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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 1044

Mr WALLACE (Fisher) (17:32): I, like my colleague the honourable member for Lingiari, support the previous speakers that have spoken so eloquently on this topic to date. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak today on this very important issue, which I believe goes to one of the most important societal issues that we face in Australia. In the first paragraph of my maiden speech, I said:

The lot of our Indigenous peoples has been racked with poverty, ill-health and lack of opportunity since European settlement.

As we have learnt from today's report, our work is far from done in achieving some semblance of equality. We can and we must do much better.

I have a very simple mantra when it comes to representing the people of my own constituency. In all of my work on behalf of the people of Fisher, I aim to help make the Sunshine Coast a great place to learn, a great place to work and a great place to retire to. In short, I want to help make Fisher the place of choice for education, employment and retirement. As parliamentarians, we collectively owe that same duty to all of our nation's First Australians. When I was a young barrister, I was regularly briefed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service. I represented a number of our First Australians when it was necessary for them to interact with the courts. I saw firsthand the struggles that many of our Indigenous people face with imprisonment rates far, far in excess of the non-Indigenous population. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge my friend and colleague Tim Hishon, who is the leader of ATSILS on the Sunshine Coast, and his team and the great work that they do for Indigenous peoples on the Sunshine Coast.

I learnt through that contact that all Australians, whether Indigenous or not, thrive and prosper when they are given access to a quality education, when they have access to meaningful and productive employment or the chance to create their own, and when they are able to save for their own future.

A lack of proper education and training, a lack of purpose in our prime years and a lack of independence in our twilight years are the enemies of a good quality of life. Though sometimes we hear a great deal about what sets First Australians apart from their country men and women, we all share those fundamental truths. Though cultures and approaches to meeting these basic human needs have varied by place and time and continue to do so, all successful societies have sought to give their people the knowledge they need, a way to support their families and dignity in their old age.

When we assess the results of this annual report, we should review it against those three tests. Are we as a federal government helping Indigenous Australians to get the education they need to succeed? Are we helping to create the conditions where they can access good jobs and create new jobs themselves? Are we ensuring that Indigenous Australians have access to the good health care and the financial provision they need to enjoy a long and fulfilling retirement?

Like others, when I make this comparison, I find in the data from this report a great deal of work to do but also a lot of individual success to celebrate. Most importantly, I find hope for the future. The statistic that I believe should make us all cautiously optimistic is the fact that, for those Indigenous Australians who have a tertiary education, there is next to no employment gap. We should take a moment to consider the implications of this fact, remarkable in the scale of achievement it represents and a sad reminder that this should need to be an achievement at all. Where Indigenous Australians have been able to access fully the high-quality education that our country provides, they have also succeeded in finding work to the same extent as non-Indigenous people. We know well the benefits that flow from this.

Sadly, the statistics from the report demonstrate that, once you drill down below tertiary education into the vocational education sector, certificate IV and certificate III, the numbers drop off somewhat significantly. For instance, for certificate IV level education, there is a 12 per cent gap. For certificate III, there is a 12 per cent gap. Once you get down into year 11, there is a 24 per cent gap. So there is much work to be done at an educational level.

Repeated studies have shown that even short periods of unemployment can cause all types of individuals and their families to suffer poverty, housing stress, family breakdown and social isolation. People out of employment are statistically more likely to access healthcare services and are more likely to suffer from a range of chronic illnesses both mental and physical. Long-term unemployment makes individuals in all communities significantly more likely to be involved in crime, while, for children growing up in jobless households, rates of behavioural problems, alienation and future unemployment are materially higher.

Without work, of course, individuals are also unable to set aside the money they need to support themselves in retirement. For those First Australians who have a tertiary qualification, they are now able in our society to secure the life benefits of good-quality, meaningful employment just as non-Indigenous Australians can. Their hard work, skills and commitment are being recognised and utilised by employers. This has come about through the effort, ambition and determination to succeed among First Australians themselves. They also have been supported in their achievements by government through its targets for Indigenous procurement and employment and by the concerted efforts of corporate Australia.

This development is the model and the inspiration to show us what can be achieved together and how. At its heart is the individual educational success of hardworking First Australians. We should therefore welcome the fact that the government's Remote School Attendance Strategy has helped to reverse a long-term decline in school attendance in remote communities. We should welcome the increases in reading and numeracy among Indigenous children and the high percentages now enrolled in early childhood education.

Most of all, we should welcome one area—and it is an important one—where we are currently on track to meet our 2020 target: the increase from 45.4 per cent in 2008 to 61.5 per cent in 2015 in the percentage of Indigenous 20- to 24-year-olds who have achieved their year 12 or equivalent. These figures represent the gap of the future, though we should celebrate the achievements of our young Indigenous Australians and acknowledge the progress that is being made, at the moment—but, at the moment, the gap remains too large.

When it comes to the test of employment, the situation is similar. Progress has been made since '94, as we have seen among tertiary educated Australians. The employment gap has almost been overcome, and in the past 30 years there has been an overall increase in the Indigenous employment rate. However, the fact that since 2008 that rate has been decreasing is one of the most concerning figures in this report. On all sides of the House we must refocus our minds on how to overcome this worrying trend.

Finally, on the test of retirement, again, we see hope for the future. As the employment outcomes for tertiary educated First Australians improve, so too will their ability to save for their retirement. Beyond that, the total Indigenous mortality rate has declined by 15 per cent over the last 17 years, and rates of smoking are also down. These statistics represent a longer, healthier and more comfortable retirement for many Indigenous Australians now and into the future. However, once again, a great deal more work is needed. We need to significantly improve employment rates, in order to help more families contribute to super, and we need to close the gap further on access to health care, to support longer and more active lives.

In summary, on our tests of education, employment and retirement we have come a long way in recent years and the government should be commended for its focus on these issues. Sadly, however, the task ahead of us remains as large as that behind. I am confident, however, that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs are pursuing the right approach, strengthening ties with First Australian representative groups, committing to programs like Empowered Communities and moving toward enablement rather than transactional government.