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Prime Minister Abbott: Statement to the House of Representatives - Closing the Gap 2015

11 Feb 2015

Madam Speaker, this annual Closing the Gap statement is an important occasion for our Parliament.

Improving the lives of Australia’s first people is a challenge beyond partisan politics.

Two centuries of occasional, partial success and frequently dashed hopes has taught us that neither side of politics can achieve meaningful progress without working with the other.

So none of us should seek to score a point, or defend a legacy here – just to reach out across the aisle because that is the only hope of lasting success.

For so many of us in this place, few things matter more than the lot of Indigenous people.

For so many of us this is personal – not political.

So we speak and act not in the service of party, but in the service of country.

We know that until Indigenous people fully participate in the life of our country, all of us are diminished.

On days such as this, we should acknowledge where we have failed.

Equally, we should also acknowledge where we have made progress and we should stir ourselves to keep persevering on this vital but difficult journey.

Long after most of today’s debates and squabbles pass, this journey will continue.

Madam Speaker last year, when I presented the Closing the Gap statement, I said that our challenge was to turn good intentions into better outcomes.

It is now one year into our plan to address the intractable disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The past year was about developing practical reforms to give us a platform from which to deliver improvements.

At the invitation of respected Gumatj leader, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, with senior ministers and officials, I spent almost a week last September running the government from North East Arnhem Land.

We listened and saw first-hand, some of the challenges facing Aboriginal peoples living in remote communities.

As well, my Indigenous Advisory Council, chaired by Warren Mundine, has been regularly consulted on practical ways to get kids to school, adults to work and communities safe.

Because we know that getting kids to school, adults to work and communities safe is what matters most.

This year will be one focussed on action that will, over time, accelerate progress towards the Closing the Gap targets, including the new target of closing the school attendance gap within five years.

Madam Speaker much more work is needed because this seventh Closing the Gap report is in many respects profoundly disappointing.

Despite the concerted efforts of successive governments since the first report, we are not on track to achieve most of the targets.

There are some improvements in education and health outcomes.

We are on track to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment rates for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders aged 20-24.

The target to halve the gap in mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children does look achievable by 2018.

The new target of closing the school attendance gap within five years should be achievable and I do look forward to reporting good results on this in the years to come.

However, the other targets – to close the gap in life expectancy within a generation; to ensure access to early childhood education for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four year olds in remote areas; to halve the gap in reading and numeracy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; and to halve the gaps in employment outcomes – have either not been met or are not on track to be met.

This is not because of any lack of goodwill or effort by successive governments.

We are trying to change entrenched and multigenerational disadvantage.

This won’t happen overnight and it may not ever happen unless we continue to place high demands on ourselves of what we can achieve together.

When I presented this report last year, I also noted that for every step backwards, there could be two steps forward.

There are backward steps in this year’s report – too many of them – but there have also been many steps forward and I’d like to go through some of them.

At Bwgcolman Community School on Palm Island, success is ensuring that when students graduate, they not only have a Queensland Certificate of Education, but they also have a boat license, a first aid certificate, a learner driver’s permit and industry-specific qualifications.

At Elliott in the Northern Territory, success is the school and the community working with the night patrol and the Commonwealth’s Indigenous Engagement Officer to increase attendance at school.

On Bathurst Island, success is introducing Year 13 for mature-aged students who want to increase their employment options.

And in Sydney, success is a Vocational Training and Employment Centre run by an Aboriginal owned and operated organisation, which connects Indigenous job seekers with specific work in the health sector.

Now every community is different, but in every community – the foundations of success are the same – education, jobs and a safer living environment, underpinned by better health.

These foundations are self-evident and these success stories, and others like them, suggest that it’s the practical delivery of programmes and policies that is the key.

Government programmes can be a catalyst but success – where it is achieved – is due to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who want better for themselves.

Governments can fund and governments can urge but governments can’t change attitudes and behaviours.

It’s those who make the choice to send their children to school, those who make the choice to attend school (and stick at it), those who make the choice to get a job and stick at it and those who choose to abide by the law who are the ones closing the gap.

Closing the Gap is not something that Canberra can do on its own.

Closing the Gap is not something to be granted by this Parliament to Indigenous Australians.

Closing the Gap is to be grasped by them and Closing the Gap starts with getting the kids to school. And it starts with expecting much of them while they are there.

Dr Chris Sarra tells the story of getting 75 per cent in a test when he was in year 11. His teacher said: “Sarra got 75 per cent so it must have been an easy!”

And as he says at the time, he laughed along with the rest of the class.

But it was only when he was studying to be a teacher himself that he started to question whether or not his teachers’ low expectations had stifled his sense of self and of what he could achieve because as he said, “I was being sold short, therefore I sold myself short.”

Too many young Indigenous students are being sold short through the tyranny of low expectations.

Schools attendance is fundamental. It is foundational.

It’s hard to be literate and numerate without attending school; it’s hard to find work without a basic education; and it’s hard to live well without a job.

While most Indigenous families do make sure their children attend school regularly, too many are still missing too much school – especially in remote areas.

So this Government Madam Speaker is determined to break the cycle of truancy and to ensure that parents and carers do take responsibility so that children get a good education.

Once those children have graduated, they really should have jobs to go to.

So Madam Speaker we are already acting on the recommendations of the Forrest report.

We’ll partner with Australia’s largest employers to get more Indigenous Australians into jobs – because a job is more than just a pay-cheque. A job is the key to social relationships, a sense of personal achievement and well-being.

And if we are asking the private sector to take on more Indigenous employees then we must do the same in the Commonwealth Public Sector.

We do intend to use more of the Commonwealth’s $39 billion procurement budget to encourage Indigenous businesses to grow.

We will provide job seekers in Remote Australia with pathways to real employment through the reformed

Remote Jobs and Communities Programme and we will end sit-down money with continuous Work for the Dole.

We will put in place stronger incentives to encourage potential employers to look to the bush for workers.

And we’ll fund new enterprises that provide jobs and work experience opportunities in remote locations.

We will address violence in communities by focusing on the prevention and the treatment of alcohol and drug problems; improved policing in remote areas and better support for the victims of crime.

Madam Speaker without good physical and mental health, it is hard to go to school, to go to work, to raise children, to contribute to the community or to live a long and fulfilling life.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health plan does capture the voices of the community and the experts and through this plan we will continue to support families and communities to manage their health and wellbeing; to access health services when they are needed; and to reduce harmful behaviours.

Madam Speaker these are some of the practicalities of closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – but there are other gaps to close.

We continue to work towards constitutional change acknowledging the first Australians.

Minister Scullion will have responsibility for progressing an extension to the Recognition Act.

It is always our responsibility to acknowledge the contribution of Indigenous Australians to the nation that we have become today.

In coming months, we will all be commemorating the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign.

We will remember all who served.

Among them, we will remember Richard Norman Kirby from Quambone in NSW, who joined the 1st AIF in July of 1915 and served at Gallipoli and in France.

For his actions in 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The Citation read “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an attack. He rushed a machine gun post single-handed, and, although wounded in the attempt, succeeded in capturing and holding two machine guns and fourteen of the enemy until the remainder of his section came up. He set a fine example of courage and initiative to the men with him”.

Madam Speaker he died nine days later from his wounds and is buried in France.

Lance Corporal Kirby’s gallantry is remarkable because that was a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not even counted in the census.

Yet despite so many slights and mistreatments, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served our country with distinction. Returning home, they were denied the same entitlements as their mates.

The door was shut on every day but Anzac Day.

While abroad, “the Aboriginal soldier was a valued brother; back in Australia he returned to an unequal life and was gradually forgotten by all, but his kin and closest mates”.

We owe it, Madam Speaker, to Lance Corporal Kirby and his brothers, to build the Australia that they fought for, that they hoped in, and that they shaped, which is both free and fair.

We do have much work to do.

But there is a super abundance of goodwill.

We must strive and strive again to ensure that the First Australians never again feel like outcasts in their own country and if we do; our Parliament is at its best, our country is at its best and we are at our best.

Find out more

Visit the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet for the Closing the Gap Prime Minister's Report 2015.