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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 10324

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (17:19): I rise in response to the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap address delivered today. I begin with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of this country, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present and also to all First Nations people across the country, but in particular here in the parliament—both my colleagues, those in the gallery and those who have been present here on this important day. I'd also like to really say to the Australian parliament: thank you. This is the one day of the year that has meant so much to myself and others that I know in terms of the importance of raising the issues for First Nations people before Australians.

Senators and members may wonder when they listen to the Close the Gap targets and despair at the frustration of the inability to close the gap, knowing that those targets are still yet to be reached, but I like to think of it from a really personal point of view. As a Yanyuwa-Garrwa woman in the Gulf Country, where my families are in the Borroloola region, I think of it on a very personal level to remind myself of why this day is important. Even with the very dissatisfying results of the targets, we just cannot give up. When I say 'we', I mean all of us—all parliamentarians, all Australians. We must dig deeper. We must walk further. We must engage on such a level as to empower the First Nations people of this country.

This week, coming to parliament, I received news that my ten-year-old nephew died. Our families are devastated. His mother took him to the shower and put him to bed, to find only a few hours later that he'd died. The families of Borroloola are asking why. The schoolteachers and students of Borroloola are asking why. They smoked the school and the classroom and no-one can answer why.

It's too common a story. With the recent stories of the coronial hearings in the Kimberley over the suicides, we have to ask ourselves as a nation: why do we not really care? That's what today is about. It's the one day of the year when the Australian parliament says to the Australian people: 'We care about First Nations people in this country. We care that they are dying and that their children are dying. They are Australians too. We care and provide hope.' That is what today is about. That's what closing the gap is about.

When I came to talk about it this morning in front of the Senate, standing before the cameras to talk about closing the gap, there was only one person there. The rest of their media had turned their backs. Where were they looking? Who were they waiting for? They were waiting for another incident—another issue that has nothing to do with the importance of governance in this country. They were waiting for people who had had an incident in the parliament. And yet First Nations people were waiting for the stories of this parliament to be the main stories of this day. When I say that this day is about Australians caring, that means these guys who sit up here as well, the media, paying attention. You missed the biggest story of today. The biggest story was the fact that First Nations people in this country need you to pay attention.

It's not just about education, which is warmly welcomed on a deep level. It's about housing. It's about our roads and infrastructure. It's about the access that people need to get to hospitals and get to schools. Those things are what the parliament of Australia needs to focus on. If we want teachers in our schools, we want to make sure that they are jobs for our First Nations people—that they have the jobs. We want to make sure that First Nations people can be the nurses and the doctors and lawyers; that they have a vision for their children in this country and that they can, equally with any Australian of any colour and background, share it. That's what today is about.

We do fail as a parliament and we do fail as a country when we do not take the time to share in the disgrace and hang our heads in shame that an important part of our population suffers so deeply—when we get so distracted by things that do not matter. That's what the shame of today has been about. Closing the Gap, my fellow senators, must be the most critical day in our calendar, not just for us to stand here and speak about measurements but to stand here with feeling and to care, to have compassion and to know that we are failing the First Nations people. And we must do it collectively as the parliament of this country. The First Nations people need a voice to this parliament to speak about their issues and to engage on an equal level in governance, in the economy—on every playing field available to any Australian who is born in this country or who chooses to come to live in this country. So, Senators, Closing the Gap is a responsibility for all of us, just as much as it is for the First Nations families of this country.