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Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Page: 14015

Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (18:21): I'm going to begin with a quote from co-chairs June Oscar and Rod Little of the Close the Gap campaign. Just a few days ago, those co-chairs said:

We have had so many promises and so many disappointments. It's well and truly time to match the rhetoric. We cannot continue to return to parliament every year and hear the appalling statistics.

I have a great deal of empathy with that statement. This is the sixth year I have stood to address the Closing the gap report. The fact that, again, in 2019, I stand before the House to say that only two of seven targets remain anywhere near on track fills me with a sadness but also a rage that we seem incapable of doing better when, indeed, we are an incredibly prosperous and wealthy nation. There is a problem with the relationship between government and its First Nations people, and I don't think that we can underestimate the challenges that that brings to this parliament. I will come back to that issue in a moment.

Before going any further, I would like to acknowledge that this parliament again meets on the lands of the Ngunawal and the Ngambri peoples of Canberra and surrounds. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the country that I get to call home in Newcastle—the Awabakal people and the Worimi people across the harbour into the Port Stephens region. I take that acknowledgement very seriously. Indeed, when I chair our caucus meetings, it is the first thing that I say each and every time. I hope that reminding ourselves of this is not just a trite comment at the beginning of our speeches or at the start of parliament or community events but that it somehow becomes deeply embedded in the Australian psyche—this understanding of First Nations peoples, their place in this nation and the responsibility that we have to create and to forge a mutually respectful partnership.

I opened with those comments about just how deeply distressing it is to stand in this parliament year after year and report that we have failed. I think the problem is—and I take the point of the member for Berowra before about not wanting to take political pointscoring into this debate—the failure of consecutive governments to find a genuinely respectful, mutual partnership. And, at the risk of sounding partisan now, I think the way that this government responded to the Uluru statement that came down last year has simply embedded that distrust of government. Their quick response was to dismiss that statement, within days, after two years of consultation—two years of First Nations people talking about the kind of relationship they wanted to reset with the Australian people. The First Nations presented a very well-thought-through statement to this parliament. It was one that we weren't sitting at the table for, and one that might have surprised us with some of the content, but it was the wishes of First Nations people. And what did we do—what did the government do? It said outright, 'This cannot happen. This creates a third chamber.' Wrong! That was total misinformation. But that dismissed that statement on day one. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and sense of betrayal that would've been felt by First Nations people in Australia at that time.

First Nations people are amongst the most resilient people on this planet, as any people must be who've survived 200-plus years of dispossession—and I don't think we should sugar-coat the cultural frontier wars and the bloody process of colonisation, over a long period of time, that took place here. Australia has a very complicated relationship with First Nations people that is born from our colonial past, and it seems we are very, very slow to learn about how to remedy that. The year-by-year Close the Gap disappointments are really confirmation of the fact that we've never been able to deal adequately with those fundamental questions about our relationships with First Nations people. So we can say that it is great that we have more four-year-olds enrolled in an early childhood education program in First Nations communities, and it is terrific that more people are attaining a year 12 education. But it is truly appalling that we cannot make headway on any one of those other targets.

Let's not forget that there are important targets that are missing, that have never been agreed to by this parliament. I will flag with you just one of those: the justice target. It is totally abhorrent that we incarcerate First Nations peoples to the extent that you are more likely to go to prison than you are to go to university in this country if you are a First Nations person. I don't know anybody who actually thinks that that is acceptable. Yet that is what we do.

I am deeply worried by the incarceration of any person, because, really, imprisonment is a failure of our justice system. It's the failure end. So the more and more people you incarcerate, the more and more you really have to say, 'We've failed. We have failed you deeply.'

There is a dreadful trajectory, a pattern, now, that shows the shocking imprisonment rate for First Nations women. This has skyrocketed nearly 150 per cent since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. We have a senator, Senator Patrick Dodson, who sat on that royal commission. It took testimony from people across this nation and made over 330 recommendations, most of which were not enacted. So when I sometimes feel a little despondent about the progress, or the lack of progress, being made in this space—and this is an area that I've worked in for the last 30 years of my life—battling issues around the relationships between First Nations Australians and the rest of us, I think that I cannot be self-indulgent and throw my hands up and say, 'This is too hard.' We do not have that luxury. When I see people like Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Linda Burney, the member for Barton, in our own house playing such important leadership roles and bringing those voices into this parliament—and I acknowledge Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck, on the other side—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr McVeigh ): It being 6.30 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The member for Newcastle will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.