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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1167

Mr HARTSUYKER (CowperDeputy Leader of the House and Assistant Minister for Employment) (19:21): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap statement.

In February 1965, students from the University of Sydney set off on a bus trip across New South Wales. The Freedom Ride, led by Charles Perkins and the Student Action for Aborigines group, went from town to town in country New South Wales protesting racial discrimination against Indigenous Australians. The ride was a watershed moment in Australian Indigenous affairs, and I am proud to say that Kempsey in my electorate played a key role in that important event. Last week, I attended the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Freedom Ride in Kempsey. Fifth years on, the Closing the Gap report makes clear that we still have much work to do in addressing Indigenous disadvantage.

In reading the Closing the Gap report, two important things stood out. First, the report makes it clear just how vital it is that we close the gap between living standards for Indigenous Australians and the wider Australian community. Closing the gap will have a material impact on the lives of thousands of Australians. Second, we have a long way to go if we are to close the gap, particularly for those Indigenous Australians living in remote communities.

Life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is 10 years lower than for the rest of the community. In every state and territory, school attendance rates are lower for Indigenous children than for non-Indigenous children. In the Northern Territory, an Indigenous student in year 10 is 31 per cent less likely to regularly attend school than a non-Indigenous student. In very remote areas, only 34.9 per cent of year 7 students met or exceeded the minimum standards for reading in 2014. This is a great concern. How can a young person make their way in the world if they cannot read? How does an Indigenous child grow up to become a leader in their community if they cannot read? How can a young Indigenous apprentice become a tradesman if he cannot read instructions? How can a young Indigenous student become a nurse if she cannot read textbooks or labels? We must get more Indigenous kids to school so that they have the literacy and numeracy skills that they will need to survive in the modern world. As the Prime Minister said last year:

… it's hard to be literate and numerate without attending school; it's hard to find work without a basic education; and it's hard to live well without a job.

The report is particularly relevant to the area which I represent, which includes Dunghutti country around Kempsey, Gumbaynggirr country around Coffs Harbour, and Yaegl country in the north. According to the 2011 census, more than 8,000 residents in the area that I represent identify as being Indigenous. This means Cowper has the 11th highest proportion of Indigenous residents of all federal electorates. As is the case throughout Australia, Indigenous Australians live throughout the communities that make up my electorate, but there are a number of communities with significant Indigenous populations, including Bowraville, Kempsey and Bellbrook. It is in communities such as these that continued efforts to close the gap will deliver improved quality of life and new opportunities.

I am particularly pleased to see innovative new policy approaches involving the whole community delivering results in Cowper. In Kempsey, I have been a strong supporter of the Macleay Vocational College, which provides an alternative education model for high-school students who have not succeeded at other schools. The college is not limited to Indigenous students, but many of its students are Indigenous. The school provides a unique supportive environment that has allowed many students to thrive when the traditional education system has failed them.

I am also very pleased to see the establishment of a VTEC program in Kempsey. The VTEC model provides specific training and support to an Indigenous job seeker, with the promise of an actual job at the end of the training. This model requires significant commitment from government, local businesses and the wider community, but it works. VTEC is no 'training for training's sake' arrangement. There are no dead-end courses. The program provides a genuine opportunity for a young Indigenous job seeker to build a prosperous life. We are on track to have more than 5,000 individuals trained into real jobs by the end of this year through the VTEC system around the country. This approach is vital, because meaningful, sustainable employment is ultimately the key to solving Indigenous disadvantage. Families with a regular wage can afford good food, health care, proper housing, education and the opportunities that many of us take for granted. The VTEC model has been rolled out in 28 locations around Australia, with another one in the pipeline.

But it is not just VTEC that is making a difference in Indigenous employment. In my portfolio, I am determined to make a difference in ensuring that more Indigenous people progress from welfare to work. Most Indigenous job seekers live in regional and metropolitan Australia, where they receive support through the employment services system. Around 76,700 job seekers on the current JSA case load identify as being Indigenous. That is around nine per cent of the total case load. If we are to close the gap, it is vital that more of these job seekers find and keep a job. To support the employment of more Indigenous job seekers, the government has included specific reforms to boost Indigenous employment outcomes in the new employment services system that will start on 1 July this year.

For the very first time, the employment services system will include targets for Indigenous employment. Employment services providers will have clear benchmarks for Indigenous employment, and they will be made accountable for achieving those benchmarks. Providers will not be able to pay lip-service to the important task of getting more Indigenous job seekers into work. Providers' performance relative to Indigenous employment benchmarks will be reflected in the star ratings system. The star ratings system helps job seekers make a decision about which provider will best meet their needs. A low star rating can also lead to a loss of business share for an employment services provider. For these reasons, providers will have a material interest in ensuring that they help more Indigenous job seekers on their journey from welfare to work.

To support providers in this important work, the government is providing wage subsidies for employers to take on more Indigenous Australians. Of course, we also need employers to partner with us, and I am pleased to note that many large companies have clearly stated intentions to take on more Indigenous Australians. Companies such as Qantas, Westpac, Leighton, News Corp, Telstra, Shell and many more are coming on board with this important duty of getting more Indigenous job seekers into work. We know that many other employers, particularly the small and medium businesses that make our economy tick, are also doing their bit to support Indigenous employment. But we need more businesses to come on board. The new employment services system starting on 1 July is the perfect opportunity for a business to start a relationship with a provider and begin to give more Indigenous job seekers the opportunity and the benefits that work can bring.

The Closing the Gap report is sobering. We have undoubtedly made progress in some areas, but in others we are either stagnant or going backwards. There is too much at stake to give up. Our only option is to improve our efforts and press on. I believe we are moving in the right direction. Indigenous affairs is now prominently located within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The government is firmly committed to improving school attendance. We have the resources on the ground, making sure that kids go to school. The reduction of the huge number of Indigenous funding programs and policies their refocusing into more flexible support for practical, proven measures is a good step. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan is supporting Indigenous communities to manage their health and wellbeing. As I mentioned, we are taking action to improve indigenous employment outcomes. As a nation, we owe it to the men and women like Charles Perkins who fought to end discrimination to finish the job they started and close the gap.