Closing the Gap


Wednesday, 11 August 2021
(Western Australia) (10:23): [by video link] Senator DODSON

Closing the Gap

Firstly, I want to pay tribute to my people, the Yawuru people, and to their resilience. They are the traditional owners and native title holders on the land from where I speak to you today, my electorate office in Western Australia in the town of Broome. I also acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, who are the traditional owners of the lands in Canberra.

I wish I could report that I was uplifted last week by hearing the Prime Minister talk about the Commonwealth’s Closing the Gap Implementation Plan. Sadly, I was not so moved, and not only because the previous week the Productivity Commission had released the annual tables of data which again confirm that the lives of First Nations peoples continue to be blighted by poor health and disadvantage.

No, it wasn’t just the report card that depressed me. It was a telling sentence in the accompanying media release from the Prime Minister and his Minister for Indigenous Australians that cast a pall. They said their plan to close the gap was about ‘real reconciliation’. That one sentence told me that the thinking of this government in relation to First Nations peoples is as stagnant as it was 25 years ago, when John Howard was Prime Minister—the prime minister who gutted the Native Title Act, the prime minister who rejected the social justice package that was meant to accompany the Native Title Act, the prime minister who refused to say sorry to the stolen generations and the prime minister who destroyed ATSIC. It was Prime Minister John Howard who used to run the line we heard again last week from Prime Minister Morrison, that service delivery will deliver real reconciliation.

But before I grapple with the question of how the government’s agenda to close the gap will do little to achieve real reconciliation, let me remind you just how wide the gap remains after eight years of a coalition government. The Productivity Commission’s latest data are woeful. Whereas non-Indigenous females, on average, can expect to live to 83.4 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a life expectancy of 75.6 years, a gap of 7.8 years. Indigenous men die younger than Indigenous women, but the gap between them and non-Indigenous men is worse, 8.6 years. The data is just as dismal in early life. The proportion of Aboriginal children assessed as developmentally on track is only 35.2 per cent, against 56 per cent of non-Indigenous kids, and the proportion of those who attain year 12 is 63.2 per cent for Indigenous youth, against 85.5 per cent for non-Indigenous youth.

The figures for tertiary qualifications and employment are just as bleak, but the statistics that have always startled me have to do with incarceration and what is euphemistically called ‘out-of-home care’. They show no signs of improvement. Out of every 100,000 Indigenous adults, more than 2,000 are in custody. For the rest of the population, the figure is 156. Whereas 56 out of every 1,000 Indigenous children are in out-of-home care, only five out of every 1,000 non-Indigenous kids have been removed from their families.

This government is now hoping that its partnership with the states and territories, the Coalition of Peaks, and Indigenous organisations and communities will lead to better outcomes. I want to congratulate Patricia Turner, the lead convener of the Coalition of Peaks, for her sterling role in getting the government to practice its mantra of doing things with First Nations peoples and not to them. This is how a true democracy would deliver for its citizens if it truly respected and accepted them as such. So let’s not be fooled by this government’s other mantra, that its latest agenda to close the gap represents real reconciliation. While First Nations peoples remain unrecognised in the Constitution, the expectation that the Federation will respond positively to their citizenship needs is at odds with our past experience.

For all the fanfare last week about implementation plans, governments are still to agree on new targets to do with Indigenous interests in inland waters and community infrastructure.

The first target prescribes a 15 per cent increase in Aboriginal land mass subject to Indigenous rights and interests and a 15 per cent increase in their rights or interests in the sea. The second target would aim for parity in infrastructure, essential services and environmental health. The Joint Council on Closing the Gap met last Friday but couldn’t reach a consensus on either target. The meeting agreed to defer further consideration until November, when I hope that goodwill will prevail. But this demonstrates the perennial challenge of negotiating at a table which rests on the unresolved legacy of terra nullius and the denied sovereignty of First Nations peoples. First Nations peoples don’t want to be mere recipients of largesse from the public purse. We can all quibble about the targets and tut-tut about the perennial failure to achieve them, but sovereignty, recognition and a treaty, the real substance of reconciliation, are the bedrock on which to build a better quality of life for all in this nation.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart said that the ancient sovereignty of First Nations peoples ‘can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’. It spoke of the torment of our powerlessness. The national agreement goes some way towards acknowledging this truth. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the national constitutional convention at Uluru, the plaintive pleas of the powerful statement that emerged from there remain unanswered, as in fact and as in the spirit in which it was given. The Prime Minister’s report last week said that the government had received the final report from Professor Dr Marcia Langton and Professor Tom Calma about a co-design voice. A voice to be enshrined in the Constitution was, of course, a fundamental demand of the Uluru statement.

If this government wants a voice, it must release the report from the co-design process so that the public has an opportunity to view and explore the proposal and, secondly, begin the process for the referendum to embed the voice in the Constitution, but it refuses to give us a timetable on either of these matters. ‘Some might want this process to be faster,’ the Prime Minister told the parliament last week. Well, he might be right. The government has to come clean to the Australian public: will it or will it not support a constitutionally enshrined voice to the parliament? Stringing the parliament and the public along, as the government continues to do, is nothing short of cowardice, and it’s a disgrace that it has not even embraced the other fundamental statement of the Uluru statement—the call for a makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement making and truth-telling.

On this side, the Labor Party remains unwavering in its commitment to implementing the Uluru statement in full. Let me be very clear: we support a referendum to enshrine a voice to parliament in the Constitution. Our leader has committed to this in the first term of a Labor government. We will also commit to establishing a makarrata commission to progress the other two critical elements: truth and treaty. I appeal to the government to join with Labor. Let’s do something worthwhile for once on behalf of the First Nations peoples. Then we can really start closing the gap towards real reconciliation.

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