Closing the Gap speech - 23 February 2015

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (19:43): I am very heartened; I do not ordinarily like following the member for Riverina because it means I have to listen to his speech, but I will listen to those types of speeches every day. They demonstrate aa genuine bipartisan commitment to this area—the recognition that we need to work together across the community to address some of the really difficult issues that are intractable and very hard to get movement on. But they have to be subject to an annual report, in the way that Closing the Gap speeches are delivered by prime ministers regardless of political complexion, because we cannot forget it. For too long these problems have been forgotten. They have been too easy to neglect, and they should not be. So we do need to be able to get focus on these issues.

We will have disagreements from time to time. We have, and we have expressed them. As much as this pains some of those opposite to hear, we understand the commitment that has been applied and expressed by those who stand on that side of the House and speak about this issue, but just understand that from our point of view, having known how difficult this is to deal with, we do have concerns when those budget cuts go on, because how do you actually make progress if those cuts are to eventuate? Those opposite will say, 'That's not actually running in the way you say.' That is an argument we will both prosecute across this table, and I appreciate that. But the main thing—the good thing—is not the argument itself but the fact that we are talking about it and the fact that we want to commit resources to it, work with communities on it and see something better than what generations have been stuck with for years before. This is something that we should find common ground to work on.

Chifley, the seat that the parliamentary secretary reflected on and that I am proud to represent, is home to 6,000 of our first people, Aboriginal people. In an urban environment, it is one of the largest populations. So I am enormously humbled that we are on Dharug land and I am enormously proud to represent the concerns of people from my area in this place. Certainly, when I travel through the electorate, we are trying to do our best to work more and more to recognise and to celebrate the various cultures, because it is not just the Dharug people; we are home to people who have come from all over New South Wales to make Western Sydney, and in particular Chifley, home.

I was particularly proud, as a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, that we had the report last year on Aboriginal language, because I think that is a bridge between generations and also a connection to culture. When you see how many Aboriginal languages are lost in this country, this is a central part of identity that is going before our eyes. Particularly for young Aboriginal people who do not a have a connection to their culture principally through dialect, this is a big issue. So the fact that we could have more and more of our local sites named in the local Aboriginal dialect is important not just as a mark of recognition and respect but also for the survival of dialect and to be able to build stronger identity, the lack of which, I would argue, is one of the big things that hold us back in making progress. So I certainly commend that work.

These were difficult. For a Prime Minister to deliver these figures is hard. I give particular credit for the fact that the Prime Minister is very committed in this area, and it would be hard to make these reports back, particularly in terms of the seven target areas of which only two are on track to be met—that is, halving the gap for 20-to-24-year-old Indigenous Australians in year 12 attainment and halving the gap in mortality rates in Indigenous children under five. We are on track to meet those, and that is excellent. But in closing the 10-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2031 we are not on track. In halving the gap in unemployment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018, we are not on track. These are big issues, particularly in Chifley, where unemployment in the 15-to-64 age group is about 18 per cent, or three times the national average. It is simply unacceptable. We should not bear this in any way whatsoever. Halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy is also not on track to be met by the 2018 target, and these are big issues.

We certainly do need to be able to ensure that we are committed more and more to following this up. To be honest, I think that we should not just have a yearly report on this. Where we do have concerns and where we are falling behind, we should have quarterly updates, frankly, because you do wonder how progress is being made through the course of the year. In the period when we believe that we are not doing as well as we should, we should have quarterly reporting on this and then, when we get to a situation where we believe we are satisfied with progress, revert to annual. But, if we are serious about making headway on these things, we do need to commit more resources.

I was thinking of this the other day when my friend and colleague the member for Throsby referred to the visit by the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. It was a very difficult consultation, insofar as a range of different views were expressed, some very difficult. But there is this constant argument that we are confronted with when it comes to this area, and that is: what good is it to have recognition in the Constitution if we are having all these problems where people cannot get a job, they are not literate and they are incarcerated way more? Why don't we make progress on that? I understand that, but the recognition within the Constitution is important, because the first people of our nation are excluded from the principal document that founds this nation. I do not think this is an issue of debate between our two sides, but the issue, fundamentally, is: aren't we able to do both? Aren't we able to recognise within our Constitution the first peoples of this nation and improve the things that are holding them back from their progress? That is what Close the Gap does. This is a constant requirement for us as a parliament and as a nation to make headway on these things, and this is important for us to do, as is recognition. Again this is hotly debated, and I understand the reasons for that debate. But the head and the heart should be able to work together on these types of things, and we should be able to make progress. So I think it is important that we redouble our efforts in this area.

There is one other thing that was mentioned to me on the weekend that I want to end on if I may. While I was at these consultations at Emerton on Sunday—and I want to thank the Mount Druitt and District Reconciliation Group, who do a tremendous job, who hosted the event on Saturday and who have done a fantastic job of hosting since 1998 the reconciliation walk in Chifley; they are a tremendous bunch of people—I had an Aboriginal elder come up to me on the weekend. He was very concerned about what was happening to a centre called Muru Mittigar, which is outside the Chifley electorate. 'Muru Mittigar', in Dharug, means 'pathway to friends'. It is an Aboriginal cultural and education centre, and it is based in Castlereagh in the member for Lindsay's seat; I know that she is quite involved with it. What it does is to advance Aboriginal culture, improve the economic and social capacity of the Aboriginal people in our area and empower meaningful participation to enhance their role as traditional custodians. It is involved in training and employment for natural resources management and mine and broadacre rehabilitation. It also trains in retail and customer service, and it provides a cultural renewal opportunity as well as financial counselling. So it does some great things. The elder that approached me said, 'Have you heard what's happening to Muru Mittigar?' and I said no. He said to me, 'They're closing it,' which floored me. I did not know why we would have this closed. I did not know if it was a funding cut or what was going on.

It turns out that there is actually a lot of work being done in the Penrith Lakes Parklands to redevelop it and there is a draft vision plan in place. I certainly know and others certainly appreciate the issues confronting the Penrith Lakes development and that site. There are a lot of issues there that are not easy to deal with. But Muru Mittigar has been told they have until May and then need to relocate. You understand that these things happen in these processes, but they have been given no place to relocate. On the stream of things I have mentioned they are doing, they are providing important activities, some of which are at the heart of what we are discussing today For them not to be told where they are going next puts enormous pressure on them, so I certainly call on the Baird government, in recognising—I will try to be as fair as I can—the challenge that they have in dealing with this through the department of planning, to find a place for Muru Mittigar. They are going to be disrupted enough as it is through the move. They are doing fantastic work across Western Sydney and providing a very important platform for Aboriginal people across our area. I just hope we can find a place for them to move, to make it as smooth as possible and allow them to do their work, because there are people who are actually helping us in the case for closing the gap. I commend the report to the House.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley

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