Closing the Gap: Words are not enough - Speech, House of Representatives

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 25 FEBRUARY 2020

Once again, we look at the Closing the Gap targets with some sense of dismay. Once again, Australia notes that we are not on track to meet those important targets.

Five of the seven targets are not on track: the target to halve the gap in child mortality rates, which was on track two years ago but is now off track; the target to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy; the target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance; the target to halve the gap in employment outcomes; and the target to close the gap in life expectancy. These are not on track.

Only two of the targets are on track: the target for 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds to be enrolled in early childhood education and the target to halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 in year 12 attainment or equivalent. And so it is a disappointing track record. For the work that has been done, we note that much remains undone.

The Prime Minister, appropriately this year, said that it was important to listen more to Indigenous people. He said:

… it was the belief that we knew better than our Indigenous peoples. We don't...

I'm very hopeful that a new approach that's more locally led and more collaborative will take us much further down than the top-down, one-size-fits-all, government-led approach ever could.

But, as Bernard Keane in Crikey has noted, this has been startlingly similar to the words former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in 2016:

And so we need to listen to and draw on the wisdom, the ingenuity, the insights of Indigenous people across the nation from the cities to remote communities...

But we have to redouble our efforts to ensure effective engagement between the Government, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to build trust and develop further that respectful relationship...

… to allow decisions to be made closer to the people and the communities which those policies impact.

I mention this commonality, not to say that I disagree with the notion that the Closing the Gap project must be more closely engaged with Indigenous Australians but merely to say that those words are not enough. Simply to make that observation doesn't make it happen.

These are targets which were developed in partnership with Indigenous people, but a government that says no to Indigenous Australians' request for a voice to parliament will always struggle to engage in this kind of respectful, collaborative and locally led project. When you reject the Uluru Statement from the Heart it is difficult to embrace a locally driven Indigenous collaborative approach to the Closing the Gap targets. I urge the government to rethink its rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and to consider whether progress may be made on a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament.

There is also the matter of a justice target. Labor has called for a justice target to be added to the existing Closing the Gap targets. This is critical, given what has occurred in the realm of Indigenous incarceration. I have argued that Australia has entered a second convict age. Overall, the share of the population incarcerated is the highest it has been at any time since federation. It's up 130 per cent since 1985, with 0.22 per cent of Australian adults behind bars. But the picture is much worse among Indigenous Australians: 2.5 per cent of Indigenous adults are incarcerated.

In Western Australia that figure is four per cent. Almost one in four Indigenous men born in the 1970s will go to jail during their lifetime. A higher share of Indigenous Australians are incarcerated than African-Americans, making Indigenous Australians—in the words of Noel Pearson—the most incarcerated people on earth. We must add a justice target to the Closing the Gap strategy to help to spur an evidence based criminal justice reform project of the kind that has seen US incarceration levels fall by 10 per cent over the course of the past decade. A project of this kind could be enormously important as part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

Let me close by acknowledging a number of important projects in the realm of Indigenous equality. For several years now, I have been a supporter of the Indigenous Marathon Project. I have run all the world's marathon majors in an Indigenous Marathon Project singlet, and it was a pleasure to join Rob de Castella and the team on 13 February in Reconciliation Place for the annual reconciliation run and walk. We were welcomed by Tyrone Bell and acknowledged the strength and resilience of Indigenous Australians as celebrated through Rob's Indigenous Marathon Project. I have enjoyed in that project learning from people like Nat Heath and Damien Crispin, an Indigenous Marathon Project graduate who lives in Broome and took me for a run last year when I was in Broome.

I acknowledge the work of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Their important work with e-readers is boosting Indigenous literacy and helping to close that gap. I want to recognise former Shoalhaven High School teacher John Dyball for his work with Indigenous boarding scholarships. John was, appropriately, awarded an Order of Australia this year recognising the value of his work partnering with schools to expand the educational opportunities for Indigenous Australians.

Finally, let me pay tribute to Western Australian Treasurer Ben Wyatt, a great Indigenous leader, who announced today that he is stepping down from politics at the next election. Ben has left the Western Australian state budget stronger. He has invested in health, education and public transport. He's a great political leader, a great Labor Party member and a great Indigenous leader. He leaves politics with his head held high.

ENDS

Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.