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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 1049


Ms PRICE (Durack) (17:52): I rise today to speak on the Prime Minister's Closing the gap report 2017. Where are we today? It is 2017, and we are inching slowly towards closing the gap, but, as we have all heard today from the Prime Minister, there is no doubt that we need to do more today. Yes, we are making inroads into education—as we heard from the Prime Minister today, there is now no gap between tertiary educated Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of employment outcomes. That was a good start, which is fantastic news, but there is still a massive gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians when it comes to both getting into tertiary education and completing tertiary education.

We have missed our targets on child mortality, education, life expectancy, employment, incarceration rates and literacy. Indigenous Australians are 2.8 times more likely to commit suicide than non-Indigenous Australians. As long as there remains a gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, I commit to working to close it. I am very proud of the decision we have taken to have a suicide prevention trial site in the Kimberley and in the Mid West, and I look forward to working with both of those working groups.

We—not just as the government but everyone in this place—really do need to do more. We need to live and breathe this issue, just as our First Australians live and breathe their plight every day—morning, noon and night. As the Chair of the Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs, I strongly encourage every member of this House and the Senate to acquaint themselves with the issues that Indigenous Australians face every day and to consider how they themselves might foster the grassroots growth and support that is required to make a real dent in regard to the issues that we are discussing today.

The Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs released an interim report last May on the first steps for improving educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students—and we have continued with that inquiry this term—which included a number of recommendations on how we might help address some of the issues that we are seeing in this report that we are discussing today.

Education is the key to this. Education creates job opportunities, which flow into health outcomes, social outcomes, social welfare outcomes—all of it. The first recommendation in the report of the standing committee was around changes to ABSTUDY and a redesigned system, making the program more accessible and more workable. The government has gone some way to addressing this recommendation already, which I will touch on a little later.

My electorate of Durack has the third-highest Indigenous population of any federal electorate in Australia, and it includes some of the poorest and most disadvantaged Indigenous Australians in this country. Some of the worst health gaps, employment gaps and education gaps are found in parts of my electorate. It really is very heartbreaking and pitiful.

Another recommendation in the interim report was to redirect funding for furthering programs that directly relate to Indigenous girls' programs—we hear a lot about boys' programs—like the Girls Academy and the SHINE program, which I am a huge supporter of; the SHINE program is based in my electorate, in Geraldton. As our future mothers, it is critical that these young Indigenous women get the education they deserve—no less—so that they can be the future leaders in their communities, and so that they can fulfil their own dreams.

Just recently I put my money where my mouth is and hired a 17-year-old SHINE program graduate to work in my electorate office in Geraldton. Let me tell you: she is an absolute cracker and she is going to become an incredibly valuable member of our team. What an opportunity, and she has grasped it with both hands. We are all so proud of her. I encourage all members of this House and the Senate to think about the commitments they make in public and think about employing a local Indigenous lady or man in their office, because we can all be richer for this experience. I put the challenge to my colleagues that they too might be able to take that opportunity.

There is no lack of will to change the outcomes for Indigenous Australians. There is no lack of funds available to change the outcomes for Indigenous Australians. But there has been a lack of change in the day-to-day lives for Indigenous Australians; there is no denying that. This is not a partisan issue. This is not a coalition versus Labor argument. It is not even a state government versus federal government argument. This is an issue that every Australian feels very deeply, one way or another, and it is an issue that I feel very deeply. But as long as this gap exists, the poorer our country will be for it, because there is untapped potential. Even from a pure economic perspective, there is untapped potential, especially in northern Australia.

There are programs that this government is delivering that are producing real results. The Indigenous Rangers program has been a fantastic success in my electorate of Durack, and I know there are many successful ranger programs.

I recently spoke on the reforms that the government is implementing to make university more accessible to Indigenous Australians, and this is an issue that I am deeply passionate about. These changes, based around changing the ABSTUDY program to be more workable and accessible to more Indigenous Australians, are aimed at improving Indigenous tertiary education participation and completion rates. As I said earlier, we know that tertiary-educated Indigenous Australians and tertiary-educated non-Indigenous Australians sit on an equal footing when it comes to employment opportunities. It speaks for itself.

We know that the benefits from employment are boundless. Full-time employment allows a person to realise their aspirations. It allows them to start a family on firm foundations. It allows them to enter the housing market. It allows them to take responsibility and ownership of their life. This legislation aimed to move away from judging our performance as a government by the number of Indigenous students, and to focus instead on Indigenous graduates. By focusing on Indigenous graduates, we can create educated Indigenous leaders, who can hopefully one day replace all of us in this place and carry on this work.

The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, also made a statement to the Senate today regarding the government's work around this issue and has committed to identifying what programs work and what programs do not.

We need to support the programs that empower Indigenous people to make their own decisions, take ownership of their lives and their own communities instead of having well-meaning government and government departments telling them how to live their lives.

The challenges that Indigenous Australians face, they are significant and can be difficult to fix. We know that. This government needs to be robust in its leadership on this issue, and I sincerely hope that we are able to do that. It is not easy; I accept that. I do believe, however, that political correctness can get in the way of closing this gap. We must call the issues as we see them, be brave and work towards solutions without fear of offending our First Australians. We have been too soft—all of us have been too soft. We cannot continue to be soft, because lives are at stake.

The problems are not insurmountable. We have seen that. We are very slowly making progress, but it is not fast enough. Indigenous Australians are still more than 2.8 times more likely to commit suicide; they are overrepresented in our prisons; they have a shorter life expectancy than their non-Indigenous counterparts. But the reality is governments cannot do this alone. We do need a full court press to really close the gap and the disadvantage that Australian Indigenous people experience, and to achieve this, if we are doing it as a team, it requires local Indigenous leaders. They have got to step up to the plate. They have to step up, they have to speak out—and that includes those grassroots operators who often are the ones with the answers but who often do not get a voice. We as a government have got to make sure they have got a voice. In my electorate of Durack, I look forward to working with those people so that we can all make a difference and close that gap once and for all.