I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the whole country, and their elders past and present.
I speak today as a Senator for the Northern Territory – where 30 percent of the population is Indigenous.
But I also speak as Leader of the National Party in the Senate – a party who’s members and Senators represent many of the largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the country.
And of course, I speak as the Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
In presenting this year’s Closing the Gap report, the Prime Minister spoke of his respect for the endurance of the oldest, continuing culture on earth.
He acknowledged that we – as a nation – have not always shown genuine respect for the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ cultures, languages and experiences; nor for the ‘humanity and imagination’ of the First Australians.
And there is no doubt that that is absolutely true.
We can also acknowledge that a lot has changed in the ten years since the Close the Gap campaign was launched when the
then Prime Minister Rudd acknowledged the importance of addressing Indigenous disadvantage by providing an annual report to Parliament.
I’m pleased that this annual focus on Indigenous Affairs has continued to this day as a bi-partisan commitment.
I believe that we all in this place – and the other place – and I would hope – all Australians – remain determined to turn the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into a reality.
The Coalition Government has committed to improving engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
As the Prime Minister said, we will do with, not do to.
I want to use this opportunity to thank those that have been working with us and share our commitment to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country.
In representative bodies around the country….bodies like the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council and the Torres Strait Regional Authority.
In cultural leadership, from Murdi Paaki to the Dilak in the North East Arnhem land and service providers like Winan Ngari in Broome and the Arnhem Land Progress Association we have some of the most committed and hard-working individuals.
I want to thank everyone who is part of our efforts and everyone who has taken the time to welcome me to their community.
Since the beginning of last year, I have visited more than 70 remote communities on almost 100 occasions and I can tell you there is real sense of change occurring and, in many communities, optimism for the future.
People have been telling us for a long time that Closing the Gap is not just about the numbers and momentum; it’s about ‘how’ you get it done.
We must continue to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, not for them; and we must continue our efforts to work locally.
This has been a major change under this Government.
When government and communities are working well together, there are marked improvements in education attainment, in employment, economic participation and community safety.
As always this year’s report is a frank assessment of our progress.
It acknowledges our achievements and identifies areas where we need to accelerate our efforts.
There has been mixed progress on the targets.
For instance, the target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track.
The report, however, also outlines the remaining challenges ahead.
For instance, although there have been long-term improvements in Indigenous mortality rates, the life expectancy gap of around 10 years remains unacceptably wide and I am concerned that this target will not be met by 2031. We need to do more.
In education, one group that I’ve enjoyed working with over the past year has been our School Attendance Officers and Supervisors.
They are motivated, hard-working, community members who ensure children go to school as part of the Remote School Attendance Strategy.
Their hard work is paying off.
In Northern Territory and Queensland Government RSAS Schools, the number of students attending was nine per cent higher in term two 2015 than it was at the same time in 2013.
Obviously, we still have some way to go in education.
Reading and numeracy targets show mixed results.
But – four of the eight measurements for students achieving national minimum reading and numeracy standards are on track. And the Year 3 reading target is very so close to being achieved.
This should give us all hope that the target can be met and it should focus our effort – across all political parties – across all levels of government – to ensure it is met.
On any given school day, the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are attending school and we can now say that more of these students are attending school than before our Remote School Attendance Strategy commenced.
This is an achievement that should not be underestimated.
More young people are also staying at school and making their families proud, placing the target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020 on track.
This is crucial to ensure that in the generations to come we have more and more Indigenous students finishing Year 12 – and continuing on to university – to ultimately become the professionals of the future the doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, nutritionists, dentists, eye specialists all professions which play such a crucial role in closing the gap.
We remain committed to the scholarship and mentoring programmes that will help more people stay with education right through to Year 12.
Another target I hope we can achieve soon is that of early childhood education.
The target to have 95 per cent of four year olds enrolled in by 2025 is within reach.
We need to make meeting this target a whole of community effort, by using the Community Development Programme and linking in with the school to create a clear pathway for a child’s education and by using whatever other resources we can to make this happen.
I am convinced that education is the way to prosperity.
I’ve met many people for whom education paved the way to a job, respect, dignity, aspirations and financial security.
Another life-changing target is the employment gap.
It has felt in the past like we are taking one step forward, two steps backwards in relation to jobs.
We are more than aware that there is a need to accelerate progress against the target to halve the gap in employment by 2018.
But I am optimistic that the significant reforms we have made in our jobs and other programmes will help halve the jobs gap because we are beginning to see results.
Since September 2013, the employment initiatives in my portfolio have supported 36,650 job placements.
That’s over 50 jobs a day.
In our 29 Vocational Training and Employment Centres, 3,639 people have commenced jobs and we are on track to reach the target of 5,000 jobs through VTECs.
In the Employment Parity Initiative which works with major employers to get their own workforce to parity and beyond – we’ve already signed ten contracts for more than 6,800 jobs, and more are on the way putting us on track to achieve the goal of 20,000 additional Indigenous people in jobs by 2020.
The new Community Development Programme is underway and is beginning to gain traction to get people into work.
At the start of this year almost 75 per cent of CDP job seekers required to attend Work for the Dole activities were in fact placed in activities……that’s a huge increase and I hope signals a return to the success of the old CDEP when most people in communities were engaged and undertaking activities that helped build personal, family and community pride.
Just last week I was on Elcho Island to see the progress on the rebuild of Galiwinku, 12 months on from Cyclone Lam.
It’s a real credit to the local community to see so many local community members involved in the rebuild.
They are building the houses the community needs – AND they are building a future for themselves – a future in which they have the skills and practical experience needed to secure a real job – a real future.
The rebuild involves local businesses like Gumatj who have won the contract to build roof trusses.
It is because of efforts like this that we are already seeing a steady increase in real pathways to employment for remote job seekers.
And we are doing our bit to create more jobs in the private sector by making sure that we – as a Commonwealth – procure more and more goods and services from Indigenous businesses.
Since 1 July our procurement policy has seen 116 separate contracts worth about $40 million awarded to 52 separate Indigenous businesses.
That’s compared to about $6 million in procurement from Indigenous businesses in all of 2012-13.
With a continued effort, this will build huge momentum amongst the Indigenous business sector and see more businesses opening up – and, as a result – employing more and more Indigenous people.
Other reforms are driving drive success for Aboriginal and Islander people and businesses in the mainstream economy, including native Title administration, township leasing and opportunities presented by the Northern Australia White Paper. None of these initiatives are a quick fix.
But they reflect our absolute determination to find enduring solutions to complex challenges.
As the late poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal from Queensland once said the ‘present generation’ is ‘responsible for the present and the future’.
She added that it’s our ‘responsibility to change things for the better’.
Closing the Gap is everyone’s responsibility.
And we will endeavour to get even better at closing those gaps in a way that works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
The Closing the Gap reports will continue to hold all of us to account for that better present and ideal future.