MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS: Closing the Gap

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (18:07): I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to elders, both past and present, and also indicate that the electorate of Chifley sits within the land of the Darug people. This area is one of the largest urban populations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, of any electorate in the country, and we are proud of that fact. Closing the gap acknowledges that improving opportunities for Indigenous Australians requires intensive and sustained effort from all levels of government, communities and individuals. It is an important framework that builds on the foundation of respect and unity provided by the 2008 national apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Earlier this month we marked the anniversary of this apology made by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. These words are proudly hung in my electorate office in Mount Druitt. This significant speech was the first concrete step that moved the goal posts in the national conversation on reconciliation and closing the gap, but we always recognise there is much more work to be done to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same simple rights and opportunities as any other Australian. The apology states:

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

The day we see this equality is the day we will finally close the gap. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life deserves to be as healthy and prosperous as any other and deserves to be recognised in our nation's founding political and legal document. These words were echoed by the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, in his address to the House of Representatives, where he said:

Equality in our Constitution must be twinned with a real world of equal opportunity in housing, health, employment, education, justice and, perhaps the most basic right of all, empowering our First Australians with the right to grow old.

I am always appalled to hear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can expect to live up to 17 years less than a non-Indigenous Australian an d that they can experience high rates of preventable illness , such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes. This is not simply not right or just ,especially in a country as prosperous and modern as Australia. The s e are huge concern s in the area I represent , along with the increase in out - of -home care , adult mortality , unemployment and incarceration , especially with females ; this is something that the local community has noticed more and more of.

This year's Closing the gap report saw little improvement. Although we saw positives s uch as child death rates declining by 33 per cent , again a lot more needs to be done. The life expectancy gap is still around 10 years . It is unacceptably wide and it is not on track . E ach year at least one new study , surveyor report confirms that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are imprisoned at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic community in the developed world . While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults only make up 2.3 per cent of the population , they account for nearly a third of all prisoners . F ederal Labor is committed to reaching the targets involved in C losing the G ap by closing the life expectancy gap within a generation , by 2031; halving the gap i n mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade , by 2018 ; halv ing the gap in reading , writing and numer acyachievements for children within a decade ; h alv ing the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment rates ; and halv ing the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade .

I share the disappointment felt by members of the Aboriginal community in my area that the f irst people remain fundamentally separated from our nation's c ore document. The Australian Constitution underpins our federal laws and system of government . W ritten over a century ago , it was shaped by the values and beliefs of that time. I cannot fathom a period in which respect for our land ' s f irst p eople would not be recognised. The nation's pre-eminent legal foundation stone should absolutely recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the f irst p eoples of Australia's lands and waters. W e are committed to constitutional recognition on this side of the H ouse . Labor will incorporate community consultation and recognition . T hat will be a process that will ensure we get these things done together.

The federal government needs to ensure that all services , support and funding are accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities . Wh ile this C losing the G ap speech indicates the work that is being done , I certainly urge that more be done. In particular , when I think in this contribution of what needs to be done , I a m particularly mindful of the fact that , where we had tried to reform and revolutionise the method of school funding in this country , we thought very much , within the report that was brought down by David Gonski and his colleagues , of breaking down clusters of disadvantage and the way in which they entrench disadvantage , particularly in neighbourhoods in the e lectorate I represent. We tried to fundamentally rewrite school funding by focusing on need and , in particular, the need that would be experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and especially the Aboriginal communities in my area. The fact of the matter is that the Chifley electorate , as a result of th e failure of this government to honour the full funding of the Gonski plan , would have been $270 million worse of f. This failure would , in particular , have denied those communities of need in my area ,particularly Aboriginal communities , the targeted support required to ensure a much more so lid foundation of education.

I stand here to say that one of the proudest moments I ha ve had in this term of parliament is to see the federal L e ader of the Opposition announce that we wou ld fund, in full, the Gonski r eforms. That single decision will ensure that , in particular , Aboriginal communities in my area , as with other students of great need in an education context , would receive the support and resources to ensu re that their full potential could be reached through an educational pathway that supports them. You cannot close the gap if you cannot tackle some of the fundamental flaws that exist in the way that school funding denies the ability of our schools to particularly focus and target support to students in need, especially Aboriginal students in our area. I have seen, time and again, that they have a lot of potential sitting there, but they need this to be expanded and to be brought out fully through a greater level of support.

If we are concerned about incarceration of Aboriginal people, we cannot have a situation where the legal aid that can be extended to people in need is cut. We have seen constant threats during this term of parliament by this government to legal aid funding in this country. We had to fight hard to ensure the restoration of funding to the Mount Druitt community legal aid service, in our area. How can you ensure that you will reduce incarceration if people in need are denied the legal support that might prevent them being incarcerated in the first place?

There are a lot of groups in our area that are working hard to ensure, particularly for Aboriginal communities within the electorate of Chifley, that they perform and live their lives to the fullest and best. I want to mention some, though I do not have the time to mention all. I think of the Butucarbin group; the Aboriginal Catholic Services Aboriginal Resource Centre, in Emerton; Marrin Weejali; the Baabayn Aboriginal Corporation; and the Mount Druitt and District Reconciliation Group. They are all, in their own ways, looking at the economic, social and cultural needs of communities in our area. I want to thank that small selection of groups for what they do in our area to make Aboriginal communities, particularly, better and fuller and for making a greater contribution more broadly.

I think it is important that, when we look at closing the gap, the targets that I have mentioned and the other ways in which we can support groups in our area be explored to their fullest. I certainly hope, and I think it is the sincere wish of many, that we see a greater improvement in these targets in years to come.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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