My response to Closing Gap Anniversary

Labor Party

I begin by acknowledging that we meet on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people – land that was, is and always will be Aboriginal land. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

The harsh reality of the COVID-19 pandemic means that so many who would be here in this chamber are instead in their electorates across Australia.

Each one of them is on the land of one of the great mosaic of First Nations that make up our great continent.

I pay tribute to Minister Ken Wyatt, Shadow Minister Linda Burney, Senator Patrick Dodson, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator Jacqui Lambie and Senator Lidia Thorpe.

I thank them for their commitment, their passion, and their dedication.

I acknowledge the First Nations people who, like many parliamentarians, are watching from afar.

Tonight, when these speeches are done, I ask that you turn your eyes upwards.

From Arnhem Land to Cape Leeuwin to Bruny Island, the sky will – clouds willing – fill with constellations.

Many of them we know by the names bestowed by early astronomers in what we think of as the Old World.

Here, in a world far older, astronomers also saw patterns and stories in the night sky. Some different, some uncannily similar.

But those first astronomers here looked not just to distant suns, but to the shapes formed between them, most famously the emu that stretches vast and black across the Milky Way.

The more you unpick the findings of those early stargazers – whether they were Greek or Yolngu, Wiradjuri or Babylonian – the more it becomes clear just how much unites us.

Across continents, across millennia, they found stories. They found points of navigation. They found the changing of the seasons and the very passage of time mapped out.

The light of the sky has underscored the common bonds of our humanity. And yet, we are still in so many ways apart. And, despite occasional flashes of hope, we are not coming closer together – as we need to.

Like the gulf between the stars, the distances that separate us do not budge.

This year’s delayed Closing the Gap report gives indications that we are letting this harden into a state of permanence.

More than a year after the new Closing the Gap agreement was signed, First Nations people are still far more likely to be jailed, die by suicide, and have their children removed than non-Indigenous Australians.

Out of the 17 targets that have been set, only three are “on-track”.

Dwell on that.

Ordinarily, we would be making these statements around the anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

Each time, we hear rhetoric that all too rarely has its counterpart in action.

We are yet to find within ourselves even a fraction of the courage shown by members of the stolen generations that day in 2008.

They came with grace and patience to this Parliament, which for so long had been the pinnacle of a system that had failed them.

That indictment falls on both sides of this House. Governments of all persuasions have failed First Nations people.

We cannot rest on the false laurels of anniversaries. We cannot warm our consciences with the annual ticking of a box.

Nor should we take false comfort from the linguistic sleight of hand that is the word “gap”.

A gap is something that is easily crossed or closed. The unflinching litany of lopsided statistics before us make it clear this is a chasm.

We welcome the Government’s announcements today.

But we are surrounded by unfinished business. Even worse, we are surrounded by business that hasn’t been started.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of travelling to Uluru with the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians.

There, the traditional owners at Mutijulu explained the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and how disappointed they are at how little movement there’s been on it.

They also spoke of the importance of employment and opportunity for their young people.

They, too, are looking for a way forward.

It is more than two years since this Government said it would change the approach to Closing the Gap.

I want to again acknowledge the role played by the Coalition of Peaks, led by the remarkable Pat Turner.

But there is still no measurement of progress on the four “priority reforms” – shared decision-making, building the community-controlled sector, transforming government organisations, and shared access to regional data.

These are meant to form the backbone of working with First Nations organisations and underpin the path to self-determination. I share concerns that it hasn’t moved beyond rhetoric.

The Government has reset most of the targets, essentially sweeping prior failures under the carpet. It might be a good marketing exercise, but it is yet to deliver anything.

Earlier this year, as we marked the 13th anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations, I said that we had to look to the removal of Indigenous children going on now.

Last year’s Family Matters report, put together by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, tells us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent 37.3 per cent of the total population of all children removed from their parents – but they represent just 6 per cent of our total child population.

Let that sink in.

Between 2013 and 2019, the rate at which those children have been placed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers actually fell from 53.6 per cent to 43.8 per cent.

If we don’t address this, we will have the makings of another apology in the future

We can find a way forward. Methodically. Practically. Realistically.

The new targets include the social and cultural factors which determine overall health. Things like housing, access to services, child protection, family violence, culture and language, and land and water rights.

There is no pathway to ensuring First Nations Australians live as long and as healthy lives as non-Indigenous Australians without steadily addressing each of these interconnected targets.

It has been more than 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its findings, along with 339 recommendations.

Tragically, hundreds of First Nations Australians have died in custody or in police pursuits since then.

I commend the Change the Record movement here and the Black Lives Matter movement internationally.

I know we have to start somewhere. I know small steps are important. But some of the new targets do not go far enough.

Even if the adult incarceration goal was to be met – a 15 per cent reduction by 2031 – the rate would still be more than 11 times higher than the non-Indigenous population.

Even if the youth incarceration goal was to be met – a 30 per cent reduction by 2031 – the rate would still be more than 16 times higher than the non-Indigenous population.

But there are proven ways to reduce the causes of incarceration and deaths in custody.

Labor’s plan to turn the tide on incarceration and deaths in custody builds on the success of existing Justice Reinvestment programs in Bourke by tackling the root causes of crime and re-offending including rehabilitation services; family or domestic violence support; homelessness support and school retention initiatives.

A Labor Government would ensure coronial inquests into deaths in custody are properly resourced and include the voices of family members and First Nations communities.

Labor will provide specific standalone funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services to ensure First Nations families can access culturally appropriate, timely, and fair legal assistance before, during and after all coronial processes.

And Labor would ensure deaths in custody are nationally reported in real time. It is extraordinary that in 2021, this counts as an innovation.

The Indigenous Rangers program is a hugely successful environment and employment program, which Labor invested heavily in when we were last in government, and we will do it again.

Labor will double the number of Indigenous Rangers to an equivalent of 1800 fulltime positions by the end of the decade, to help protect and restore both our biodiversity and cultural values.

Likewise, funding for Indigenous Protected Areas will be increased by around 50 per cent to ensure appropriate management of these areas.

And Labor will deliver the 40-million-dollars of cultural water promised in 2018 but not yet delivered by the Morrison Government.

Australians understand the strength of connection to our country. Our farmers often say the land they work is in their blood. We talk of knowing we’re home when we feel the hot sand of our favourite beach beneath our feet.

So we should have at least a partial understanding of the depth of connection for those of us whose ancestors have been here for millennia.

The Indigenous Rangers program repairs our soils and landscapes, it provides jobs, but consistent with this year’s NAIDOC theme, it also heals country – and that cannot be separated from healing its people.

First Nations Australians have significantly lower rates of employment, lower rates of workforce participation, and higher rates of unemployment across all age groups.

The Government’s punitive CDP program has been a failure. It has caused real hurt in communities across the north and Labor will abolish it.

In its place we will develop a new program in partnership with First Nations Peoples which would be focused on jobs and community development. This program would be community based and run locally

Some of the largest and most significant employers of First Nations Peoples are Community Controlled Organisations which work across a range of sectors. They are central to self-determination and we will work with them to address their employment and training needs.

The First Nations population is young and rapidly growing and an increasing number will be moving into the workforce in the coming years.

Economic security and opportunity are fundamental to our wellbeing, and the opportunity to share in Australia’s good fortune should be available to all Australians.

As employees, business owners and entrepreneurs, First Nations Australians should be represented at a level consistent with the First Nations working age population.

This is something for business and government to turn around together.

Many businesses are already leading the way, thanks to their partnerships with Reconciliation Australia.

Labor in government will build on the good work of many of Australia’s largest employers to continue to increase the rate of First Nations employment by:

Introducing public reporting of the proportion of First Nations employees for Australia’s 200 largest employers – in line with reporting requirement for gender balance on boards.

Working with those businesses to ensure the employment levels of First Nations working age Australians is consistent with share of population by 2030.

It is heartening that many large employers already perform well and have Reconciliation Action Plans in place that include employment targets, but we can and should do more.

Labor in government will lead by example and set a target to increase First Nations employment in the Australian Public Service to 5 per cent by 2030.

Some agencies have already achieved that, but overall the APS employment rate is around 3 per cent.

We cannot afford to miss any opportunity to align the financial security of First Nations Australians with that of non-Indigenous Australians.

That’s why a government I lead would get behind inclusive growth for Indigenous-owned businesses in both domestic and international trade …

… and would reaffirm the importance of indigenous rights, inclusive trade, sustainable development, traditional knowledge and the protection of the integrity of indigenous arts and cultural products in future international trade agreements.

And we can better protect First Nations jobs and businesses that rely on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, culture, and intellectual property.

Labor in government will get on with a Productivity Commission inquiry into the market for First Nations arts and crafts. Fake art alone robs many Indigenous artists of income.

And we will work with First Nations people to legislate protections for traditional knowledge and cultural expressions

Underpinning it all is the Uluru Statement from the Heart, that powerful and eloquent invitation to us all to go further as a nation.

It calls for three things – Voice, Truth, Treaty.

Let us have the Voice to Parliament, constitutionally enshrined, that First Nations people have asked for with a patience so great that it counts as an expression of profound generosity.

If we are to finally consign to history what Bill Stanner called the “great Australian silence”, there must be a Voice.

We can be proud of so much that we have achieved in our history. But we cannot shortchange ourselves. We must come to grips with our past.

Frontier wars, massacres and dispossession must be part of our reckoning with the truth.

But so too must our triumphs and our blessings. As Senator Dodson has reminded me from time to time, amid the wrongs there was also kindness.

Without truth, we can never be all that we can be as a nation.

The Uluru Statement contains another of the great keys with which we can unlock our potential: a Makarrata Commission, which would oversee a national process of truth-telling, agreement and treaty making.

As a priority, Labor will establish a Makarrata Commission with responsibility for truth-telling and treaty. It will be established through a process of open nominations and review

The Commission will facilitate local truth-telling and advise on a national framework for treaty-making, and it will work with a Voice to Parliament.

This is how we can go forward. Until promises are transformed into reality, a production line of announcements and re-announcements amounts to nothing more than building a mirage.

But I have hope for the future. There is something better within our reach if we extend ourselves even a little.

I am also buoyed by one element of the present, and that is that COVID-19 has not gained a foothold in remote Indigenous communities.

That is one more example of Australians being magnificent and working together in the face of the pandemic.

Let us work together for the future. When the pandemic is behind us and we’re all striving to lift ourselves beyond its effects, let’s lift all Australians.

The direction is lit for us clearly and brightly like it was for those early astronomers.

If you see the Southern Cross tonight – up there, resting upon on the head of the Emu – look to the most softly twinkling star within it.

It is the one star of the Southern Cross that isn’t on New Zealand’s flag, but it is crucial on ours.

A few years ago, the International Astronomers Union formally recognised that star as Ginan, the name given to it by the Wardaman people in the Northern Territory.

To the Wardaman, it represents a red dilly-bag filled with special songs of knowledge. Let us be worthy of it.

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.