I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.
Today I will make a few remarks on the state of the Senate and the contributions of my Senate colleagues. Then I will take you on the journey that is Indigenous policy and pay a visit to constitutional recognition.
Once again the Senate plays a big role in government outcomes. We must never give up on persuasive and logical reasoning and listening to each other. The Senate has been down this road before and no doubt will again. It can be frustrating but life in the Senate was never meant to be easy.
The Nationals have always made an impact in the Senate and we have a mix of old and new heads to carry on that tradition. I am very conscious of the absence of Ron Boswell from the Senate, for the first time in 33 years. But we have a new crew now and they’re pulling more than their weight.
I’ll start with our new star recruit, Senator Matt Canavan, who has thrown himself into the job as Senator for Central and northern Qld. Matt is an energetic supporter of the proposed Live Export Port at Port Alma in Central Queensland. He’s visited Bowen to discuss the Abbott Point Coal terminal & visit local farmers as well as travelled from Townsville to Mt Isa meeting with local councils & residents to discuss issues relating to Northern Australia. Senator Canavan had the honour of opening the Rockhampton campus of the newly merged CQ University with Central Queensland TAFE creating QLD’s first dual sector university. Then it was off to open the Hinchinbrook community support centre in Ingham and speak at the ABARES conference in Goondiwindi. Matt is really getting to know his constituent groups and his country. He is listening and that’s why he supports the call for Central QLD to be included in the North Australia Green Paper and called for an enquiry into rural debt.
Senator Bridget McKenzie is chair of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee so she has been busy championing the Government’s higher education reforms and benefits for rural students, universities and communities. She is taking action on the worrying trend of ICE addiction and consumption by young people in regional areas.
In addition, Bridget has worked to protect the existence of high country cattlemen and promoted their significance as a living culture. She is also taking on stopping the illegal practices of animal vigilantes targeting intensive farm operations.
Senator Barry O’Sullivan has been busy saving beef producers from the costly Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) which was formed and spearheaded by the World Wildlife Fund. With Queensland carrying 66 per cent of the national herd, Barry was concerned that here was another cost burden that graziers cannot afford, given years of drought, fire, flood and the live export ban leading to oversupply of cattle in the saleyards and long waiting lines to get into a meatworks. Senator O’Sullivan teamed up with Senator Boswell in May to form ‘The Squaretable’. It became a highly publicised (in rural media) response to Australia’s participation in the Global Roundtable. A gathering of more than 22 beef industry peak bodies met with the Senators and chair David Farley.
The outcome reached was that the Red Meat Advisory Council would incorporate the sustainability themes into its next Meat Industry Strategy Plan, effectively removing the need for Australia’s participation at the Global Roundtable and ensuring a costly certification scheme would not be pushed onto landholders.
The Wilmar corporation’s announced intention to exit the Qld Sugar Limited single-desk marketing arrangements from 2017 created another serious issue in Queensland agriculture because it is a case of a foreign owned company ignoring long standing industry agreements that saw cane farmers hold a ‘Grower Economic Interest’ (GEI) in two-thirds of the sugar produced throughout the supply chain. Barry took up this issue with vigour. By denying growers real choice, Wilmar undermines the stability and integrity of the industry’s marketing structures. This will have ramifications across the whole industry, affecting each of the non-Wilmar milling companies and their supplying growers as well as the growers supplying Wilmar. Decisions such as this effectively squeeze our primary producers, and further reduce their viability. Following Barry’s significant work with Queensland Agriculture Minister John McVeigh as well as orchestrating a joint open letter to Wilmar from all Queensland National Party MPS in Federal Parliament, there is currently a state government review into the decision of the processors. Beef and sugar – two great examples of a Senator at work for his rural industry constituents.
Senator John Williams has been a thorn in the side of corporate crooks since he started to see evidence of ordinary Australians losing their money instead of building their nest egg.
“Wacka”, as we all know him, has a motto -“I hate crooks”.
He has taken on liquidators and more recently he instigated the Senate inquiry into the Australian Securities and Investments Commission which in turn blew the whistle on the Commonwealth Financial Planning scandal and now Macquarie Private Wealth. Almost 600,000 clients will have their portfolios reviewed and will be compensated if they received bad financial advice.
Wacka has led the fight to address labelling issues, and put pressure on the ACCC to act on petrol discounting and unfair treatment of suppliers by the big supermarkets – those matters are now the subject of court action.
And each year he puts his hand in his pocket to sponsor a young person in their first year of dentistry studies on the proviso they return to regional Australia to practice. He has paid out $25,000 since commencing the scholarship.
Then there’s my Deputy Leader in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash. Fiona is putting her shoulder to the wheel in a very challenging portfolio and we often work together when there are overlaps between indigenous and health issues.
Fiona secured $9.2 million to a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Action Plan to help targeted approaches to prevent and manage FASD – a major issue in many remote Indigenous communities.
She is developing an implementation plan for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan to help Close the Gap in Indigenous health.
And she has tasked her department to investigate incentive payments to attract doctors to regional Australia.
Fiona is a highly respected and seasoned member of the Nationals’ team, brilliant at questions. A woman from the land who really knows her stuff.
I would now like to take you on a journey into Indigenous affairs. This is important because so much is happening – and the Nationals have always taken a keen interest in Indigenous affairs because they share many of the rural and remote challenges and opportunities.
Like a few in this room I’m sure, I didn’t really think that the Apology we made in 2008 would matter.
I couldn’t see the apology helping at all to close the vast gap on vital issues such as Indigenous life expectancy, remote children’s education, housing, decent work for adults and community safety.
All the symbolic trumpeting was wonderful, but I could not see what difference it could make.
How wrong I was.
The changes to the way Aboriginal people as individuals and as communities saw themselves after that apology were extraordinary. Clearly, those who would diminish the importance of symbolism as something that doesn’t have a role to play in practical outcomes are quite wrong.
Symbolic change must happen if practical changes are to succeed.
They go hand in hand. The government’s response to the Forrest Report will give us the practical policy future while constitutional recognition of our Indigenous peoples will give the matching symbolic change. They are twin engines in a plane that we must bring in to land together.
The case for recognition is very clear. Imagine there is a race and the winner is never acknowledged as having crossed the line first. In fact the second place getter gets all the accolades. The winner doesn’t even get to stand on the podium. That is quite wrong, obviously. And it is quite wrong for our Indigenous peoples to be left off the constitutional podium as well.
We started on the first day we were elected to change the future of Indigenous Affairs in the biggest shake-up of the bureaucracy in decades. One of the first acts of the new government was to bring the administration of more than 150 Indigenous programs and services from eight different government departments into the department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Prime Minister effectively became the overall Minister for Indigenous Affairs, as well as having me as a Cabinet Minister dedicated to Indigenous Affairs and a Parliamentary Secretary. As for Labor, they gave the shadow portfolio to Shayne Neumann. The Member for Ipswich also has to shadow the large portfolio of Ageing. Following criticism of Neumann by aboriginal elders, the editor in chief of The Australian described Shayne Neumann as having “no idea what he is talking about”. The picture is of a Shadow Minister who is not across his brief and has lost both the support of elders, communities and the national media.
We faced dealing with 150 different programs and services. We inherited a structural mess. A former community organisation in Yuendumu had 34 separate funding agreements requiring a report on average once a week. There has been far too much waste for far too long in Indigenous Affairs.
Billions have been spent on housing under Labor but overcrowding remains chronic.
We turned those 150 lines of funding into five streamlined areas with total funding of $4.8 billion and named it the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.
The five areas are 1) jobs, land and economy; 2) children and schooling; 3) safety and wellbeing; 4) culture and capability; and 5) remote Australia strategies.
From this we distilled the essence of Coalition action, our mantra, which is: to get children into school – which is our number one priority, adults into work and the creation of safe communities.
They are the core of everything. We are already implementing the $46.5 million Remote School Attendance Strategy across 73 schools in 69 communities. Over 500 local indigenous jobs are also created in terms of School Attendance Supervisors and Officers. A key part of the Forrest Review is effectively already at work via our $45 million Vocational Training and Employment Centres (or VTECs) training for jobs model. These VTECs have guaranteed jobs for the people who undergo the right training. So it’s goodbye to training or training’s sake which has been the problem in many communities. Now we’ve linked up employers, trainers and Indigenous job seekers in a demand driven model. 4,074 jobs have already been created this way with another thousand expected by the end of the year. Indigenous people are entering the workforce in a range of industries – hospitality, tourism, construction, mining and transport.
Safer communities are essential for Indigenous families to be happy and healthy. We will continue to support the efforts of Indigenous communities to combat alcohol fuelled violence so all community members, particularly women, children and the elderly can live peacefully and safely. The government is helping end petrol sniffing by expanding the roll out of low aromatic fuel across Northern Australia and building storage tanks in Darwin. The government is also investing $54.1 million in police infrastructure so there is a 24 hours police presence for the first time in some remote communities. There is also $2.5 million for Community Engagement Police Officers and $3.8 million towards the ongoing Northern Territory’s Child Abuse Taskforce.
Already we are seeing these practical measures make significant inroads. But it’s a long and winding road, this highway to better lives for Indigenous peoples. Many have tried and failed despite major investments. The only way to succeed is to involve the Indigenous people at the decision making level. The Government committed to provide $5 million to support a nine month design phase of the Empowered Communities initiative. Indigenous leaders report encouraging outcomes, particularly in relation to community acceptance of the need to take increased responsibility in key areas such as school attendance and employment. Significant consultation with Indigenous groups across all eight Empowered Communities regions has been occurring. I look forward to receiving the final Empowered Communities proposal from the Indigenous leaders later this year.
Unless Indigenous people own the reforms nothing will change. Engaging Indigenous people in delivering solutions and services is critical to empowering communities and doing business in the new way. So it’s a mindset thing on both sides. And they don’t happen overnight. But I believe that we have started well. We have a Prime Minister who believes passionately in improving the lives of Indigenous people on a practical level – children to school, guaranteed jobs for adults after training and communities where families have decent housing and the option to buy their own home, where substance abuse and domestic violence have disappeared.
This is a mighty dream, full of risks, but we should never allow our expectations to lower because that would create two Australia’s – one with high expectations for a child’s future and another with low expectations. That inequity is wrong. Indigenous Australians should have the same expectations that non-indigenous Australians have: a proper education for their children, a decent job and safety in their home and community. Everything flows from meeting these three objectives.
As The Nationals look to private enterprise as the solution to a healthy economy, so too is it the solution to Indigenous employment. Corporate Australia is offering many opportunities for Indigenous employment. The first example is that of Andrew Forrest who has just completed a report for the government on employment and training. Before this he established the Australian Employment Covenant that attracted over 60,000 job pledges from 338 employers. Over 15,000 of these jobs have been filled. A real breakthrough in pioneering a demand-driven approach where the employer provides the job and the job seeker is trained to do it. The Business Council of Australia membership placed 3,500 Indigenous people in jobs and traineeships in a year. Some of Australia’s best known companies are also engaged in providing real jobs and training, such as Woolworths, Coles, the Commonwealth Bank, Transfield and the CopperChem mine in Cloncurry. Then there are the business opportunities being built up by local Indigenous people. I tell you this because it’s important to get the message out that there are positive stories happening and lessons being learnt on how to make real jobs which is the ultimate solution to welfare dependency.
I’ve outlined what I believe to be a realistic way through the years of mismanagement and waste in Indigenous affairs. The key is relationships with people at the grass roots. The Nationals have always been good at that and naturally understand it because they too have experience in being a long way from decision makers. The Nationals’ seats are generally the poorest seats and contain significant numbers of Indigenous people. If we can stand up and say ‘Yes’ to constitutional recognition then we are saying ‘yes’ to recognising people who we’ve grown up with or worked beside or gone to school with.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first inhabitants of this country, and recognising them in our Constitution presents an historic opportunity to acknowledge their unique culture and history, and their enormous contribution to this nation.
The vote of conservatives is of vital importance in the debate on constitutional recognition. It will only succeed with bipartisanship.
Our own former Nationals’ Party Leader John Anderson has been recruited to head a panel to conduct a review into public support for Indigenous constitutional recognition.
The review panel will work with the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to progress the government’s commitment towards a successful referendum.
The joint select committee, chaired by Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, was formed to work towards a parliamentary and community consensus on referendum proposals, and report on how to achieve a successful referendum.
The review panel is required to provide a report to me by September 28. When the time is right and informed by these two reports, the government will release a draft amendment. We must get it right because if the referendum fails, it would be a body blow to our fellow Indigenous Australians. Indeed, the whole nation would falter, would be diminished.
When you leave this Council, I would like you to ask yourself this question:- Is it honourable to support Indigenous recognition in Australia’s founding document? If it is, (and I strongly believe it is), then I will do everything possible to see that it succeeds in my local community.
It will quite literally take a ‘National’ sense of honour to see this through.
If we get this right as a nation, we will be able to work together to write a new story for all of us.
Download media release:
2014-08-30 Fed council speech Min Scullion – Final.pdf