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Closing the Gap

I spoke in parliament about the Prime Minister’s statement on Closing the Gap.

Prime Minister’s Statement on Closing the Gap, 12 March 2013

It is a pleasure to follow the member for Hasluck in this important debate on closing the gap. He is the only Indigenous member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which is an indication of one gap that we need to work to close. Were Indigenous Australians to be represented in this place in proportion to the number in the Australian population there would be at least five Indigenous members in parliament and many debates, this one included, would be richer for that. I hope we will see Nova Peris joining the next Senate, but we still will have further to go. It is an indicator of how many of these gaps take too long to close.

I am proud to represent an electorate which is the home of the Ngunnawal people. Often when I am looking for stories of Indigenous Australia I turn to Stories of the Ngunnawal, an excellent book which discusses some of the stories of the Ngunnawal elders. One story by Dorothy Brown Dickson reminds us of how tough it was for some of the Ngunnawal people. Ms Dickson grew up in an Aboriginal reserve in Yass. She refers to how tough life was for the young men. She says:

‘They couldn’t have a drink in peace. They had nowhere else to have a drink and socialise as they weren’t allowed in the pubs. People would come up there all the time arresting them, and taking them down to the lock-up. When the police needed slave labour to look after their yards and cut wood, there always seemed to be someone in jail to do it.’

She goes on to say:

‘Even the shop-keepers were prejudiced. You had to wait until the white people were served first in the shops. When Aborigines went to the picture theatre they had to sit down the front by themselves. And the welfare would come up there all the time, checking on people.’

She goes on to talk about her friend Betty Russell, who she used to walk to school with. She says:

‘One afternoon I went to Betty’s place. Betty was quiet and her mother was sad. I asked What’s the matter?’ Betty said the welfare was sending her mother and brothers and sisters to Walgett. I was really sad. It really broke my heart but nothing could be done. I never saw Betty for years after that.’

It is vital that we report to parliament on progress on closing the gap. Progress on closing the gap is a multi-faceted challenge. It involves issues of the heart, such as the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution; symbolic acts of recognition, such as our existing practice of acknowledging traditional owners of the land in formal speeches; and perhaps in the future other practices, such as that adopted across the ditch, of dual naming of places. Today being Canberra Day it is appropriate to note that Canberra is the only Australian city that carries an Indigenous name rather than the name of a European. We ought to have more cities in Australia carrying traditional Indigenous names.

I wanted to speak today about a number of pieces of work being done to close the gaps. They are not all directly connected with one another, but I do not think many of these efforts to close the gap are directly connected with one another either. One issue that I have been active on as a member representing a large number of public servants is ensuring that the Australian government meets its target of 2.7 per cent Indigenous employees in the Australian Public Service. This is of particular concern to me as a result of an issue raised by the CPSU here in the ACT recently—that the share of Indigenous public servants in the Australian Public Service has not been increasing but in fact declining, falling from 2.4 to 2.1 per cent. In an effort to work out what we can do to increase the share of Indigenous employees I wrote to all ministers asking what strategies they are employing to improve the share of Indigenous employees in their departments, and I thought I might share some of those strategies with the House today.

Several departments have structured mentoring, leadership or buddy programs for Indigenous Australians, focusing on career development and ensuring retention. Other departments hold national conferences for their Indigenous employees as an opportunity to share ideas and experiences. Some departments have Indigenous apprentice, cadet and graduate programs as well as particular Indigenous strategy teams within their human resources divisions. In certain cases those human resources divisions have developed memoranda of understanding with Indigenous studies centres at universities as a way of partnering with those centres to get talented university graduates. There are departments that already exceed the 2.7 per cent target and are aiming higher. They have set aspirational targets for 2015. One minister has an Indigenous advisor working on his staff and has had that advisor for a number of years. Several departments participate in the Learn Earn Legend! Work Exposure in Government program, administered by DEEWR. It is a program that aims to give Indigenous Australians exposure to work in the offices of parliamentarians and in the Australian Public Service.

There is also work being done across the APS through its Diversity Council to make diversity issues visible, and there have been efforts to make sure that public servants are offered leave for cultural and ceremonial purposes which are appropriate to the needs of those employees. Those include up to two days leave with pay for participation in NAIDOC Week activities and cultural and ceremonial events.

The targets are 2.7 per cent for departments that were below that threshold as at 2009, or a 20 per cent increase for departments that were above the threshold. I do hope that we will see the share of Indigenous employees in the public sector track upwards; perhaps even through use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recruitment agencies, better working with existing Indigenous staff to design and deliver cultural appreciation training and through identified Indigenous positions—meaning not that the person who is successful in getting the position need be Indigenous but that they must understand Indigenous issues and take responsibility for communicating effectively with Indigenous people. Such positions may well be an important step towards increasing the share of public servants who are from an Indigenous background.

A second issue to which I want to draw the attention of the House is work being done by Canberra public servant, Daniel Billing, which has been publicised in the Canberra Times by their excellent education editor, Emma Macdonald. Mr Billing is working to provide home Kindles to Indigenous students. He noticed how his own seven-year-old took to the Kindle intuitively and enthusiastically, and so came up with a plan to fund Kindles for Indigenous students in an effort to boost their interest in reading. The ACT’s only participant is Forrest Primary School sixth grader, Yulcailia Hoolihan-Mongta. At the time she received her Kindle, the 11-year-old had a reading age of nine and spent just 45 minutes a week reading. After 12 weeks with the Kindle she has increased her weekly reading to two hours and 20 minutes and gained about a year’s worth of reading activity—a year’s worth of reading activity just in that three-month period, according to her teacher, Gemma O’Brien.

I commend Emma Macdonald for her work in publicising the Indigenous Reading Project and Daniel Billing for his activism, as well has the many generous philanthropists who have donated towards it. But one philanthropic body is notably absent, and that is Amazon.com. Amazon.com has Australian sales, I would estimate, of around $1 billion a year. Based on the available estimates, they hold about one 10th of the $13 billion online sales market. And yet Amazon.com pay no GST, they pay no company tax and they make no charitable donations to a single Australian charity. A billion dollars in sales, and not a cent in charitable donations. I asked Amazon.com how they could defend this, but I got no comment. I think this is unacceptable; I think Amazon ought to recognise its duty to Australia to behave as a good corporate citizen. And I cannot see a better charity for Amazon to support in Australia than the Indigenous reading project. So as a Kindle user and a keen consumer of their products, I do encourage Amazon.com to become a better Australian corporate citizen.

Third, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the July 2012 report Evaluating new income management in the Northern Territory: First evaluation report by J Rob Bray and co-authors. This is an important report because it cuts through much of the ideology that has surrounded new income management in the Northern Territory. It focuses on the empirical evidence relating to income management.

It notes that there are few consistent impacts of new income management. Instead, there have been diverse outcomes. The report notes wide and inconsistent views and experiences of income management. There are many who wish to remain on the program, which has had a positive impact on their lives. There has also been a statistically significant improvement in the ability to afford food among those in the treatment group relative to the control group. There were other positive and negative aspects noted. The Basics card has been valued, but the loss of autonomy resented. Some subject to income management have noted that they find it restrictive or frustrating. There is a sense of a disempowerment.

We need more empirical evidence of this type. I commend Minister Macklin for commissioning this important research. It is only through taking a clearheaded look at the empirical data that we will be able to craft better policies. If closing the gap were easy, it would have been done by generations past. It is because that this is a difficulty task that we set ourselves to it.

Finally, let me acknowledge the Indigenous softball program, which I had the pleasure to be engaged with at the Hawker Softball Centre at an event last year. Softball has been a leader among sports in engaging with Indigenous Australians, particularly women’s softball. There are Indigenous softball clubs springing up across urban, regional and remote Australia. I commend the work of Softball Australia in this area. Sport can help change lives and provide a sense of self-esteem and an enthusiasm to be involved in the community. Sport will play an important part in helping to close the gap.

I commend the statement to the House with a sense of optimism about the goals but also with clear-eyed realism about how far we have to go.

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