I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we met.
I have been asked to talk today about indigenous policies that are forward-looking and that will make a difference. Sometimes people tend to focus on things that are not working but today I want to be positive because we have good reason to be so.
Indigenous Australians have been making leaps and bounds forward against all the odds for decade after decade. I believe now, with young people like you, with a fresh approach, the environment is changing yet again for the better and the rate of progress is simply going to accelerate from now on.
But some background first. There are around 670,000 people that identify as aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. This is about 3 percent of the population – the numbers are growing more rapidly than the rest of the population. Less than 100,000 live in very remote parts of Australia, from the deserts to the coastal rainforests and islands of the Torres Strait. Some of them live a very traditional life, they might speak very little English, and they still follow their traditional customs. Others are living more Western-style life working in the mine owning their own house and so on. Many Aboriginal people live in large regional centres and rural towns dependent on agriculture for employment.
You might be surprised to know that around 10 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people actually live in Sydney. Yes over 50,000 people right here Many of these might not be living on their traditional lands, but they will tell you that they are no less an Indigenous person than their brothers and sisters in very remote parts of Australia. We are talking about a diverse range of people.
When we talk about policies there is always the danger that we fall into the trap of thinking that governments can do it all. They cannot – in fact indigenous Australians have often succeeded in spite of government. In most cases they are doing it for themselves. It should be obvious to everyone that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have excelled beyond measure in the sporting arena. They have certainly made their mark in this country and in our international reputation in terms of art, film, Theatre and dance.
Indigenous Australians involvement in the political life of the country has a long and proud tradition and is growing rapidly. We have had indigenous people represented at all levels of government. Adam Giles – an Indigenous man from just west of here in the Blue Mountains -is now Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. With us today we have Aden Ridgway that made his presence felt and made a major contribution to the Australian Senate for many years. Many more will follow these role models.
When I was a young fellow there were two aboriginal university graduates in this country Charles Perkins and Margaret Valadian. Now there are more than 25,000 indigenous graduates and the number is growing quite rapidly. As we speak there are over 10,000 indigenous students enrolled in university. There are over 150 indigenous medical practitioners. We have an indigenous Rhodes Scholar Rebecca Richards. David Miller will be our first Indigenous Australian Ambassador when he takes up residence in Denmark.
I could go on and on .The rate in household incomes is accelerating with many indigenous Australians making their own way quietly with no assistance from government. 40 percent of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now own or are buying their own homes. The proportion is much higher in Sydney of course.
Sometimes it is useful to think about those little success stories that often do not come to anyone’s attention – but they can be profound. I lived for about 20 years in Arnhem Land. I know the place- I know the people. I was there just last week. I travelled by helicopter to an isolated homeland community called Baniyala. A beautiful quiet place with a school and a few houses, a shop, a clinic and not much else about three hours drive from Nhulunbuy. A small family group of about 80 people had moved back to their traditional country to pursue a life away from the hassles of the larger centres in the area. One would reckon that there are few opportunities in these places
I met Brendan, about 40 years of age married with four children. He had been working for on the government’s CDEP work for the dole program. In an example of good policy thinking they converted his work for the dole job into a full-time position as a ranger. He goes to work every day, he gets good wage with annual leave and superannuation – he is laughing. Brendan is renting a house and he is now calling on the government’s to help get approval to lease the land so he can buy his house rather than rent. I can tell you in that part of the world he is one of the first and if I am lucky enough to be back in government it will be my policy to make it easier for people like Brendan to get that place and live like any other Australian. It is government’s job to remove those barriers.
Two of Brendan’s children are doing their higher School certificate at a boarding school in Darwin. They are going very well. When I asked Brendan what he hoped for their future he said he hoped they would go to university and get good jobs. Who knows they might be the pilot of a jumbo jet. One might be the Prime Minister -they will make their own way and I guess will go home for important family occasions and ceremonies living a life in the city and maintaining their ties with land culture and family .
I think that would be a fabulous outcome that engineered by Brendan and his family and friends with the government is supporting in a small way by removing some of the barriers along the way.
There are many stories like Brendan’s and there are many indigenous organisations making life better for their indigenous brothers and sisters In Brisbane recently I met with the people from the indigenous health service for that region. You might wonder why you would need an indigenous medical service in Brisbane when there are perfectly good mainstream hospitals and medical clinics around the place. Whatever the reason Indigenous people choose to go to these health services in Brisbane because they feel comfortable and they get an excellent professional service. They know they are valued customers and that is where they want to go. Now the Aboriginal medical service is funded through mainstream funding programs such as MBS like other medical clinics. They get some small funding for some specific Indigenous programs but that is at the edges. Essentially they are operating a very professional and cost effective medical service business for a niche market and everyone’s a winner
We need policies that support that sort of work. So what else can government do? We certainly know how to make mistakes but our policies should be about getting behind Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people, recognising their individual capacities, and removing barriers that might limit their aspirations. Some of the things that we can do are not rocket science. Sometimes the roadmap is simply those ingredients that make a better life for any other Australian.
Welfare is killing people. Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute and other aboriginal leaders in Australia have developed model of reform that could be expanded. School attendance is a problem. We should be funding education systems on the basis of school attendance not school enrolment and we should encourage aboriginal parents to send their kids to school. On Aboriginal land you cannot own your house. We must change that. When we spend government money we should make sure it creates jobs for Aboriginal people. We need more of the money the government spends hitting the ground and actually benefiting the people it is meant to reach. We spend too much of the money on public servants and administrators that frankly add little value. We must stop that.
As I mentioned before indigenous people are a diverse group they will chart different courses depending on where they live and their circumstances. To that end decisions should be made at the local level wherever possible and we should devolve decisions of government wherever we can. You see governments have a limit in terms of what they can do. Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander Australians want to write their own stories. More government can sometimes mean more strings attached .And government departments with the best intentions can end up disempowering people. We need to work against this there is much more I can say in relation to policy but I will leave that to another Occasion.
There is one final thing I will touch on – the movement to recognise indigenous Australians in our Constitution. Some might see this as a symbolic gesture only. They think it will have no impact- so what is the point? I think if we get this right as a nation we will be able to work together to write a new story for all of us. If we change the Constitution, if we get it right, it will mean something, it will make a difference, it will be the key to overcoming Indigenous disadvantage and it will make all of us feel better about ourselves.