Let's Close The Gap

My electorate is on the land of the Dharawal and Gundungarra peoples and this parliament rises magnificently upon the lands of the Ngunawal people.


I would like to acknowledge these people and pay my respects to elders past and present. This was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Closing the Gap is our annual report card—the assessment of how we are going as a nation in reducing inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Of course, we know that inequality as a whole is growing within Australia—between rich and poor, between town and country and between black and white. When inequality grows, those who are already at the greatest disadvantage are left even further behind.

I want to focus on life expectancy for a moment. We are not on track to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation—that is, by 2031. There is currently a 10-year gap in life expectancy. The average Aboriginal male will not make it to 70 and the average Aboriginal woman will not make it to 74. We have come a long way since 1901, when the life expectancy for the general population was 55 years for men and 58 years for women. Today, it is 83 years for women and 80 for men. We are, in fact, ranked second in the world, behind Japan, for life expectancy. But, if we were to rank Aboriginal Australians on that same list, men would be ranked 95th in the world and women 113th. I will say that again: if we rank Australia as a whole, we are number two, behind Japan, for life expectancy; but, if we were to rank Australian in terms of Aboriginal life expectancy, we would be 95th for men and 113th for women. In life expectancy, Indigenous men are on a par with Vanuatu, Nicaragua and Samoa and rank behind the life expectancy of men in Tonga, Palau, Jordan and Albania. Indigenous women are on a par with Egypt and Iraq but rank below the life expectancy of women within Cambodia. I think most Australians would be surprised to learn of this league table.

Increases in life expectancy since the turn of the last century have occurred because of significant improvements in infectious disease control, infant mortality, motor vehicle accidents and, of course, reducing the rate of deaths through coronary heart disease. When we look at all of these great accelerators for increasing life expectancy, we know that they do not apply evenly across all Australian groups. Take coronary heart disease as an example. We know that this is a great cause of the difference in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

I look at the smoking rates. Forty-two per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people smoke, compared with just 16 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. I argue that one of the most significant things that we could do to ensure that we close that gap is reducing that rate. There have been some good programs. Regrettably, some of those programs were put on hold during the first two years of the coalition government's time in office. I believe that the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program had started to reduce and was an important program for reducing Aboriginal Australians' rates of smoking. The Liberal government has cut it—very significant cuts. Over $130 million over five years was cut by this government from the program tackling Indigenous health. This budget measure was one of the worst of the 2014-15 budget.

Another significant cause of the gap in life expectancy and health outcomes not only between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians but between Indigenous Australians living in urban settings and those who live in remote Australia is access to decent quality food. For Indigenous health to improve, we must be able to address food security. We saw the Australian National Audit Office report from last year highlight the difficulty that remote Aboriginal communities face in getting reasonable and ongoing access to a range of food, drink and grocery items. I have experienced this myself in my own trips to outback Australia, where it is far easier to get access to deep-fried foods or high-sugar-content foods than it is to get access to fresh fruit. I pause to ask: if we are seriously contemplating that in my children's lifetime we could send a manned spacecraft to Mars, why can't we get fresh apples and fresh produce on the shelves of a community store at an affordable price in rural and remote Australia? We can do better as a nation.

I want to talk a bit about eye health. I was very proud to sit behind the Leader of the Opposition when he gave his reply, on behalf of the Labor Party, to the Closing the Gap statement. He gave some emphasis to the importance of eye health to the overall health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. He committed that a Labor government would fund $9.5 million to close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vision loss. I think it is an indictment upon all of us that a disease such as trachoma, a disease that is associated with Third World nations and that has been eradicated in most nations that we like to compare ourselves with, is still afflicting people in remote communities throughout Australia. It is curable. It is beatable. It is something that can be done within two years if we apply the right programs and the right resources to it.

My friend the member for Fraser has talked about the importance of education to closing the gap. There has been some progress in this area but sadly not enough. Attendance rates and completion rates in higher education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are still lagging at a rate of about 10 per cent. We can do much better. That is why Labor is committed to putting in place specialist programs and providing schools—blind to the variety of school systems throughout the country—additional resources to assist in specialist programs which will help the completion rate, help the gaps in literacy and numeracy and ensure that we have culturally specific and appropriate education, particularly in some of those remote communities.

In the time that I have left, I want to say something about Labor's announcement for ensuring that we have justice targets in the annual Closing the gapreport. It has been said in previous contributions that 25 out of 100 Australian prison inmates are Aboriginal Australians, compared to only three out of every 100 Australians. Indigenous Australians comprise three per cent of the population and 25 per cent of the prison population. In 2012, the rate of imprisonment of the non-Indigenous community was 124 per 100,000. The Indigenous offender rate is 19 times that at 2,302 per 100,000 people. We know the impact that incarceration can have over a lifetime on health, on learning, on family, on employment, on recidivism, on lifestyle and on the children of those who are incarcerated. I believe, and Labor values dictate, that we must have a justice target that aims to reduce the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment.

Having a target will focus our minds on diversion, on rehabilitation, on early intervention programs, on proper and decent schooling, on languages and on much more. There is much more that can be done, and the member for Fraser has pointed out that right across our prison populations, in every state in the country, we have seen an explosion in prison numbers. It is true; it is doubly true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs. When we have people who are being locked up for seemingly petty—I do not say significant, but for relatively petty—crimes and we look at the cost of that incarceration we have to ask ourselves whether this is the best spend of Australian taxpayers' money. I would argue that it most certainly is not.

It is in the nation's interest that we review our approach—this 'tough on law and order' approach to so many of our social maladies—and start thinking about whether a better approach is needed. The campaign in New South Wales that has been run against bail laws is an example. Much more can be done, and I have not spoken about the importance of constitutional recognition. We are going to have a referendum next year, apparently, if the government is returned. I suspect many of us would be arguing that a referendum on constitutional recognition would be a far better spend of taxpayers' money.