Closing the Gap - Speech to Parliament

11 February 2015












Thank you Madam Speaker,


Today especially, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the first lawmakers of our continent– and I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.


It was on the morning of the 25th of April 1915, Private John Miller of the 12th Battalion was killed in action.


His body is one of the 493 buried in Baby 700 Cemetery on the Gallipoli Peninsula.


Four hundred and fifty of those soldiers from Australia and New Zealand are still unknown and unnamed.


Private John Miller was one of over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people known to have volunteered to serve our nation in the First World War.


Like their brothers-in-arms, many never returned from Gallipoli, Palestine or the Western Front.


But unlike their comrades, those who returned, upon their return many of them were banned from their local RSL - and from wearing the uniform in which they had served – or the medals they had won.


And they watched as land originally promised to Aboriginal people was confiscated for soldier settlement schemes, which they were shut out of.


Indeed, even today few of our capital cities have a modest monument to their sacrifice.


It is true that the injustice inflicted on successive generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people runs right through every chapter of the Australian story.


Throughout our history, the First Australians have been treated as second-class citizens.


Today, in re-affirming our commitment to Closing the Gap, we rededicate ourselves to historical truth.


We declare once more, that only when we recognise the wrongs of the past can we make them right.


Only when we face our national failures, can we fix them.


Constitutional recognition is part of this.


It is long past the hour that the first members of our Australian family had their name on our nation’s birth certificate.


Today, however, is about practical change.


Change that improves, elevates and lengthens the lives of the first Australians.


Madam Speaker,


Forty years ago, Gough Whitlam poured a handful of Wave Hill sand through Vincent Lingiari’s fingers.


‘We are all mates now’ – Vincent said.


It was the end of an eight-year demonstration, recognition at last of their rights to the land.


That day marked a great step forward.


There is a famous photograph to remind us of the moment.


Yet most of us, when we look at that photo are also reminded of all the failures since.


That’s the tragedy – that’s Australia’s continuing tragedy.


Madam Speaker,


A great nation includes everyone, and a good society leaves no-one behind.


But this report confronts us with two nations, two Australias.


One Australia is the country we experience, the one we live in – the place where our children go to school and our partners go to work.


In this Australia, we plan for a long life and for two decades or more of retirement.


In this Australia, we encourage our children to study hard, to seek a degree or learn a trade and to find fulfilling and rewarding work.


The other Australia, is a nation that most of us in this place have little knowledge of, and only rarely glimpse.


In this other Australia: life is harder – and shorter.


Poverty and disadvantage are rife.


Illiteracy, depression, addiction and suicide are common.


Home ownership is a distant dream.


Jobs are twice as hard to find.


A young person leaving school is more likely to go to jail than university.


A woman is 30 times more likely to know the pain and fear of family violence – and 15 times more likely to be driven from her home as a result.


Today, we shine a light on this other Australia. We stop looking away.


Today, people who have been banished to the margins of our national mind are brought to the centre of our consciousness.


Today we promise to do better, we promise to do more - until we can honestly say that the gaps that separate us in health, in education, in employment, in justice and so many other areas are closed.


Madam Speaker,


As the Prime Minister has outlined, our progress on some of the Closing the Gap targets is on track– but elsewhere we are moving too slowly, or not at all.


We cannot lie to ourselves.


We have to continuously, rigorously and independently measure ourselves against these long term goals.


We must constantly ask ourselves what is working – and what is not.


We have to remember that every ill-judged policy, every failing of bureaucracy, every retreat from responsibility has a human cost – in opportunity, in life itself.


There are really hard problems – and there are problems that can be solved readily and relatively cheaply.


For example, preventable blindness is six times more frequent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, partial vision loss is three times more common.


And addressing vision loss alone would close 11 per cent of the gap in health.


And above all we must be unafraid of speaking out when the system, or our Parliament, is failing.


Silence and guilt achieve nothing.


If we need proof – and inspiration – we need to only look to Rosie Batty.


A year ago, Madam Speaker, none of us knew Rosie Batty’s name.


Today, she is our Australian of the Year.


From unimaginable tragedy, she has become the face and voice of women who have been neglected for far too long.


Her award gives us all hope, the hope that we can completely and utterly eliminate Family Violence.


And Rosie reminds us that endemic problems will not be solved by good intentions alone - but by the courageous actions of courageous people.


Parliament understands that Family violence is no respecter of post code, race, or faith – no community is immune.


Sadly, Indigenous women and children are more likely to experience family violence than any other group in our nation.


An Indigenous woman is thirty-five times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence – and five times more likely to die.


This is shocking.


This is shameful.


This is the other Australia.


This means raising awareness – not cutting.


Tackling ignorance and ambivalence head on, without apology, qualification or delay.


We have a national responsibility, to put an end to the acts of cowardice and cruelty that divide too many households, that scar too many childhoods, that claim too many lives.


And for our first Australians the elimination of family violence will be a watershed - it will mean safer communities and happier families.


Fewer young people in child protection – and more women freed from debilitating fear.


Madam Speaker,


The Closing the Gap framework stretches beyond the life of any Government, it goes further than the electoral cycle.


We cannot afford for progress to ebb and flow depending upon who is in power.


This is an endeavour where every Opposition wants the Government to succeed.


But when a Government cuts $500 million from essential services – we are compelled to point out what these cuts mean.


Right now, a host of vital organisations don’t know whether their funding will be continued, or withdrawn.


When people are fleeing family violence need a safe place to stay, cuts will mean that shelters close.


When having a lawyer can determine whether a first time offender gets a second chance or a prison sentence – these cuts will rob Indigenous Australians of legal aid.


When family and children’s centres are supporting children in those vital early years–these cuts will see doors close.


When essential preventative health programs are helping tackle smoking – cuts will jeopardise that progress.


When strides are being made to prevent chronic disease– cuts will hobble our advance.


I say to the government, it is not too late to reverse these cuts.


It is not too late to seek to repair the harm.


Madam Speaker,


The current Closing the Gap targets are designed to span a life:


-        Birth and early childhood.


-        Starting, attending and completing school


-        Finding a job, staying healthy and living longer


But there is an essential plank missing from this platform: justice.


Incarceration is a misfortune that blights the lives of too many of the First Australians, particularly our young people.


Around three in every 100 of our population are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – yet they are more than a 25 in every 100 of our prison population.


This shameful situation is deteriorating.


The rate of jailing of Indigenous Australians has almost doubled in the last decade.


It is time to speak out against this silent emergency – it is time for the Closing the Gap framework to include a Justice Target.


Today, Australia spends nearly $800 million imprisoning Indigenous Australians – but our country pays a price far greater than this.


Higher numbers of incarceration mean more children in care, more mental health issues, more broken families, fewer people in work and fewer children in school.


And if action is not taken, if something is not done, this failure will betray the next generation of Indigenous people.


Right now, half of the young Australians in our juvenile detention centres are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.


And, on release, it’s a 50-50 chance they will end up in jail again within ten years.


At the same time, the school retention rate for years 7-12 is slightly less than 50-50.


In 2015, the future of the next generation of Indigenous Australians rests on the toss of a coin.


School on one side, jail on the other side.


We must change this, and we can.


Two years ago, the town of Bourke in New South Wales topped the state for six of the eight crime categories. Including family violence, sexual assault and robbery.


In February 2013, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that if it was an independent nation, measured on a per capita basis, Bourke would be ‘the most dangerous country in the world’.


The people of Bourke, including the large Aboriginal communities at nearby Moree Plains and Cobar decided to change that headline.


The community brought together police, magistrates, legal services, mental health experts and community groups to examine the causes of crime – to prevent crime.


To break the cycle of disadvantage, that hope-killing, morale-sapping treadmill of offending and incarceration.


It’s a model we can learn from – a community-owned approach, championed by local people, local knowledge and local expertise.


We are blessed, in Australia, with inspirational Indigenous leaders: educators, advocates and role models in every field…and we need to be better, as a Parliament and as a nation, at channelling their knowledge and their ideas.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage cannot be overcome with unilateral decrees.


We have got to meet the challenge out there, on the ground, in the communities – and recognise always that every community is different and programs that serve one community will rarely serve all.


Developing – and meeting - a new justice target means working with State Governments, law enforcement agencies, legal clinics and social services.


Above all we need to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and empower them to control their own futures.


This the approach Labor will always take.


We believe in partnership.


We believe in community.


We believe in local expertise.


And this is the promise I make to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today.


We will never talk about you, without talking to you.


We will always work for you, by working with you.


Closing the Gap is our national responsibility, it is a shared journey.


And our job will not be done, our journey will not be over, until our two Australias are one.