Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory) (4:37 PM) —I move:
That the Senate take note of the statement on Closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, together with the Prime Minister’s report 2010.
I seek leave to speak briefly to the statement Closing the gap, presented to the House of Representatives on 11 February 2010.
Senator SCULLION —First, I acknowledge the Prime Minister’s statement on Closing the gap. I think it is a very important statement and I certainly commend the Prime Minister on his good intentions. I also commend the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, on the work she has done on closing the gap and particularly acknowledge all the staff who have been working in her department to ensure that the targets are met and that the Australian people have a range of measures with which to measure the promises and the work from both sides of parliament in this very important matter.
I caution the Prime Minister, however, on a couple of issues. As part of the apology the Prime Minister very clearly indicated that on the very first day of parliament its very first business would be to consider the Closing the gap report. As part of the apology, a symbolic gesture was made that we thought the business of closing the gap was so important that we would put it before any other business of parliament. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, and I am not sure exactly of the reasons, on both first days of parliament after the apology he failed to do exactly that thing. It was not considered on the first day of parliament; it was a week later or a few days later. I urge the Prime Minister on the next occasion to meet the requirements of the apology and, even if it is only symbolic, ensure that the Australian people understand that this parliament—not this government but this parliament—considers the Closing the gap report as a priority on the very first day it sits.
I also acknowledge the work of ex-Prime Minister John Howard and Mal Brough, the former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. In effect, many of the programs we are looking at in the Closing the gap report and many of the statistics refer back to the fantastic work that was done by those two men. I also acknowledge Noel Pearson, Warren Mundine, Galarrwuy Unupingu and so many other Indigenous leaders who have provided a lot of leadership in this matter, particularly the way they have indicated that communities and individuals must also take up their own responsibilities and that it cannot be left entirely to government. It has been fantastic to see the leadership they have provided in that regard.
I will go quickly to some of the targets that have been set. We now have some clear targets that had been laid out in closing the gap. A very important and significant one is life expectancy. There used to be a 17-year differential in the life expectancy of somebody in mainstream Australia compared with an Indigenous Australian—of course a terrible gap. I understand that the gap is now 11.5 and 9.7 per cent for males and females respectively. I think everybody acknowledges the sudden drop in that number is not due to anything wonderful we have done but due to the way the measurements are taken and to the far more sophisticated application of those.
If we set intergenerational targets, if we say, ‘We will achieve this in an intergenerational sense,’ that is terrific, but what is a generation? You cannot say, ‘We’ll have a look at it in a generation’s time,’ because it is simply not going to get the consideration it needs. So it is very important to break that down. If you break it down, you will find that it is a 2.3-year gap in 10 years time. So in five years time—which is a good indication—it should be a bit over a year. In 2013, when we look at the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians, the gap should have closed by at least a year. We cannot just leave these targets out there. We have to be able to hold all parliaments and all governments to account on this matter.
The figures on infant mortality have been tremendous. I think infant mortality is getting a lot better. Again, we have to look at the trend line, at least in 2013, and then make whatever adjustments we think necessary. But all indications are that we are going to meet that target. On early childhood education, again there is a concerning trend: a nine per cent differential in metropolitan areas, a 16 per cent differential in provincial areas and a 31 per cent difference in remote and regional areas. I suspect that this is simply about the allocation of resources. It is very hard to get an early childhood education if there are simply no facilities there. In many of the places I visit in my own electorate of the Northern Territory and as I move around Australia, there is a complete difference in the amenities providing for early childhood education. That is one of the fundamental differentials that need to be filled.
When these things are measured, it is said that this is a measurement of enrolment. Tragically, I suspect that the circumstances are in fact far worse. It is not hard to measure enrolment on a given day when everybody runs around and asks, ‘Is your kid enrolled?’ Enrolment is fantastic, but the real target and the real measure is attendance. You can be enrolled, but enrolment does not give you an education. The only thing that gives you an education is attendance. We urge the government, if it is tweaking the report, to include attendance. That would be a very important change. The standards attained on literacy and numeracy reflect about a 30 per cent gap, but the gap gets wider as soon as you get away from urbanised Australia and wider again from provincial. Again, I suspect that that says a lot about the level of amenities, whether it be the teaching staff or the infrastructure of the schools themselves.
But as I travel around Australia the biggest problem with reading, writing and numeracy that I see is attendance. I would never have learned those fishing down the creek—which is why the local police officer and I had a very close relationship, when I was going to school! Most people in the business would agree that the problem in terms of reading, writing and numeracy is simply about attendance: you cannot learn if you are not at school.
On the issue of halving the gap for Indigenous students in year 12: there is now a 50 per cent gap in attainment levels. I was in Wadeye last week. There are a huge number of people who should be at year 12 who are simply not at school. Why? Because there is no school. A boarding school was promised by the current government. It was going to be built in 2009 in Wadeye. Well, I was there on Friday—and nothing has started at all. That gap is not going to close unless you get a bit fair dinkum.
On halving the gap on employment outcomes: we have something like a 21 per cent gap. That is on average. I am quite sure that in rural and regional Australia it would be a lot worse. Saying you will address all of these issues is terrific. As I said, I commend the Prime Minister for having the best intentions. But best intentions are a bit like good blokes—the pubs are full of them. Best intensions are simply not enough.
Tragically, we have seen a series of disasters in these programs on which Closing the Gap so much relies. SIHIP has delivered two houses in two years—with $43 million invested in consultancies. I understand the issue was that we have to engage with Aboriginal people to see what sort of houses they want. I actually went and saw the first two houses open—terrific houses. I asked the Aboriginal people: ‘Are you pretty happy with these houses?’ They said, ‘Well, we actually wanted one with a breezeway, with outside access for a toilet for visitors’—and they went through everything they wanted. They said, ‘They’re just building the same ones they’ve always built.’ So I cannot see that $43 million being much of an investment.
We have heard now of refurbishments in Ali Curung. They consider refurbishments the fact that a bloke has a new stove, a few stainless steel rails, a sink and a fan—and, the taxpayers out there will be overjoyed to hear, it cost $75,000 per house. I am sure it is going to average out, but I tell you what: we will want to be spending on a lot more houses to make that effective. This was all part of the apology. It is absolutely fundamental, whether it is for health or any of the outcomes that we want, to ensure that people have a roof over their heads.
On employment, I think we need to have special considerations for Indigenous people in terms of some of the breaching provisions. There is no doubt about that. The reason is not their ethnicity; it is simply that they come from a very disadvantaged demographic, with very low socioeconomic backgrounds, and many times have very low levels of opportunity. But we need to treat them equally as Australians. Without these breaching provisions I can see us simply having two demographics—one that is levered into work and one that is not. Again, good intentions are simply not enough. These programs need to be run far more effectively if we are going to close the gap. Sadly, I can see us, this time next year, at the beginning of parliament, having a look at a series of data sets that show we are not closing the gap fast enough—and that is simply not good enough. Again, I commend the Prime Minister, but there is far more work to be done.
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