Some Thoughts On The Closing The Gap Report

This House and this parliament is built on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. They so generously welcome us to country at the commencement of each parliament and on a daily basis when parliament is sitting. We start the day by acknowledging their continuous connection to land, their culture and their contribution to this region. I respect your elders, past and present, and extend that statement of respect to the elders of the region which I represent: the Dharawal and Gundangara people of the Illawarra and the Southern Highlands.

Before the time that Aboriginal people were displaced from their land and separated from their families, their stories, their traditions and their languages, Aboriginal Australians were our nation's first doctors, law makers, teachers and conservationists. Today, Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience significant disadvantages in their daily lives, with poorer access to education, health, housing and employment—the cumulative result of generations of dispossession, injustice and denial. It falls to us to make right this historical wrong. The time for justice is now. The problem is urgent.

In 2008, the then Prime Minister Rudd outlined a new future for Australia, one where:

… 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.

Prime Minister Abbott has now tabled the Closing the gap report for 2014, on the anniversary of Prime Minister Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generation. Regrettably, as numerous members of this place have observed, the progress we are making in closing the gap is stalling. We are on track and making progress on the target to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under the age of five. That is something that all members of this place must rejoice in. Progress was made to halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20 to 24 in year 12 attainment. Again, that is something that we must take some pleasure in. But, worryingly, we are not on track with these other targets to close the gap in life expectancy; reading, writing and numeracy; employment outcomes; and early education access for under-4-year-olds.

Doing nothing is not an option and doing less would be a breach of faith. Here is why: the life expectancy gap is 10.5 years for males and 9.5 years for females; between 2006 and 2010, the age-standardised death rate for Indigenous people was 1.9 times the rate for non-Indigenous people; in 2003 to 2005, maternal mortality rates were 2.7 times higher for Indigenous women than for non-Indigenous women and Indigenous people were 3.4 times more likely to report having some form of diabetes than non-Indigenous people; over that same period, Indigenous people died from diabetes at almost seven times the rate of non-Indigenous people; and between 2006 and 2010, after age adjustment, the notification rate of end-stage renal disease was 7.2 times higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people. I could go on for all of the remaining time allotted and give example after example in the area of health and in the area of education where we are failing to address these gaps and where our failure to do that marks us down. That is something that we should all be ashamed of.

I have heard previous speakers talk about the terrible blight that smoking is having upon men and women from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. In 2009, almost 50 per cent of Indigenous mothers reported smoking during pregnancy. This level is 3.8 times greater than that of their non-Indigenous counterparts. The figure is actually higher if you separate the Northern Territory for every other region in the country. I see the member for Chifley here. It is worth noting that it is not a universal statistic. There have been measures that have been put in place and programmes that have been the put in place, including in the area that the member for Chifley represents, where maternal smoking rates have actually been reduced to that of the non-Indigenous population.

The case is not hopeless. We know that, with the right programmes and the right effort and giving control to the communities to take these issues up through local initiatives, we can do something to address these issues. If we were going to put in place one thing over the course of this year that would make a long-term difference for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families, it would be to tackle the gap in smoking rates and, in particular, the gap in maternal smoking rates amongst Aboriginal populations.

In responding to the Prime Minister's statement, the Leader of the Opposition has pledged to incorporate Justice Targets into our Closing the Gap objectives, and there is a compelling case for this. Incarceration rates of Aboriginal Australians are damningly disproportionate: 25 out of 100 of Australian prison inmates are Aboriginal Australians. However, only three out of every 100 Australians is Aboriginal. Acting Deputy Speaker, that figure alone should cause us all to pause and ask what is going on here. One in four Australians behind bars is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person—that is completely disproportionate to the three per cent of Australians who come from Aboriginal backgrounds. As the Labor leader, Mr Shorten, said to this House: a target on justice is a missing plank in this picture. The situation has been getting progressively worse over the years. As a nation, we cannot simply attribute these rates of incarceration solely to the consequences of individual choices. To be sure, we cannot discount the importance of individual choices and decisions in these high incarceration rates. But to ignore the other factors—factors such as poor health, poor education, poor housing and unemployment, and a lack of hope in many of these communities—is to forget about the majority of the picture. These are all the social factors that lead to substance abuse and other criminal activity—the factors that are leading to this disproportionate number of people behind bars.

If we look at some of the reports—particularly out of the west and out of the Northern Territory—which look at the number of people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds who are in jail, or who are on remand for what most of us would say are trivial offences—the non-payment of parking fines, for example, and other trivial offences—we have to ask ourselves: 'Is this the best use of our corrective services dollars? Is this the best way to treat this issue?' Surely we can do better. We also know that the justice system does not usually address the causes of a crime, but it shows the symptoms of these deeper, more troubling, social issues. We are all challenged to address this together—to walk together. Labor proposes formal, measurable targets related to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

On Friday I was in the New South Wales parliament to listen to evidence being given to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. I was very moved by the evidence of many of the witnesses, and the next day I went out to Emerton in the member for Chifley's electorate—and I am certain that he will make some observations about the evidence that we heard at that hearing in his electorate. But, in Macquarie Street in Sydney, I was very moved by the evidence of the Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, Ms Kirstie Parker, who had this to say:

The increasing numbers of rates of incarceration for our people, particularly young people and women, is of huge concern within our communities. We do believe strongly that this is an area that the Commonwealth must show some leadership on.

Ms Parker went on to say that:

… there must be a concerted, collective effort to reduce incarceration rates. There must also be attention focused on reducing the number of our children in out-of-home care. These are things that are currently not covered by the Closing the Gap targets. We are on the record as pushing for justice targets, in particular.

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