Well they say a week is a long time in Parliament, in politics. Well I certainly, I’ve worked out that a week in Opposition probably equates to about probably fourteen days at any other time. And it tends to focus the mind on issues that you certainly wouldn’t do in Government. I’ve been thinking a little about how I’m trying to formulate – and what I can make of – all the feedback that I’m getting as I travel around Australia. And there is a couple of particular messages.
I can remember in that great experiment of democracy that Australian’s had a bit of a crack at in 2007. They sat next to the election box, it was a great sunny day, it wasn’t raining anywhere. We all had a bit of a debt, we had our normal problems, we had to buy a new car or whatever it was, but things were going pretty well. In fact, they went so well, and things had been going well for so long, I think that notion of democracy was something they were going to have a bit of a crack at something different. It wasn’t all that important. And so in that laboratory environment they pushed the button.
Well in 2010, I think most of them were in panic mode. They were very concerned that they had made the wrong decision and they wanted very much to right that wrong. And of course in every disaster, natural or otherwise, in this case a laboratory fire, somehow a couple of the rats ended up in the wrong cage and we now have the Labor Government back in power again.
But as a consequence of that, many of the voters this time around will be very prudent. The circumstances between 2007, for us as a nation, for us as families, for us as communities, and individuals, have changed very, very much. And I know all of you will have friends and people you talk to all the time. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much you earn, what job you have, what your aspirations are. It’s just the hill’s a lot higher, things are nowhere near as optimistic. People are not confident, and confidence is an important thing. Not only an important thing personally: to yourself, and your family, but it’s an important thing to your country and to your economy. So confidence is rock-bottom. And I think when we start looking at the next election we need to think very carefully about the sort of messaging that we need to give people. Because I think at the next election, people are going to be far more prudent – and can I say, conservative – about how they cast their vote.
They’ve just had two terms of the most toxic reminder about what happens when you get it wrong. This is not a joke, this is not an experiment, this isn’t a laugh, this isn’t a different t-shirt with a whole bunch of razzamatazz. This is fair dinkum. We’re going to have to have a very careful look at this. And I think some of the reminders that I’ve had over recent times about what people will be thinking about. I think they’re going to judge us less on policies. I think people expect – I haven’t actually seen a political party put forward a policy at election time that’s absolutely awful. They couch it in pretty nice terms and it all looks good. I mean, you can scrape a bit of paint off The Greens and that’s all pretty awful, but the rest of the ordinary parties I think that’s the case.
And so a relative comparison of policies, you know I just don’t think it’s going to have the same grunt as it has in other times. People are going to be looking for two things. They’re going to be looking for credibility, and they’re going to be looking for competence. Competence is going to be a very, very important part of the political vernacular of the future. And it is very important, because of that, that we’re able to talk to everybody who will listen, and we need to weave through our narrative history. Who we are? We are a competent party and we are made up of extremely experienced and competent people. And of course the Australian public don’t have to look very far to be able to demonstrate a stark comparison.
We can recall, and we’ve been through this in the past, we inherited – the last time we were in Government we inherited – a huge debt. We paid off the debt. We made a surplus. We built a telecommunications fund. We built a Future Fund. We built an education fund. And we built confidence. We built confidence in people, and people felt that.
So when Labor took over, they lost the surplus, they lost the telecommunications fund, they lost the Future Fund, they lost the education fund, and they found a massive debt. And of course, this crushed confidence in this country. It’s really crushed the confidence of this country. And I am aware of it particularly when I talk to people in small business. The small business world at the moment are doing it really, really tough. And that’s because of consumer confidence.
We talk about competence. There’s a couple of tests, but one of the fundamental tests is knowing when it’s going wrong. Having sort of an understanding that things aren’t going as well as it could be. So with the pink batts scheme – we can remember the pink batts scheme, you know – they’d already signed out millions of dollars of invoices for buildings that didn’t exist. It took the tragedy of four lives, 300 house-fires. I mean you’d reckon you’d see the smoke from Parliament House. And they didn’t have the competence to understand that when something goes wrong in any program delivery, leadership dictates you’ve got to intervene and change those parameters. You’ve got to get in and do it.
The Strategic Indigenous Housing and infrastructure Program, SIHIP, you’d reckon the sort of signals – like we’ve spent $40 million and we haven’t laid a single brick might have been a bit of an early indication that things weren’t going right. But no … we sort of pondered along, we’re still struggling along the moment. A complete failure.
Building the Education Revolution, well it started off all right, but one would have thought in the early days when they had spent all of the money and had got around about a third of the outcomes that the alarms would have started going off. This is not a competent Government, and it’s very easy for us to make very good comparisons about we are very competent, and have been competent, and they are not. But we’ve got to remember that people are looking for competence. That’s something that will be above and beyond the nature of the flash policies in these coming times and we need to ensure that we can demonstrate that. We’ve got to know our business, we’ve got to know our way around the policies, and we’ve got to be able to be competent in answering any questions, and articulating our direction in that regard.
The other issue is about credibility. About credibility and trust. This last election, of course, there was a very important policy. It was a bipartisan policy at the last election. That bipartisan policy was there because had you had any other policy at the election you would not have been elected. Would not have been elected. It was a very important policy. Both parties went strongly to an election saying, “We will not have a carbon tax.” A very strong policy. A policy without which you would never have been elected. Now if you’re talking about credibility and trust, that is a breach of trust with the Australian people. I don’t think there has been any precedent since Federation. None. People will never get tired of being reminded that you can not trust the Labor Government.
They will do anything in their own political interests. They will put their own political aspirations and the interest of their party above the national interest almost every time. And so it is a part of the narrative, it’s about trust. And we’ve got to walk the talk. Any of the policies that I’m associated with, and any of the policies the Nationals have been associated with: our word will be our bond. We need to ensure that is carried through to the election and beyond.
Now I’ve just been in Kalkarindji and in Kalkarindji an old guy came up to me actually, and he was saying, he was complaining, it was about a – I won’t go into the details – but it was about a house. He’d been a part of the SIHIP program and he was saying to me just two things. He said, “What about this – and he was telling me about this – what about that carbon tax? How can you lie like that, you know?” This is a pretty old man from the bush, and he got on to talking about the houses. And there’s only two points he was making. How could you possibly lie, and why can’t she even paint a house for me? And that just seems incredible. And that message is resonating as far out in the bush as you can possibly go. And it resonates everywhere we go.
So when I was in Kalkarindji, I was actually meeting with a number of the leaders of the north-western desert country in the Northern Territory. They were gathering for the 45th Anniversary of the Wave Hill Walkoff and it was a great opportunity for me to meet them. Now those particular aboriginal people make up 15% of all those people who live in – sorry, they are, 15% of all Aboriginal people live in remote and very remote Australia. Now only 1% of our population lives there, of the mainstream population. So that’ll give you an idea of the sort of places that I’m talking about. And it’s often the sort of places that you see characterised: you know pieces of tin, just complete third-world circumstances, and they are awful circumstances and they must change.
But it is useful to put, I think, the circumstances in context. Last year there was 540,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. So 330,000 of them actually live in the major metropolitan areas of Australia, some 61%. Now most of those are engaged in the same way we are. There is no difference in the terms of their opportunity. They send their kids to school, they’re all doing very well, they’re great Australian making a wonderful contribution. But the other 40-odd%, they’re our people. They live in regional and rural Australia. And out of that 40% – a massive percentage, is far more than those in metropolitan areas – are disconnected.
Now, I think that when we’re talking about Closing the Gap, I think we need to talk about who’s going to champion this. Who’s going to get out of bed every single day and make sure that somebody is changing the way we do things? Because at Kalkarindji in 1966, all that hope: handing back our lands, we’ll be able to do our own thing, we’ll have independence, we’ll be become a part of the Australian community … well a lot of that hope has been dashed, have been dashed over history.
When we talk about high levels of incarceration, when we talk about high levels of substance abuse, disconnection from employment and low levels of education that are characterised in these areas, they’re not characteristics – as many of you would have heard from me before – of ethnicity. It’s not about Aboriginality, it’s simply about poverty. And we’ve got to move to ensure that our policies are about dealing with poverty rather than any particular ethnicity. And there are two particular issues that are affecting – suffocating – Aboriginal people today. They are welfare dependency and poor educational standards.
If people are poorly educated and they are trapped in this welfare dependency, absolutely nothing is going to change. You can provide jobs, we can provide opportunities, we can provide all sorts of services. But if you haven’t got a good education, if there are jobs available, they’re still out of reach. And so the fundamental changes we’ve got to make is to get people educated and get them into work.
So there have been two reports released literally over the last couple of weeks. One report’s told us that we spend about $3.5 billion a year, and that’s been over the last ten years. Now that was predicated on figures from 2009, but I suspect it’s about right. And the second, that’s come out last week, was the Productivity Commission Report on Indigenous Disadvantage under the COAG benchmarks. Comes out ever year, and the news is – at best – that the gap isn’t closing. At best. And so why wonder why that is the case?
I suspect that the policy is, and the policy settings are actually okay. In some of these areas, I think they’re okay. But the fact is we’ve got two-speed policies. You’ve heard about the two-speed economy, we all know about that. But we’ve got an application of our policy, we have an application for non-Indigenous people and we seem to have an application for Indigenous people. For an example, in terms of education – attendance, one would have thought would have been a fundamental of that, you’re not going to learn much at home.
So the Northern Territory has a target – this is their Budget as a Critical Performance Indicator – they want to have 96% school attendance for non-Aboriginal people. It’s in the Budget, that’s what we’re targeting. But they’re actually targeting for Aboriginal people, the target is 33%. That’s their target. That’s what they want to achieve in the Northern Territory, whom which we have 30% of our population is Aboriginal. They want to get 33% to school. Now what an aspirational target that is. I mean, that is just outrageous.
So the Northern Territory target – again, this gets worse. Out of that 33% who they want to go to school, who go to school, they want the minimum standard for reading and writing – of course if the colour of your skin is white, it’s 89%. But unfortunately if you’re a blackfella, its 32%. So out of the 33% that actually attend, it ends up out of the total population somewhere 11% and 15% have got any possible hope, any possible hope, of completing Year 12. And of course, in that demographic, unsurprisingly, those people who have achieved Year 12 is 12%. There’s no surprise, if that’s the sort of inputs from those jurisdictions. It’s racist, it’s discriminatory, and that approach sadly extends to other areas of policy implementation.
Mutual obligation is a condition placed on those who receive welfare payments. But they must fulfil their part of the deal. So you’ve got to turn up to job interviews. You’ve got to attend training. You’ve got to seek work. And failure means that you suspend your welfare. It’s the same for all Australians, except if you’re an Indigenous Australian. Because somewhere in the system someone feels sorry for you. Or in this case, the Minister said all those – there’s a thing called a Remote Exemption, in the Howard Government we removed it because where there are jobs this still must apply.
You can imagine what it would like to be, I think we’d all understand, in a welfare dependent period, over a period of time, it’s very difficult to break out of that. And so you need assistance to break out of that. So by saying to someone, “No, it’s going to be all right, we won’t have to breach you on these things. We won’t give you a hard time because of the colour of your skin” is not helping them out. It’s not helping them out. It’s allowing them to continue to live in the cycle of welfare, often substance abuse, and general poverty. And that is completely unacceptable. These are our people, their future is our future. These are racist and discriminatory policies and they must change.
So we must remove all race-based standards that have been allowed to permeate Government policy. Of course there’s going to be need for Indigenous-specific policy, of that there’s no doubt. So what is deemed acceptable for one will be the minimum standard for all Australians. There’ll be no more “Indigenous is second best” – because you’re a blackfella it just doesn’t matter, we’re not expecting you to do any better than just stay where you are. That is totally unacceptable and we’ll ensure that that doesn’t happen again.
It’s quite a simple process. We are all competent people. We will have in Government competent Ministers and we will ensure the people running our Departments and are responsible for the work that we demand are competent individuals. All kids will go to school. It’s not like it’s an option. In the Northern Territory today, 46% of kids in the Northern Territory do not attend school – do not attend school. The Northern Territory Government is responsible for them attending school. It’s an option. I tell you what if I’d have a continued option of fishing or school, well I’d probably be fishing. And if it hadn’t have been for that large sized-10 boot from a copper I definitely would still be fishing.
So all absences need to be recorded and followed up with the necessary support. You’ve got to work with the families, work with the communities, and we can break this failed education cycle. And I’d very much commend the work of Noel Pearson and the Family Relationship Commission in Queensland, he’s done a fantastic job. So welfare, mutual obligation requirements, must be enforced. We must extend this leverage to move people from welfare to work to everybody irrespective of the colour of their skin. There are opportunities for work, people will be trained, supported, and placed in those jobs. Where employment is difficult to secure, life-skills training, work for the dole, and there’s plenty of environmental tasks and management tasks available and we will ensure that those tasks are allocated. Sitting on welfare when you’re capable of work or training will not be an acceptable outcome for Australians.
Now we know there’ll still be a significant need around chronic disease management, treatment for dialysis, heart-disease, respiratory problems. There’s always going to be unmet need in areas like dental treatment, hearing loss, mental health services, that are all going to require action. But we can do those things, they are not the difficult things. We can provide those services. And we can assure that they are provided in a way that ensures that those benchmarks actually narrow the gap. They can be dealt with and they will dealt with.
For the 7,000 Aboriginal people who were involved in the live cattle trade, and who’s lives and aspirations have been casually crushed by a Government that is fixated on placating the views of their Green political partners rather than focussing on Australia’s most vulnerable. I can promise them from opposition and from Government, we’re going to strive to rebuild what Labor has destroyed. And know this: The Nationals will never put our political fortunes in front of the national interest and the interest of our constituents. Thankyou.
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