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Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Page: 2168


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (17:47): As the member for Sydney, the Hon. Tanya Plibersek, said, Paul Keating in his speech said, 'Have we asked how it would feel if this happened to us?' I have asked myself that question and I have seen the devastation in my family. My grandfather's family was completely separated and locked up. His family was of the small portion of Lebanese people—3,000—that were here in this country at the time of World War II. My mother never got to see her grandmother. My grandfather never got to see his mother or father again. So I have empathy for our Indigenous people.

It was on 13 February 2018 that we acknowledged the 10th anniversary of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologising unreservedly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And I remember exactly where I was. I was in the Townsville mall with my work colleagues and hundreds of other people, watching on the big screen as the Prime Minister made the announcement. There were many from my community who were descendants and some of the stolen generation people there. This was a watershed moment for our country, a step in the right direction towards achieving reconciliation and the opportunity to begin the truth-telling and the healing that will benefit our whole nation.

This was a day that we said sorry for the mistreatment, injustices and hurts that the stolen generation experienced. Many of them and their dependants still carry these scars to this very day in the form of transgenerational trauma. It was a day when all Australians embraced one another and a day when we committed to working together to improve the lives of our First Nations people. To use the language of Senator McCarthy: 'The day of the apology was the day where the nation's heart beat as one.' Ten years ago we promised we would do better.

This is particularly important to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in my electorate of Herbert. Palm Island is also in my electorate. This is an incredibly diverse community of approximately 47 language groups, people from communities across the state of Queensland who were forcibly moved to Palm Island. Many of those men came in chains, shackled around the neck, the hands and the feet.

The electorate of Herbert was home to the great Eddie Koiki Mabo, who, 25 years ago last year, won the High Court decision to take ownership of his land, Mer Island, in the Torres Strait. It is the home of the Palm Island Seven, who went on strike 60 years ago to fight for wages and better working conditions. Their courage and fight for justice and equality resulted in them, and their families, being removed from the island, not to come back. Last year, we celebrated 50 years of the referendum, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people got the vote for the first time. I note that the people of Townsville and Toowoomba voted no in that referendum. However, I believe that we have taken action in the latter years to make amends for that vote.

Herbert was also home of the great Dr Evelyn Scott, the first Aboriginal woman to have a state funeral. She spent her life fighting for justice, equality and education for her people. Herbert is also the home of Dr Gracelyn Smallwood; Uncle Eddie Smallwood; Florence Onus; two young women I met last week, Melisa and Bernice from Blaq Diamonds; and many, many other people in our community who have given their lives fighting for justice and equality.

Words are important, but words alone do not change behaviours, nor do they create opportunities for equality and justice. In order to move on from the words of that most important apology, we needed real action, and that is where we set targets to close the gap, with the aim of improving the lives of Torres Strait Island and Aboriginal people. In 2018, the Closing the gap report found that, for the first time since 2011, three of the seven closing the gap targets were on track to be met. However, this sadly demonstrates that we are behind in four of those seven targets. This begs the question: are we succeeding in achieving our objectives to close the gap? Are our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters getting better lives in rural and remote communities? Today, especially as I reflect on whether the lives of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been made better since the apology, I again think about the people in Townsville, in my electorate, and the people on Palm Island.

We must read the Closing the gap report in its entirety and acknowledge that we have not succeeded and we can and must do better. If the lives of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters are to improve, we would not see such things as the life expectancy for Aboriginal people at approximately 10 years less than that of non-Aboriginal people. The suicide rate for Aboriginal people is six times higher than it is for non-Aboriginal people. Countrywide rates of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are worse per capita than during apartheid in South Africa. I see this in both the Cleveland detention centre and the Stuart prison in my electorate. Clearly, governments aren't doing anywhere near enough.

As I said earlier in this speech, I am proud to be the member for Herbert, which includes Palm Island, which is the largest discrete Aboriginal community in the country. I pay my respects to the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people of that country. It is against all odds that the people of Palm Island celebrate their centenary this year. Palm Island has a rich history, but it is also a history that is rich in pain. However, Palm Island is a resilient community with some unique challenges. The Turnbull government is so completely out of touch and is ignoring the fact that on Palm Island we have an unemployment rate of 27 per cent. The Palm Island Shire Council, led by Mayor Alf Lacey, is doing remarkable work to address these issues. I will continue to work with them to secure recognition, equality and a better life.

The biggest threat to the Palm Island community is the fact that the Turnbull government is cutting the National Partnership on Remote Housing. Instead of working with the community to address unemployment, the Turnbull government is cutting the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing—a 10-year, $5.4 billion program which expires on 30 June this year. For Palm Island, this means job losses. Let me reiterate: the unemployment rate on Palm Island is 27 per cent. The job losses will include seven apprenticeships. During question time at the last sitting, I asked the Prime Minister why he was cutting this program. He chose not to personally answer the question but instead referred the question to the Minister for Indigenous Health, the member for Hasluck, the Hon. Ken Wyatt.

Labor are prepared to work with the government, but, rest assured, we will not wait for them when it comes to bettering the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Leader of the Opposition has announced a few of the policies that Labor will take to the next election, and I am proud to say that a Labor government will provide $10 million to programs to assist with the healing of stolen generation members and their descendants nationwide, to be administered by the Healing Foundation. These programs will support intergenerational healing, family reunion and return to country.

Labor will work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to set justice targets to ensure that we reduce the incarceration rate and improve community safety. This is particularly important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. In the first 100 days, a new Labor government will convene a national summit for First Nations children. Further to this, Labor has already started working on legislating an Indigenous voice to parliament—without government support—because bipartisanship on issues of constitutional change does not mean doing nothing. Labor will work on a voice enshrined in the Constitution, a declaration to be passed by all parliaments, Commonwealth and state, acknowledging the unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian history, their culture and connection. A makarrata commission to oversee a process of agreement-making and truth-telling will also be established.

We must take serious action to close the gap, and it needs to start immediately. The fact that only three of the seven targets set a decade ago are on track is a national shame. It is a national shame that must be addressed urgently. It certainly doesn't start with the Turnbull government cutting seven apprenticeship jobs on Palm Island. As I said, Labor will work with the government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, but we certainly will not wait. And I would like to finish this speech by offering my personal apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this great nation.