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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 1053


Mrs WICKS (Robertson) (18:12): As I rise to respond to the ninth Closing the gap report tabled by the Prime Minister today, I begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on Ngunnawal country and acknowledge and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and future.

Closing the gap remains a priority for the coalition government and I have been monitoring this report's progress closely in my time of representing the electorate of Robertson on the Central Coast and also as a member of the coalition's backbench committee on Indigenous affairs. There is a relentless determination that I see in this parliament to ensure that we do close the gap, which becomes more urgent with every passing year.

I know it is a priority not just for the Prime Minister and this side of the House but for all of us in this place, as has also been seen by the broad support for the Parliamentary Friends of the Close the Gap Campaign. The purpose of the group is to raise awareness of the national effort to close the gap as a forum for policy discussion, provide opportunities for local engagement with communities and ensure that we have the latest information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health initiatives and best practice outcomes. In fact, it is the areas of health, education and employment that so often provide the vital snapshot of where progress is being made to close the gap and where we need to further focus our efforts.

This year we have seen progress in the Closing the gap report in several key areas, which I wish to mention briefly. There have been significant improvements in the proportion of Indigenous 20- to 24-year-olds achieving year 12 or equivalent. At higher levels of education there is almost no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. There is a significant decline in mortality rates—including in chronic diseases and infant mortality—a greater access to antenatal care, reduced rates of smoking and a significant increase in Indigenous female employment over the longer term.

I welcome these improvements and commend them to the House but, sadly, there is so much more work to do. As always, the response will require courage, collaboration and an awareness of the complexity of each issue. For example, the target to halve the gap in child mortality for Indigenous children under five by 2018 is not on track nor is the target to close the gap on life expectancy by 2031.

I echo the Prime Minister's genuine sadness on this point and endorse the need to escalate our efforts to reduce smoking rates during pregnancy, continue to improve immunisation rates, lift rates of antenatal care, reduce foetal trauma and keep our children safe.

We have seen improvements in reading and numeracy for Indigenous students, but this target is not on track. The national school attendance target is also not on track, while incarceration rates and rates of child protection are too high. While meaningful improvements are being made in many areas, today's report states that we are only on track to meet one of these targets. I am confident of the leadership of the Prime Minister in this area, with the support of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and the member for Hasluck, Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives and now the first Indigenous minister to be appointed to a Commonwealth government. Together, the task must be to stay the course, look at what has worked over the last decade and where greater efforts are needed.

One example is the Empowered Communities initiative, where we are supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be at the centre of decision-making in their regions. The Indigenous-led model is now in eight regions across the country, generating strong Indigenous governance to build capacity and ensure more community responsibility for decision-making.

On the New South Wales Central Coast, the CEO of the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, Sean Gordon, is leading this initiative with vigour. His response to the latest Closing the gap report was also that we must stay the course as a government in our effort and commitment towards closing the disparity gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Sean told me that, while there have been great improvements in some of the target areas, we must also acknowledge that there is still a lot more work that needs to be done, especially in the areas of early education and employment. Darkinjung is reporting real success in addressing Indigenous disparity through a fantastic partnership with Barker College and the establishment of an alternative schooling model, as well as a partnership with Lendlease to deliver employment and procurement opportunities on the Central Coast.

Also on the Central Coast we have the Barang organisation, forging strong community networks, developing local Indigenous leadership and optimising investments in the Aboriginal community. The Barang organisation is a fantastic organisation in my electorate on the Central Coast. It includes the extraordinary NAISDA Dance College, based at Mt Penang, and the Bara Barang Corporation, which provides services, like support for young people, through community and arts programs.

This local response to a national issue is seen increasingly across the Central Coast, where three key health providers have formed a partnership to develop, promote and implement strategies that will make a difference in the lives of our Indigenous community. The Central Coast Local Health District, Yerin Aboriginal Health Services, and Central Coast Primary Care are working together to improve access to education, employment and health services in our community.

The Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network is also working to develop a pilot project aimed at supporting Aboriginal health practitioners. The project aims to not only increase the availability of primary healthcare services in Aboriginal communities but support Aboriginal students through study into employment.

These are local projects that involve boosting health, employment and education outcomes for local Aboriginal people. In light of the ninth anniversary of the apology to the stolen generation, this ought to be a reminder that, while we recognise the importance of words, we recognise that it will be actions that will set us on the path to closing the gap. We reaffirm and stand by that apology but use it as inspiration to press forward and ensure that closing the gap for our First Australians is, and will remain, a key priority.