Closing the Gap Statement to Parliament 2009

I ACKNOWLEDGE the First Australians on whose lands we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

Mr Speaker, a year ago, at the opening of the 42nd Parliament, I made a formal Apology to the indigenous peoples of Australia.

In particular to the Stolen Generations.

I did so on behalf of the Government and the Parliament of Australia.

I also said that the Apology would help to build a bridge of respect between Indigenous and other Australians, so that we could begin to turn the dream of reconciliation into a reality that we could see and feel and know.

That is why, on that day, I pledged that the Government would lead a new, national effort to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The gap in health, in housing, in educational opportunity and attainment, in employment.

And the obscenity of the 17-year gap in life expectancy.

These are ambitious goals.

Some said I should not set them, for fear that they could not be realised.

But my response was that unless we have agreed national goals that guide our national effort, we would be guaranteed of one thing – that we would achieve virtually nothing.

Too much time – too many decades – have already been lost.

We must seize the opportunity that the Apology provides us.

Or else, put simply, we will lose that opportunity.

To speak fine words and then to forget them, would be worse than doing nothing at all.

To underline our accountability to the great task we have assigned ourselves, and to keep it fresh in the mind of the Parliament and the nation at large, I undertook also to report to Parliament at the beginning of each year on our progress in closing the gap.

And so, Mr Speaker, today I make the first of these statements that outlines the dimensions of the challenge we face and sets out our plan to close the gap.

Mr Speaker, I believe that the mark of this government is our commitment and capacity to address the immediate crises of today while also embarking on a program of reform to deal with the challenges of tomorrow.

That is why we must strain with every possible resource of government to deal with the impact of the global economic recession to reduce the impact on the Australian economy, businesses and jobs.

This is why we must continue to prosecute our long term reform agenda implementing the Education Revolution to drive long term productivity growth.

Why we must create a blueprint for nation-building to construct the infrastructure we will need for the 21st century.

Why we must deal with the blight of homelessness.

Act effectively – nationally and internationally – on the great challenge of climate change.

And act to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Indeed, in confronting a national economic emergency, the actions we take to stimulate and support our economy can also substantially contribute to dealing with our nation’s long-term challenges.

And that includes the long-term challenge of closing the gap.

But this task is not merely a matter for government – important though the role of government is.

It is equally a matter for Indigenous people, for corporate Australia and for our whole community.

Unless there are relationships anchored in mutual respect and articulated through mutual responsibility – then the great enterprise of reconciliation on which we have embarked will fail.

Mr Speaker, we stand at an extraordinary moment in the history of Indigenous affairs.

A time of despair, but also a time of hope.

A time of great challenge, and equally a time of great opportunity.

Let us, always, start with hope.

We are so fortunate, as Australians, to have among us the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

Cultures that link our nation with deepest antiquity.

We have Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley that is as ancient as the great Palaeolithic cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux in Europe.

These paintings remain as part of the culture of Indigenous peoples today, expressing the traditions and spirituality of the Traditional Owners in the region.

We have a culture of Indigenous art that is alive, changing and a source of wonder to the world.

We have Indigenous dance – both traditional and contemporary – that astonishes the world.

And music, a unique and beautiful music, that is celebrated all over the world.

Mr Speaker, there is a reason why the cultures of Indigenous Australia inspire such fascination.

And that is that they represent a unique way of thinking about the world.

A vision that over tens of thousands of years has risen out of the land, the power, the very being of our continent, Australia.

But my reasons for hope extend far beyond the depth and breadth of Indigenous creativity and culture.

Across the country, Indigenous communities are now trying new approaches to old problems.

There are Indigenous Australians making great strides in education and in the workforce.

The successes of ordinary people, sometimes against extraordinary odds – the stories that we don’t often hear about.

Consider the fact that Australia now has 129 Indigenous doctors, and 129 medical students.

Or consider the success of the best Indigenous organisations.

The chairman of the Productivity Commission, a judge on last year’s Indigenous Governance Awards, found that the best Indigenous organisations – and I quote – “outclass most mainstream organisations and enterprises in Australia.’’

Or consider the work of Dr Chris Sarra, director of the Queensland Government’s Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and former principal of the Cherbourg primary school in Queensland – and the transformation of that local school.

These are just a few examples of change that is happening on the ground in Indigenous Australia.
Therefore, when we publicly reflect on the challenges facing Indigenous Australians – and they are many – let us have the habit of reflecting on what is going right as well as what is going wrong.

Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the despair that exists in too many Indigenous communities.

The chaos, violence and abuse that blight so many lives.

The absence of law-enforcement, of housing that is fit to live in, of basic services that the rest of the nation takes for granted.

It is indeed an obscenity that in this prosperous nation, Indigenous males die on average at the age of 59 – 18 years earlier than non-Indigenous males.

And Indigenous females only live to 65 on average – compared to 82 for non-indigenous females.

And while the mortality rate of Indigenous Australian babies is declining, it remains at more than 12 for every 1000 live births – a rate nearly three times that of non-indigenous infants.

Mr Speaker, in some outback Indigenous communities infection rates of the eye disease trachoma are as bad as they were 30 years ago, when Professor Fred Hollows, Professor Hugh Taylor and others began their celebrated campaign to eradicate the disease.

And Australia is the only developed nation among 57 listed by the World Health Organisation that still has blinding trachoma.

In December, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education said she was “hit in the guts” by the latest figures on the extent of illiteracy among Indigenous students in remote Australia.

Her words were strong, but justified – because in remote Indigenous communities, only 30 per cent of children in Year Three meet the minimum standards for literacy.

Mr Speaker, in recent years a sense of deepening despair had settled on much of Indigenous Australia.

Many people felt they were not consulted; that decisions about their welfare were made without reference to them.

That they had even become invisible to the nation.

While efforts had been made – well-motivated efforts.

For the nation at large it had all just become too hard.

The Apology opened the opportunity for a new relationship based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Because without mutual respect and mutual responsibility, the truth is we can achieve very little.

But I also believe, Mr Speaker, that another great bridge was crossed in the events of February 13 last year.

And that was the death of ideology.

Let us not forget the great wave of goodwill that has been unleashed across our community this last year to tackle Indigenous disadvantage.

After two centuries of European settlement, I believe we have finally concluded that this great challenge transcends ideology – both of the left and of the right.

Mr Speaker, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are eager to embrace a new approach.

An evidence-based approach, where two questions come before all others.

One, what is most needed to close the gap in each community?

And two, what works best to meet that need in each community?

Of course, the Apology has also raised expectations.

Expectations that change would be swift, results sudden.

But generations of Indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight.

Some say that little has happened in the year since the Apology.

But that is not the case.

Progress has been made.

Houses are being built.

Since the end of 2007, 80 houses have been completed or are nearing completion in remote Northern Territory communities.

We have negotiated four township leases in the Northern Territory.

This means we can start housing construction by mid-year, using the $672 million investment in Northern Territory housing.

Housing precinct leases have also been negotiated in five Territory communities.

In Tennant Creek, following a lease negotiated with the local Aboriginal corporation, pre-fabricated kitchens are being installed employing local Indigenous people.

There are also more police on the beat.

An extra 65 police have been deployed to remote Northern Territory communities that did not previously have a police presence.

With more night patrols, less alcohol consumption and more safe houses, families say they are feeling safer.

In the Northern Territory, 75 community stores have been licensed for income management, so women can buy fresh food and essentials for their families.

Almost 13,000 child health checks have also been undertaken.

In Western Australia, 121 people have voluntarily signed up to have their welfare payments income managed so money can be spent in the interests of families.

In Queensland, the Family Responsibilities Commission is making good progress with its community-led income management model.

Nationally, we have driven reforms through employment programs to give more Indigenous peoples the skills they need to get and keep a job.

In the past year, the foundations of our closing the gap agenda have been laid – and they are strong foundations.

Let me describe the four pillars of that agenda.

One, all our efforts in Indigenous policy must be governed by the sincere objective of closing the gap.

Our six targets are:

  1. To halve the mortality gap between Indigenous children and other children under age 5 within a decade.
  2. To provide access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year olds in remote communities within five years.
  3. To halve the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and other students within a decade.
  4. To halve the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous students in rates of Year 12 attainment or an equivalent attainment by 2020.
  5. To halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a decade.
  6. And finally, to close the shameful gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a generation.

Mr Speaker, based on these objectives, both levels of government – State and Federal, Liberal and Labor – agreed to a national investment of $4.6 billion over 10 years to programs aimed at closing each of these gaps.

To give one example, new funding of $1.94 billion, added to existing programs, means that over the next 10 years $5.5 billion will be spent on housing in remote Indigenous communities.

Good for the construction industry.

Good for business.

Good for jobs.

Good for Indigenous Australians.

It is the largest single outlay that government has ever made to address the chronic underinvestment in remote Indigenous housing.

Furthermore, the partnership of all Australian governments establishes a genuine national approach to closing the gap.

It establishes who will formulate policies, who will deliver programs, who will collect the data and who will evaluate that data.

It establishes a mechanism for measuring whether we succeed.

Whether – as is more likely – we partially succeed.

Or whether we fail.

And should either of the last two happen, we should have the courage and the maturity to admit it, and to adjust our policies and programs.

Above all, we will never take our eyes off hard data, or careful measurement of progress as we move forward.

For example, Indigenous year 12 attainment rates are 45 percent compared to 86 percent for non-Indigenous students.

And they have widened over the past five years.

Meeting our target of halving this gap in 20 years will require an improvement in Year 12 completion rates for Indigenous students of up to 2 percent each and every year.

We have in place the statistical collections that will allow us to measure progress each year.

If it becomes clear we are not on course, we will adjust our policies.

And the Council of Australian Governments Reform Council, assisted by specialist resources, will report each year on progress against each of our targets – thereby providing an independent assessment of government commitment and progress.

The second pillar in our national strategy is resetting the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Mr Speaker, the Australian Government consulted widely with Indigenous groups in the lead-up to the national Apology.

This year we are moving towards establishing a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative body – to give Indigenous Australians the voice in national affairs that they lost.

We are undertaking extensive consultations with Indigenous communities on the nature of the representative body.

We are moving toward recognition of the First Australians in the Australian constitution.

But, Mr Speaker, our commitment to consultation will not prevent us from moving quickly, when necessary, to protect vulnerable people – especially, women, children and the elderly.

When manifest failures on the part of individuals and communities place others at risk of harm, we will act.

That is why we are continuing the Northern Territory Emergency Response, in order to stabilise some of the Northern Territory’s most troubled communities.

And why we are continuing a program of income management in remote communities.

I know that income management is controversial, but we have maintained it for a simple reason – it has been shown to work in many communities.

It helps to protect vulnerable groups such as women, children and the elderly by enabling the purchase of food and other essentials.

Mr Speaker, that brings me to the third pillar of our national strategy for closing the gap, which is re-building the everyday social norms that underpin strong families and healthy communities.

We must address the dysfunctional culture of violence and neglect that blights some communities.

We must all work toward shared values.

Indigenous women and children must know they will be safe from violence and abuse.

Our investments to rebuild communities will help people increase their personal responsibility.

We will support people to be responsible parents, tenants, students and employees.

But this alone is not enough.

We need people to take responsibility for changing their lives, and those of people around them.

That is why we are trialling a program in six Northern Territory schools, in which welfare payments are conditional upon parents making sure their children attend school.

Mr Speaker, a growing number of Indigenous community leaders are determined to reject family violence, alcohol and drugs.

Leaders such as the brave women of Fitzroy Crossing who fought for alcohol restrictions.

And who, since the restrictions came into force in 2007, can report a 43 per cent drop in reported domestic violence and a 55 per cent drop in alcohol-related attendance at hospitals.

Leaders such as male health manager John Liddle, who read out a statement that had been signed by nearly 400 Aboriginal men at a Central Australian male health summit last July. The Inteyerrkwe Statement was a collective apology to women for past violence and abuse.

It read:

“We acknowledge and say sorry for the hurt, pain and suffering caused by Aboriginal males to our wives, to our children, to our mothers, to our grandmothers, to our granddaughters, to our aunties, to our nieces and to our sisters…

“We also acknowledge that we need the love and support of our Aboriginal women to help us move forward.”

I believe that these men are part of the way forward for this country.

And that is our fourth pillar: the building of partnerships across all sectors of the Australian community to help to close the gap.

Where the wider community – including business, the education sector, sporting groups and the community sector at large – become partners in bringing about measurable change in Indigenous communities and Indigenous lives.

That is why the Australian Government is supporting the Australian Employment Covenant – an initiative led by mining executive Mr Andrew Forrest that seeks to engage corporate Australia in creating jobs for Indigenous Australians.

It is an ambitious plan, and it will be hard to achieve, but despite difficult economic times, 34 companies have already pledged to create 10,000 jobs under the Covenant. I thank them for it.

The Covenant builds on the great efforts many Australian companies have already made in Indigenous employment.

Companies such as Rio Tinto, Qantas, the NAB, the ANZ – and the Indigenous Engagement Task Force of the Business Council of Australia, among others.

Mr Speaker, the Commonwealth is also contributing $20 million to provide scholarships for up to 2000 Indigenous secondary school students through the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

And we are providing $10 million over four years to support the expansion of the remarkable work of the Clontarf Academies – which now number 23, mainly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

I now turn to the building blocks of our strategy to close the gap.


Mr Speaker, if we are to improve health, education and employment outcomes we must start in the homes of Indigenous Australians.

The appalling state of housing in so many remote Indigenous communities is a major contributor to entrenched disadvantage.

Communities in which an average of 10 people – and up to 17 and even 20 people – live in one dwelling.

Houses where you cannot cook a meal, bathrooms where you cannot bathe a child, taps and toilets that don’t work.

No child can do homework or even get a good night’s sleep in such conditions.

No adult can properly hold down a job.

In addition, the Bureau of Statistics estimates that there are 3000 Indigenous people in remote areas who are homeless.

The Government is determined to bring major change to remote Indigenous housing.

From July we will begin to fund the construction of 4200 new houses – all connected to power, water and sewerage – in remote communities.

And 4800 houses that are either in shocking disrepair or uninhabitable will be upgraded.

That means up to 9000 Indigenous families will benefit.

We recognise that progress is slow.

Overcrowding and decades of inadequate or non-existent maintenance mean that houses fall quickly into disrepair.

But we are determined to tackle these challenges.

This includes making funding for communities conditional on the reform of land tenure arrangements that obstruct new housing investment.

Only with clear, well-functioning tenure arrangements will government agencies, housing authorities and private businesses make substantial housing investments in remote communities.

We are driving an aggressive land tenure reform agenda, which is necessary to underpin sustainable tenancy management, give tenants the assurance that routine repairs and maintenance will be carried out, and lay the foundations for economic development in remote communities.

For the first time, remote Indigenous citizens will have access to mainstream housing arrangements that public housing tenants in cities and towns take for granted.

And, over time, remote Indigenous citizens will have a realistic opportunity to own their homes.

In return, Indigenous tenants – like all public housing tenants – will be expected to pay rent on time, to cover the cost of any damage and to not disturb the peace of their neighbours.

If people fail to pay their rent, action will be taken to deduct it from their accounts automatically as a condition of remaining.

People who damage their homes will be made to cover the cost of any damage and be required to enter into acceptable behaviour agreements.

People who allow unacceptable behaviours to occur on their premises will be subject to further action including orders by the Commissioner for Tenancies.

And people who wilfully fail to meet these commitments will face eviction.

Reform of public services

Mr Speaker, our housing strategy is closely linked to our plan to create a new model for service delivery in remote Australia.

We have chosen to focus on 26 selected remote locations – of which 15 are in the Northern Territory, and have already been identified for significant housing and infrastructure investment.

The goal is to invest sufficient money in these places to make a substantial difference, before we apply our reforms more widely.

Mr Speaker, these 26 communities will also be the first to benefit from the $291 million we are investing over six years in a new model for delivery of services to remote communities.

Unlike current arrangements – which too often fail to deliver basic services – the 26 locations will have one point of contact with government.

One contact point to co-ordinate the delivery of housing, health, early childhood, welfare and education services.

One contact point to deliver services to communities in a form that respects their culture and, where necessary, uses their languages.

To ensure our best chance of success, I am pleased to announce today the creation of a new position of Co-ordinator General for Remote Indigenous Services.

It will be a statutory position, responsible to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

The Co-ordinator General will have the authority to cut through bureaucratic blockages, and to help make sure services are delivered and conditionalities enforced.

Too many government initiatives have failed in remote communities because essential preconditions have not been put in place, and planning has not been undertaken.

A Co-ordinator General will help ensure that instead of being planned and delivered in isolation, the delivery of government programs is coordinated and as a result, those programs deliver better results.


I turn now to our health policy for Indigenous Australians.

Mr Speaker, today I am pleased to announce that the Commonwealth will invest $58.3 million over four years in order to fight chronic eye diseases such as trachoma.

Our objective must be clear: to eliminate trachoma among Indigenous Australians within a finite timeframe.

Trachoma currently affects approximately 20,000 Indigenous children. This should not be the case.

The investment we announce today will also target chronic middle ear infections and the risk of hearing loss which regrettably remains a real problem in Indigenous communities.

This investment will expand services to combat trachoma, train health workers for hearing screening, and provide extra ear and eye surgery, especially in remote and rural areas.

This funding comes on top of the $1.57 billion that the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments have committed over the next four years to improve Indigenous health outcomes.

Mr Speaker, three-quarters of Australia’s more than 500,000 Indigenous people live in urban and regional areas.

Their needs are central to our health agenda.

Too many Indigenous people across Australia die well before their time of treatable, chronic diseases.

Illnesses such as rheumatic heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer account for about two-thirds of premature deaths among Indigenous people.

Our strategy focuses on these and similar illnesses.

And it does so largely through the mainstream health system, because that is where 70 per cent of Indigenous people are treated.

Over four years, the Commonwealth will invest $806 million to improve the management of chronic disease.

We will appoint 160 new Indigenous health outreach workers to help improve Indigenous health outcomes.

We will offer financial incentives to GPs to encourage them to identify and better manage chronic illness among Indigenous people in their area.

Critically, we will fund two free health checks over the next four years for half the Indigenous adult population aged 15 to 65.

These checks are intended to identify chronic disease early – and will lead to more than 90,000 Indigenous people being provided with a program to help them manage their own illness.

Importantly, these health checks will provide governments with better aggregate data on the state of Indigenous health across Australia.

Smoking is one of the biggest single killers of Indigenous Australians.

A national Indigenous Tobacco Campaign will provide information, skills and support to enable people to quit smoking – using programs that have been shown to reduce tobacco use.

Early childhood development

Mr Speaker, we know that high-quality early childhood education is critical to the physical, emotional and intellectual growth of the child.

Over six years, the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments will invest $564 million to act on the critical needs of Indigenous infants and young children.

Indigenous babies are still twice as likely as other babies to be born with low birthweight, a condition linked to ill health and poor performance at school.

To improve the health of babies we need to work with pregnant mothers – especially teenage mothers.

We need to tackle conditions such as birth trauma, foetal growth, and foetal alcohol syndrome.

Conditions that are often linked to ill health or substance abuse.

The Commonwealth will fund the States and Territories to improve access to antenatal care for young Indigenous mothers.

We will create at least 35 new Indigenous Children and Family Centres that will provide support for families and pregnant mothers, as well as child care and early learning services.

To achieve lasting progress in closing the gap we must start at the earliest stages of the lives of Indigenous Australians.

These centres will play a vital role in addressing the earliest causes of disadvantage.


Mr Speaker, during the past year the Australian Government has made substantial commitments to reform the nation’s schools, with a strong focus on the nation’s most disadvantaged schools.

This reform agenda will particularly help Indigenous students, many of whom attend schools that are among the group of up to 1500 disadvantaged schools that will each get half a million dollars a year to build better quality in their schools.

The Government has announced a total investment of $1.1billion on all disadvantaged schools, $550 million to improve teacher quality, and more than $540 million for literacy and numeracy programs.

To qualify for funding, those schools must sign up to a set of outcomes – including our targets to halve the gaps in Indigenous literacy and numeracy achievement and in Year 12 attainment.

Workforce participation

Mr Speaker, at the time of the 2006 census, just 48 per cent of the Indigenous workforce-age population was in work – compared to 72 per cent of other workforce-age Australians.

To halve this gap to 12 percentage points by 2016, 100,000 more Indigenous Australians need to be employed – 63 per cent more than were in work in 2006.

The Commonwealth, State and Territory governments have set a target of helping 13,000 Indigenous people to find and keep jobs.

We recognise this will be very difficult to achieve given the severity of the global economic recession.

But we are committed to working towards this goal in partnership with business and with State and Territory Governments.

The way forward

Mr Speaker, if we are to deliver on our nation’s commitment to close the gap, we will need an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination between Commonwealth and State and Territory governments.

That is why, later this year, a meeting of Commonwealth, State and Territory governments will focus on progress in our closing the gap agenda.

And from July 1, the new agreements we have struck with the State and Territory governments come into force.

That means we will prepare to build the new houses and early childhood centres and to start the new health programs.

Change is coming to Indigenous Australia.

And change is coming from Indigenous Australia.

The task ahead is difficult.

The transformation of communities and of lives will take many years.

And there will be many bumps and setbacks on the road.

The alternative is to do nothing.

We are determined to have a go.

In this country, the burden of history falls most heavily on the First Australians.

The disadvantage they have suffered for more than two centuries have placed great obstacles in our way.

But I also believe that we stand at a moment of great historical possibility.

Mr Speaker, let us seize the moment.

Let us work together, as Australians, with a sense of urgency but also of hope, knowing that we have the capacity and the compassion, the mutual respect and the mutual resolve to act, and so change our nation for the better.

Let us now begin.

Mr Speaker I now table the first annual report on Closing the Gap on Indigenous Disadvantage: The Challenge for Australia.

Mr Speaker, I thank the House.