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Statement on Closing the Gap: speech Parliament House, Canberra

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Statement on Closing the Gap, Parliament House, Canberra February 06, 2013


Madam Speaker, what we do today is important in the life of our Parliament and in the life of our nation.

These Closing the Gap statements force us at the start of every Parliamentary year to address the issue of indigenous disadvantage.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was right, Madam Speaker. As long as there is serious indigenous disadvantage in our

country it constitutes a stain on our nation’s soul. Until the first Australians can fully participate in the life of our country, we are diminished as a nation and as a people.

The Prime Minister talked about proud Labor traditions and that is fair enough, but I do want to point out that reconciliation is also

a proud Coalition tradition. The 1967 referendum - such a landmark in our nation’s life was a Coalition initiative. This current project - this vital Closing the Gap project - it is not a Labor project, it is not a Liberal project. If it is to succeed, it must be a

national project.

It flows, Madam Speaker, from that great day in our nation’s life and in our Parliament’s life, the historic apology which was made by the former Prime Minister Mr Rudd in this building just on five years ago. The former Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, made a

resonant declaration on that day: unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance it will be little more than a clanging gong.

Well, the former Prime Minister was right then. He’s right now. It must be accompanied by an even greater substance and that’s

what this Closing the Gap process is designed to achieve and the Prime Minster has given us some good news today. Money is being spent, construction is going ahead, staff are being deployed, we have more indigenous year 12 graduates, infant mortality is

lower, but I do welcome the Prime Minister’s frank admission that in at least some areas there has been regress as well as progress. We need this level of candour if we are to achieve genuine progress and genuine Closing the Gap.

How much difference are all our efforts really making to the lives of indigenous people? Are they better housed? Are they better

nourished? Are they better educated and are they more able to participate in the life of our nation? Some are, but many aren’t. I share the Prime Minister’s concern about actions in the Northern Territory in respect of the banned drinkers register and I note

that this was an initiative of the former Howard Government, particularly sponsored by the former Minister Mr Mal Brough and it should be preserved.

Madam Speaker, the sad truth is that it is easy to spend money but it is hard to make a difference. That is why it is so important

that we focus on not just what is happening here in his building, what is happening here in the administration, but what is happening on the ground. The focus should not be on what Government is doing but it must also be on what people are doing in

response to the initiatives of government, because it doesn’t matter what we do in this place. All our fine words, all our noble sentiments don’t matter if adults aren’t going to work and if children aren’t going to school.

I remain disappointed, Madam Speaker, that the statistics for school attendance and work attendance in indigenous communities

are not being published on a regular basis. We should know who is present and who is absent every day and we should publish those percentages as a way to regularly update ourselves on the health of civil society in these communities, because this is the

best test of a functioning civil society. Are the adults at work? Are the children at school? Is the ordinary law of the land being enforced?

Now, Madam Speaker, I know, because I have been in remote indigenous schools in Coen and in Aurukun, that the rolls are

taken every morning at about 9.20, they are taken every afternoon after lunch, the school knows who’s there and who isn’t, the school knows what percentage of kids are there and what percentage are not. We should know, too - not to stigmatise

communities, that’s the last thing we would want to do - but to see where progress is being made and to see where progress has yet to be made.

Tony Abbott Federal Member for Warringah | Leader of the Opposition

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I applaud the Prime Minister’s confirmation today that the first Closing the Gap goal, access to preschool, is being achieved. Access is important but attendance is what really matters and I hope that in the next Closing the Gap statement the Prime Minister

of the day is able to report attendance figures for preschool, attendance figures for primary schools, attendance figures for high schools, attendance figures for the various work projects which are underway in all of these remote places.

Madam Speaker, quite apart from government’s efforts there has been progress and I welcome the Prime Minister’s confirmation

today that since 2006 we have seen a two percentage point increase in indigenous employment in the mainstream. It’s been a 10 per cent increase in the Northern Territory, and I applaud the employers of this country for the efforts they have made in this very

important field of practical reconciliation. Rio, a pioneer in this area, BHP a pioneer in this area, Coles, Woolworths, our banks, pioneers in this area.

I particularly applaud the efforts of Andrew Forrest and Warren Mundine to boost indigenous employment. Their insight, to start

with a guaranteed job rather than with a trained potential employee, has the potential to transform indigenous employment. Perhaps over time it has the potential to transform employment programmes more generally. That’s why, Madam Speaker, the

Coalition has committed to fund four trial sites to test how well these ideas might translate into real progress.

I want to applaud all the efforts that are being made by so many people to bring more indigenous people into the heart of our national life. I welcome the presence of more indigenous people in the Territory Parliament; people like Larissa Lee, Francis

Xavier Maralampuwi and the incomparable Bess Price. I believe that they will well safeguard the real interests of indigenous people in the Territory, along with people like Alison Anderson and Adam Giles.

I applaud the efforts of the Prime Minister to bring another indigenous person into this House. I acknowledge and welcome the

efforts that her office and my office have made to ensure that this Parliament can shortly, with I hope unanimity, pass the Act that the Prime Minister referred to in in her remarks. I believe it would help us immeasurably as a Parliament and a nation to have

more indigenous people in this place to support the work of my friend and colleague, Ken Wyatt, the Member for Hasluck. I applaud the work that has been done over so many years by the people in the public gallery today and I notice Mick Gooda and

Tom Calma.

There is a new spirit in this land. There is a new spirit which reaches out to embrace the indigenous people of this country, so different from the spirit that was abroad when the Prime Minister and I were young. It is a tribute to so many people in this place

and around our country that that is now the case.

I want to particularly single out the work that has been done in Cape York by Noel Pearson, by Richie Ah Mat and everyone associated with the movement there, people like Allan Creek in Coen and Derek Walpo in Aurukun and Greg McLean in


As many of you know, as you might recall yourself Madam Speaker, I have tried to support Noel Pearson's work with deeds as well as with words: as a teacher's aide in Coen in 2008, as a truancy assistant in Aurukun in 2009, as a builder's labourer in

Hopevale in 2011 and last year, along with Warren Mundine and my Shadow Minister Senator Nigel Scullion and a team of Australia's leading business people, I participated in the ‘Books and Mortar’ project to refurbish the school library there. I should

acknowledge and welcome the presence on that project of Michael Chaney from the National Bank, Nev Power from Fortescue, Gerry Harvey and Katie Page from Harvey Norman, David Peever from Rio, Graham Hodges from the ANZ, Richard Goyder, one

of our admirals of industry from Wesfarmers and Elizabeth Henderson from Westpac. A mighty transformation has taken place in that school, thanks to better teaching methods, the progress in that school is little short of miraculous. I saw it in 2009, I saw it in

2012. The progress is simply stupendous. I have seen it. I have heard it. I can bear witness to it.

Madam Speaker, should the Coalition win government, I reiterate my undertaking to spend a week every year helping in an indigenous community. It will be good for me. It is important that our national leaders remain grounded in the real life of our

country. I think it might even be good for the public servants who make so many of the decisions that impact on our daily lives to see at close quarters, much closer quarters than usual, the places upon which their decisions impact.

I wish to reiterate that the test of progress here is not the laws we pass, it is not the money we spend, it is not the programmes we

institute, it is whether the children are going to school, the adults are going to work and the communities are safe. That is the test. The real challenges that we are not just in this building; they are in the country, the communities, the suburbs and the regions of

our nation. Real change does not happen in this building, although it may start here. Real change happens in all the places where Australians live.

In the end, for all of us, black and white, our lives should be ours to make. They should be ours to make. Noel Pearson's cry, “our

right to take responsibility” should echo around this chamber. It should always be in the forefront of our minds as we consider how best to make our country whole.


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© Tony Abbott MHR 2010 | Authorised by Tony Abbott MHR, Level 2, 17 Sydney Rd, Manly NSW 2095

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