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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4891

Senator CASH (2:31 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Evans. Will the minister explain how it is that the Rudd Labor government has lost the confidence of Indigenous leaders like Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu, as reported in the Australian newspaper this week, after the Howard government was able to successfully engage such important stakeholders in the Northern Territory intervention process?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank the senator for her question. I am not sure that we have lost the confidence of the gentlemen you refer to. But, quite frankly, what we know is that there are a range of diverse opinions about all issues in political debate in Australia and particularly in the Indigenous area. We have had a number of Indigenous people argue a range of positions about the Northern Territory intervention and what the best way forward is in terms of providing housing and employment opportunities. Mr Warren Mundine, who was President of the Australian Labor Party, had views that were not necessarily consistent with what the ALP was arguing at the time but he was, and remains, a strong advocate. Mr Noel Pearson has made a number of contributions to the debate, some of which I agree with and some of which I do not, but I engaged with him when I was Indigenous affairs spokesman and he makes a really useful contribution to the debate. So I do not think one can try and say, in terms of assessing complex policy: ‘Well, one person disagrees with you on an issue, therefore you ought to reconsider your position, or therefore you ought to go home and pack up and give it away.’ The reality is the debate about the way forward in Indigenous Affairs is contentious.

Senator Cash —You have failed to deliver.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Failed to deliver, Senator? We have been in government 18 months. I point you to the 11 years of the Howard government when you made no dent in the key indicators of Aboriginal health, employment or other outcomes. So don’t come in here and say to me: ‘Oh, well, you’ve failed.’ Don’t come in here and tell me we have failed, Senator. What we know is that after 11 years of the Howard government—

Senator Minchin —Mr President, on a point of order: I wonder if you could direct the Leader of the Government in the Senate to direct his remarks through the chair.

The PRESIDENT —I point out to honourable senators that interjections are disorderly on both sides and it assists the chair if comments are made to the chair.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr President, as I was saying, we have a serious task in front of us. There is debate among people, but this government has made a huge financial and political commitment to improving the lot of Indigenous people and closing the gap on those key life indicators. (Time expired)

Senator CASH —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. As the government has failed to deliver improved housing to the Indigenous people in the Northern Territory as promised, what practical steps will the government take to ensure this promise is delivered—steps other than bureaucratic intervention, as suggested by Minister Macklin?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I see the tactics committee is struggling without Gordon’s contribution! As I said to the earlier question from Senator Scullion, we have invested in the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program in a large way. The program will deliver 750 new houses, 230 rebuilds and 2,500 refurbishments of houses in remote Northern Territory communities. That is a massive commitment to try and address the huge shortage of decent housing in the Northern Territory. We are making a genuine attempt, backed by a large financial commitment. I suggest the opposition, just as I did when we were in opposition, try and support the government’s initiatives to try and tackle these problems rather than try these cheap political attacks. Quite frankly, none of us have got it right so far, and unless we get some sort of common commitment we are not going to get it right this time.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! The time for debating these issues is at the end of question time, I remind senators on both sides.

Senator CASH —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Does the government have any real strategy to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage in the Northern Territory?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —Mr President—

Senator Cash —And we don’t want to spin, we want substance.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —If the senator has calmed down, I will give her the answer. Not only do we have a commitment to closing the gap for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, but we have a commitment for doing it for all Australia’s Indigenous people. We have shocking disadvantage in terms of the health outcomes, the life expectancies, the educational opportunities, the employment opportunities, the housing opportunities of Indigenous people. After 11 years of the Howard government, that is where we are. What we have committed to is a serious attempt to close the gap and that is why you see health policies, that is why you see education policies, that is why you see housing initiatives, that is why you see employment programs designed to close that gap. We are hard at that and I would encourage you to support us.