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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1169

Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (19:30): I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this place, the Ngambri and Ngunawal peoples, and pay my respect to their elders, past and present, and their future leaders. I would like also to acknowledge the traditional owners of my home town of Newcastle and the wider electorate, the Awabakal, Worimi and Wonnarua peoples.

It is fitting that we begin the parliamentary year with the annual Prime Minister's report on Closing the Gap, symbolically reminding the parliament and the nation of the importance of our collective efforts to close the gap. It is an opportunity to take stock of our achievements, focus on the challenges ahead and recommit ourselves to the Closing the Gap targets.

In the words of the Prime Minister, the seventh Closing the gap report is 'profoundly disappointing'. We are not on track to achieve most of the targets. Just two of the original targets, relating to child mortality and year 12 attainment, are on track to be met. In life expectancy there have been modest gains, but progress will need to be significantly accelerated if the gap is to be closed by 2031. Other targets in relation to early childhood education and literacy and numeracy have either not be met or are not on track, while employment outcomes have gone backwards. The gap is not closing in these areas and there are other areas, not currently measured, that we are failing to address altogether.

We still do not have, for example, justice targets included in our set of measures, yet the Productivity Commission's 2014 Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage report makes clear that justice outcomes continue to decline, with adult imprisonment rates worsening and no change in high rates of juvenile detention and family and community violence. Read in conjunction with the Social justice and native title report 2014, the need to include justice targets in the Closing the Gap targets could not be made clearer.

Having failed to meet five of the seven existing Close the Gap targets, we are going backwards on a number of fronts. The Prime Minister's report on Closing the Gap clearly shows that we cannot afford the government's massive cuts to Indigenous programs and services. We simply cannot afford any further cuts that threaten our hard won, albeit limited, progress to date.

In May last year, this government's first budget, handed down by the 'Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs', included more than $534 million of cuts to programs that supported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, leaving many Indigenous services with an uncertain future. In Newcastle it meant the end of the successful Deadly Choices program that aimed to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make healthy choices for themselves and their families—to stop smoking, to eat good food and to exercise daily. Last year in my Close the Gap address I praised the positive effect Deadly Choices was having in our community. Today I lament its demise.

Deadly Choices was not alone. A total of $165 million was cut from Indigenous health programs, including other preventative health programs such as the Tackling Smoking and Healthy Lifestyle program. This is despite the government's election commitment to maintain funding for Closing the Gap health programs. The Family Violence Prevention Legal Service had a $3.6 million was cut and there is no future funding certainty beyond 30 June 2015 for this vital service impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children escaping family violence. A raft of cuts were made to community legal services, including $15.6 million from community legal centres, $13.4 million from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, $21.5 million from legal aid and no funding certainty for legal centres past 30 June 2015. Funding was cut for municipal and essential services for remote communities. Western Australia has threatened to close up to 150 remote Indigenous communities as a result of the funding cut. Cuts were made to Prisoner Throughcare and anti-recidivism programs. The national partnership agreement on Indigenous health outcomes was not renewed, leaving the Close the Gap health targets without a nationally coordinated approach to achieve them. The commitment to a justice target under the Close the Gap framework was abandoned. The National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee was axed without warning and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Equality Council was also axed. And the so-called Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs made no mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when he set out his vision for Australia at his Press Club address earlier this month. This is the incomplete, but nonetheless bleak, rap sheet of this government's record on Indigenous affairs over the last 12 months.

The Prime Minister's report is an important aspect of how we assess progress on closing the gap, but this report should not be read in isolation. Other independent reports produced must also be considered, including the Productivity Commission's Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage report, the Close the gap: progress and priorities report and the Social justice and native title report. All three reports, released in the last 12 months, touch on the progress that has been made towards a number of the Close the Gap targets, but emphasise that more needs to be done and that there are worrying signals in a number of areas.

I would like to touch on some of the findings and recommendations of the Social justice and native title report 2014, authored by Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. He delivers a critical assessment of what these cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and programs have meant on the ground and builds the case for a Closing the Gap target on justice. In his report, Mr Gooda said:

The past year has been characterised by uncertainty and upheaval for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island People.

He added:

Overall, this upheaval and lack of clarity is deeply worrying and is causing widespread uncertainty and stress, particularly amongst our communities.

The report makes a number of recommendations, but today I will focus on one area in particular that is a matter of national importance and must be addressed urgently.

Within his report, Mr Gooda highlights the shocking overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as both victims and offenders in the Australian criminal justice system. Indeed, in his view, it is one of the most urgent human rights issues facing Australia. Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians, while around half of the young people in juvenile detention facilities are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. This, coupled with the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are hospitalised for family violence related assault at 31 times the rate of non-indigenous women, is truly damning. Mr Gooda further pushes for the long-held view that Closing the Gap targets on justice are needed and, along with the Close the Gap Progress and Priorities Report and the Productivity Commission report, makes the case for a justice measure to be introduced.

In August 2013, the coalition committed to 'provide bipartisan support for Labor's proposed new Closing the Gap targets on incarceration rates'. I welcome the government's position but, unfortunately, we are yet to see any progress on this. So it should be of no surprise to the House to learn that the Social Justice and Native Title Commissioner has this year had to recommend:

The Australian Government revises its current position on targets as part of Closing the Gap, to include holistic justice targets aimed at promoting safer communities.

I could not agree more.

In spite of all the cuts to funding, there is some tremendously good work being done on the ground by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. I attended the launch last week of the Deadly Dolphins' kids' swimming program in Mayfield. The Awabakal Limited and the Cancer Council New South Wales were working together to promote three key aims for the local community on water safety, getting active and being safe in the sun. There is also another terrific program being run called the Indigenous Marathon Project. I am very fortunate to have a constituent from my electorate, the Newcastle Citizen of the Year and wheelchair champion Kurt Fearnley, as an ambassador for this program.

In closing, it is important to acknowledge that, yes, there has been some limited progress in two out of seven of the target areas that I referred to earlier. Clearly, we need to step up to the mark. I would like to close with the words of Dr Tom Calma, a former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, who rightly observed:

It is not credible to suggest that one of the wealthiest nations in the world cannot solve a health crisis affecting less than 3% of its citizens.

We can and must do better.