliament passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act—the first step in what Prime Minister Gillard called a great piece of unfinished national business.

It is a chance, Djawa told me last week, for all of us to be true blue. An important facet of this legislation was the support we gave to Reconciliation Australia to fund a national awareness campaign—a campaign that will help all Australians adopt this cause as their own. It is one that will help contribute to the growing groundswell of support essential for constitutional change.

We want people to understand that in changing our Constitution we have to offer more than a nod of recognition. Labor believes that the proposed constitutional change should be guided by the recommendations of the expert panel. Namely, we should remove section 25, which recognises that states can ban people from voting on the basis of their race; delete section 51(xxvi), which can be used to discriminate on the basis of race; insert a new section 51A to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian government's ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; adopt a new section 116A banning racial discrimination by the Commonwealth; and insert a new section 127A that recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country's first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia's national language. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister commit to bringing a form of words to parliament this year, and we will work with him on this task.

The second, equally important, element of the act of recognition was the legislative time line. This reform depends on a sense of urgency and momentum. If we prevaricate or delay, we risk missing a unifying moment; we risk abandoning the field to those who prefer to use Australian history as an instrument of division, those whose appetite for conflict divides our nation and those who would prefer to maintain the shameful great Australian silence than face the truth, learn from it and grow. We must be resolute and swift, because justice delayed is justice denied.

This summer many Australians were touched by the tragic death of Daniel Christie. They spoke about the scourge of alcohol fuelled violence in our cities. But this is a problem not confined to late nights in Kings Cross. In remote communities across Australia, grog plays a sinister part in domestic violence and abuse. In government, Labor took a strong stance on managing alcohol related violence. My honourable friend the member for Lingiari knows better than anyone the controversy that surrounded our often unpopular measures. National leadership on alcohol management plans resulted in a six-year decline in alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory. But tragically, as Senator Peris said this morning, the rivers of grog are flowing again and violence is being borne along in their current.

In the last year alcohol related violence is up 15 per cent; domestic violence is up 21 per cent. We know there are 23 new alcohol management plans ready and waiting for government approval. I welcome the minister in the gallery to the House of Representatives, and I would call upon him and the Prime Minister to take action and approve these plans. Do as has been done; put in place a comprehensive approach to tackling alcohol abuse that addresses the harm, reduces supply and supports communities. We shall support you every step of the way. The Labor Party will persistently and consistently take a bipartisan, positive and constructive approach to every facet of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy.

As a parliamentarian, though, and a believer in the good we can do in this place, I perhaps wonder when people say that any matter is not about politics, empowerment and change. Surely the great and exciting hope of closing the gap, strengthening communities, opening up new opportunities and making our whole nation a better and more equal place is what politics is for.

Our parliament should be the parliament where policy proposals are subject to rigorous analysis. So while Labor is eager for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy to be a discussion characterised by consensus and bipartisanship, while we welcome the end of the damaging acrimony and the division that characterised the debate on native title, we remain committed to advocating our position and laying our vision out for a better future for Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Labor Party will stand by the Closing the Gap targets and we welcome the Prime Minister's proposition of a new target. We will stand by the detailed funding arrangements and the rest of the design framework that was laid out and negotiated in government, targets that were rightly developed in close consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We hope that the 44th Parliament will build upon the progress of the 42nd and the 43rd parliaments.

But the challenge of closing the gap does not belong to the parliament alone. It belongs to the nation and the work of our generation. Success will only come when Aboriginal people are central to the political process, not just subject to it. I want to assure the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs that Labor will assess every one of their policy proposals on their merits and offer suggested improvements where we think they are possible. We will also continue to voice our priorities and identify the issues that we think deserve attention.

We worry when there is discussion about education funding which may put additional support for schools of Aboriginal students at risk. We worry when talk of consolidation leads to a reduction in the number of scholarships for Aboriginal students. We worry when remote schools are starting this year with fewer teachers than last year. We worry when funding for successful job, housing and health initiatives vanishes in the name of cutting red tape. It is easy to dismiss reporting procedures as bureaucracy. Very often the information gathered in this process helps build the evidence for better policies. If we work off the detailed measurement procedures that are already in operation, we can make informed not anecdotal judgements about allocating scarce taxpayer resources. We only need to talk to Aboriginal people to see how they know the challenges, the pitfalls and the history so much better than we here do.

Let us empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, teachers, nurses, not-for-profits and businesses to tell us what works rather than demanding policies that fit the rhetoric of the moment—an approach that empowers, not directs from the top down. Aboriginal people deserve more respect than being told it is as simple as 'obey the law.' One size does not fit all. Sometimes the tone of a message can be as effective or harmful as the content.

We should remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—the victims of so much exclusion, so much marginalisation—have every right to be sceptical of supposedly universal policy pronouncements. We must always remind ourselves that there can be a fine line between good intentions and 'we know better' paternalism. Most of all, we should be aware that phrases like 'zero tolerance' and 'carrot and stick' have a different and more sinister meaning for a people who have historically been denied basic understanding and fair treatment.

So today, instead of each party seeking to wrest control of the rhetoric, let us all in this place—coalition, Labor and crossbench—agree to guarantee the future of the Closing the Gap framework. Let us all retain a policy approach built on consultation, empowerment and consensus. Let us all put in place policies that Aboriginal Australians can be proud to own and advocate. Let us all provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the tools and resources to complement the solutions they own. Let us all support reforms designed to reach beyond the life of a parliament and the term of a government—concrete goals with detailed reporting, goals that hold prime ministers, governments and government agencies to account.

I say this not in the spirit of partisanship but in the spirit of bipartisanship. For the first time in the history of our Federation, this national parliament is on the right path. Last year, some of the Closing the Gap targets were met. The first was that every preschooler living in a remote community now has access to early childhood education. This first success opens the door to the next, because with early childhood education comes the understanding of the formal routine of school, respect for teachers and, I think most importantly, a love of learning. It is the first step in halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children. It is the first step in getting children going to school and enjoying it.

We need to continue investments that build a lifetime love of learning—programs that work, like the Home Interaction for Parents and Youngsters program that Labor funded in 50 disadvantaged communities, a program that supports parents to prepare their children for school and has already improved learning outcomes by 30 per cent with some children. It works because it draws on the whole community to help the next generation feel ready and excited for school, because we want Aboriginal children everywhere to experience the thrill of putting words on a blank page and turning them into a story, to experience the satisfaction of testing a hypothesis and solving an equation, to immerse themselves in art, history, drama, geography and physical education, this transformative experience, the life-changing moment when school clicks, the pride and self-respect it confers, the love of learning that can change a life forever. That feeling, that self-belief, that motivation, will drive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander year 12 achievement up far more effectively than just relying on the limited interaction with a hardworking but time-poor truancy officer.

With that increase in attendance and year 12 completion will come a boost in employment outcomes, giving people the chance to get good jobs—jobs with security and opportunities for advancement and further learning, opening the door for Aboriginal people to experience the benefit and dignity of rewarding work; jobs that allow people to provide for their families and fulfil their potential; jobs that give people the chance to buy their own home, to own a car or take a family holiday, things that most Australians take for granted. This is how we break the hope-killing cycle of welfare dependency and unemployment and build that virtuous circle of improved education outcomes and better jobs.

The two targets I am yet to mention are perhaps the most important and amongst the most challenging. We owe it to ourselves, as our Prime Minister has said, to halve the gap in mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under five within a decade. I am pleased that, after five years of the Closing the Gap framework, we are on that journey, because, when any Aboriginal parent loses a beautiful, precious little child to a preventable, treatable disease, we are all diminished.

We owe it to ourselves to close the life expectancy gap within a generation. When disadvantage robs Aboriginal people of the right to a long, healthy life full of meaning and quality, our country is the poorer and the meaner for it. For as long as these problems touch one of us, they touch all of us. That is why it is vital we get the COAG agreement on a new national partnership agreement on Indigenous health outcomes. That is why we need to implement the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan for improved health outcomes, a framework developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across this country.

New research shows that closing the gap in education, health and employment will deliver an extraordinary boost to the whole economy: growth in our regional and remote areas. So, in making our country a better and more equal place, we can help build a new generation of prosperity.

In 2013 Labor proposed three new targets to be added to the Closing the Gap framework. The first aimed at increasing Indigenous participation in higher and further education. It is a natural extension of the existing education targets. The second was ensuring that 90 per cent of eligible Indigenous Australians will receive funded support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme by 2020, making sure that Indigenous people too get the full benefit of this scheme. The third, developed in consultation with legal aid groups, aimed to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, especially young people, who are arrested, tried and incarcerated. We have seen, since the election, a spectrum of signals on these new targets. I invite the Prime Minister today: let us work together to get these signed off by COAG and embedded in the long-term funding structure along with the existing targets. I ask the government: let us not just start again because one can. Let us not go back to a blank piece of paper just to enhance any claims to authorship. Let us not turn our back on the consultations, the policy work, the testing and the lessons learnt. Let us repay the trust and forgiveness that Aboriginal communities have shown us by honouring our commitments made to them. Together let us build on the foundation that has been laid and let Closing the Gap be a cause of which we can all be justifiably proud.

Closing the Gap should not be an achievement that belongs to a coalition government or a Labor one, but indeed a monument to the decency, compassion and imagination of the modern Australia. Let us all be able to say of this parliament, 'I was there when this work continued.' Today is the sixth Closing the Gap statement, and the final one will not be until 2031. It is a long journey in front of us, often through unknown territory, but I am confident we are on the right track. To invoke the wisdom of the world's oldest living culture: we can only make a path by walking. There will be setbacks, stumbles, divisions and delays, but they will all be outshone by moments of joy and healing. Let us commit ourselves to pursuing the next great unifying moment. I believe we can build an Australia that is at peace with its past and itself and optimistic about its future. Together this parliament cannot fail.

Honourable members: Hear, hear!