Closing the Gap – Consideration

DI NATALE: Ten years on from the National Apology to the Stolen Generations and the start of the Closing the Gap strategy, I rise in this parliament to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and their elders, past and present. These are the First Australians, people who have, for more than 50,000 years, had a culture that we admire and respect, a culture that they share with us and with the world. This is a people who have endured such suffering as a result of colonisation. While some people might like to talk about the arrival of European settlement here as unambiguously good for Aboriginal people, most Australians understand that it represents the dispossession of land, the decimation of a culture, the beginning of an ongoing genocide and children taken away from their mothers. This is the legacy that we are living with today, and it behoves all of us to accept, understand it and acknowledge it, because without doing that we’ll never make progress. This is a land that was never ceded; it was and always will be Aboriginal land.

The Closing the Gap strategy was an acknowledgment of this legacy of the unfinished business that must be done to bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, education and wellbeing into line with non-Indigenous Australians. It was a commitment that was made by our parliament to our first peoples: to work together, listen, learn and dedicate ourselves to righting the wrongs of the past and to bringing about equality. Sadly, it has been a story of failure. The 10 years since have been a sobering reminder that words are just wind, that real outcomes happen only when actions follows words. Year after year we’ve seen targets that have been missed or ignored. We know that progress has been painfully slow. Sadly, governments of all political colours have gift-wrapped their failures in glossy reports. This year it’s 130 pages.

Last year the Prime Minister spoke at length about listening and working with Aboriginal Australians, rather than doing things to them. Those lofty ideals from this Prime Minister are simply not borne out by his actions or the actions of his government. As Senator Siewert pointed out earlier, still today we see the imposition of policies and programs upon Indigenous Australians, the legacy of the intervention—the cashless welfare card, for example, without consultation, taking away the rights and freedoms that the rest of us enjoy. Today, 10 years on, is a moment of sombre reflection on the state of our relations as a parliament with the first people of this nation. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a poignant and powerful plea for acknowledgement, respect and substantive recognition of Indigenous justice and self-determination. The Australian Greens welcome this statement into our hearts as we implore the government to wake up and commit to the makarrata commission.

Just last week the Close the Gap breakfast saw Indigenous health leaders come to this place and implore the government and the parliament to do better. As we just heard earlier from Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, they are sick and tired of watching their people die. These are their stories. These are real stories of people living with chronic illness, of people living with diseases like diabetes, heart disease and ear disease. These are the stories of families. These are the lives of ordinary people. Yet today the government is crowing about the fact that this year, after 10 years, just three of the seven targets might be on track to be met. The sad reality is that does represent some progress, because the report highlights that the last time we were on track to meet as many as three targets was back in 2011. That’s hardly cause for celebration. We welcome any improvements in child mortality, Indigenous enrolment, early childhood education and year 12 attainment. They are positive, but we are still not on track to meet basic targets such as school attendance, reading and numeracy, employment and, crucially, closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Of course, the Greens join with Indigenous leaders in calling for a justice target to be included. We are locking up Aboriginal people at rates that are higher than almost any other population anywhere in the world. We need a justice target to be included. The so-called refreshing of the targets has to be more than a bureaucratic process resulting in more targets that we simply fail to reach. We need action. But to get that action it has to be a collaborative process with Indigenous Australians. And with those targets we need to have tangible commitments to working together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to implement the funding to ensure that we meet those targets.

The Greens are looking to the Close the Gap 10-year review, which was published last week by the Indigenous health community and Australia’s broader health sector, as to exactly where we should be focusing our attention. One thing’s crystal clear: we have to fund the national Indigenous health action plan and the implementation plan. We have a blueprint there for what should be done—let’s fund it. We need a recommitment to community controlled health care and the resources and the workforce to support it. I know the value that Aboriginal community controlled care provides, because I’ve worked there. I know the impact that it has on Aboriginal people—culturally appropriate services delivered in a setting controlled only by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people.

The Closing the Gap strategy will never be realised without the appropriate architecture for collaboration to make it happen. Ultimately, what we need is a government that’s committed to action, and to working with Aboriginal people to stop the top-down interventions that build resentment and build disengagement, which we know make matters worse. Unfortunately, this is a legacy that we continue to live with today. At the moment we’re debating the cashless welfare card, but let’s not forget the impact of the intervention. After my return visit to Tennant Creek last year, we were promised that the result of the intervention would be a community with improved health and educational opportunities. This was a community that, 17 years after I first worked there, in many respects, and in many areas, had fewer opportunities than when I was working there.

I welcome the remarks of the Prime Minister today. I welcome the commitment to working with Aboriginal communities on refreshing and meeting the Closing the Gap targets. But with all due respect to the Prime Minister, let me say that I share the frustration of Indigenous people around the country at hearing him speak again and making those commitments only to be disappointed, as we have been in the past. Last week, the PM attended the close the gap breakfast, and it was so disappointing to see him walk out in the middle of that breakfast. I know he’s a busy man, but what could be more important than listening to Aboriginal Australians as they try to offer solutions on how to save Indigenous lives. I thought it showed a profound lack of respect.

Mr. Turnbull, Indigenous Australians have told you how to work with them. They’ve provided you with the blueprint on how to engage and include them. The ball is now in your court. I say to the many Indigenous Australians: we will continue to listen to you; we will create opportunities to empower you, because we know that the only way that we will be able to close the gap is when you take the lead in shaping the solutions for your communities.

Chamber Senate on 12/02/2018 Item DOCUMENTS – Closing the Gap – ConsiderationSpeaker :Di Natale, Sen RichardAttributed to Parliament of Australia website/  website is provided under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.