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Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Page: 495

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (16:15): I too rise to make a contribution on the Closing the gap report. Much is made in this place of bipartisan or, as I like to call it, multipartisan support for closing the gap in Aboriginal life expectancy and disadvantage. While we the Greens are fully committed to that, that does not mean that we cannot and should not uncritically accept what is happening and the policy in this place that the government of any persuasion develops to address the gap on life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is in that context that I make my contribution to this debate, because we do not think that the current government has the policy settings right. The Prime Minister himself said that much more work is needed because this seventh Closing the gap report is profoundly disappointing. I very rarely agree with this Prime Minister, but I do agree with him on that point, because it is profoundly disappointing. But, more importantly, the policies that this government have put in place are profoundly disappointing.

We have already heard some of the statistics, and I will probably cite a few more. But statistics can be used to blind people to what is actually happening out there. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs said that the government are trying to do something better. I question whether things are being done better. I think that people are being kind when they say, 'We've seen a year of turmoil in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.' We do not know what is going on with the funding. We have seen funding cuts. They can quote all the figures they like, but the simple fact is that funding has been cut from Indigenous programs. What is more, in many cases we do not actually know where those funding cuts have happened because we will not know the outcomes of the Indigenous advancement strategy tender process until March. The government would like you to think that there has been a considered approach to the way the funding has been cut. There has not been. There have been cuts across programs.

We have already seen some significant cuts that we do know of, and that includes the $534.4 million in cuts overall that has come out of the programs. There has been a $168 million cut out of health programs alone. I know that my colleague Senator Wright will have a lot to say around this issue in particular when she makes her contribution, but we have seen $34 million worth of cuts to legal aid and policy reform programs. There have been cuts to the national Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Services program of $3.6 million over the next three years.

The government claims that in fact there have not been any cuts there and that those services can tender through the IAS. The simple fact is we do not know. Those services and those programs are suffering now. Certainly the legal aid programs are being cut. In fact, when I asked in estimates about the cuts to those legal aid programs and reforms, particularly of policy, of course the government said that they would not affect frontline services. But I asked the Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda about that, and he said, 'Yes, of course it will affect the delivery of legal aid on the ground, and I am getting feedback constantly about the impact those cuts have had.'

As evidenced from this Closing the gap report, some things have got worse. I will address the issue around chronic illness later. Many things have got worse. We are not on track for progress on closing the gap in life expectancy in a generation. Yes, there has been some small progress, but clearly we are not on track to meet that target. We are on track—thank goodness!—to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade. We are on track for that. That is great. We have not met the target to ensure access for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities to early childhood education. We are not on track to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for Indigenous students. We are not on track to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We will not meet our commitments to close the gap unless we significantly change what we are doing.

I put to this place that going to a billionaire, Mr Forrest, to ask him what we should be doing is not the right thing to do either. That is a wish list from a billionaire about what we should be doing. Outsourcing policy development in that manner is not the approach that we should be taking. He—surprise, surprise!—recommended more of what the government wants to do—for example, income management. We do not need ideological beliefs rather than evidenced based policies. Income management does not work. We have had report after report about the fact that it does not work. The latest evaluation could not find any substantive evidence of the program causing significant changes relative to its key policy objectives, including changing people's behaviour. There is no evidence of an overall improvement in financial wellbeing, including reduction in financial harassment or improved financial management skills. More general measures of wellbeing in the community show no evidence of improvement, including for children. Rather than building capacity and independence, for many, the program has acted to make people more dependent on welfare. It does not work, yet we are still doing it. That is not doing something new; that is in fact a continuation of more failed programs. We have not managed to progress cooperation between the states and the Commonwealth after the end of the national partnership agreements.

One of the areas where we have made progress, thank goodness, is in cutting smoking—and what have the government done? They cut funding to address smoking, and they will come back and try and tell you, 'We haven't cut funding to smoking.' Well, they have cut funding. You go and talk to any of the services that are delivering that program and they will tell you what impact that is having. They have cut that particular program.

The impacts of the funding cuts compound other cruel government measures, around income support, for example. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, when he delivered his report last year, did not pull his punches when he made comment about the impact of these cuts. He talked about the lack of consultation, where the Assistant Minister for Health claims there is significant consultation. In answer to my question earlier this afternoon about the health budget, she said there was a lot of consultation. The commissioner for social justice found that there was not. He found that the consultation on the government's Indigenous Advancement Strategy had been scant, with minimal involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The lack of a consultation process, he said, was concerning. He described the first year of the Abbott government in Indigenous affairs as a year characterised by deep funding cuts, the radical reshaping of existing programs and services and the development of new programs and services, and said that the lack of clarity and muddled narrative was deeply concerning. It is no wonder that we have gone backwards in closing the gap.

Every year, I table in this place the Close the Gap steering committee report. It used to be called the 'shadow' report, but now it is called the Progress and priorities report 2015. They make a number of recommendations in their report that I recommend that the government take on board and read very carefully. If you read it, the key narrative that runs through it, besides the issues around not meeting the Close the Gap targets, is the need for long-term, sustained commitment to funding. That is what we need in this place, not cuts—not having Aboriginal medical services that have to work out, year by year, whether they will have funding, whether they will be able to keep their staff, whether the programs that are working will be kept going and whether they are going to be chopped and changed. We need long-term, sustained commitment to address closing the gap. We need to address the soaring incarceration rates—not build prisons but invest in alternative approaches such as justice reinvestment, which, again, Senator Wright will address. We need to be addressing the issues around cognitive impairment and people with cognitive impairment in indefinite detention.

These are all issues that the government is not addressing and that need to be addressed if we are going to genuinely Closing the gap. We are committed and will continue to be committed to close the gap, but we will not stand by and let policies stand without criticism that are not going to close the gap. We will continue to hold the government accountable. I seek leave to table the Progress and priorities report 2015of the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee.

Leave granted.