Government must not abandon National Congress of Australia's First Peoples

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (11:11): When a government changes, the country changes. So said Paul Keating in his famous dictum. I agree with that totally. But some national projects have to survive the political baton change. It often falls to a government and a parliament to continue the good work of the previous government and the previous parliament. So it is with the project of national reconciliation, recognition and removing the gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I thank the member for Blair, the shadow spokesperson, for bringing this matter before the parliament. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Ngambri and Ngunawal people, and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Deputy Speaker, you would remember that, on 13 February 2008, the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the apology to the stolen generation. This was another step in the process of reconciliation, another step in acknowledging that it falls to the government to remove the burden of disadvantage and discrimination. He had this to say:

… we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

We on this side of the House believe that it is critical that, in fulfilling these objectives, you have representative bodies of Indigenous Australians to enable us to consult and enable them to have an organised voice so that they can speak to government effectively, with power and dignity. The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples is a critical body, as the peak body representing Indigenous organisations and individuals, as the member for Blair said in his contribution on this motion. It is an important body in doing that. The congress's strength comes from the fact that it has direct membership, with 171 member organisations and close to 6,000 individual members, growing week by week. Collectively, tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now make up one of the largest Indigenous networks ever created in Australia. It is a critical body.

In his contribution, the member for Leichhardt was critical of the fact that the congress spent some of its resources contradicting and criticising the government of the day. There are some countries where the government of the day seeks to close down dissent, seeks to shut off voices that disagree with it, through totalitarian means or through more subtle means such as withdrawing funding and support. Thankfully Australia has not traditionally been one of those countries. Labor recognises that it is important to have contrary voices in civil society. That is why, to support the work of the congress, we gave the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples $29 million in establishment funding over four years and $15 million over three years in the 2013 budget. I disagree with the member for Leichhardt. I agree with him on many things—this is not a partisan point—but I disagree with him on his observation that the congress has not be providing either advice or service to, or on behalf of, government. They most certainly have. The member for Blair went through a great number of instances where they were doing this.

I want to focus on one area in particular: the importance of having an advocacy and an advisory body to government in the area of Indigenous health. If we are going to address the issue of disadvantage, then we have to address the disadvantage and the gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people when it comes to life expectancy and health outcomes. With this in mind, we are very disappointed that there have been significant cuts to Aboriginal health programs in the recent budget across a raft of areas. The general cuts and changes will also fall heavily upon those Australians who have a significant problem. But the one that I want to point out is the cut to the antitobacco and the antismoking campaigns. The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission identified tobacco smoking as the biggest cause of health disadvantage and differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. If we address this, we will go a long way to addressing the gaps between Australians of different backgrounds. (Time expired)