Closing the Gap - Speech, House of Representatives


Last Tuesday, on a perfect Canberra morning, it was my pleasure to join the Indigenous Marathon Foundation's Closing the Gap Fun Run and Walk. It was 7 am on a crisp day and there we were at the shore of Lake Burley Griffin at the aptly named Reconciliation Place.

The Indigenous Marathon Project, run by the Indigenous Marathon Foundation, was established by Rob de Castella and has, to date, sent dozens of young Indigenous Australians through its training program. The capstone is the New York marathon, but Indigenous Marathon Project participants then go back to their communities to set up Deadly Fun Runs. It is both a leadership program and a community engagement program. I commend Rob de Castella, one of my great heroes, for his initiative in setting it up.

I acknowledge those from the Indigenous Marathon Foundation—Aaron West, Adrian Dodson-Shaw, Amanda Dent, Laura White, Peta MacKinnon, Sophie Linehan and Cara Smith—as well as those from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet—Emily Jones and Rachel Norman. It was a pleasure, too, to be joined by my colleagues the member for Rankin and the member for Lingiari, as well as Senator Scullion.

I have had a long association with the Indigenous Marathon Project. Over the course of 2015 to 2018, I set about running each of the world marathon majors as an Indigenous Marathon Project supporter, wearing their singlet. I was pleased to complete that last year, having done New York, Boston, Chicago, Tokyo, Berlin and London as an Indigenous Marathon Project supporter—253 kilometres in all. The final race was in Chicago and I was feeling a little wobbly as I came into the 35-kilometre point when suddenly I felt a hand grab me on the back of the head. I thought, 'Who on earth in a marathon would be grabbing you on the back of the head?' I looked over my shoulder and there was Charlie Maher, the first bloke to cross the line for the Indigenous Marathon Project. Charlie could tell I was struggling. He could tell there wasn't much point saying very much, so he just said two words—'Stay strong.' I did, and I managed to finish. With it, I had that sense of pride that really only comes from pushing yourself beyond the limits you thought you had. Charlie, like so many of the Indigenous Marathon Project graduates, is an extraordinary young man and will bring about extraordinary change in his community and across Australia.

There are just a handful of facts one needs to quote to recognise the challenges that we face in Indigenous policy today. The child mortality rate among Indigenous people in the Northern Territory is over 300 per 100,000. Nationally, the rate is less than 100 for non-Indigenous Australians. If we look at smoking, the share of Indigenous mothers who smoke after 20 weeks of pregnancy is 38 per cent compared to 12 per cent among non-Indigenous mothers. If we turn to education, the writing levels in NAPLAN of year 5 non-Indigenous students are higher than the levels for year 9 Indigenous students. The life expectancy gap is 8.6 years for men and 7.8 years for women, meaning that Indigenous Australians, on average, get eight fewer years with their families and loved ones. They get eight fewer Christmases, eight fewer birthdays and eight fewer years of productive work.

In the employment space, we know that there is not only a gap in Indigenous employment but also a potential challenge from automation. One of the interesting observations made by this year's Closing the Gap report is the figure on page 102 which looks at the share of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians employed in what is known as 'routine work', which are jobs we know are particularly prone to automation. That share is higher among Indigenous than non-Indigenous Australians.

Then there are indicators that are not presently among the Closing the Gap targets. Incarceration rates are, among Indigenous Australians, 2,481 prisoners per 100,000 people; among non-Indigenous Australians, 164 per 100,000 people. When the Australian Electoral Commission analysed voter turnout in the 2016 election, they estimated that voter turnout overall was 91 per cent but, among Indigenous Australians, just 52 per cent.

The original six Closing the Gap targets are: in life expectancy, closing the life-expectancy gap within a generation; in child mortality, halving the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018; in early childhood education, ensuring access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013; in literacy and numeracy, halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievement for children by 2018; in year 12 or equivalent attainment, halving the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates by 2020; and, in employment, halving the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018. Then school attendance was added as a seventh target in 2014—closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by 2018. Those original targets were renewed, and now, in the case of early childhood, look to 2025.

The sad truth of the Closing the Gap targets is they are not, in large part, on track. I seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard a table which sets out each of the targets and whether they are on or off track.

Closing the Gap targets table

As the Leader of the Opposition outlined in his response to the Closing the Gap statement, a Labor government will enshrine a voice for the First Australians as our top priority for constitutional change. We will also embrace initiatives to encourage more teachers and more effective teachers in Indigenous communities. We'll train more Aboriginal apprentices and double the number of rangers. In our first hundred days, we will bring together people from all over the nation—police, child safety experts, families—to work out what must be done to protect the next generation of First Nations children. We'll invest in Aboriginal healthcare providers. We'll make justice reinvestment a national priority. And we'll support Indigenous languages, in this, the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Labor will provide compensation to survivors of the stolen generation from Commonwealth jurisdictions and create a national healing fund for descendants managing intergenerational trauma. And we'll abolish and replace the Community Development Program.I thank the government. According to the current numbers in 2019, only two of the seven targets are on track, those being the early childhood education target and the year 12 or equivalent attainment target. To compare this with earlier years: in 2013, for example, three out of six targets were on track; even last year, three out of seven targets were on track. To have only two out of the seven targets on track is, to all members of the House, I'm sure, deeply disturbing.

True reconciliation must be both practical and symbolic. It must recognise that there is deep value in the acknowledgement of the traditional elders of the land on which we meet, as I do in my public speeches, and as I do now, for the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, and as our parliament does when we open each day. It comes to reconciliation action plans being pursued by businesses and community organisations. It goes to simple symbolic acts. For example, is it really appropriate that the heads on Australian coins should be those of a monarch from the other side of the world rather than the heads of famous Indigenous Australians? Why not have our own Indigenous Australians gracing Australian coins?

It is appropriate that we in Australia acknowledge how far we have to go. This Closing the Gap report is a vital piece of truth-telling to Australia. It is to our shame, but it also a reminder of the work to be done to ensure that not two out of seven but seven out of seven targets are on track to be met.


Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.