2021 Closing the Gap Report

11 August 2021

As I give this contribution remotely, I begin by acknowledging that I do so from the lands of the Kaurna people, and I pay my respects to their leaders past, present and emerging. As a South Australian senator, I also acknowledge the 39 Aboriginal language groups that make up the state I represent, as a senator. I pay tribute to Senator Dodson, Senator McCarthy, Senator Lambie and Senator Thorpe, as well as Minister Wyatt and shadow minister Burney in the other place, and I reaffirm my commitment to voice, treaty and truth.

On the whole, this year's Closing the Gap data makes for difficult reading. Of the set targets aimed at addressing Indigenous disadvantage, only three are on track—children born healthy and strong, preschool and our youth detention. Closing the Gap is an area of public policy where a spirit of bipartisan commitment is crucial, and I acknowledge all senators in this chamber who share that commitment genuinely. But taking a bipartisan approach doesn't mean avoiding appropriate scrutiny. Indeed, it is only continuous scrutiny and accountability that will pave the path to change that we so desperately need to see.

Two years ago the government said they would change the approach to closing the gap, in partnership with peak First Nations organisations. As Anthony Albanese has done, I acknowledge the role played by Pat Turner and the Coalition of Peaks in this work. But we still don't have data or a measurement of progress on the four priority reforms. Some of the targets lack serious ambition. We should not and cannot settle simply for improving the lives of our First Nations people while maintaining stark inequalities between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians. Of the Closing the Gap targets that we don't have data to measure progress for, this is deeply concerning. Every one of the Closing the Gap targets is important, from ensuring that families and households are safe and youth are engaged in employment and education to making sure First Nations Australians are empowered to maintain their distinctive cultural, spiritual, physical and economic relationship with country. All deserve our full support and determination, and we must recommit to removing racial discrimination and disadvantage across all areas of our society.

There is a glimmer of hope in some of this year's data, because one target which the data shows we are on track to reach is an absolutely crucial one for all of our futures—to ensure that children are engaged in high-quality and culturally appropriate early childhood education in their early years. This target is for the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling to reach 95 per cent by 2025. Data from the Productivity Commission estimates that, based on 93.1 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the age cohort being enrolled in a preschool program, that target will be met by 2025. Our long-term efforts towards closing the gap require getting early childhood education right. We know that it is in the first thousand days of a child's life where critical brain connections are formed and that, during these first thousand days, children need the opportunity to develop well to access the all-important fundamentals of play based learning, nutrition and nurture. Early education can play a role in ensuring that these fundamentals are met for all Australian children, and, for children experiencing disadvantage, it is especially important that we get this right. Of course, this must be done in support of families and in support of the irreplaceable and essential relationship between children and their families. Let us never forget the disastrous policy failures that have come out of this place to achieve the very opposite. Let us never forget that it was only 13 years ago that we gathered here in this place to finally say sorry to the stolen generations.

While there is better news in this year's Closing the gap report about early childhood education enrolment rates, there of course remains so much work to do. It is of some comfort that the outcome area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being born healthy and strong, which aims to increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies with a healthy birth weight to 91 per cent by 2031, is also on track, subject to caveats. But, if we are to truly give all Australian children the best possible start in life, we have to make much more progress on issues such as the devastating overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system. This year's figures show us we are a long, long way from any meaningful progress on this issue. In fact, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the system increased from 2019 to 2020. In my state of South Australia, rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in the system are almost 12 times that of non-Indigenous kids. Just think about what that statistic means, because, whatever the individual circumstances that underpin that statistic, it should move all of us to tackle the disadvantage and discrimination faced by First Nations people in every aspect of life.

When it comes to levels of social and emotional wellbeing, we are not on track to meet the target of a significant and sustained reduction in suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That represents far too many unbearable losses for far too many families, and, tragically, we were reminded, earlier this year, on the 30th anniversary of the handing down of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in April, that more than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since 1991. There is so much work to do, and, although these words can feel hollow, having been uttered so many times in this place, the time for announcements and for promises is long past.

Labor is committed to closing the gap; we are determined to see it through, and I am proud to be from a party that shares that genuine commitment. Labor believes every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child must grow up with the same opportunities as those of non-Indigenous children. That's a right of all Australian children. Labor has a plan to turn the tide on incarceration and deaths in custody by building on the previous success of justice reinvestment programs which address the root causes of crime, including rehabilitation services, family and domestic violence support, homelessness support and school retention initiatives. Labor will provide specific standalone funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, to ensure that First Nations people can access culturally sensitive supports when they need them.

We also know that, as crucial as the tangible measures that underpin Closing the gap are to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we also have a duty—an enormous duty and responsibility—to fully embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart, 'Voice. Treaty. Truth.' Labor's commitment to Uluru is solid. Our commitment is to the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to take a rightful place in their own country, as it was put, and a voice must be coupled with a makarrata commission with responsibility for truth-telling and for treaty. We must fully reckon with our past so we can walk together towards a more equal future.

In closing, I want to acknowledge and associate myself with the earlier contributions of Senators McCarthy and Dodson and to dissociate myself, in the strongest terms, from the contribution of Senator Hanson, which was offensive, hurtful and divisive. There is no place for it here or indeed anywhere in Australia. I am, as a senator and as a human being, committed to listening more to and learning more from our First Nations Australians, striving to do better by them and by our history, and striving to be part of a better future, and I would urge all senators to do the same.