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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 1067


Mr WYATT (8:36 PM) —I rise today to talk on the third annual Prime Ministerial statement in the House of Representatives on closing the gap. I have an issue with the illusion of words versus the reality of what is occurring on the ground and the pragmatism of those who are translating that into actions that improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians, no matter what the setting. The former Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, the member for Griffith, delivered the apology to Australia’s Indigenous people. It was a key turning point in Australia’s history that has healed many and brought many together. I quote a comment of his that epitomises the directions that are being sought:

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

Symbolism is important but the apology was more than symbolism; it was a recognition of the pain of the historical past. It created the opportunity for Australia to move on from where it was. It is not the sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history. The apology is also aimed at building a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians based on real respect. Our challenge for the future is to cross that bridge and, in doing so, to embrace a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We have not done that thus far. There are still many challenges. If I were to ask every member in the House of Representatives to visit every Aboriginal community within their electorate, they would find that the gap is not closing and that in fact there are many things that have been left undone.

I want to acknowledge the Hon. Warren Snowdon for the work that he does. He travels this land extensively, looking at the challenges and the problems in housing, education and economic participation, and I know that to him the challenges seem absolutely surreal. This demonstrates that we have not moved the agenda of reform significantly, even though partnerships have been developed under the national partnership agreements, of which there are six. All of them go to a set of priorities that we would hope would make a difference, and with each is a substantial investment by state, territory and Commonwealth governments. Yet in my own seat of Hasluck, in an urban context, I do not see the Aboriginal community of some 4,000 to 5,000 gaining from the closing the gap strategy. If I were to talk to them about elements of the closing the gap strategy, they would ask what the detail was—where is the money and where is the difference?

There is still much to be done. In my own state, Western Australia, we have the third largest Aboriginal population, behind New South Wales and Queensland. I want the people of Hasluck—the Indigenous Australians who live, work and experience the trauma of poverty, who experience the challenges around the lack of economic participation and who experience low educational outcomes, although they are improving—to also be part of the total equation. When we talk about closing the gap, we make a universal assumption that this reaches every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in this nation. Let me assure you that it does not. Therefore, our readings and the reports we present on closing the gap should reflect the reality. Many of the NPAs, or National Partnership Agreements, are targeted to particular locations, and universality is not a factor. That creates a degree of scepticism.

It has been my philosophy of life that difficulties vanish when faced boldly. I think we need to be bold in the way we tackle the absolute gap that exists in every facet of Indigenous Australians’ lives. How do we collectively ensure that scepticism difficulties are overcome? It is challenging, but I think we need to listen with a mindset that is different from expecting people to participate and follow without being part of a process. Scepticism is the view that, since we cannot confirm or prove that something exists outside of our perception of it, we should deny any claims to true knowledge of it or at least suspend judgement. The word ‘scepticism’ comes from the Greek word ‘skeptos’, which means doubt. If we look at the past, we find that the future we talked about when the apology was given has not been delivered to all Indigenous Australians; but it has been delivered in targeted areas, where I do concede that there are some improvements. These improvements are not significant when you read the COAG Reform Council’s report against the measures that are particular to the NPAs. That report indicates that there is some improvement but that it is not universal. I was taken aback by the Prime Minister’s admission that there will be a three-decade period in which we really should push for significant reform.

The other thing we need to think about seriously is that if we are going to change the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we must be universal in our approach and look at providing the pathways that will make a difference. But we have to premise this—and I use the words that Tom Calma spoke when he was Commissioner for Human Rights—on the idea that:

Partnership is a process that must be recognised as a fundamental part of any approach to ‘Closing the Gap’ in Indigenous health equality.

That would equally translate for any other facet of work that we do as an Australian government or through the COAG process with state and territory jurisdictions. Unless we have people sitting as equals at the table, how can we expect sustainability? There are plenty of examples. Again, colleagues who work within the area of Aboriginal affairs would quite happily confess that funding that is often required for simple projects cannot be found because it is tied up by criteria. Some of the solutions are so simple yet so complex against the requirements of funding processes.

Partnership must include recognition of the power imbalances that exist between the partners and an understanding of the effect these power relationships have in the way in which we seek to move the agenda of reform. A challenge for the future is to embrace a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The core of this future partnership is closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous—words delivered by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Prophetically, I would have to say that we have not been universal in the achievement of those goals. We need to lead, and allow communities to lead, but we also have to be responsive to what communities want, as opposed to their being continually passive recipients of government programs, policies and services. Certainly within Hasluck I would like to see that all the Aboriginal constituents have much more of a responsive, guiding, leading role than being the recipients of programs.

When I look at those six key outcomes, if we could achieve Indigenous economic participation right across all capital cities we would make major inroads. I know that it is challenging in the remote areas of Australia but there are opportunities to look at fly-in fly-out models. If we do not change Indigenous early childhood development in the next two to three years, we can push that gap of three decades out further, because the impact of those early years is absolutely critical. Housing, remote service delivery and access to a whole range of things are important. I listened to the Prime Minister when she said:

Today I make the third annual prime ministerial statement to this House on closing the gap. The parliament should be in no doubt that prime ministers will be reporting on closing the gap for decades to come. This work will go on.

I would hope that is not the case, that in fact in some things we will rethink the mindset of how we deliver. We should rethink the mindset around the inhibitors that cannot allow a community to make even the smallest quantum shift in what is needed.

Again, I do not envy my parliamentary colleague Minister Snowdon. I know that when you visit communities they express to you what they desire and what they seek to have in place for them, their children and the future of their communities. The trouble is that we go there and we say that we can do this amount but we cannot give you the totality of what you desire.

The reality of change is never simple. It is not going to be universal. It will be problematic. We need to act on the best evidence that we can get, and some of the best evidence comes from communities themselves. They will talk to you about the failings of government agencies. They will talk to you about the failure of people to stop and listen to what it is they aspire to.

I think that the tripartisan approach is absolutely critical if we are going to achieve these things. We need to revisit the way in which programs are shaped and implemented. The expenditure of money languishing is problematic when housing shortages are so critical, when the education of children is affected by a decision not to proceed with preschool centres. I think that ‘closing the gap’ means that we know what we are trying to achieve in education and we know what we are trying to achieve in employment and in health, but the gap also means bringing people with us.

It is interesting to note that, in the business sector, if you want to do something you sit and negotiate. You work with people to a common position. You then work out who is responsible for what and then you provide the resources to allow that to occur. You review, evaluate and continue the process of continuous reform. We have not done that yet. The Prime Minister also went on to say:

I know our people think of the past, of the great policy movements and the passionate debates, of the money spent and the stubborn persistence of Indigenous disadvantage, and I know that sometimes we wonder: ‘Can we really make a difference?’

To use Obama’s words, ‘Yes we can.’ But we also have to have the will and commitment to change the way in which we do things. We cannot go annually and say that we have rollovers in budgets when there is a dire need in so many places. The Prime Minister also said, ‘I am certain that Australia will never close the gap without all of us committing to change.’

The National Integrated Strategy for Closing the Gap in Indigenous Disadvantage is a tremendous document in the way that it identifies targets and directions, but it also provides a roadmap for future action. How can future action ever be achieved if the partners whom you are travelling with do not know what is in the map for the future, if they do not know the detail that is contained within this document? I suspect, Minister, that, if you and I were to sit together with a community and show them this and walk them through it, we could quite honestly say that many would never have seen the detail of the future map.

I think it is beholden on us to collectively take that map, work it towards the future and achieve the outcomes. I certainly hope that in my electorate many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander constituents will have the opportunity in the future of also being equal players in the changes and reforms that come and not excluded from probably a monumental point in the history of this nation where we can achieve changes of a magnitude that we have not seen before.

Let me, in closing, acknowledge the fact that both John Howard and the current Prime Minister have committed to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the Constitution. I think that is a visionary step forward that builds on the 1967 referendum. It builds on the apology. But it also builds on the psyche of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In particular, I will take a very close interest on behalf of Aboriginal people who are my constituents living within the electorate of Hasluck. I compliment the minister on the achievements thus far that that minister has personally been involved with, but I still say there is a significant gap between what government promises and what government delivers.