Ministerial Statements - Closing the Gap 2020

13 February 2020

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which we meet, the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that I'm honoured to represent in this place, the Dharawal people. In particular, I'd like to acknowledge the work of the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation Aboriginal Medical Service. Tharawal is a fantastic place. It is a place of positivity, a place of learning, and a place of acknowledgement of the history of the Aboriginal people in Australia. I acknowledge the work of the staff of Tharawal, and in particular the chief executive officer, Darryl Wright, and the many nursing and medical staff, including my friends and colleagues Jenny and Andrew McDonald, and the medical director, Dr Tim Senior. The wonderful work they do shows me how far we have come in terms of Indigenous health since I was a child, not only in terms of Indigenous health but also in terms of what we note are the social determinants of health. Sir Michael Marmot, who was the head of the World Medical Association, has been to Tharawal. He noted the enormous work that's been done and the positivity regarding health outcomes for Indigenous people. He commented on how good Tharawal was—and it certainly is. It certainly is a place where the gap is closing in many areas.

I've spoken before in this chamber about the significance of today's date. The date of the Apology to the Stolen Generations should serve as a constant reminder of the pain, suffering and cultural decimation that's been inflicted on our First Australians. Part of the apology was truth-telling and the acknowledgement of what's happened in the past. It's very important that we remember it. We should not whitewash history. In my electorate of Macarthur over 200 years ago was the site of the Appin massacre, when troops under the orders of Governor Macquarie massacred many Aboriginal men, women and children. Their heads were then set on poles in the neighbourhood as an example to the surviving Indigenous people. We should not forget this history. We should not forget the mistakes of the past.

Today is the day after the presentation of the Closing the gap report. Let's remember the significance of the fact that very few of the outcomes have been achieved. Even those achievements that have been spoken about are very modest. The significance of the Closing the gap report cannot be underestimated. We must continue to monitor our progress in closing the gap and in securing better outcomes for Indigenous Australians by acknowledging them and by giving them a voice. We should be allowing them to be the ones directing their own history. That means acknowledging the Uluru Statement from the Heart and acknowledging the fact that we need to enshrine an Aboriginal voice in our Constitution. The reality is that this is not happening. This government should be taken to task for the fact that they will not do this. I want to commend previous speakers and those who I spoke alongside yesterday on this matter as a matter of public importance. I believe that there is a lot of goodwill and a lot of genuine people on both sides of the aisle. I'm not denying that. But the fact that the government refuse to acknowledge the Uluru statement and accept it, and refuse to want to enshrine an Indigenous voice in our Constitution, is an evolving tragedy. They must learn.

As I remarked yesterday, a lack of progress in a number of key areas is indicative of a government that's failing to act and, I believe, failing to understand and appreciate a number of the key issues facing our First Nations peoples. Words do matter. The Apology to the Stolen Generations is one of the defining moments in our nation's history:

It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

The meaning and the sincerity behind these words should be serving as a guidepost for us all.

I've spoken about the Appin massacre. Even today we can go out to a property at Appin, Mt Gilead, and the remaining barn that is there still has the gun emplacements where the Aboriginal people were shot by the settlers and soldiers inhabiting their land.

A legacy of a failure to close the gap is not one that I want to leave to my children or my grandchildren. We owe it to our nation's future, to our First Nations people and to all Australians to get this right. That means that we need to close the gap and we need to give Aboriginal people the ability to do this and direct this themselves.

The evidence is stark. Overwhelmingly, Indigenous people are top of the statistics in things like child removal, incarceration of children and youth suicide. These things are part of the problem that we are facing. Aboriginal child mortality is a national shame and one that must be addressed on an urgent basis. As I mentioned yesterday, we are seeing in our Indigenous population things like rheumatic fever, a disease that has been eradicated throughout the developed world. That is something that we should be ashamed of and we need to address urgently. We can and we must do better.

These things serve as a warning to us all about the cost of complacency. We've been looking at the Closing the Gap targets for 12 years, and progress has been extraordinarily slow. The Closing the gap report tells us that we're not on track to close the gap that exists in a number of really important things such as child mortality. We are failing to close the gap in reading, writing and numeracy. Disparity exists in rates of school attendance as well as in employment and life expectancy, particularly for Indigenous men and particularly for Indigenous men in remote and isolated areas.

An entire people in Australia are being left behind and are facing challenges that the rest of us can barely comprehend. Our First Australians, people who have known and cared for these lands for more than 60,000 years, are being discriminated against and have, on average, a poorer quality of life across the board. If this were the case in any other section of Australian society, the outrage would be palpable. These are not just statistics, as my friend and colleague and an extraordinary parliamentarian, Linda Burney, a proud Wiradjuri woman, said; these are people. We must do better.

Australia's First Peoples—mums, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters—are Australians who are facing great disadvantage in many areas of life on a daily basis. They are people who belong to one of the richest, oldest and most beautiful cultures in the world who are not being treated fairly. This day and this report provide a valuable voice for our First Australians. It's a sad voice and a reminder that we have a long way to go. It's a day when we pause and listen to Australia's First Peoples, who continue to suffer poorer outcomes in a wide range of areas, not just health but also literacy, jobs, housing et cetera. We cannot afford to be complacent and we should not be dismissive of the outcomes that we have failed to achieve in the previous 12 months. We must stop repeating the mistakes of the past and genuinely listen to our First Nations Australians. We ought to all collectively today affirm our support for the Uluru statement and support new and ambitious targets that close the gap and deliver our First Nations people a better quality of life.

Debate adjourned.