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Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Page: 14012


Mr LEESER (Berowra) (18:11): Deputy Speaker McVeigh, in commencing my remarks, I acknowledge the work that you did with me on the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which I chaired and which reported at the end of last year. Your contribution, particularly with your experience as a minister, was very significant. I appreciate the work that you did in helping bring us together. I also note that my friend the member for Wide Bay, who has a significant community of Indigenous people in Cherbourg, is here today. It is to my great regret that we never made it to Cherbourg, because of some sorry business that was going on in that community, but it was very much our intention to go there. I particularly want to acknowledge my friend the member for Indi, who I will miss in the next parliament. We had the great privilege on that committee of visiting her community and understanding something more of what happens when you bring together a group of Aboriginal people from all around the country and put them in a community that is not necessarily their own community and also some of the issues of intercommunal dispute, as it were, as to who are the rightful claimers of the area. I know that the member for Indi is particularly passionate about truth-telling and having a better understanding of that history. I am sure that is a matter in which, even beyond her service in this place, she will continue to be interested.

Occasionally we come to this place thinking we have all the answers. I approached the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as somebody who was interested in constitutional law, but I realised how little I actually knew about Indigenous policy and Indigenous history and how much more I needed to know and wanted to know. The member for Indi has a particular interest in the whole issue of Closing the Gap and asked many questions about that issue. I'm going to write something, at greater leisure later in the year, about the experience of that committee and some of the things that we saw. But it occurred to me that it is occasionally good to admit that you don't have all the answers and that you can look around and there is much that you can learn from others.

I think too much of the debate we have had about Indigenous policy in this place has been bifurcated between those on the Right, who are looking for the practical and the local, and those on the Left, who are looking for the symbolic and the bureaucratic. I think what we need to do is find a modus vivendi that brings the sides together, that says 'For the practical to work you need the symbolic, but for the symbolic to have meaning you need the practical.' That is something that I particularly took away from the journey in relation to the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

I think it's important to think about the purpose of Indigenous affairs policy. Surely the policy has to be to close the gap, to lift the standard of living for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I think one of the key things that has come out of the Closing the Gap Refresh is the same thing that we put forward in the joint select committee: you need to have Indigenous people at the centre of what you are doing and you need to actually ask them to set the targets that are right for them. Anybody can set a target for somebody else where you set somebody up for failure; but, unless you have people buying into the target, unless you have people buying into the goal, you will not achieve the aim that you wanted to achieve.

I'm sorry the member for Herbert has left, because I enjoyed visiting Palm Island on that committee with her. I opened my eyes to Palm Island. I have to say, I had a particularly negative impression of Palm Island before visiting there. Palm Island has a notorious reputation in our country, but I was actually impressed by a number of the people that we met on Palm Island for their leadership and for trying to better the lives of their fellow citizens. The member for Herbert did what any opposition does in this space: critiques the failure of government policy in this space. That is, in some respects, easy and understandable politics. It is indeed what people on my side could have done when the Rudd-Gillard Rudd government was in office, when the Whitlam government was in office or when the Hawke government was in office, because the truth is that everyone has approached this policy space with good intentions and wanting to do better. But we haven't achieved the success that all of us would hope to.

Australia, as I've said, in other contexts is a wonderful country. There's nowhere on earth where the standard of living is as high as it is here, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples don't always share in that high standard of living. The inequality between the social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the population is quite stark. So the notion that Tom Calma put forward when he was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner some decade ago, that we should have a Closing the Gap target, was a very good one. The measurements and the performance over that decade have not been fantastic. As the Prime Minister said, we should celebrate the victories, because part of this is a need to celebrate the hopeful notes in Indigenous policy. It is not all a story of failure. It is good that we now have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education. We're on track to meet that target by 2025. And we're on track to meet the target in relation to year 12 attainment, halving the gap there by 2020. But they are the only two targets under the current regime that are on track. The other targets around life expectancy, child mortality rates, reading and numeracy, employment and school attendance are not successful, and we need to do more there.

It is true to say that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living longer, that 95 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education, that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are staying in school for longer and that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have year 12 qualifications, and that is a good thing. I agree with the member for Warringah when he talks about the importance of school attendance, because education is the thing that is going to change people's lives. But it's more than just education. It is what Noel Pearson once described as 'fanning the flames of self-interest'. Indigenous people themselves have to decide that they want to try to improve their lives and make them the focus. The government can't force that on people. That is why the refresh targets that have gone through the COAG process, which have the buy-in not only of the Commonwealth government but also of the states and territories, are so important. The way in which we've engaged with Indigenous people and are engaging with them in relation to those refresh targets is so very important in terms of properly achieving. That doesn't mean that if you haven't succeeded in one area you change the target so that you can succeed. It's about getting the buy-in. It's about getting that flame of self-interest. It's about making the decision, a decision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In the remaining couple of minutes that I have left today, I want to talk about some of the things that we are doing well and some of the thing that the government has talked about in relation to addressing the Closing the Gap targets. I also wanted to address the member for Herbert's point about constitutional recognition. The government is giving active consideration to the report from the committee that Senator Dodson and I chaired, and I look forward to their response in due course. That is not something that has been taken off the table. It is being given active consideration.

I applaud the Prime Minister for his announcement of the teacher boost for remote Australia. Prior to becoming a member of this    House, I served on the board of Teach For Australia, which places outstanding university graduates from other disciplines—in science, in law, in economics—into a teaching program and then sends them to remote schools and sees extraordinary changes in the performance of students as a result of that. Anything that we can do to encourage our best and brightest teachers to go into remote schools has to be of benefit, because we know the quality of teaching improves the quality of student performance.

I applaud the work that the member for Warringah is doing in trying to encourage more students to go to school. I applaud the Prime Minister's focus, his single focus, on improving educational outcomes, because that is a particularly life-changing and society-changing policy prescription. Senator Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, has, since he has been minister, pursued the notion of Indigenous procurement, and he has had real success in this. It's not something which he has blown his trumpet about, but it is a wonderful thing to see Indigenous businesses given a real focus in government procurement policy. The Indigenous business sector now spans over 1,473 Indigenous businesses, delivering 11,933 contracts worth over $1.83 billion since the establishment of this policy in 2015. This is a great increase, and it has been particularly because of the single-minded focus of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

I commend the Closing the gapreport. We must do better, we will do better and the refresh targets will help us achieve that goal.