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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 840

Senator SCULLION (Northern TerritoryMinister for Indigenous Affairs and Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (17:27): I commend the documents to senators, not just for the clear understanding they provide of what needs to be done to address this disadvantage in First Australian communities but because it gets beyond a gap-focus and a deficit-mindset, and tells the proud stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievements. It is a catalogue of pride in country, pride in community, and pride in work and family. It shows how pride and cultural authority is driving change across the country.

It describes how we as a government have learnt the lessons of history and culture and are working with leaders and communities, and within and alongside culture. That is why I am adamant that Indigenous Advancement Strategy services should be delivered by Indigenous organisations and service providers that deeply understand that culture.

For nearly a decade we have been making progress against closing the gap targets. Last night, the Prime Minister and I hosted a function for Indigenous professionals, including the first Aboriginal surgeon and his sister, the first Australian obstetrician, the first person of Indigenous heritage to represent Australia as an ambassador in our diplomatic corp. Over the past 50 years, as the Prime Minister highlighted earlier in his statement to the House, there have been standout people who raised community expectations and pride. There have been many quiet, stalwart achievers who have contributed to their communities by changing one person's life at a time.

Being a proud Territorian, I am pleased many are from the Northern Territory—people such as Andrea Mason, Northern Territory Australian of the Year. There has been strong and wide advocacy that has changed attitudes and changed laws—Neville Bonner and Eddie Mabo, and the pioneers of the freedom rides, to name a few. I can describe the progress in the lives of Indigenous communities in my own stories and interactions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There are people like Regan Hart, who was a ranger at Kalpowar, Queensland, and who completed her training as an Indigenous compliance officer with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; and Rick Hanlon, at AFL Cape York House, who was just awarded an Order of Australia for his work supporting students living away from home.

People's personal stories are community stories too, and the stories I see when I am out in community. Sadly, the reality remains that the majority of people working in communities are non-Indigenous—the teachers, the nurses, the police, the local chippie or electrician. There has been some change on this front, although the pace of change has not been as fast as many of us would like. There are educated and qualified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are providing leadership in the communities, but they could be doing these jobs. I will not stop pushing until most if not all of the people working in remote Indigenous communities are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from those communities.

There is always the temptation, when talking about this report, to talk about deficits and gaps, because that is what the Closing the Gap targets show. But that is not the whole story—telling the whole story would mean including the 60 First Australians who are getting a job every day. It would mean including the work our remote staff—the so-called yellow shirts—are doing to help 14,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children get to school every day. It would mean including the $284 million in contracts Indigenous businesses won in 2015-16 as a result of their efforts and our procurement policy. Up from just $6.2 million in 2012-13, it is an extraordinary shift in Commonwealth purchasing and a real reflection of the quality of Indigenous businesses.

What we always have to keep in mind is that closing the gap is not about ethnicity; it is about poverty. The gaps in life outcomes do not stem from being an Aboriginal or a Torres Strait Islander person but from the fact that those people are living in poverty and suffering all of the consequential social outcomes. Take the target to close the life-expectancy gap by 2031. While we have seen ongoing improvements in life expectancy for the whole Australian population, there has been a gradual improvement for the Indigenous population; the current rate of progress is just slightly improving rather than closing the gap. Let us be frank: this target was ambitious and unrealistic in such a short time frame. Equivalent increases in life expectancy for the broader Australian population have taken between 70 and 90 years to achieve, instead of the 20-year target that we set for ourselves. We need to recognise the progress that has been made and the positive stories that are there.

The attendance rate for Indigenous students is 83.4 per cent, which means the majority of Indigenous students are attending school at a rate close to non-Indigenous students. We know that, if we can get kids to pre-school, getting them to go on to school is easier. Some jurisdictions have 100 per cent enrolment rates for Indigenous four-year-old children, but overall only 87 per cent of Indigenous children in the year before full-time schooling were enrolled in early childhood education. That is significantly short of the 95 per cent target set by COAG, so it is really important that we assist those jurisdictions who are simply not cutting it.

We all know that literacy and numeracy standards are stagnating across the entire Australian student population. Although the literacy and numeracy gaps remain, the numbers required to halve the gap are within reach. In 2016, if an additional 440 Indigenous year 3 students throughout Australia had achieved the national minimum standard in reading, we would have achieved the target. Again, it should be noted that both South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory actually achieved every single standard in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading, but the Northern Territory achieved none in both reading and numeracy. It is not only just saying that, broadly, we need to improve this; we also need to use the Closing the Gap report to ensure that we target resources and efforts at those jurisdictions that are failing. At the other end, in high school, the news is getting better. We are on track to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020. But, just as a precautionary note, whilst the headline figures on this look good, I think you would not have to drill in too much to know that remote Australia is not doing anywhere near as well as metropolitan Australia.

The news gets better for those who go on to further education. With tertiary qualifications, Indigenous Australians have exactly the same employment outcomes as non-Indigenous Australians. In 1971, less than five per cent of working-age Indigenous men had a post-school qualification. By 2011, this proportion had risen to 31 per cent. It is still trending upwards for both men and women. In 2005, there were more than 8,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education award courses. Ten years later, there are more than 16,000—that is a 93 per cent increase, compared to a 47 per cent growth for all domestic students. We know the focus needs to shift from enrolments to lifting retention and completion rates. That is why we have focused our funding and our interventions on ensuring that people are not only enrolled but staying in there, investing $253-odd million in the Indigenous Student Success Program. I know this is going to ensure that we can translate those enrolments into completions, which should be the figure that we think is important.

The employment gap is another target where the short-term gains are not on target but where the long-term trend is heading in the right direction, and we are making inroads in all localities. Since September 2013, more than 47,000 jobs have been created for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians under employment programs in my portfolio. As I have indicated, that is about 60 jobs per day. The Community Development Program has accelerated progress in employment since July 2015, placing more than 12,000 jobseekers into jobs and outside of the CDP system.

Twelve months ago, the Prime Minister said that government has to focus on doing things with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is a change from transactional government to enablement, from paying for services to linking funding with outcomes and from a one-size-fits-all mindset for program design to local solutions. Grants and national programs like the Community Development Program and the Remote School Attendance Strategy are driven by locals and by local needs. Our network of staff, many of whom are Indigenous themselves, are working with communities and organisations to develop these local solutions. The reforms to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy have enabled a far more strategic and flexible approach to the government's investment in Indigenous Affairs to achieve better outcomes on the ground while relieving the administrative burden and red tape for organisations servicing Indigenous communities. We have to work with stakeholders, listen to the views of those on the front line and make the changes necessary to get it right. We need to make those changes swiftly to ensure that the change can happen in the context of the information.

I seek leave to incorporate the remainder of my remarks.

Leave granted.

The remainder of the speech read as follows—

Recently, I announced $40 million over four years to strengthen the evaluation of Indigenous Affairs programmes.

This is the next step in our important IAS reforms and will allow us to better deliver what works — from the perspective of those receiving services, not providers.

Building on foundations (State and territory accountability and smarter targets)

Closing the Gap is everyone's responsibility and it was important COAG reaffirmed its commitment to Closing the Gap.

States and territories are continuing to identify opportunities to support Indigenous economic development on Indigenous-owned land.

They have agreed to work with the Commonwealth to improve their Indigenous procurement policies so that they mirror the success of the Coalition Government Indigenous Procurement Policy and those set for Indigenous employment and suppliers undertaking infrastructure projects.

And with some targets due to expire, we will have discussions about refreshing the Closing the Gap targets.

Each of the states and territories has recognised that it is not as simple as merely setting new targets and we would be remiss in our duty to get this right if all we did was pluck new figures out of the air because they sound ideal.

So we will work through COAG to consider whether the current breadth of targets adequately reflects the complexity of issues faced by Indigenous Australians.

We need smarter targets in the sense that they need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.

We also recognise that, while the Commonwealth has powers under the constitution for Indigenous Affairs and we report these targets to the Federal Parliament, in reality, the states and territories are at the frontline of improving the lives of Indigenous Australians.

As we set new targets, we will improve accountability to ensure that we don't return to the mindset in which we set and forget.

Professor Chris Sarra, who is newly appointed to the Indigenous Advisory Council, said it best a few years ago when he said, 'For decades, Aboriginal people have signalled a dramatic sense of frustration about politicians who think that it's enough to throw money at a solution when we'd all prefer for them to sit down and do things with us, not to us, in the interest of making a difference.'

Today, together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we are working to ensure communities can be at the centre of the design of policies and the running of programmes.

I have to say I am looking forward to the challenge in this critical year ahead to build on what's working and change what's not.