Prime Minister Ministerial statement Closing the Gap 2010

I acknowledge the First Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as one of the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

Mr Speaker, two years ago I made a formal Apology in this Parliament to the Indigenous peoples of Australia, and particularly to the Stolen Generations, on behalf of the Government, the Parliament and the people of Australia.

On that day in 2008, I also pledged to lead a new, national effort to close the gap in life expectancy and life opportunities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

On that day, we achieved for the first time a bi-partisan commitment to closing the gap:

  • together, we acknowledged the failure of successive governments to deliver to many Indigenous communities;
  • together, we demonstrated that closing the gap is a national priority that should be above partisan politics, and
  • together, we recognised that closing the gap would take not a parliamentary term, but a generation.

When we came to Government the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy at birth was estimated at 17 years.

Indigenous children in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory were 3.6 times more likely to die before they reached the age of five than non-Indigenous children.

Almost one in 10 dwellings in remote and very remote Indigenous communities were in need of major repair or replacement.

In 2006, only 47.4 per cent of Indigenous young people had attained Year 12 or equivalent.

And the employment gap between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians aged 15 to 64 stood at around 21 percentage points in 2008.

In other areas, such as literacy and numeracy, comparable national data did not exist, though a large gap in achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students was evident.

These failures presents us with a substantial challenge.

But in facing this challenge, I believe there has never before been the commitment to change that there is today.

We have seen a growing movement to take responsibility for change – among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

If we are to make a break from the failures of the past, we must all play our part.

  • Governments, first, must take responsibility for addressing their past failures in Indigenous affairs.
  • Second, Indigenous Australians must take greater responsibility for change – change begins in the lives of individuals and families, spreading across local communities.
  • Third, Australians across all walks of life must take responsibility for re-setting relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Mr Speaker, today I table my second annual statement on closing the gap.

Since the Parliament made the Apology two years ago, the Australian Government has reached, for the first time, a national agreement with State and Territory governments on closing the gap – for the first time, rather than pulling in different directions, pulling together; for the first time, a national investment of $4.6 billion; and for the first time, setting common goals to transform the health, education and employment outcomes of Indigenous Australians.

For the first time, Governments agreed to six clear targets, which work together to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.

We set these targets knowing they were ambitious. We know meeting them won’t be easy.

Generations of Indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight.

We know it will need unprecedented effort by all parts of the Australian community.

But there is no greater social challenge facing Australia than closing this yawning gap.

And today I can report to the House that on the ground, we are seeing the beginnings of change.

The report I table today outlines a slow path to change.

It demonstrates the challenges of accurate data – to track our progress to closing the gap – and thereby meet our targets.

But, it also demonstrates that while progress is slow, there is action in communities right across Australia – action by governments; action by Indigenous communities; and action by the wider Australian community.

Mr Speaker, I will now address each of the six targets we set in 2008.

The Government’s first target is to halve the mortality gap between Indigenous children and other children under five years of age by 2018.

In 2008, the gap in child mortality meant that 205 out of any 100,000 Indigenous children died before the age of 5, compared to 100 non-Indigenous children – a difference of more than 100.

Indigenous children are twice as likely to die before the age of five than non-Indigenous kids.

This is a shameful statistic. For all parents, it is shocking and confronting.

While 2009 data to measure progress against this target is not yet available, other data sources can provide some measure of change.

We know that the gap in infant mortality rates in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory has been on the decline over the past decade.

This decline has been particularly evident over recent years and now stands at 5.3 percentage points.

We must continue to act to see this decline accelerated and our target reached by 2018.

Towards that goal, we have already rolled out 40 new services for mothers and babies.

Under the $90.3 million Mothers and Babies Services program, a total of 11,000 mothers and babies will be supported over five years with services including improved antenatal and postnatal care, advice on nutrition and health checks.

And today I can announce that nine new services will be funded, including at:

  • the Laynhapuy Homelands Association and the Pintubi Homelands Health Service in the Northern Territory;
  • at the Tullawon Health Service in South Australia, at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre;
  • at the Wirraka Maya Health Service in Western Australia; and
  • at Mookai Rosie Bi-Bayan in Queensland.

In addition to these services:

  • The Australian Government is supporting pregnant women to improve their own health through establishing five sites under the $37.4 million Australian

    Nurse Family

    Partnership Program.

  • We have provided a total of 390 ear, nose and throat specialist services and a total of 1,990 dental services to 1,429 children who live in the Northern Territory Emergency Response communities in the six months from July to December last year alone.
  • And the Red Cross is working with Outback Stores to bring more fresh fruit to Indigenous kids in the Territory through breakfast clubs in 33 communities and 13 homeland centres.

Our second target is to provide access to early childhood education for all four-year olds in remote Indigenous communities within five years.

Getting the best start in life begins early.

Early childhood education is essential to getting the right start in learning and preparing for school.

But the best available data shows only around 60 per cent of Indigenous children are enrolled in an early childhood education program in the year before school, compared to around 70 per cent of all children.

The good news is that the trend is in the right direction – more Indigenous children are being enrolled.

And we are seeing the fastest pre-school enrolment growth in remote communities, increasing by 31 per cent between 2005 and 2008.

We are expanding early learning opportunities for Indigenous children through the establishment of 36 Children and Family Centres bringing together important services including child care, early learning and parent and family support programs.

21 of these 36 centres will be located in regional and remote areas, including in Kununurra in Western Australia; Mornington Island in Queensland; and Walgett in New South Wales.

Another will be located in Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, where the Yuendumu Early Childhood Centre is already held up as a model of successful early childhood education.

Every day between 40 and 60 children, along with their parents and extended family, go along to the centre to paint, read books, ride bikes and play. The children have breakfast and lunch there, the community nurse visits and they go on excursions to the pool and into the bush. The 14 local Aboriginal child care workers who look after them say the children are healthy and happy.

With more children benefitting from early childhood education, the flow-on effect will help us meet our third and fourth targets: to halve the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and other students within a decade and to halve the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous students in rates of Year 12 attainment or an equivalent attainment by 2020.

These two targets are critical to closing the gap, because it is education, above all, that will improve the life chances and unlock the potential of Indigenous Australians.

The evidence is unambiguous.

Finishing Year 12 transforms students’ future opportunities.

It builds pathways to more secure, better paid and more fulfilling jobs.

And the learning basics – literacy and numeracy – are fundamental to all Australian children.

And they are critical to healthier, happier and longer lives.

The evidence shows the gap in meeting literacy and numeracy standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is large.

These gaps are evident from as early as year 3 – with the largest gap in 2008 being 29.4 percentage points for Year 5 reading.

Literacy and numeracy scores vary across grades; in 2009 there was an improvement in the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students’ reading for Years 3, 5 and 7. For Year 9 students, the gap slightly increased.

The Government is taking action to expand opportunities for Indigenous children at school.

Around 78,000 Indigenous students – almost half of all Indigenous primary and secondary school students – will benefit from the Government’s $1.5 billion investment in 1500 low socio-economic schools, as well as substantial investments in literacy and numeracy.

And we are seeing great results from the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program of Dr Chris Sarra whose “clear expectations, high expectations” philosophy for educating Indigenous children is delivering remarkable results among the 44 schools signed up to it.

The Government provided Stronger Smarter Learning Communities in September 2009 to support an initial 12 ‘hub’ schools in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

We expect this to grow to 60 hub schools over the next four years, supporting between 180 and 240 affiliated schools.

One school that has already signed up is East Kalgoorlie Primary School in Western Australia.

Faced with what she described as significant challenges, Principal Donna Bridge used her experience of the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program to enlist the support of parents and the community to bring about change.

Five years later, attitudes have changed, school attendance is up and there have been significant improvements in literacy and numeracy.

In Cape York in far North Queensland, school attendance is also up, driven by the Cape York Welfare Reforms – created by Indigenous leader Noel Pearson and supported by the Commonwealth and state governments.

Under the reforms welfare payments are linked to parents taking responsibility to care for their kids and make sure they go to school.

In Aurukun, one community in the trial, school attendance rose from 44 to 66 per cent last year while in Coen it was 93 per cent – two points higher than the state average.

In 2006, only 47.4 per cent of Indigenous 20- to 24-year-olds had attained a Year 12 or equivalent qualification, almost half as many as non-Indigenous young people.

Indigenous school retention rates from the start of high school to Year 12 have risen from 30.7 per cent in 1995 to 46.5 per cent in 2008, a 6.4 percentage point increase.

With concerted government effort and the contribution of organisations like the Clontarf Academy we are working to close the gap.

Clontarf’s school-based sport academies are tackling poor attendance and outcomes among Indigenous students through sport and recreation – with some great results, including school attendance rates of more than 80 per cent and improved academic performance.

By the end of February, 2,300 students in 36 schools across three states will be signed up.

Clontarf is one of the academies funded through the Australian Government’s Sporting Chance Program, to support Indigenous students’ engagement with school.

Overall, the programs have achieved an average attendance rate of 79 per cent – six percentage points above the average rate for all Indigenous students in the schools -so I’m pleased to announce today that in 2010 an additional 17 sports academies will commence across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Victoria.

This will support about 1,000 students, and will bring the total number of students in the program to some 10,000.

10 of these new academies will be for girls.

The new academies will be established in Broome, Fitzroy Crossing, Bunbury and North Albany, in Western Australia; West Arnhem, Palmerston, Katherine and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory; Mooroopna, Bendigo and Ballarat in Victoria; and Townsville in Queensland.

As well, the Clontarf Foundation will operate seven new football academies in Jabiru and Gunbalanya in the Northern Territory; and in Bairnsdale, Warrnambool, Swan Hill, Robinvale and Mildura in Victoria.

Our fifth target is to halve within a decade the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians.

On this goal, there is a positive trend.

Between 2002 and 2008, the Indigenous employment rate rose from 48 per cent to 53.8 per cent.

This is still well below the non-Indigenous employment rate so that in 2008, the most recent available data indicates there was a 21 percentage point gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment.

Over the past year, we have replaced Community Development Employment Project jobs with more than 1,500 jobs delivering government services to Indigenous communities.

These, for the first time, are now sustainable, proper jobs.

The best way to accelerate growth in indigenous employment is to give people the skills to get and keep a job.

Seven schools in the 29 remote communities targeted under the National Partnership on Remote Service Delivery already have Trades Training Centres under our $2.5 billion national investment in Trade Training Centres to give school students early opportunities to develop skills for a profession in the trades, and to help them complete Year 12 or an equivalent qualification.

But others can still benefit.

In communities like Hermannsburg, dedicated teachers have lifted school attendance to better than 90 per cent in junior school.

To be successful, these young people need to be actively engaged beyond their primary school years.

The Government is acting today to improve access to first rate education facilities for students in school remote Indigenous communities.

I announce today that intensive support and assistance will be given to schools that from the 29 Remote Service Delivery priority locations that have not already had funding from the Trades Training Centres program.

Schools in remote communities with large Indigenous student populations will also be provided with extra flexibility to deliver training targeted at the needs and education levels in these communities, including pre-vocational and Certificate I and II qualifications.

We’re also working with the private sector to create real business and employment opportunities.

The Government is also investing $3 million to support the new Australian Indigenous Minority Supplier Council, which helps certified Indigenous businesses to win new contracts in the private and government sectors.

After only five months, the Council has signed up 31 major corporations as backers.

Already, it has helped secure $3.3 million worth of contracts for 15 Indigenous businesses.

To encourage businesses across Australia to take action to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage, we have appointed a Government Ambassador for Business Action.

This position has been filled by Colin Carter, a highly regarded Australian businessman who was a founding partner of Boston Consulting Group in Australia, and who has more recently served as the director of the Cape York Institute for Indigenous Policy and Leadership.

Mr Carter will work with Australian businesses to promote the employment of Indigenous people, and to encourage business people to share their skills with Indigenous communities to help set up and grow their own businesses.

These efforts will are in addition to the work of the Australian Employment Covenant, through which some 16,000 Indigenous jobs have been committed over the coming years from Australian business.

All these efforts culminate in our sixth and final target – to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.

As of today we are informed that the life expectancy gap is 11.5 years for men and 9.7 for women.

An Indigenous male born today is likely to die at just 67 years of age, and an Indigenous female at 73 years.

This is less than the 17-year gap that we thought existed a year ago.

This is good news – but it is the result of having more reliable data, rather than the result of any real improvement on the ground.

In the past, we haven’t had reliable information on Indigenous life expectancy.

So we haven’t reliably known the size of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

There’s evidence to suggest that some progress may have been made.

But the progress is clearly too slow.

Closing the life expectancy gap is a cumulative target, relying on our success in meeting each of the other targets for achievement.

Obviously, the health of Indigenous people is a major factor.

Tobacco, obesity and physical inactivity are the leading risk factors, accounting for around 45 per cent of the total health gap.

Since 2007-2008, Indigenous specific health spending has increased by 57 per cent.

This includes nearly $1.6 billion over four years to fight the treatable chronic diseases that account for two-thirds of premature Indigenous deaths.

And it includes the $14.5 million Indigenous Tobacco Control Initiative, a package of 20 innovative anti-smoking projects in urban, regional and remote Indigenous communities.

I spoke early about the legacy of decades of government failure still endured by Indigenous Australians.

This makes it all the more urgent to be vigilant about what is working and what is not.

That is why, when evidence emerged of unacceptable delays in our major Indigenous housing program in the Northern Territory last year, the Government took unprecedented action to get the program on track.

That action has delivered results.

As a result, we remain on target to build 750 new houses, and rebuild or refurbish another 2500 in remote Indigenous communities by 2013 – through the Australian Government working together with the government of the Northern Territory.

It is in that spirit, we have instructed the COAG Reform Council to produce an annual assessment of the performance of governments against the closing the gap targets.

We have also appointed a Co-ordinator General for Remote Indigenous Services, to oversee the roll-out of local plans in 29 remote communities and to cut through the red tape that slows delivery on the ground.

In the Coordinator General’s first six-monthly report, released in December last year, he identified that ‘business-as-usual’ approaches are still too widespread.

He noted that fragmentation and siloing may act as a barrier to achieve improvements in service delivery necessary to close the gap.

And to that end, I can announce today a new Flexible Funding Pool to free up funds for remote service delivery and ensure that red tape doesn’t get in the way of progress in these communities.

This funding pool will target high priority projects in the 29 Indigenous communities that are the initial priority of the National Partnership Agreement.

The $46 million for this funding pool over the next three years will allow the Government to respond flexibly and quickly to Indigenous community needs and act on Local Implementation Plans.

We are not just making unprecedented investments in Indigenous communities, we are doing things differently.

For example, central to our $5.5 billion investment in remote Indigenous housing is our target of 20 per cent Indigenous employment.

In the Northern Territory, Indigenous employment is currently running at 35 per cent, providing jobs for more than 100 Aboriginal people across the Territory.

One of them is 24 year-old Tiwi Islander Harry Munkara who’s building houses in the community of Nguiu.

Harry’s a carpenter and, with overtime, he’s earning around $800 a week.

Harry told The Australian this week that for the first time he was managing to save money to put aside for his toddler son. And, Harry says, he wants to be a role model for his people.

Mr Speaker, after some early difficulties in the housing construction program, houses are now being built.

Over 50 new houses are now under construction in the Territory, with the keys to the first two houses handed over to tenants this week.

Refurbishments are being made to around 80 homes that were in poor repair.

And more than 70 have already been completed and handed back to the Northern Territory Government, for allocation to Indigenous families.

In total across Australia, under the Remote Indigenous Housing National Partnership, over 150 new houses are now under construction across the country.

15 of these have been completed.

Over 230 refurbishments are also underway and 120 of these have been completed.

To ensure that our investments in remote communities bear fruit on the ground, we are seeking a fundamental change in the way housing is delivered.

We are insisting that the states and the Northern Territory obtain secure tenure for housing so that the government has security over the land.

In the past, the communal nature of Aboriginal land made it unclear who was responsible for maintaining houses and other structures built on the land.

But we have matched an unprecedented investment with tenancy reform to ensure the residents pay rent and care for their homes.

Indigenous people in public housing, like other public housing tenants, will have standard tenancy arrangements in place and the state government will be responsible for maintaining the houses.

We are acquiring security over land so that housing and essential services can be built for the long term, so private companies can feel comfortable about investing, and so that home ownership can become possible.

Many Indigenous communities – including 14 in the Northern Territory – have shown a willingness to sign the new leases and obtain significant new investments.

With secure tenure obtained over all 18 Alice Springs town camps, we have put our $150 million Alice Springs Transformation Plan into action.

We are cleaning up the camps, controlling the number of dogs, introducing new alcohol counselling services, and this month we start building new houses.

The 60 to 100 residents of one town camp – Ilpeye Ilpeye – have made clear their aspirations to own their own homes, so the Australian Government has changed the tenure of this land from community lease to freehold title.

This means the land can be subdivided into individual housing blocks.

Over time, that means members of this community can own their own homes.

Communities with strong social norms that give families the incentives to take responsibility for their lives and build a better future.

No family can function in overcrowded, derelict houses in which stoves and taps don’t work, children can’t get a good night’s sleep and adults can’t be rested and ready for work.

Many Indigenous Australians aspire to home ownership, as other Australians do.

To illustrate that, I note the remarks of Alice Springs traditional owner Darryl Pearce reported in the media last month.

Mr Pearce said his people wanted the same rights to land ownership and economic development opportunities as other Australians. In his words:

“We want respect – and that’s what the government has given us.”

Mr Speaker, the Australian Government wants to help Indigenous people build healthy families and thriving communities.

That is why we have invested $1.2 billion in the Northern Territory Emergency Response measures since we were elected because we are there for the long haul.

Since coming to government, the number of people supported by income management has increased from around 1,400 to over 16,000.

We have now moved to put the Northern Territory Emergency Response on a long-term, sustainable footing.

We have introduced legislation to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act – which the previous government had suspended in order to ensure the Emergency Response was immune from legal challenge.

And we have taken the decision to apply income management to all welfare recipients in specified categories across the Territory from July.

The number of people on income management in the NT is estimated to rise to around 20,000.

This is the first step in an extension of the scheme – once it has been carefully evaluated – to disadvantaged locations across Australia.

The Government’s welfare reforms seek to help all disadvantaged Australians – not just those who are Indigenous – to take on more individual responsibility and move beyond welfare dependence.

In delivering these reforms, we are acting in the interests of the most vulnerable people – the elderly, women and children.

Governments are responsible for helping communities to develop the structures and leaders they need to restore social norms, recognising that change takes time.

However, individuals also have responsibilities: to provide safe and secure homes for their children; to go to school or to make sure their children go to school; to pay rent, look for work, avoid self-destructive behaviour, and give the people in their care every opportunity to thrive.

These are the foundations on which strong communities are built, and on which people can make the most of their natural abilities.

Mr Speaker, today I am asking Indigenous leaders – in families, in communities and across the nation – to step up and take responsibility for restoring strong social norms in their own communities.

Many are doing this now.

Just look at the Kimberley town of Fitzroy Crossing, where women such as June Oscar and Emily Carter led a community campaign for alcohol restrictions.

Two years after they won their battle, the incidence of domestic violence and alcohol-related injuries is down, baby birth weights are up, and police say the town is a much calmer place.

Now the community is working with police, business and three tiers of government on a plan to improve services and close the gap in Fitzroy Crossing.

In the nearby town of Halls Creek, the community’s successful push for alcohol restrictions last year has brought a sharp drop in the incidence of arrests and domestic violence.

In Queensland, at Mornington Island and Aurukun – as alcohol restrictions have come in, violent crime has gone down.

There are many other Indigenous people around Australia who don’t make the headlines but are quietly making a difference – and making fundamental changes in their own communities.

Mr Speaker, all Australians can play a part in building this better future and Australians from all across the nation are taking action.

Across the country, banks, football clubs, mining companies, local councils, hospitals, schools and even the Perth Zoo are hiring Indigenous workers, contracting with Indigenous businesses supporting Indigenous communities.

10 years ago Rio Tinto had 130 Indigenous employees; today it has 1400.

BHP Billiton has 10 contracts with Indigenous businesses worth $350 million through one of its subsidiaries, WA Iron Ore.

It employs 255 Aboriginal workers directly and another 465 indirectly through its contractors.

The ANZ Bank had taken on 420 Indigenous employees by the end of last year, and is committed to filling 10 per cent of entry level positions with Aboriginal people by 2011.

Since 2006, 165 organisations have completed Reconciliation Action Plans through Reconciliation Australia, with 168 more to be launched this year.

By the end of this year 15 per cent of the Australian workforce – including employees at Australia’s 11 largest companies – will work for an organisation that has a Reconciliation Action Plan.

Through these practical efforts to promote reconciliation, organisations have created 6,500 positions for Indigenous people, and filled 3,000 of them.

They have awarded $750 million in contracts to Indigenous businesses.

Sometimes they do it because it brings business benefits and because it creates a sustainable investment for the companies and the Indigenous employees they hire, but these organisations are also taking action because they share a vision of a fairer Australia.

Australians want to close the gap.

91 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians and 100 per cent of Indigenous Australians surveyed by Reconciliation Australia said that the relationship between the two peoples was important to this country.

10 years ago this May, 250,000 Australians walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge – and 750,000 people walked around the country – in support of reconciliation.

10 years on, there remains a long journey ahead of us to lift Indigenous outcomes in health, housing, schools and jobs, but as a government and as a people, we can now see a path ahead and we are determined to move forward.

Not like the past, where it was non-Indigenous Australians seeking to lead Indigenous Australians, but instead, walking together, First Australians alongside all Australians, towards a stronger and fairer Australian nation.