Statement on Closing the Gap

koori_mens_group.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (10:20): It is a great pleasure to follow the member for Lalor in this debate. I am sure she will make as great an impact on public life as the woman she succeeded in that seat. I also acknowledge the member for Hasluck, who is in the chamber today, and the work that he is doing on the important select committee dealing with constitutional recognition. That is a matter that I will have something more to say about throughout the course of my remarks.

It is important that we acknowledge the traditional owners of this land—the Ngambri people and the Ngunnawal people—and I pay my respects to elders past and present. As a representative of the Throsby electorate, I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the Dharawal people of the Illawarra and the Gundungurra people of the Southern Highlands.

On 13 February 2008, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to the stolen generations. I suspect everybody in this chamber would be able to recite exactly where they were on that morning when the Prime Minister delivered that historic address. I was with a group of friends in Federation Square in Victoria. It was broadcast on a large television screen. I was not alone; there were several thousand people who turned out in Melbourne's streets that morning to come together and share as one that important acknowledgement from the parliament, from the leader of the parliament and from the leader of the Australian people.

Prime Minister Rudd also 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.

He then went on to lead COAG to agree with Indigenous communities to achieve the target of closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage and, notably, the 17-year gap in life expectancy within one generation.

I will now talk about some of the other closing-the-gap targets. In the area of health, it is an unfortunate reality that a high proportion of Aboriginal Australians still live below the poverty line and suffer from preventable chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, at a greater rate than the rest of the population. Since 2006, Australia's peak Indigenous and non-Indigenous health bodies, NGOs and human rights organisations have been working together to achieve health and life expectation equality for Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It cannot happen overnight. As the member for Lalor has observed, once chronic diseases like diabetes, liver disease and kidney disease take hold, they can be managed but not cured. So the challenge is to ensure that we do not continuously increase the stock of the population who suffer from these diseases.

In my electorate, there are many community organisations that are already working to address Indigenous health epidemics such as I have mentioned. They work in public health. One such organisation is the Koori Men's Support Group. It is a non-profit organisation led by a dynamic and charismatic individual who everyone knows as Uncle G or Uncle Gerald. As an Aboriginal elder within his community, he focuses on young men and ensures that they are provided with the sort of mentorship, leadership and healthy life examples that perhaps were not available to him. They are making a difference in many, many ways.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work that Uncle G and his men's group do out at Albion Park. Much of their discussions revolve around getting kids to make responsible lifestyle decisions—to eat healthy, to get moving and to steer clear of drugs, alcohol and smoking. The goal is to intervene at a young age to try to address the soaring hospitalisation rates of local Indigenous people, which is much higher than the non-Indigenous population. It is especially about those choices that contribute to alcohol abuse and injury, respiratory disease and kidney disease. A staggering one-third or more of Aboriginal hospitalisation admissions in the Illawarra are for dialysis, which is more than double the non-Indigenous rates. So, if we are going to make a difference, we have got a pretty clear understanding of some of the areas which we have to focus on. You would associate these health crises with an impoverished nation but it is actually happening in a very wealthy nation—one of the most wealthy nations in the world. So we have got a lot of work to do and, as a nation, we can do much better in this area.

When we talk about education, we are still way off the pace in achieving the majority of our Closing the Gap education targets. We have not yet halved the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for Aboriginal children and we have not yet halved the gap for Aboriginal students in year 12 or equivalent attainment rates. I am pleased to say—and there was a little bit of celebration throughout the chamber—that the Prime Minister has advised us that we have met our first Closing the Gap target in that every preschooler living in a remote community now has access to early childhood education. We are set to have 95 per cent of children in remote areas enrolled in preschool within a decade.

This is important. There have been Nobel Prize winning economists that have demonstrated that every $1 invested in early childhood in nought to six-year-old education has a return of between $6 and $10 over the lifetime. We should do it because it is the right thing to do, but if we need to make an economic argument then an economic argument can be made. A $1 investment with a $10 return is a good investment in anybody's language, and it comes in many forms like sources of tax revenue, reduced remedial help and health costs and lower criminal justice costs. Getting this right is very important. I think it will have a flow-on effect to other education target areas—obviously literacy and numeracy rates, but also completion of year 12 or equivalent attainment. Without early childhood education opportunities, Aboriginal children start their very first day of school socially and intellectually behind non-Indigenous kids who have engaged in early learning programs. So it is clearly an area where we know that we can make a difference.

I now turn to employment. It is a national shame that Aboriginal people in the Illawarra and right across the country continue to experience higher rates of unemployment than non-Aboriginal people. Employment rates for Indigenous people in Wollongong is at 46.1 per cent. This is well below the average rates for the rest of the population, which is hovering at around 66 per cent. So we know what we have got to do in this area. There are some terrific programs that are making a difference in this area, but I have to say that some of these programs are currently labouring under funding uncertainty. We know that we have got to invest the money to get the return and we know that a number of the programs have a big axe over their head. So I call upon people of good will all across the parliament to ensure, as the member for Lalor has set out, that these programs continue to be funded. There are programs like Better Futures, which I am very pleased to say that the Shellharbour LGA is one of only 10 areas throughout the country that was identified by the previous government for special attention. We knew that if we were going to get high at-risk groups back into the workforce then we had to make an investment.

Focusing on the Aboriginal unemployed population or at-risk population in Shellharbour was a key objective of the money that has been spent in the Illawarra. As an example, the Illawarra Aboriginal Corporation is running the What a Man project, which engages Aboriginal fathers from jobless families and develops the skills that many of us take for granted, to ensure they get their lives back on track and that they can also provide leadership to the young boys and kids within their care.

I want to say something about constitutional recognition before I sit down. Our national anthem includes the words:

For those who've come across the seas

We've boundless plains to share …

The plains were not empty when the white people got here. They were occupied for over 30,000 years. That is something we should be proud of and which we are proud of. We acknowledge it at every civic ceremony and at many more ceremonies throughout the country. We have one more step to take. We have to remove the last vestiges of racism from our Constitution. That should be the work of this parliament, as well.