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Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Page: 2867

Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (09:49): We often hear statements in this House in thunderous and outraged tones, but today I rise to talk about something that to me is very sad and very serious. During his time as opposition leader, our now Prime Minister spoke of a transformative journey that he had gone on in Aboriginal affairs. When he came to office he promised Australians that he would be the Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs—Australia's first. But in the job of Australian Prime Minister it is actions not words that define the man, and in this commitment I believe the Prime Minister so far is a sad failure to Aboriginal people and to all Australians.

In the closing the gap statement that we heard earlier this year, we learned that we are going backwards in many of the measures against which we assess progress on Indigenous affairs. Front-line Aboriginal services have been defunded in this last budget by around half a billion dollars. We also know that Indigenous Australians will be penalised more in general changes that the government is trying to make. For example, the Prime Minister has tried to raise the pension age to the age of 70 when the life expectancy of an Indigenous man is 69 years. GP taxes, Indigenous health experts believe, will deter Indigenous Australians from going to the doctor, in particular for preventive health reasons.

Last week, the Prime Minister claimed that Indigenous people living in remove communities were making a 'lifestyle choice' that placed a burden on other taxpayers. I lived for almost a year in remote Northern Australia and I worked in a remote Indigenous community. I am not an expert in these matters but I learned enough from that experience to know that this is an extraordinarily insensitive and ill-informed comment. The Prime Minister has visited these communities himself and he should know better.

I want to ask: is it beyond the imagination of our Prime Minister that someone may not face the same values and choices that he does in deciding where to live? Is it beyond his imagination to think that land might hold a different meaning for others than it does for him? This problem, this massive chasm in health, education and income levels of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, does not need more uninformed statements like this one. I say to the Prime Minister: visiting Arnhem Land for a week a year should be applauded—I genuinely believe that—but you are meant to be using these visits as learning opportunities and, based on what we see in your actions, it looks like you are learning very little.

There is the promise of a referendum that will recognise Australia's First People in our Constitution, and the Prime Minister has said he will 'sweat blood' on this. This is a chance for redemption. We have 18 months to make the case on this to the Australian people, but the Prime Minister must begin that conversation now. If the Prime Minister wants to be remembered for anything positive in this portfolio then a referendum is his chance, and I hope he takes it.