Tuesday 11 August 2020
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Australian PM - 1 month ago

Closing the Gap

Mr Morrison: (Cook—Prime Minister) (10:02): by leave—I present a copy of Closing the gap: Prime Minister s report 2019. Introduction As we always do in this place, we meet on the land of the Ngunawal people. I acknowledge and pay my respects and our respects to Ngunawal elders past, present and emerging, and, indeed, to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across this nation, whether here today or right across our land. I also acknowledge our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who are also democratically elected representatives of this parliament: the member for Hasluck, the member for Barton and Senators Dodson and McCarthy, and I welcome them here. I also welcome the co-chairs of my Indigenous Advisory Council, Andrea Mason and Roy Ah-See, and all the other members of that council, and all those who have travelled so far to be here today, including Warren Mundine—it s great to have you here as a great Aboriginal leader, Warren. I also want to acknowledge the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion, who has joined us here in the chamber. And I also want to acknowledge the member for Warringah, both as the special envoy and as someone who has had a profound impact on my understanding and appreciation of Indigenous Australians and the challenges that they face in our country. I want to acknowledge the member for Warringah s longstanding compassion, advocacy, commitment and dedication to the First Peoples of our nation. Reflection I want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to have the same opportunities as all other children growing up in Australia. That is a goal that I believe is shared by every single member of this parliament. But it s not true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children growing up in Australia today. It s never been true, and I don t know when it will be true, and that is the truth we must confront today. I remind myself of this truth each day as I walk into my office, as I ve done for many years, in different offices. In my office is a photo of a plaque embedded in a rock memorial at a remote outstation in Central Australia that I visited with the member for Warringah and Senator Scullion many years ago—in fact, back in 2009. It s outside a small school that was attended by Shirley Ngalkin. When Shirley was away from her community in that remote part of Central Australia in 1998 she was raped and drowned by teenage boys in Hermannsburg. She was six years old. She would be a young woman now, probably raising her own family—perhaps even her own daughters. On her memorial it says, I am Jesus little lamb , with a prayer that she now rests in his care. And I pray that is true, because we certainly failed to provide that care here—and we still do. I d like to tell you that this no longer happens, but we all know it does, even though we re often told that we shouldn t say so and shouldn t talk about these things. But we should. Young girls are taking their lives in remote communities, as we ve seen just over this past summer. So are young boys. In too many communities, lives are being consumed in a hopeless dysfunction that seems to defy any sensible response. While I m not going to pretend today that this situation does not remain in an unforgiveable state, I am going to say that we will all never rest as a nation until we change this for all time—all of us, together. I m here to say today, though, that there is hope, that progress is being made and can be further made so that one day someone will be able to stand here and say that a young Indigenous boy or girl is now growing up in an Australia where they have the same chances and opportunity in life as any other Australian. That is what closing the gap is all about. Closing the Gap accountability In 2008 we began this process of closing the gap. Successive Prime Ministers have reported since on our progress on meeting these national goals. It was born out of the National Apology. That was one of the first acts that I was involved in, in this place, coming in as a member of parliament, and I was pleased to do so. Closing the Gap was a recognition that words without deeds are fruitless, and Prime Minister Rudd should forever be commended for that apology and the process he began. That process that began in 2008 was born of a very good heart. It recognised that accountability is vital if we are to bring about a change and meaningful process that has eluded our nation for more than two centuries. But I must say that, while it was guided by the best of intentions, the process has reflected something of what I believe is the hubris of this place: it did not truly seek to partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It believed that a top-down approach could achieve that change that was, rightly, desired—that Canberra could change it all with lofty goals and bureaucratic targets. That s not true. It was set up to fail—and has, on its own tests. And today I m calling that out. This was not a true partnership—not with the states and territories or, most importantly, with Indigenous peoples themselves. Yes, there was more funding, more programs, more workers—and more accountability, too. But this was just another version of what we were already doing—tragically, so often unsuccessfully in so many different forms, for generations. So, while there has been incremental and meaningful progress on many fronts, as of 2019 only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets are on track. What we re doing has to change, and our government is leading a process to change it. That is why, two years ago—and I acknowledge the former Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull—we embarked on a Closing the Gap refresh—because our efforts were not meeting our worthy ambitions, shared by all us. Late last year, a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies—and I acknowledge Pat, who is here with us today—made representations to me about closing the gap. They came to me seeking a real partnership, one where we listen, work together and decide together how future policies are developed, especially at a regional and at a local level. This is a message I ve also heard from Andrea and the Indigenous Advisory Council and Roy, and I thank them for the candidness of that message. At COAG, together with the premiers and chief ministers, in December last year, all governments committed to share ownership of, and responsibility for, jointly agreed frameworks, targets and ongoing monitoring of a refreshed Closing the Gap agenda, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at its heart. I thank all the premiers and chief ministers for their spirit, enthusiasm, dedication and commitment for joining this task. COAG asked that this work be finalised by the middle of this year. This is a major step toward the genuine and mutually respectful formal partnership between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians that will empower individuals and allow communities to thrive. Governments fail when accountabilities are unclear, when investment is poorly targeted, when systems aren t integrated and when we don t learn from evidence. This is true not only for Indigenous policy but also for any area of policy. That is why clear accountability will be at the centre of a new approach to closing the gap, with states, territories, the Commonwealth government and Indigenous Australians having clear responsibilities for delivering on targets. This is also why the progress we jointly make will be subject to regular independent Indigenous-led reviews. This is about delivering action on the ground. It s about giving us all the best chance for success, to match the best of our motives and intentions. Our Indigenous communities in regional, remote and urban Australia need the jobs and economic growth that make true aspiration viable, and we need a renewed focus on education so that the next generation of Indigenous men and women will have every opportunity to participate in and contribute to our economic prosperity. As we commence this refresh of Closing the Gap, it is important to report on what has occurred over the past 10 years of reports. While it is important to acknowledge the gap that exists and the gap that must be closed, we must be careful not to take a deficit mentality to our task. This is a long journey of many steps, and we cannot allow the enormity of that task, as great as it is, to overwhelm us and to overwhelm our appreciation for what we are achieving. If we focus only on the gap and not on what is being achieved, we are at risk of losing heart. We may fail to recognise achievements and strengths that can be built upon. Sure, those achievements are still not enough. But, in this space, every achievement is hard won in every life, in every community and in every family. Every Indigenous child that gets into school and stays in school is a victory that should be claimed. Every Indigenous child born healthy and that remains healthy is a victory that must be claimed. Every Indigenous parent in every town, in every place, who gets a job and stays in a job is a victory and it must be claimed, because it changes generations when it happens—as Warren Mundine pointed out to me not that long ago from his own experience. Every Indigenous woman and every Indigenous child who is kept safe from abuse every hour of every day is a victory that must be claimed. And every night a family can rest their heads in a home that is clean, safe and not overcrowded is a victory that must be claimed. This process must claim it s victories, while being honest about its failures and shortcomings. Because it is the victories upon which further success is built, and our failings from which lessons will and must be learned—so let s turn to those. Life Expectancy Over the past 10 years the life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians has increased. Men born between 2015 to 2017 can expect to live for an additional 4.1 years and women 2.5 years compared to those born 10 years earlier. It s an improvement that is encouraging. It points to better work being undertaken, drawing together the different threads of health: physical, social, emotional and mental. This progress is the culmination of incremental progress in communities across Australia. Across Australia there are hundreds of services making a meaningful difference. In Queensland, the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health provides clinics, eye examinations, dental examinations and support to deal with addictions. In Central Australia, the Purple House is taking dialysis services to patients—with a mobile dialysis unit, the Purple Truck. And in communities across Australia it requires sustained effort. It s intensive, and it s absolutely vital. However, despite the progress, we are not on track to close the gap on life expectancy by 2031. Child Mortality Since 2008 Indigenous child mortality rates have fallen by 10 per cent. The child mortality rate is a rate per 100,000 children, and so, with a small population, the rate does move around a lot from year to year. That means we have to be very cautious about any claims that we make of improvement. While the Indigenous child mortality rate has fallen, the non-Indigenous infant mortality rates have fallen at a greater rate. While we welcome both falls, the gap has not narrowed. But there are positive signs: the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers attending antenatal care has risen from 41 per cent in 2010 to 60 per cent in very importantly, the maternal smoking rate has decreased from 54 per cent in 2015 to 43 per cent in and we are seeing significant increases in immunisation rates. I acknowledge the work being done on the ground that is making meaningful differences. In Queensland, the Apunipima Cape York Health Council s Indigenous health workers, through the Baby One Program, are conducting health checks, immunisation and treatments in homes and through clinics. In the Northern Territory, a team of Aboriginal women is helping young mothers through the Nurse-Family Partnership Program and imparting an understanding of what contributes to good health and wellbeing. This is work that is extremely targeted and helping families make the best choices when it comes to the health and wellbeing of their young children. Early Childhood Education The target to have 95 per cent of Indigenous children in early childhood education by 2025 is on track. In 2017, 95 per cent of Indigenous children were enrolled in early childhood education. New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT now have enrolments at the 95 per cent benchmark rate or above. We should note that attendance rates for Indigenous children were lower in remote areas—particularly very remote areas—and up to 16 percentage points lower than the rates for Indigenous children in other areas. So there is still work to do. Nevertheless, there is progress overall and this should be celebrated, as I have said, because enrolment and attendance are precursors to improving developmental outcomes ahead of attending school. Much of this work has been supported by national partnership agreements with the states and territories. Educational Outcomes Since 2008, there have been improvements in schooling outcomes. The Commonwealth, working with the states and territories through the National School Reform Agreement, is bolstering these improvements with $308 billion from 2018 to 2029, with a priority focus on driving improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The biggest improvement over the past decade has been in year 12 or equivalent attainment. We have witnessed an almost 18 percentage point jump in the proportion of Indigenous Australians achieving this milestone since 2006. More Indigenous students are now graduating and moving into employment or further studies. We can be particularly proud of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island young people who face the additional challenge of living in very remote areas. They have achieved the largest leap in attainment, with rates rising from 23 per cent in 2006 to 43 per cent in 2016. However, the target to close the gap in school attendance is not on track. Attendance rates for Indigenous students are at around 82 per cent compared to 93 per cent for non-Indigenous students. Literacy and numeracy While there is a disproportionate share of Indigenous students below the minimum standards for reading and numeracy, we have made progress over the past decade. The proportion of Indigenous students at or above minimum standards is 11 to 13 percentage points higher than in 2008—for reading in years 3 and 5 and for numeracy in years 5 and 9. Indigenous employment This government understands that one of the keys to transforming Indigenous employment rates is to encourage Indigenous businesses to grow, and I particularly commend the minister, Senator Scullion, for his work in this area. Indigenous enterprise means Indigenous jobs. Since the commencement of the Indigenous Procurement Policy 3½ years ago, the Commonwealth has awarded almost 12,000 contracts to over 1,470 businesses. Those contracts have a total value of $1.8 billion. Last financial year, 366 Indigenous businesses won their first Australian government contract. The Commonwealth and all portfolios exceeded their three per cent Indigenous Procurement Policy contract target. To ensure this growth continues, from 1 July this year, we ll introduce a three per cent target based on value, beginning at one per cent and phased in over eight years. We ll also expand the reach of the mandatory minimum requirements for Indigenous participation in major contracts to include additional service categories from 1 July next year. It is through the development of small, family and medium sized Indigenous businesses that we will tackle the Indigenous employment gap. Next steps I am aware that many have entered this place in this role with grand plans and lofty promises on these issues—all soon forgotten. As Prime Minister I am not going to add further well-intentioned promises to what is a long and disappointing list. The Closing the Gap initiative seeks to promote action across a broad range of fronts. It must and will continue to. As Prime Minister I intend to have a more specific focus: to concentrate my efforts, to seek to make an impact in just one area that I believe can really achieve generational change. And that s education. I want to get kids into school and I want them to stay in school for longer. That is what I wish to achieve. Education is the key to skills. It is the key to jobs. It is the key to building enterprises—and giving young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians the opportunity to create their futures. It is the key to a good life. If you can t read, if you can t write, there is no possible way you can share in the prosperity of Australia in the way you would otherwise. I am yet to meet a person who says they regret studying. Because, even if we take a different path to our studies, it becomes a foundation on which to build. As Ian Trust, the Chair of Wunan, an Aboriginal development organisation in the East Kimberley, puts it: If you want to have things you have never had before, you must be prepared to do things you have never done before. For us, this will mean getting more of our people educated and into a job in order to break the cycle of poverty for our people. Education is the foundation: for skills, jobs, health, prosperity, longevity, safety, society. As the member for Warringah has noted, when Indigenous students finish school and complete a degree, they have much the same employment outcomes as other comparable Australians. We are seeing good signs from around the country. The number of Indigenous women enrolling in university education has continued to rise, and Indigenous women are graduating in increasing numbers. For example, only last month, five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women graduated as doctors from the University of Western Australia. This is a tremendous outcome and I congratulate these new doctors. And last week, on the other side of the continent, in Port Macquarie, the first Indigenous graduate in the University of Newcastle s Bachelor of Midwifery completed her studies. While there has been progress, we need to accelerate our efforts, particularly in our work in remote areas. We must start with incentivising and rewarding teachers in remote communities, as the member for Warringah has proposed. If you re a teacher in a very remote area, what you are doing is more than a it s a calling. It s an act, an expression, of love for your fellow Australians, and we should never take advantage of that great act of love. If anything—and we should—it must be rewarded. That is why the government will provide incentives to teachers working in very remote areas to help them pay their higher education loans. For these teachers, their HECS debt will be frozen. From today, teachers working in a very remote area will not have one cent of interest added to their debt whilst they are working in a very remote area. For teachers who, from today, work for four years in a very remote area, their HECS debt will be scrapped. As well, the Minister for Education, the special envoy, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs will work closely with a small number of communities to improve attendance rates—community by community, school by school, child by child. This could include improving additional school facilities such as infrastructure and learning centres to help disengaged students return to school, the goal being supporting and addressing school attendance. We have seen the success of organisations that provide scholarships and mentoring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and girls. The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, the Clontarf Foundation—with which I have a long association—and so many other programs are producing great outcomes, and we need to invest in that success, helping indigenous boys and girls choose the futures they aspire to. The government will provide an additional $200 million in support over the forward estimates for scholarships, academies and mentoring support. I want children, Indigenous kids, to get into school and to stay in school longer. The Indigenous youth education package will provide further certainty for scholarships, academies and mentoring of Indigenous students. This is an area which is working, and we will invest in its success. The journey ahead There is a change happening in our country—a shared understanding that we have a shared future. The change is manifesting itself in thousands of small ways. On this issue, I remember as a boy, just 12, travelling with my older brother, Alan, to a property 30 kilometres east of Cloncurry in north-west Queensland. The member for Kennedy knows that property today is under water. It was the family property of my late Uncle Bill, the grandson of Dame Mary Gilmore, who sensed and wrote of the yearning and mourning of Indigenous Australians long before most others in this country. I remember being in awe of the land and marvelling at seeing a horizon on land, because I d grown up by sea. I d never seen that before. There was a large Indigenous family working on that property with Uncle Bill and Aunty Robin. They were skilled stockmen. I had almost no interaction with Aboriginal people at this time in my life, and my first reaction as a young boy was to withdraw. We too often withdraw when we don t know or don t understand. My uncle sensed my unease and he helped me to connect, to see and to appreciate and understand. During the days that followed, I came to learn about their deep connection to land and country and got to know a family that was beautiful, generous and kind. I fast forward a generation to the evening before Australia Day this year, when I took my own girls with Jen down to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin to spend time with the Ngunawal people. My girls are just a little younger than Alan and I were back then. But my children had no such apprehension, only enthusiasm, and they already had an understanding and appreciation of Indigenous culture that I didn t have as a child at their age. Things have rightly and positively changed. And on those shores of our man-made lake, they encountered the same beauty, generosity and kindness that we had a generation before. That afternoon, as our faces were painted by our hosts and we danced—some of us not that well—we laughed and we listened. We listened not just to the elders but to the very country that is home. That afternoon, I again saw the great grace of Indigenous Australians. Despite the dispossession, despite the loss of identity, despite the renaming of their lands and despite the ignominy of our history on these issues—including the crimes and the misguided good intentions—there was a good and open-hearted grace. There was an offered hand where you had no right to expect one. The miracle worked in an apology is not when it is offered but when it is accepted and forgiveness takes place. That is when true reconciliation occurs. In an age of offence and where the bonds between us are often under strain, there is much we can learn from our First Peoples. So we draw strength from their grace and we renew our efforts to address the gaps that exist. We owe it to them, to our history, to our country, that we share, work together and make the difference that is vital to so many Australian lives. I m pleased to present the Closing the gap report for 2019.

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