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Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Page: 14001

Ms BURNEY (Barton) (17:22): I recognise the member for Forde's comments. I also recognise the member for Werriwa, who is in the chamber this afternoon; her commitment to reconciliation is a very genuine one. I'd also like to recognise, to begin with, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people of this part of the world, the traditional owners of Canberra and its surrounds.

It is interesting to participate in this debate, because I have been a part of this history and been present at most of the momentous occasions I'm going to speak about. Last week, of course, this parliament marked 11 years since the Rudd government delivered the national apology to the stolen generations, which then, of course, led to the 10-year commitment in Closing the Gap.

The member for Warringah has just joined us. He of course has a great commitment in this area as well.

I remember that day absolutely clearly. I remember sitting in the gallery, looking down onto the House of Representatives, and seeing those old people from the stolen generation—where it could not be denied anymore, this truth—sitting around the chamber. I remember the speeches of the then new Prime Minister; it was the first act of the Rudd government to make that apology. I remember well the steadfast refusal of Prime Minister Howard to make that apology. And it was like this nation held its breath, waiting for that apology to take place—that's what it truly felt like. I remember walking out of the chamber that day after listening to the speeches—one from the member for Warringah, as I recall—and I remember walking into the marble foyer and then out onto the forecourt and falling into the arms of Aunty Mae Robinson, who was carrying a black-and-white photo that day, and she said, 'Linda, I brought Mummy with me.' It was a photograph of an eight-year-old Aboriginal girl who'd been put into the Cootamundra girls home. Aunty Mae—and she might be one of your constituents—brought that photograph with her that day. It was truly, truly remarkable.

I'll always remember Kevin Rudd's words:

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

Those were the opening words of the apology. Of course, the reality of that apology was felt not just in this place but by the many thousands of people out on the lawns and across the country. In schools they sat in front of television sets and watched that apology being made.

It did acknowledge the pain and injustice experienced by First Nations peoples, families and communities. It did recognise the historical injustices. The effects of those injustices have transcended down through generations and can still be felt today. It meant so much to so many who had waited so long. I'll never forget those old people and I'll never forget the 350,000 people who crossed the Harbour Bridge in Sydney. Looking up into that clear blue winter sky the word 'sorry' appeared.

That apology of course led to the Closing the Gap targets, which we have an annual report to this parliament on. I think it is right that we think about that annual report and whether it is just a tick-and-flick exercise and how we make that annual report and those Closing the Gap targets a reality that is part of every day of this parliament's existence. Labor has argued long and hard that those targets need to be expanded to include two new targets: one about incarceration and one about child removal. We understand that there is much work being done by the peak Aboriginal organisations and the government in terms of bringing new Closing the Gap refresh targets. We look forward to looking at and working with those targets.

I cannot underscore the intergenerational impact of the stolen generations and how that is felt not only in my generation but in generations younger than mine. I was there the day the Bringing them home report was launched in Melbourne in 1997. It was a terrible time in Australia's history. We as a nation were ripping ourselves to pieces. The minister at the time was John Herron and the Prime Minister was John Howard. It was at the height of that terrible debate in terms of winding back the native title legislation and the government's 10-point plan to do that. I'll never forget those days. I think we are still recovering from those days. The Bringing them home report was a line in the sand for this country. It was a line in the sand that said that, of course, no-one could argue they did not know that history. It was very important.

There were unmet targets this year. The target to halve the gap in child mortality rates by 2018 is not on track. The target to close the gap in school attendance by 2018 is not on track. The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track. The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 is not on track. The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is also not on track. It is clear to me that we are simply not progressing fast enough for many of us. These have real implications for real people.

Self-determination is very much what First Nations people are talking about. The 200 years of injustice perpetrated against First Nations people should not be our destiny or our fate. Dispossession, the massacres, the removal of children and the destruction of culture and languages of course are still being felt today. The Closing the gap report and the apology that kicked off that report should be the way in which we, as a parliament, are working with First Nations people to address those incredibly distressing social justice outcomes. An Indigenous voice to the parliament would give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a greater say on the issues and decisions of government that affect our lives, and of course the Australian Labor Party is committed to that voice in the parliament. We are committed to constitutional entrenchment of that voice. There is nothing to fear with that entrenchment, and it is certainly not a third chamber of this parliament—it never has been, and it has never been described as that by those who have been its architect. This is at the core of listening to First Nations people. If we want to see real progress in closing the gap, we need to listen to First Nations communities and their peak organisations. This is where those answers are.

I have worked in this space for over 40 years and I have come to understand that there is no magic bullet. These issues can be dealt with on an individual community basis and we have the capacity to do that. To be able to listen requires real leadership. I recall, very vividly, the words of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who made that apology:

We … take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

…   …   …   

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

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.

I pay tribute to Jenny Macklin and, of course, Brendan Nelson, who was the Leader of the Opposition at that time, and the member for Warringah, who I think was the deputy leader at that time.

There is nothing to be afraid of when we speak the truth. There is nothing to be afraid of as a nation in knowing that truth. That truth will liberate us. It will make us a more united nation, a more reconciled nation. The leadership has to come from us. It has to come from this parliament to help shape that truth for future generations in this country.