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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 1023

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (17:39): Four years ago today, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his famous 'sorry speech'. His fourth sentence underlined a determination felt by many:

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

A little later in his speech, Mr Rudd spoke of:

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

While we acknowledge the momentous nature of that particular day, of most importance is what has happened to better the lives of Aboriginal people since then. Acknowledgements in this parliament are one thing but they will be seen only as empty platitudes if measures of real worth are not delivered to back up the words. Aboriginal Australians are like everybody else when it comes to the aspects of life that matter most. Above all else, they need good health services, a decent education and a roof over their heads. Staying healthy is the key to a quality life; education opens up opportunities which would otherwise not be available; and reliable, affordable housing is paramount.

The life expectancy of Aboriginal males was estimated to be 59.4 years over the period from 1996 to 2001, while the life expectancy of Aboriginal females was estimated to be 64.8 years. When compared to the life expectancy of the general Australian population, that is a life expectancy inequality gap of about 17 years in that same five-year period. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that an Aboriginal male born in the period from 2005 to 2007 could expect to live to the age of 67.2 years, or about 11½ years less than a non-Aboriginal male at that time, who could expect to live to 78.7 years. In the same period, an Aboriginal female could be expected to live to 72.9 years on average, which is almost 10 years less than a non-Aboriginal woman, who could expect to live to 82.6 years.

The infant mortality rate among the Aboriginal population is, sadly, all too high. Babies born to Aboriginal women are far more likely to die in their first year than those born to non-Aboriginal women. Between 2006 and 2008, the infant mortality rate for babies born to Aboriginal women was as high as 14 babies out of 1,000 births in the Northern Territory. In contrast, the rate for the total Australian population was 4.1 deaths per 1,000 births in 2008. Despite the 'sorry' acknowledgement, infant mortality among the Aboriginal population is, tragically, still too high.

Heart and related conditions are 1.3 times more common for Aboriginal people than for non-Aboriginal people. High blood pressure, the most commonly reported condition, is 1½ times more common. Diabetes is around 3½ times more common among Aboriginal people than among other Australians. In the period from 2002 to 2006, deaths from chronic kidney disease were seven times more common for Aboriginal males and 11 times more common for Aboriginal females than for non-Aboriginal Australians living in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Aboriginal statistics for other illnesses and diseases are far higher than for the rest of society.

Educational attainment among Aboriginal youth is, happily, improving, but far more needs to be done. The Northern Territory government's own education budget papers have targeted attendance rates at around 32 per cent for Aboriginal primary school students attending school regularly. Clearly, this is a terribly low target figure.

This government constantly talks about closing the gap. However, in some key areas very little has changed. Mr Rudd said in 2008:

I therefore propose a joint policy commission, to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and me, with a mandate to develop and implement—to begin with—an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years.

That is a noble aim and ambition. However, it is a fact that Aboriginal people in many areas, including Tumut and Brungle in my electorate of the Riverina, are in desperate need of better housing. On 2 December 2011, in company with the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, I visited Aboriginal centres in the irrigation zones of the Riverina electorate. One of those places that we visited was Tirkandi Inaburra, which means 'To learn to dream' in the Wiradjuri language. Tirkandi Inaburra is a cultural and development centre located between Darlington Point and Coleambally on a 780-hectare rural property. It is a centre offering Aboriginal boys aged between 12 and 15 years a culturally based residential program teaching them confidence, self-respect and resilience, and hopefully reducing contact with the criminal justice system. For three to six months the students engage in learning in educational, sporting, recreational and life and living skills and cultural activities which have all have been designed to incrementally develop each participant's skills and abilities. The centre, as I say, is between Coleambally and Darlington Point and is making a wonderful adjustment and change to these young boys' lives. At present, Tirkandi Inaburra is the only centre in Australia which provides such a wonderful opportunity to Aboriginal males. It is only boys who live in communities located between the Lachlan and Murray and between Balranald and the western side of the Blue Mountains who are eligible to apply to come to the centre.

More centres such as this, for both boys and girls, is what we should be promising our Aboriginal students to reach the goal of a higher percentage of graduates by 2020. As Senator Scullion said, this should be a model which should be replicated elsewhere. I quote him:

It is a tremendous concept and would make such a difference to more lives if it were established in other places.

The sorry speech was a start. Let us, as a parliament and a Commonwealth, now work towards real improvements in Aboriginal health, Aboriginal education and Aboriginal housing as a means to being genuine partners, together united towards a better future.