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Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Page: 493


Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (16:07): Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and on which this parliament sits. I pay my respects to elders past and present. I welcome Prime Minister Abbott's statement and his presentation of the seventh annual Closing the Gap report to the parliament, and I also acknowledge the role of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in establishing the Closing the Gap process and the role of prime ministers Rudd and Gillard in presenting these reports in earlier years.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been grievously discriminated against since Europeans arrived in Australia more than 200 years ago. They have been dispossessed and disempowered. They have had their land, their languages, their culture and their children taken from them. They have suffered deeply entrenched systemic disadvantage for generations. Overcoming the terrible legacy of disadvantage is an urgent national project. It requires the marshalling of significant resources and a strong, consistent and focused effort. It is also a long-term project; it must be sustained and maintained for years to come. And it is a project for all of us; it requires commitment across the political divide and across the community.

Our nation prides itself on an egalitarian spirit, on its notion of the fair go and its sense of decency. But this is no egalitarian land when there is an unemployment rate of 21 per cent for our Indigenous people. This is no egalitarian land when the median household income of Aboriginal and Islander adults is half that of non-Indigenous adults. And this is no egalitarian land when Aboriginal juveniles are 24 times more likely than non-Aboriginals to be in detention. There can be no fair go that excludes the original inhabitants of this country. And there can be no sense of decency when Aboriginal children are nearly twice as likely to die before the age of five as non-Indigenous children.

This is why the Closing the Gap reports are important. They represent an annual stocktake of progress towards achieving a fair go for our first Australians.They provide a yardstick against which we, as political leaders, must measure ourselves.They require us—all of usto match our words with deeds, our aspirations with actions and our sentiments with policies and programs that are welldesigned and which deliver real outcomes. This is why Labor has urged, and will continue to urge, this government to reverse the $500 million which was cut from Indigenous programs in last year's budget.These cuts have real effects on existing services in areas like preventive health, legal aid and family and children's centres.

The Closing the G ap approach owes a great deal to form er Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who opened the 42nd Parliament in 2008 with an apology to the stolen generations and who delivered the first Closing the G ap report a year later. In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments established a series of targets to reduce the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. As we all know, o ne of the most important aspects of this approach is the focus on evidence and data to monitor outcomes. At COAG ' s request, the Productivity Commission has been producing regular Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reports, which collect mountains of data on our progress in closing the gap.

The latest Overcoming Indigenous d isadvantage report was released in November last year. It contains both positive news and sobering news. The positive news is that the efforts of recent years are resulting in improvements in the areas of health, post - secondary education and employment. The gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has narrowed over recent years. Yet, it is still too wide. In 2010-12 life expectancy for Indigenous males was 69.1 years compared to 79.7 for non-Indigenous males. Life expectancy for Indigenous females was 73.7 years , but for non-Indigenous females it was 83.2. Fewer Indigenous children are dying. Mortality rates for Indigenous children have improved significantly over the period 1998 to 2012. For infants under 12 months of age, mortality rates have more than halved from 14 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 1998 to five deaths per 1,000 births in 2012.

The Overcoming Indigenous d isadvantage report also shows that post-secondary education outcomes have improved , with a marked increase in the proportion of young Indig enous people who are finishing y ear 12 and going on to further education. It is also heartening to see basic economic outcomes improving—higher rates of full-time and professional employment, higher incomes, lower reliance on income support and increased home ownership for many Indigenous Australians. And that is good news. It also shows that the national effort that has been underway for the last decade or so is achieving results.

But, as I said, the report has sobering news as well. It found that in some areas we are not improving but just marking time, and that i n other areas the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is actually growing wider. Despite the improvements in post-secondary education, in schooling there has been virtually no chan ge since 2008 in the proportion of Indigenous students achieving minimum standards in reading, writing and numeracy. Despite the improvements in life expectancy and child mortality, rates of chronic disease and disability remain high amongst our first peoples. Mental health outcomes have not improved and the incidence of self-harm has increased. And l egal and justice outcomes for our Indigenous people have deteriorated. Imprisonment rates for adults increased by 57 per cent between 2000 and 2013 , and juvenile detention rates have increased sharply. So the news is indeed sobering. It also provides an indication of where we need to focus and redouble our efforts and to re-evaluate existing policies.

These statistics and many more are an essential part of the C losing the G ap approach. By measuring outcomes , all of us are held accountable—policymakers, governments and legislators. We are also provided with information that should ensure that the design and implementation of policies can be improved. But just as important as the quantitative data is the qualitative data. A valuable feature of the Overcoming Indigenous d isadvantage report was its focus on the things that work—case studies of individual initiatives which have been rigorously evaluated and shown to be successful. What these show us is that well-designed programs can and do make a difference. We can make a difference.

But behind the statistics, behind the case studies and, indeed, behind the speeches today there are so many individual stories of people across this nation making a difference—whether it is the hundreds of thousands of community leaders, health workers, teachers, social and community workers and others around Australia, whether it is my friend and colleague Senator Nova Peris or whether it is people like Tanya Hosch and Tim Gartrell from Recognise Australia and people like Tom Calma and Melinda Cilento, the co-chairs of Reconciliation Australia. As I have said, there are so many people who work in our communities to redress this disadvantage. There are so many Australians who work to improve the lives of our Indigenous people.

The Prime Minister said today: 'We know that, until Indigenous Australians fully participate in the life of our country, all of us are diminished.' And the Leader of the Opposition said: 'A great nation includes everyone, and a good society leaves no-one behind.' I endorse the sentiments of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and I again reaffirm in this place the opposition's commitment to the great national project of Closing the Gap.