Why have we failed in the Closing the Gap targets?

February 12, 2020

THE SENATE MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS - Closing the Gap - SPEECH - Wednesday, 12 February 2020

 

It depends on who you speak to today as to what today means to different people. If you talk to young Australians in particular—and I had an interview with triple J Hack not long ago—they have a different view of what this day means in terms of the parliament's efforts to improve the lives of First Nations people. They asked pretty heavy questions, and I thought it was important that those questions were asked about how far we've come and the fact that in the parliament today there was an acceptance of a failure in achieving the targets that we've all stood for each year since 2008—whether in the parliament or in our respective places outside the parliament in whatever organisations we work as First Nations people—of wanting to believe that the parliament of Australia is sincere and genuine and has a determined focus to improve the lives for First Nations people but also to improve the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Those are the young people of this country who look at the parliament today and ask: why have you failed? What are you guys doing? What are you, the coalition, doing? What are we, Labor, doing? What are the crossbenchers doing? What are the First Nations members of the parliament doing to improve the lives of First Nations people? It was a poignant question because it's a question that goes to the heart, I believe—and should go to the heart—of each and every member of the Senate and the House of Representatives. But when I came into the parliament this morning and read articles on the treatment of the First Nations minister, Ken Wyatt, by his own colleagues on his side and I read about the views of my fellow senators on the government benches on the future of First Nations people in the Constitution to be recognised, to have a voice, I got angry, really angry. This is a day when—and it's the one day of the year—our parliament should be focusing completely on First Nations people, but yet again we're distracted by internal conflict in the parties opposite, in the leaders who could be doing more.

When we have young Australians asking these questions, each and every one of us doesn't really have an answer adequate enough to justify why we're failing in these targets. But when you also speak to young Australians who ask these questions you try to connect the history of how this began in 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had to work with a hostile parliament to just say sorry to the stolen generations of this country—a hostile parliament where members walked out, refusing to acknowledge that this was a significant day with the apology to First Nations people. Yet, on the lawns out in front of Parliament House and right across the country, hundreds and thousands of Australians gathered, black and white. Why? Because they wanted to have hope—hope in a future that was theirs, hope in a future that belongs to their children and grandchildren for all people who call Australia home. When we come together for Closing the Gap day, that is what First Nations people are looking for—that continued hope for that vision for a future and everyday living. But we fail as members of parliament when we cannot connect and cannot listen to what First Nations people are saying. We fail when we talk about CDP, the Community Development Program, and the cashless debit card when we know, from numerous inquiries, the entrenched poverty that continues across the regions of Australia and when we know that these have a direct correlation to the health, the education, the housing, the jobs and, most importantly, the life expectancy of our First Nations people.

When young Australians ask what we're doing, I can say that I work on inquiries. I worked with Senator Keneally on the still birth inquiry. We went around the country and listened to those families. We know that the rate of still birth for Indigenous people is far greater, just like most of the other health factors we talk about in here. To the credit of Greg Hunt, the health minister, he listened to those recommendations and he made a difference by following through. Now that's a really good example of something we can stand up and talk about on Closing the Gap day. It's something we have done together as parliamentarians from all walks of life.

But today when I listened to the Prime Minister speak, wanting again to find that hope and that way forward, I looked at the minister sitting beside him, Ken Wyatt, and I thought, 'When you, Prime Minister, say that you're engaging with First Nations people, I want to believe that that's not just-lip service.' When leaders like Pat Turner and other leaders of the Aboriginal community controlled organisations in this country sit beside you, whether it's at the cabinet table, in a room in the parliament or out there beyond the parliament, and you say you're engaging, then that has to follow through with the policies that you deliver in this parliament, because I can tell you that those First Nations people who are sitting with you today are going to be the same people who'll turn around tomorrow and really give it to you if you are not genuine in that engagement. You may say you have them at the table now but, if you do not treat them with the respect that must come through both this Senate and that House in terms of the policies that this parliament delivers to improve the lives of First Nations peoples, you will not be calling that an engagement anymore; you will need the makarrata commission after that, let me tell you.

I see Ken Wyatt sitting there, someone who, I have no doubt, has the greatest sincerity in wanting to improve the lives of people in this country and improve the understanding between black people and white people. I find it really shallow when the people sitting around him are forever in the newspapers, at some stage or other, wanting to tear him down, wanting to rubbish him as a minister, and wanting to say that he's no good and put him in his place. Then they say: 'We don’t know anything about a Constitution. No-one's talked to us about a referendum.' Well, hello, Senators. We've been talking about it since May 2017. It isn't about the Constitution, is it? It's actually about your relationship with the First Nations man in your cabinet. I can say as an Aboriginal woman—forget what side of politics I may be on—that it's disgraceful the way that you treat him. If you think holding him out on this day is going to cover the bases for you, let me tell you that First Nations people will see right through that, as I'm speaking to you right now, as I see it.

So there has to be a genuine connection. I say this to young Australians because they ask these questions of me and I'm sure they will ask it of many others. Those listeners who join in on Triple J and all the young shows around the country, they deserve to know if there is hope for the future. Are we as a parliament courageous enough to have that sincere engagement and to open our eyes and our hearts? We need to open our eyes and hearts to the fact that when you crush people with policies you are keeping them down—Senator Dodson and I and my colleagues talk about it, and I know the Greens talk about it—and that has a direct correlation with whether they are rising above the entrenched poverty we see right across the country.

Let's talk about jobs. When ministers get up in here and say, 'We've created 1.5 million jobs,' I go: 'Oh, that's great. You know what? There are 33,000 people on CDP. Are they any of those 1.5 million? If they are, please tell me and I'll go trumpet that for you. I will be proud of that for you.' But it's not. It's not happening. Then they talk about the cashless debit card and want to impose it on 23,000 people in the Northern Territory who are already suffering from an intervention that took place under Prime Minister John Howard. And people in the Northern Territory are living on the BasicsCard. That is not giving people hope.

I think Close the Gap Day should be all about looking at what our future is. But that future has to be about how we treat one another. If I see a First Nations bloke in the cabinet of the coalition government being treated like rubbish, what do you think the people out there think? What do you think the people, especially First Nations people, think? We're not silly. There has to be genuine and sincere engagement, and that includes how we treat one another in here. If that's how you're treating him, it's no wonder the way people out in these organisations—especially Aboriginal organisations whose funding was cut under Tony Abbott by $500 million and who've never recovered since then. These are areas that deal with health, education and our children—children who keep getting taken away. I get phone calls from people who desperately need help because their child has been taken away by welfare—aunties, grandmothers, who call, wanting to know what they can do. But first you're dealing with the trauma of the fact that they've realised that the child has just been taken from them. As recently as the weekend, a grandmother rang me and said: 'My grandchild has just been taken from her parents and put on a plane and flown to Darwin from a community. What can I do?' This is the daily existence of people out there.

Senators, you only have to look at 26 January, just a few weeks ago, and see the hundreds of thousands of Australians who marched in various rallies across the country, wanting a better future, a better vision, for our country. There might be groups in there that you might not agree with, but you've got to step back and be quite impressed by the numbers of people who were getting out there because they believe in something that we are not doing as a parliament. We're not improving the lives of First Nations people in our jails—there are way too many of them. That's what a lot of those protests were about, and they'll continue. There are too many children being taken away. Tomorrow, on the anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations, we're going to see that again. These groups who are so concerned, as they should be, that there are far more removals of First Nations kids in this country than there were when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood up and apologised to the stolen generations. That is our collective responsibility as a parliament.

So next year, when we come together for Closing the Gap, I hope I don't have to keep reminding the parliament of how significant the day is. But I certainly hope we can become a country that's far more understanding of the connection between the policies and legislation we create in here and the direct impact it has on the lives of First Nations people in this country.