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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 99

Senator SCULLION (4:37 PM) —First of all I would like to thank Senator Ridgeway for this urgency motion. I know that he has brought this motion forward to encourage debate on a matter that he is very passionate about, and I commend him for his continued leadership in this area. It is unfortunate, though, I have to say, that I am unable to support the motion. The reason is that the premise on which this motion is brought is that the government has failed to provide any leadership on these issues. Because that is false, I simply cannot accept it and for that reason I cannot accept the motion.

It is without doubt that the circumstances in which Aboriginal people find themselves, as has been well articulated in this place and is well known to the public, are of concern to every Australian, including the fact that Aborigines live on average 20 years less than mainstream Australia. We heard today in this place the shocking statistic that an Aboriginal woman has 11 times the chance of being murdered than any other Australian. I share with the senator, and I am sure with all Australians, my shock and horror at the circumstances recently in Palm Island with the death of Kumanjayi Doomadgee and with the subsequent burning, riots, violence and horror that everybody in that community must have felt.

As I said, I cannot support the motion because since it has been elected this government has been committed to improving the lot of Indigenous Australians. We have recognised that their lot is not the same as other Australians. I will cite the reasons I feel this—it is not just a view; it is actually a fact. You can look at any of the indicators across a broad range of areas. There has been an increase of 22 per cent in employment, 25,000 extra people have access to accredited training and new apprenticeships have risen by more than 50 per cent. In the area of health, Aboriginal deaths from respiratory illnesses are still four times the rate for other Australians, but they have been reduced by half, so we are heading in the right direction. I accept that that is not quick enough, and that is why we are here today. Ten per cent of kids are staying at school. That needs to be higher, but it is improving. Well over 10,000 more homes are now owned or are being purchased by Indigenous people since we came to government. Sixteen per cent of the Australian continent is now owned and controlled by Indigenous people. That leads to a great change in how people feel about themselves, particularly with regard to their connection to the land. Aboriginal deaths in custody have been reduced by 50 per cent.

With those statistics we could say that the situation is better. My government accepts that it is still not good enough. We could claim that some $2.9 billion has been spent on Indigenous affairs and looking after the benefit of one particular aspect of Australians, but it really means nothing unless we look at the way we spend it. This government's vision to ensure that Indigenous Australians share equitably in opportunities, in both an economic and a social sense, has to be underwritten by a change in the way we do things.

There is a bit of a saying that the definition of lunacy is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with Senator Carr saying, `Look, you guys over there, you can't possibly be patronising, you can't possibly come up with dramatic, draconian answers; just potter along doing the same thing and no-one will notice.' The message to Senator Carr is that, if you do that, nothing will change, and this government is absolutely determined to change the lot of Indigenous people.

We have had so much criticism over the abolition of ATSIC. Let me tell you: as part of a committee I travelled around this country and the only people who gave evidence to me were people who either were directly employed or had a direct association with that organisation. In the communities, from the people who are receiving those services, there was overwhelming silence with regard to ATSIC disappearing. Most of the people I talked to in those communities were very much looking forward to ensuring that the arrangements that are put in place after ATSIC are of great benefit to them.

I also heard in Senator Carr's dissertation some reference to the processes of the regional councils going by the by. The very first task that we gave the regional councils was to ensure that the consultative processes to be put in place to follow them were put in place by them, with recommendations. The principal changes we have now put in place are not necessarily about houses and infrastructure; they are about the process. We have brought about a structure that now contains the most powerful people in Australia. We have brought together the minds of people and said, `We need to look very carefully at what we're not doing right and how we can change this.' All the ministers across government who have anything to do with program delivery in Indigenous affairs now make up the ministerial task force, and the secretaries and the CEOs at those very high levels make up the secretariat group that supports them.

We also now have the National Indigenous Council, which is going to be able to give us advice. Those are people who have some experience with program delivery in a lot of the social and economic outcomes we are talking about. It is very sad that the National Indigenous Council is already being debunked by all these people who know so much better than those fine Aboriginal people who now make up that body. Many of them have been shamed by people saying, `No, you can't make a contribution; you can't be part of the solution.' I think that is an absolute outrage.

In the Northern Territory, as a part of this process we have had the COAG trials, which have trialled a new way of doing business. We are making sure that we are improving the lot of Indigenous people on the ground, because we know the close association between the levels of disadvantage and the number of people who are appearing before the courts. That is the issue that we are talking about today. I am very proud of this government's record in ensuring that we make those changes. I think at the moment that we are ready for the next step forward in ensuring that we change the processes to actually deliver some improvements to the lot of Aboriginal people.

There was reference to the reporting process. I know that in 1997 the reporting process of Indigenous deaths in custody changed and were no longer adhered to, but it is not right to say that this government did nothing then. In 1997 we held a ministerial summit into Indigenous deaths in custody. We knew that the best delivery was a partnership delivery—that is the way of this government—and we have ensured now that every state and territory has some sort of a partnership, either an Aboriginal justice strategy or some sort of Aboriginal justice amelioration challenge. That is what we did. We did not just stop writing it down. I do not think there would be many Indigenous deaths in custody that this nation does not know about and is not concerned about. I repeat: I thank the senator for his motion and I know it continues his leadership role on this issue, but I cannot support the motion on the basis that it is crafted on an incorrect premise.