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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 10327

Senator DEAN SMITH (Western AustraliaChief Government Whip in the Senate) (17:33): I am also pleased to be able to stand up this afternoon and make a contribution to the Closing the Gap statement that was made by the Prime Minister today, but also, importantly, to acknowledge the contribution most particularly of Senator Scullion, Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy.

As a Western Australian senator, I am someone who is greatly interested in tackling inequity wherever I see it. As a Western Australian senator, I am privileged enough to travel across the great breadth of Western Australia, but particularly across the Pilbara and the Kimberley regions. When you travel across the Kimberley, you are struck by three things. You are struck by its vast beauty, and part of that beauty is its sparseness. You are struck, as Senator Dodson reflected, by the graciousness, the generosity and the warmth of the many Australians who live up there. But, if you are honest with yourself, you are also struck by the very serious, very obvious levels of disadvantage that we see being experienced by Indigenous Australians.

I don't think for a moment that I have the same depth of understanding—certainly not the lived experience—as Senators Dodson and McCarthy or my Liberal Western Australian colleague Mr Ken Wyatt, who's the member for Hasluck. But, like them, and I think like many other people in this place and other Australians, I do care about trying to understand why it is that, when we have Closing the Gap statements like this annually—and we've been doing it now for over a decade—the great ambition that was there in the first Closing the Gap statement, the great optimism that was there for others and that is still around for ending Indigenous disadvantage, is constantly being eroded, as has been my observation over the last few years. Why is it that we're not able to break the back of these very, very big issues for not only Indigenous people but also our country? As someone who puts a lot of faith in conservative—and I mean small 'c' conservative—principles of free markets and governance and our parliamentary institution, I look to those values first when trying to find solutions to these very, very important struggles.

I make a couple of observations. The first observation is that, when we talk about the Indigenous community in Australia, I think we do Indigenous people a disservice. That's because I'd argue that there's not just one Indigenous community but many Indigenous communities. They are fashioned and influenced by where they live, the levels of acceptance amongst their own communities and the sorts of unique challenges that they might face. So that's the first observation I would make. The second observation—and Senator Scullion reflected on this—is that, in a place like the Australian parliament, while it is important to predominantly give our focus to those things that haven't been done or have been done poorly, at the same time we must pause to celebrate, reward and acknowledge where things are being made better for people. There's no shortage of examples of instances where we see the quality of someone's individual life and their family life being improved. But that's not to diminish or in any way take away from the urgency or the enormity of this task.

These are clearly very, very big questions. I think Senator Storer spoke about this, if I heard him correctly in his contribution. Something I'm particularly alert to is: over the next few years as the conversation, the debate, about Indigenous recognition continues, how do we make sure that the energy needed on these issues is not displaced by the energy that might be put into other issues? I'm someone who's got an open mind about how important the reconciliation process is to ending some of this Indigenous disadvantage. I'm someone—Senator Dodson and others will know this—that has a very, very conservative approach as to how we might adjust or change our institutional or constitutional arrangements as a means of better addressing some of these issues. I'm not convinced that that is a way that will solve these issues, but I am convinced that, as Senator McCarthy reflected on, it is important to have a statement like this in our national parliament so that people in the parliament and also people in the community are constantly reminded that this disadvantage is real, despite the very large sums of money being put into tackling this disadvantage and despite the level of attention being given to these issues, whether it be parliamentary and political attention or media attention.

Senator Dodson and others will know that one issue that I have been particularly interested in championing and better understanding is: why is it that in a first-world country like ours, with a modern and very effective system of publicly funded health care, we're seeing such a great disparity—a very alarming disparity—in STIs and HIV infection rates in Indigenous communities at a time when non-Indigenous Australians are benefiting from access to health care and access to modern medicines? I don't have an answer.

Absolutely, governments can be doing more. Personally, I think that we should expect more, Senator Dodson, from Indigenous organisations. I say that cautiously, because I'm not an Indigenous person. But I am someone who is interested in making sure that everyone is doing everything that they possibly can. We can't allow ourselves to make excuses for people, or organisations or institutions that may not be doing the best that they can possibly do. So that is an issue that I am particularly alert to and which, in my own way, I try to bring attention to. Along with Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy, we on the Senate Community Affairs Committee and the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee have been putting our minds to that. Clearly, there are some very big issues.

But I do want to reflect on the comments that the Prime Minister made today, because I think that in a debate like this we should recognise when our national leaders make honest statements—when they accept their own or their own government's shortcomings, or when they draw out the shortcomings of governments that have gone before them. What Prime Minister Morrison said today in his speech I think is worthy of repeating. He said:

In 2008 we began this process of closing the gap. Successive Prime Ministers have reported since on our progress on meeting these national goals. It was born out of the National Apology. That was one of the first acts that I was involved in, in this place, coming in as a member of parliament, and I was pleased to do so. Closing the Gap was a recognition that words without deeds are fruitless, and Prime Minister Rudd should forever be commended for that apology and the process he began. That process that began in 2008 was born of a very good heart.

We shouldn't lose sight of that. He continued:

It recognised that accountability is vital if we are to bring about a change and meaningful process that has eluded our nation for more than two centuries.

But I must say that, while it was guided by the best of intentions, the process has reflected something of what I believe is the hubris of this place: it did not truly seek to partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It believed that a top-down approach could achieve that change that was, rightly, desired—that Canberra could change it all with lofty goals and bureaucratic targets. That's not true. It was set up to fail—and has, on its own tests. And today I'm calling that out.

It might have been set up to fail, but we can't allow it to fail. It's totally natural, I argue, and the normal way of things, that after a decade, programs, ideas and aspirations might be constantly recalibrated to better reflect the new challenges or progress.

But there are some things that I am particularly interested in when I think about the mammoth task that is trying to challenge and tackle the issue of Indigenous disadvantage. One is: aren't native title arrangements in our country still effective? Are they working for the best interests of native title holders? The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia is about to do some work in regard to that.

I'm also interested in making sure that the governance arrangements of Indigenous organisations are the strongest and the best they can be, because Indigenous people deserve to be protected. I also think that we need to do better in using technology to support the rollout of quality health care to Indigenous people in remote communities. Much of the challenge here is because of the remoteness of the challenge— (Time expired)