Closing the Gap: Ministerial Statement

13 February 2020

I rise today to make a contribution on the Closing the Gap report. Today I am speaking with my granddaughter Charlee in mind. Charlee is 15 years old, with plenty of expectation about her future. She wants to do environmental science at university; sometimes she wants to study at ANU, here in Canberra. Her friend Mona wants her to travel to Germany and study there with her. And sometimes Charlee dreams about buying a van and travelling around Australia.

Charlee is Gija from Warmun in the Kimberley and comes from a family torn apart by the harsh policies of the past, a past where children were stolen from their families and placed in institutions. Her maternal grandmother grew up on the fringes of Geraldton in substandard housing—a very small house with dirt floors—on what was then called the 'native reserve'. Charlee carries the intergenerational trauma experienced by the stolen generations, and perpetuated in policies and government decisions which disproportionately disadvantage First Nations people. Charlee's first experience of racism was in a supermarket queue, where her grandmother's bag was searched. They were the only First Nations people in the queue, and no-one else had their bags searched. Charlee remembers this, and she remembers it as racism. Charlee was about eight years old.

Despite all of this, like all children and young adults, Charlee has expectations about her success and her future, so I was appalled to hear our Prime Minister say that Charlee, as an Indigenous child, should have the same expectations as non-Aboriginal children. Believe me, Charlee does. It's not about Charlee's expectations; it's about our attitudes and policy decisions, the decisions that we take, that continue to disadvantage First Nations people. As Senator Wong said in her contribution yesterday, non-First Nations people have a gap to close as well.

I'm reminded of an opinion piece written by Linda Burney, the member for Barton, about Australia Day. She said:

… 26 January is a reminder, not only of the dispossession and injustice, but also our strength and survival as a people and as a culture.

Linda went on to say:

Surely it is possible for us to learn, not only about the view from the boats that arrived, but the view from those on shore whose way of life changed forever.

So it is time for us to put ourselves into the shoes of First Nations people and look at that view. That's the view we should be looking at.

It is about listening and acting on the solutions First Nations people put forward. It's not about doing it our way, it not about doing it in the way we've done it in the past; it is about doing it in the way that First Nations people ask for and about doing it differently with proper, long-term funding commitments.

In WA over the past two years I have been listening to First Nations women. So far we've held two forums: one in Perth and one more recently in Roebourne. We've had about 300 women come to those forums. They've never been asked for their opinions. They've never sat in a room with politicians who can be decision-makers, who've said to them, 'I'm here to listen to you.' I'm really honoured that both Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Ms Linda Burney came to those forums as ambassadors, and you could see the pride in the eyes of the women to know that they have two Labor women politicians representing them in Canberra.

I looked at some of the targets that hadn't been met and I looked at what the First Nations women were telling us in Perth and in Roebourne. They had very different views. In relation to the gap in mortality rates, women said healthcare professionals need to undergo training to ensure they're using suitable language and have the cultural knowledge to treat Aboriginal patients. They talked about a health literacy program that is culturally appropriate, locally set up and delivered to ensure Aboriginal people of all ages understand healthy living. They talked about ngangkaris and, sadly, they also talked about the absolute racism they experience when they go to a hospital or go to a doctor. They described to me the framework. They say they're seen as: 'Oh, here comes an Aboriginal person who must be drunk.' We saw the shameful contribution of a senator in this place yesterday who simply took a blanket approach. So that's what they experience from doctors and health professionals when they go to hospitals. Is it any wonder then that they don't go to hospitals, that they don't visit doctors? They're saying: this is the change we need in our healthcare system.

On closing the gap in Indigenous literacy, the women said, 'We want to see a curriculum that's comprehensive, that has appropriate cultural learning programs.' That use of appropriate cultural learning, cultural ways and cultural practices came up over and over again throughout the day. We want to see it led by people from their own communities, and they believe this would break the stigma and bring forward a better cultural understanding. They want to see schools adopt a process of two-way learning—learning that teaches Aboriginal kids how to operate in a Western society, while still maintaining a strong sense of pride in their heritage.

Over and again First Nations women told us they want to see their languages taught in school, and they're frustrated and simply do not understand why in a remote community their children are presented with the option of learning Indonesian but not their own language. I've got to say, when you hear First Nations women say that, you just shake your head because it doesn't make any sense. Yes, offer Indonesian, of course, but offer the local language as well.

On school attendance rates, there were very strong opinions around how we could change this. They want to see community members working as Aboriginal liaison officers to check the attendance of students and communicate with families. They also want to see these liaison officers help carers navigate the system, navigate the enrolment forms, which are always in English—which is often a second language—and make the process of enrolment easier, to find birth certificates and get immunisation records to make sure that kids are in school.

They also want to see flexible uniform arrangements to stop their kids being kicked out of class over and over again. It is quite unacceptable in the public school system that kids are refused excursions and other activities because they don't have a uniform. So they want to be able to negotiate that at the local school level. These are not radical changes; these are simple changes that have been put forward by women over and over again at these forums. These are the sorts of changes we need to make.

On attendance at early childhood centres, the women said that they want their elders and local community leaders in the room because they believe they're best equipped to teach their language and they should be allowed to lead lessons. Of course they're often barred, because of their own of lack of English literacy—their own lack of ability to read and write in English. The women were very clear that they should not be disadvantaged and kept out of the classroom because they don't meet a standard that really doesn't apply to them.

I do worry when I hear the government say it wants partnerships and for First Nations people to lead. We saw in the last government Minister Scullion say that in future Aboriginal organisations would lead the failed community development program—so no ability to make change, no ability to stop people being breached and being without money; just clad the program with an Aboriginal organisation so you can tick that box or say, 'That's being Aboriginal-run,' but no ability to change the program. That program continues today, and we know the disadvantage that it has brought particularly to First Nations people across this country.

The cashless debit card: no-one except the government—there's not an academic in this country who believes the cashless debit card is a good way to go. The government now wants to roll it out across Cape York and the Northern Territory. It is racist, it disadvantages people and it doesn't work. If we are about Aboriginal people leading, we would not have those two programs.

One of the other aspects the Prime Minister talked about yesterday was domestic violence. What did we see last year? We saw the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service Forum, a forum for First Nations women, lose its funding. I despair. I see the Morrison government talking the talk but certainly not walking the walk. The solutions are out there. I've given just a glimpse of some of the solutions that have been given to me, Senator McCarthy and Ms Linda Burney. What I saw yesterday in the delivery of the Closing the Gap speech by our Prime Minister was no action. This is not a government that truly wants to close the gap. All Australians demand and deserve better.