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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 10316


Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (16:44): I acknowledge the contribution of the minister on this Closing the Gap debate. This parliament meets on the traditional lands of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, and we pay our respects to their elders past and present. We recognise and honour the culture and heritage of all our First Nations. We mourn the indignity and suffering that First Nations peoples have endured since the colonisation of this ancient land—the arrival of disease, the expulsion of people from their lands, the separation of children from parents, the loss of identity and the marginalisation of an entire culture. Recognition of these past wrongs is the essential first step for non-Indigenous Australia on our journey towards reconciliation.

Eleven years ago Prime Minister Rudd ensured we took a huge step on this journey when he rose in the House of Representatives to deliver the long-overdue apology to the stolen generations. In delivering that apology, he honestly and bluntly declared to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parties, 'I say sorry.' The apology to the stolen generations was a day of remembrance, a day of sadness and a day of reconciliation but, perhaps above all, a day of extraordinary nobility and of grace. I will always remember—and I remain profoundly moved and inspired by it—the grace that was shown by First Nations peoples on that day, who, despite all the hardship and indignity forced upon them, found it in their hearts to accept an apology offered by a government on behalf of those who had brought that suffering. In the spirit of our collective journey towards reconciliation and in the spirit of healing, our First Nations people rose above grievance and resentment and accepted sorrow.

But recognising that sorrow is not enough. Prime Minister Rudd, with Jenny Macklin, instituted the Closing the Gap program to redress disadvantage and inequality through targeted action to tackle key areas of disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians. Ten years ago, on the first anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations, Prime Minister Rudd delivered the first Closing the gap report to the parliament. It wasn't a partisan report. It wasn't designed to ascribe blame or responsibility to a single government. It wasn't designed to ascribe blame or responsibility to a single level of government. Like the apology, it recognised that the plight of our First Peoples is the result of 'the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments'. The report was an attempt aimed at focusing our collective efforts to ensure that we do not continue to fail in the way that successive governments under successive parliaments have.

The Closing the gap report set seven targets and they were: to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018; to have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025; to close the gap in school attendance by 2018; to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018; to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020; to halve the gap in employment by 2018; and to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031. Actually, only two of these targets are truly about closing the gap—those on life expectancy and school attendance. The one on early education specifies a 95 per cent participation rate and the other three are soft targets—that is, to halve the gap rather than close it.

Last year, when I stood at this table, only three of the seven Closing the Gap targets were on track. They were those on child mortality rates, early education and year 12 attainment. This year, only two are on track—early education and year 12 attainment—and the target to halve the gap in child mortality has been revised as no longer being on track and we continue to fail to meet the remaining four. A decade ago this report made for sobering reading, and each year since governments of both political persuasions have tabled the report in this parliament to ensure that our collective attention is drawn to our progress towards the targets now set a decade ago and every year the report has continued to make for ever-more sobering reading. That fact is a responsibility for all of us. It is the responsibility of this parliament and it is a responsibility of all governments of all political persuasions and at all levels.

As I said, the indignity and hardship faced by Indigenous Australians is the responsibility of successive parliaments and governments, but I would say there is no doubt this task has been made unnecessarily harder by the coalition government's cuts of $500 million from Aboriginal programs. Today Mr Morrison suggested that the targets set a decade ago were too ambitious and that, instead, we need to 'strike the balance between ambition and what is achievable'. Well, I say it isn't our job to limit the ambition of Indigenous peoples and lower our targets simply so we can reclassify our own failures as achievements. It is clear that the Closing the Gap targets require updating. Four have expired. But we cannot and, indeed, must not lower our ambition, because we have a duty to truly close the gap. Australia cannot continue to accept that our First Nations people will die younger, lose more of their children, be less educated and receive poorer health care than their fellow Australians. We would not accept this for any other group of Australians and we certainly cannot accept it for our First Australians.

Our failure to achieve five of the seven targets requires greater, not lesser, ambition. Our failure also makes clear that a step change is needed in the way that all governments work with First Nations communities. It requires a step change in our efforts to progress our journey towards reconciliation. Achieving reconciliation with First Nations peoples and closing the gap requires us to empower. It requires us to facilitate self-determination and ensure that First Nations communities are at the table having a real say in the decisions that affect them. Labor does welcome the new partnership between the Commonwealth, the states and the coalition of Aboriginal peak bodies. It does represent an essential change in the way governments seek to address Closing the Gap targets and deliver services to First Nations communities. It is an important step in ensuring that our First Nations peoples are at the heart of policymaking and decision-making.

Working in partnership also requires that we listen, yet already this parliament has failed to accept the Statement from the Heart delivered at Uluru. Who are we to ignore the 1,200 delegates from 12 regional dialogues? Who are we to tell them we want to work in partnership but just not in the way they want? If we're truly to work in partnership, we must give First Nations peoples direct say in the decisions that affect their lives through a voice to the parliament. That is why enshrining a voice for First Australians will be Labor's first priority for constitutional change. We intend to hold a referendum on this question in our first term, as they have asked us to do. Our commitment is about recognising the importance of taking commitment to partnership seriously, about embedding in our nation's founding document self-determination for First Nations peoples. It is the step change our partnership needs. It is a step change that honours and takes forward the hope, courage and resilience that has been demonstrated through our history. The bark petitions at Yirrkala, the tent embassy, Clinton Pryor's walk for justice and Michael Long's a decade ago, the Gurindji walk-off at Wave Hill, the grand campaigners of 1967, the extraordinary victory against the odds of Eddie and Bonita Mabo and, of course, the apology—this is our history, this is their history, and together we can take it forward.

I also say that this is the same hope, courage and resilience that is demonstrated by those members of our First Nations communities who are in this parliament: the member for Barton; Mr Wyatt;, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy; and, of course, Senator Dodson. Their presence here demonstrates and reminds us again that we can walk forward. We learn from our history and we listen to our First Nations peoples. So, as we reflect on the 11th Closing the gap report, let us not lower our ambition. Let us instead redouble our efforts to work in partnership to close the gap and to continue our journey towards reconciliation.