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Closing the Gap - Rachel's Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 23 Feb 2016


Before I commence, I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunawal and the Ngambri people—the traditional owners of the land on which we meet—pay my respects to elders past, present and future and acknowledge that this was and always will be Aboriginal land.

I rise today to speak to the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap report 2016 and his statement on that report. I would like to note that this is the 10th anniversary of the Close the Gap campaign. The Prime Minister's report clearly shows that we are not making enough progress. We are not on target to close the gap. We have not made significant progress on life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since the last report. Although we have made very welcome progress on two of the targets—reducing infant mortality and school leavers look like they are on track—targets for life expectancy, reading and numeracy, school attendance, and employment are not on track or show mixed progress at best. It is clear that if we do not improve what we are doing we will not close the gap.

The still shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience high levels of racial prejudice and discrimination: 33 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reported experiencing verbal racial abuse and 62 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents believe prejudice is high. Tragically, things are getting worse in many areas. We know that Aboriginal children are nearly 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care and the number of Aboriginal children going into out-of-home care is increasing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are imprisoned at a rate 13 times higher than non-Indigenous adults. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are twice as likely to be in prison as in university.

In this country, we still have unfinished business. Sovereignty was never ceded in this country. Sovereignty and treaties are still rarely spoken about outside of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and that has to change. If we are going to achieve constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which I know many people want to achieve, we need to look at this issue of unfinished business as well. I contend that unless we deal with this unfinished business, we will not close the gap.

Each year, the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee reports on progress, through the , which has in the past been known as the shadow report, and each year I table in this place a copy of that report. I seek leave to table that report. I also seek leave to table Reconciliation's Australia's report .

Leave granted.


The says:

… progress against this headline indicator of population health has been difficult to measure but appears to have been minimal. While there is some good news to report, improvements are yet to be reported at this high level. Both absolute and relative gains are needed in future years.

The report also makes several key recommendations. They include that political parties—that is this place, folks—commit to:

Make Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing a major priority for their election policy platforms, and fund the ) until it expires in 2023.

It also recommends that we adopt a justice target, which is critical when you think about the incarceration rates that I have just gone through, and that we adopt a target for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability. I have asked the Social Justice Commissioner some questions about this in estimates and talked to the Disability Discrimination Commissioner as well, who articulated that in fact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability suffer double discrimination and prejudice through being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and also having a disability.

The report also talks about the need for    Aboriginal controlled health services to be the preferred approach for Aboriginal primary health care and planning, and says that there should be a national inquiry into institutional racism in healthcare settings. I urge you to look at report. You would be quite distressed to see some of the figures for discrimination reported in some of our institutions in this country. The report also commented and made recommendations on the disastrous Indigenous Advancement Strategy changes. The report states:

Another area of concern for the Campaign Steering Committee is the impact of the (IAS) on the social determinants of health.

More than any single policy, it is critical that we work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In his speech, the Prime Minister quoted advice he received from Dr Chris Sarra on how to truly make a difference in policy. One of the pieces of advice he received he said was very important. It was:

Do things with us, not to us.

It is very good advice, and I wish politicians and decision makers would listen to it and take it to heart. Sadly, all too often the government—I have to admit not just this government—has done things to Aboriginal people and not worked with them. This is a consistent pattern of doing things to, not working with. Too often, government policies have left Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples worse off, with critical gaps in their services.

The Indigenous Advancement Strategy has been a disaster for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations. We heard about it yet again when the Finance and Public Administration Committee was in Darwin having another hearing on this matter just last week. We heard again of the problems that this has caused. There was no consultation. Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner highlighted yet again in last year's report and in 2014 the lack of consultation on that program, which, in many cases, took funding off Aboriginal organisations and gave it to non-Aboriginal organisations. We had funding taken from Aboriginal legal services. Some of it has been given back. We heard in Darwin last week that funding is not assured for many of the programs that deliver critical legal supports and services to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and that that funding runs out in June this year. It is time that that changed. They need long-term funding.

The Northern Territory intervention is one of the most recent glaring examples of doing things to Aboriginal people, and it is still having ongoing ramifications. It is still in place in another guise, called Stronger Futures. The final evaluation of that report shows quite clearly the failure of that policy. The cashless welfare card—income management on steroids—is yet another example of doing things to Aboriginal communities. We heard on Friday all about the Community Development Program, which many Aboriginal communities have been told is CDEP coming back

Well, it is not. Be very concerned about that particular policy. These policy failures make things worse. They have a real impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country, who face the challenges of decades of inequality and injustice.

As we work to close the gap, we need to talk about reconciliation in Australia. I have just tabled report. I urge all people to read that report. Again, the things they talk about are critical if we are going to close the gap. They talk about five dimensions that need to be considered: race relations, equality and equity, unity, institutional integrity and historical acceptance—do you hear a theme here? This is a theme that we need to be working on. We need to be addressing all of those issues if we are going to close the gap.

We do not need shock jocks getting on the radio and saying that we need another Stolen Generation. That is ignorance, and a complete lack of understanding of the current situation facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country and the way that Aboriginal children are taken disproportionately into care without looking at the broader context and without providing the necessary supports that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders need. They do not need chopping and changing programs, failing to address the issues around race relations, institutional integrity, equality and equity, unity, historical acceptance and realising that we have unfinished business in this country that is critical to address.

I look forward to hearing and seeing a much better report next year on this vitally important issue.

Senator PERIS

I acknowledge the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people, the custodians of the Canberra region. I acknowledge my elders past and present. I begin by thanking the Prime Minister for beginning his first Close the Gap speech of 10 February in the language of the Aboriginal traditional custodians of this region. It was a remarkable thing. But what is not remarkable—and most of us in this chamber know this—is that we are on track to fall short again on almost all of our Closing the Gap targets. So we need to get real about what we are doing.

Today I had the pleasure of attending the National Press Club to hear eminent journalist Stan Grant give an address on his family's story—both Aboriginal and Irish, yet so Australian. His story is so familiar to me and to virtually every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, because we share the same history. I echo Stan's words that all Aboriginal people in Australia continue to live with the weight of our history, we bear the burden of our survival, we share common wounds and it is unbelievable that we have been classified at least 64 times by government as half-castes, quarter-castes, octoroons or coloureds—the list goes on and on.

I come before you today not to quote statistics but to speak about human citizens, citizens of this country. I want to share with you my concerns as to why the whole Close the Gap campaign has effectively stalled. For 10 years, the infamous talking stick has been going around and around in circles, so my question is: who in this chamber will stand up, step out of the circle and begin a brand new dialogue with Aboriginal people?

Today, I want people in this chamber to know what it is like to walk in the shoes of an Aboriginal person. I want you to be able to see through our lenses, not yours. My uncle Patrick Dodson spoke wisely when he stated:

There's a lot of aspiration and maybe good intention, but unless you get participation from Indigenous entities at a local level and community level, it's not going to work.

Aboriginal people come here year after year with the solutions—that is right, the solutions. They continuously own the problems that have been caused by failed government policies and decisions. What sickens me is when our mob finally get a program up and running that is benefitting all in their community and their children, the rug is ripped out from underneath them, with funds being removed without due notice.

There is no denying the issues we face, but there is also no denying the government's nitpicking and micromanaging of our lives. We are at a crossroads and it is time to reassess. Let's stop with examining the oppressed; instead, we should be examining the oppressor. Our lives are not expendable, and we need to acknowledge the reality of how our decisions here in this place affect our families, children and communities back home. Enough of the rhetoric. We need to move forward together side by side and hand in hand to get it right for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities—and for all of us. After all, we are Australians.

We cannot keep coming back year after year nodding our heads and being a part of the problem. If the Close the Gap campaign is at its use-by date, then, Prime Minister, you said:

It is equally important we listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when they tell us what is working and what needs to change. It’s our role as government to provide an environment that enables Indigenous leaders to develop local solutions. Again, Mr Speaker, it is time for Governments to ‘do things with aboriginal people, not do things to them’.

I say this, Prime Minister: imagine if all 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been implemented, then how many lives could have been saved by the wisdom in this report. Imagine, Prime Minister, if the $245 million spent on remote policing in the Northern Territory was instead spent on our kids and early childhood programs, instead of a mere $13.42 million.

Imagine if Aboriginal children could have access to excellent educational and innovative programs irrespective of where they live, whilst maintaining their languages and cultural identity; then an Aboriginal child would be proud knowing that their own identity is valued this country. Imagine if Aboriginal peoples' incarceration rates were comparable to the general population; then the imprisonment rates for young Aboriginals would not be higher than school retention rates. Imagine if we had a national approach that had consensus from the states and territories for a grassroots driven and culturally appropriate out-of-home care program for our children in care. Our children should not become statistics in a flawed system.

Imagine if all of us here in parliament did more than just nod at the United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Imagine if we actually acted on the articles of this declaration and implemented policies reflecting them; then perhaps our priorities would lead us to maintain the dignity and aspirations of Australia's first peoples. Imagine if the government let Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples assert their rights to participate in decisions that directly affect our lives and imagine if the protection of their lands, waters and culture were seen as our inherent responsibilities by everyone in this country. Imagine.

Imagine, Prime Minister, if Labor's national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention strategy of 2013 was enacted; perhaps we could have saved the lives of those 300-plus Aboriginal people who took theirs. Imagine if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could create their own jobs with their own dreams and aspirations of what will work and sustain their community and cultural values. Imagine if we could all understand and respect that healing takes time—often, it takes decades. Imagine if Australian's black history was intertwined with white Australian history so that it was all one Australian history. We know that this country is not fair and that we are not all treated equally. But instead of criticizing this inequality, we must embrace and respect everything that makes us different. This can be an even greater country. We cannot change where we were born, or the circumstances in which we were born into, but we can work together to overcome the challenges that stand before us. If we cannot do this then the only thing we have to look forward to is more failure. Finally, I would like to remind this place of another time, in the past, when another senator gave his maiden speech, because despite the intervening decades, not much has changed. He said:

…all within me that is Aboriginal yearns to be heard as the voice of the indigenous people of Australia. For far too long we have been crying out and far too few have heard us.

…   …   …

It would be an understatement to say that the lot of fellow Aboriginals is not a particularly happy one. We bear emotional scars - the young no less than the older.

…   …   …

…my people were shot, poisoned, hanged and broken in spirit until they became refugees in their own land.

…   …   …

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