Closing the Gap report


PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to speak on the Closing the gap: Prime Minister's report 2015. This is an important report. It was instituted by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd back in 2008. I thought it was a very good idea to institute such a report where the Prime Minister of the day each year early on in the term of parliaments will table a report which goes through some of the key metrics to determine how well we are going overall in Closing the Gap.

There are six key metrics and a further one which we added last year, so seven in total. Perhaps similar to previous reports, this is in some respects a disappointing report. I think as a nation we would have liked to have progressed more rapidly than what we have done as indicated by the statistics enclosed within this document. But it is not all doom and gloom.

There is some significant improvement in a number of areas. For example, the year 12 attainment rate has gone up quite rapidly over the last decade; and the proportion of 20- to 24-year-olds with year 12 or equivalent was 45.4 per cent in 2008 and is now 58.5 per cent in 2013, so quite a stark increase in a small amount of time.

The proportion of people with a university degree has also considerably increased in recent times; the child mortality gap target is very much on track; and even the life expectancy gap has made little progress in recent years but, overall, that gap is now only 10 years, when it was considerably larger some years ago.

So there are many positive signs in this report, and we should not lose track of it but, overall, the message from it is that there is still a very long way to go towards ensuring that there are equal opportunities and outcomes for and from Aboriginal people in this nation. I think together as a parliament across this chamber there is a very strong commitment to ensuring that we do whatever we can to ensure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

When the Abbott government came to office, the Prime Minister made Indigenous advancement one of his core handfuls of priorities for his government. As a result of that, a number of steps have already been taken to fulfil that pledge.

The first was a series of governance changes. Initially, it started with putting all of the government's Indigenous specific programs into the Prime Minister's department, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. What that did was ensure that those programs achieved greater status and could have greater coordination across the myriad programs which did exist.

The second part of that governance reform was—and this is ongoing at present—the merging of 150 federal Indigenous specific programs into five. Again, we do this so that we can more sharply focus on some core priorities and ensure that there is a greater streamlining of effort and greater coordination across the governments, and decisions will be made in relation to the funding applications against those new programs in the weeks ahead.

A final part of the governance changes has been to devolve power down to executive level officials in the regional areas.

That allows those officials to act as problem solvers rather than just as contract managers and means they are able to work more effectively with local Indigenous leaders on the ground. It empowers them to work cooperatively with the government in a shared effort to advance local Aboriginal people. So that was the first series of reforms—important governance changes that we have instituted.

The second important reform was in some respects a philosophical change. By that I mean that the Prime Minister has articulated three very sharp priorities for this government in this area. They are: ensuring that kids are at school, that adults are at work and that communities are safe.

Why were these three priorities chosen? In large part, it was because they have underpinned functional societies in almost all of human history. That is, kids learning from adults, adults working for their sustenance and law and order being the bedrock of a community. Without those core things occurring it is so much more difficult to ensure the advancement of other areas. That is why we are determined to focus on those three areas. We believe that if we do focus on those three areas and are successful in them then other things will be able to be achieved much more readily.

Then, finally, in our first 16 months we have already instituted some very practical changes. In school attendance we have identified the first 34 schools that will achieve the direct instruction model of education, which is much more explicit teaching in those schools. And we have 24 Indigenous-specific training centres up and running, which provide 5,000 Indigenous people with guaranteed jobs should they walk into those training centres. That is such a starkly different model to what often occurs—training for training's sake, which does not necessarily lead to a job at the other end.

We are rolling out full-time work for the dole in regional and remote areas across Australia and we will make many other decisions in relation to the Forrest report in the weeks and months ahead. We are taking every single one of those recommendations very seriously, including looking at the cashless welfare card idea. We are currently in discussions with banks and communities in relation to that.

So there are very significant changes which have already been made in the first 16 months of this government: governance changes, changes around priorities and some very practical changes to support those priorities. We hope that when these are fully implemented that we will see much greater success against those Closing the Gap indicators.

Just in the few minutes which I have remaining I would like to express my disappointment with the response from the Labor Party to this Closing the gap report. In some respects I am most disappointed, because I believe some of their critiques and analysis of the problems are dishonest. And if there is a dishonest analysis of the problems then it is so much more difficult to get a sensible solution to those problems.

The first piece of dishonesty which I think that the Labor Party has put forward is the suggestion that any savings that we have made in this portfolio are somehow contributing to the poor results in this report. I would just like to make a few points about that.

The first is that in relation to this report, nearly every indicator actually relies on 2013 numbers—not 2015 or even 2014 figures. So, in some respects, this is a report of the years leading up to 2013 rather than a report on this government's time in the last 16 months. The Prime Minister did not point that out; he did not think it was appropriate. We are disappointed as a nation for not progressing more rapidly.

The second point I would make is that if money were the answer to closing the gap then we would have closed it years ago. That is the sad truth. There has been an 80 per cent real increase in funding to Indigenous-specific programs over the last decade. We now spend something like $44,000 per Indigenous person, according to the Productivity Commission—about $30 billion in total spent on Torres Strait and Aboriginal people. Our savings represent about 0.2 per cent of that $30 billion.

No-one likes having to make savings—no-one does—across any aspect of the portfolio. But to suggest that a 0.2 per cent reduction out of the $30 billion spend on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people somehow contributes to the failure to close the gap more rapidly I think is actually just dishonest and I think it is just disappointing.

The shadow minister was asked in an interview—in a debate that I was in with him—that if there were one single thing that could be done to ensure that the closing of the gap occurred more rapidly, what would he do? His response was, 'I would reverse the savings decisions which the Abbott government has made.' I just do not think that is honest—an honest analysis of the problem. We are investing in Indigenous affairs, and our sharp priorities of getting kids into school and adults into work are what will see progress being made. 

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