Closing the Gap

Today we're taking note of the Prime Minister's annual report on the Closing the Gap targets. I'd like to open my contribution by joining with the member for Cunningham in paying tribute to the life of the late Aunty Agnes Donovan. Unfortunately, neither the member for Cunningham nor myself can attend her funeral in Wollongong today because of our parliamentary responsibilities. We send our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Aunty Agnes. She was a much-loved elder within our
community.

She was well respected as a member of the local community in the Shellharbour Aboriginal Community Youth Association, where she served as the chairperson of that organisation for many, many years. She always stood up for what she believed in and dedicated her life to closing the gap for Aboriginal people. In her role as the chair of SACYA, she implemented a range of programs helping disadvantaged Aboriginal families and young people, including the alternative learning centre for disengaged Aboriginal high school students. The aim of that program was to ensure that at-risk kids stayed engaged and stayed at school.

She has been a longstanding member of the Shellharbour Aboriginal Advisory Committee and worked on thecouncil's Aboriginal employment strategy, which included the cultural heritage management assessment toolkit. She also worked with the Bass Point Interpretive Centre working group. She has made a tremendous contribution, not only to the Aboriginal community on the south coast and the Illawarra but to the broader community in our electorates. And we pass on our sincerest condolences to her daughter, Emma, her sons, Todd and PJ, and the many grandchildren that she loved and doted on. We thank you, the family, for sharing your mother, your grandmother, with us.

The Closing the Gap targets were established by the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. We are 10 years on. In 2018 the report has found that only three of the seven targets are on track to be met. These targets include halving the gap in child mortality rate by 2018, having 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025, and halving the gap in year 2 attainment by 2020. These three targets are on track. Nothing that I say hereafter should take away from the fact that these achievements should be celebrated. It is unequivocally a good thing.

However, if we look at the targets that have not yet been achieved, we still have a lot of work to do. Over the long term, between 1998 and 2016, the Indigenous child mortality rate has declined by 35 per cent. That is a great thing. We've also been narrowing the gap by 32 per cent. Improvements in the key drivers of child and maternal health over the past years suggest that there are significant gains that can be made. I'll have something to say in a moment about addressing the rates of smoking within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the benefits that can be gained if we are only able to bring those rates down to the background rates in the general community.

In the area of early childhood education, in 2016, 14,700 Indigenous children or 91 per cent were enrolled in early childhood programs. Again, that is a great thing. We should celebrate that. Nationally, the proportion of Indigenous 20- to-24-year olds who have achieved year 12 or equivalent increased from 47 per cent in 2006 to 65 per cent. The gap has narrowed some 12.6 per cent.

We can pause for a moment and say these are good things, but let's focus on the work that is yet to be done. The target to close the gap in school attendance is not on track. Overall, attendance in 2017 for Indigenous students was 83 per cent compared to 93 per cent for non-Indigenous students—a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of achievement on this important target. The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy attainments by 2018 is also not on track. The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is not on track. Indigenous unemployment has fallen slightly over the decade, but far more needs to be done. In 2016, the Indigenous employment rate was 46 per cent compared to 71 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track. Between the periods 2005-07 and 2010-12, there was only a small reduction of only 0.8 years for males and 0.1 years for females.

We don't have to look far to find some of the causes for this. Can I say, in a bipartisan manner, that nobody expected that we were going to make immediate gains in the first one or two or three years of establishing these targets. But that is, indeed, why you set yourself long-term targets and measure them on a year-by-year basis, to ensure that we are making progress. Last week the Closing the Gap campaign released its 10-year review of the Closing the Gap progress. It found that the aim of achieving health parity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030 was effectively abandoned after five years—it was effectively abandoned after five years. The report highlighted that the government's $530 million cut to Indigenous affairs and programs in the 2014 budget had a material impact on this nation's ability to meet those objectives.

I said a moment ago that, if we could just focus on one area for a moment to achieve some of those gains, particularly in health outcomes, we could address the smoking rates in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and bring them down to the background rates in the general communities. We know that this is possible if we look at some of the areas where they have achieved this successfully. In the Darug community in Western Sydney, intensive programs invested in over a long term have seen a significant drop in the smoking rates, particularly the maternal smoking rates, in the Aboriginal community in Western Sydney. But, when the government seeks to congratulate itself, as it did this week, for reintroducing an anti-smoking program that it had cut in 2014—it axed an anti-smoking program in 2014 and it now seeks applause for reintroducing that program this year—we cannot do anything but criticise the government for what has been an appalling record in this area.

If we want to do something about the life expectancy rates and we want to do something about the low birth-weight rate in infants, this is one program that, if invested in over a long period of time, can make a significant difference.

I want to say one final thing about the relationship between this government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. I have no doubt that, in his heart, the Prime Minister wants to do the right thing, but, when you commission a process that resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and had significant support right across the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community about a way forward on reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the rest of the country, and you reject that statement out of hand, by way of press release, and do not even have the courage to stand up and explain to the community why you did that, is it any wonder that the community is deeply sceptical of this government's commitment to the project ahead?