National Apology Breakfast 2014

On the Establishment of a National Apology Foundation

It is good to be here among friends.

It is particularly good to be here with so many of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

One of the many good things about Australia is that, at our best, we look out for one another.

And what we’ve sought to do over the last six years has been to look out for Aboriginal Australians: the wounds of the past, and the possibilities of the future, and how we can craft that future together.

The focus of my remarks today is not so much to reflect on where we’ve come so far in this journey together, but how we take the spirit and substance of the National Apology forward into the future.

At times like this, it’s important for us all to remember there is nothing inevitable about progress in the human condition.

It’s always possible to slide backwards if we’re not very careful.

That’s why we must remain vigilant.

The days of a racist Australia are not all that long past.

It was only 40 years ago that Aboriginal children were still being ripped away from their parents.

And it was not long ago at all when Australians simply shrugged their shoulders about the possibility of closing the yawning gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in this country.

So we should celebrate the achievements of all those who have gone before us.

Those who fought for the ’67 referendum.

Those who fought for Aboriginal land rights.

Those who fought for national reconciliation.

For those who campaigned so long and so hard for a National Apology to the Stolen Generations.

And for those who now campaign for Constitutional recognition of the first Australians.

As I was reminded at our national celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the ’67 referendum, from little things big things grow.

If we nurture the seeds of hope with the blood, sweat and tears of political action, then we can make a difference which is real, which is measurable, which is sustainable – and which most importantly changes people’s lives.

As you know, one part of the National Apology was about Closing the Gap.

For me this is the heart of the matter.

Words, while important, come easily.

It’s doing the real stuff on the ground that’s hard.

That’s why back in 2008 I announced six Closing the Gap targets:

  • Closing the life expectancy gap within a generation;
  • Halving the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018;
  • Ensuring all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities have access to early childhood education by 2013;
  • Halving the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018;
  • Halving the gap for Indigenous people aged 20–24 in Year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates by 2020; and
  • Halving the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018.

That’s why, having announced these targets for the nation, we convened in Darwin a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

For the first time in our history, the Commonwealth and the States together agreed on a common strategy for Closing the Gap and for common funding commitments to do that.

Prior to that, the Commonwealth and States simply did their own thing.

And as of last year, we the Commonwealth and the States have so far allocated around $5.5 billion to this important task.

Inputs are important but it is the outcomes that are really important.

That’s why we also agreed back in 2008 to an annual Prime Ministerial Statement to the Parliament on any progress or regress that had been achieved.

In Australia on these questions today there is no appetite for gilding the Lilly.

People want to know what works and what doesn’t.

They want to be encouraged and inspired by success stories where they can be seen and celebrated.

They want to be told where the data refuses to budge and why that may be the case.

So, how far have we actually come over the last six years?

As of the 2013 Closing the Gap report, the life expectancy gap remained stubbornly high at 11.5 years for males and 9.7 years for females.

And although the rate continues each year to come down by a modest amount, the report argues much more will need to be done if this target is to be met by 2031.

On halving the mortality rate for Indigenous kids under five, a decline of 29 per cent has been registered. The report argues that we are within range of meeting the 2018 target of halving this gap in infant mortality.

On access to early childhood education, we committed to 95 per cent enrolment for Indigenous kids in remote communities by 2013. And according to the report, we were on track to meet that target by the end of last year.

However, there have been mixed results in halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy for Indigenous kids by 2018. According to the report only three of the eight numeracy and literacy targets are on track to meet the target. And there remains a further huge gap between urban Aboriginal children and those living in rural and remote areas.

Finally on education, there has been good news so far on halving the gap for Indigenous students achieving a Year 12 or equivalent qualification by 2020.

The report suggests progress is ahead of schedule, although improvements need to be sustained if we are to reach this target with real confidence.

On employment we committed ourselves to halving the gap by 2018 and here, regrettably, we have actually slid slightly backwards: the total employment rate in 2006 being 48 per cent whereas this had fallen to 46.2 per cent by 2011.

So the bottom line is this: we are achieving good progress on three of our six targets whereas on the other three, progress has been marginal and in one case going backwards.

The virtue of what we have done through these Closing the Gap reports is to provide comparative data for the first time in the nations’ history.

Prior to that, we measured very little and in some cases the data was simply non- existent.

Accurate data is so important for assessing our successes and failures into the future.

Otherwise our words are just words.

As I said earlier, the purpose of today is not to focus on previous achievements.

Today is about building something new on the foundations of the past.

Today, our focus is to take the sprit and the substance of the National Apology into the future.

And that’s why this morning I am announcing the establishment of a National Apology Foundation for this very purpose.

This will be a not-for-profit Foundation with five core purposes.

  • To perpetuate the spirit and the substance of the National Apology to Indigenous Australians to future generations of Australians once the events of 2008 fade from national memory;
  • To sustain the bi-partisan support the Apology has had so far into the future;
  • To monitor progress in “Closing the Gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, as outlined in the 2008 Apology Statement, emphasising both positive progress as well as areas where the gap is not being closed;
  • To support, in particular, closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in education by raising funds and contributing those funds to existing non-government institutions engaged in this mission; and
  • To support, where possible and appropriate, Indigenous peoples internationally and their efforts to achieve reconciliation in their own countries.

I would also like to announce today the prospective appointment of board members for the Foundation.

While I will chair the Foundation, in order to maintain its bipartisan spirit, former Liberal Minister Bruce Baird has agreed to be the Foundation’s Deputy Chair. At this time of sharply partisan politics on so many things, it is important that as a nation we work as one on the important questions of reconciliation and Closing the Gap.

I am pleased to announce that Indigenous members of the board will include Jackie Huggins, Pat Turner and our very own Michael McLeod, all of whom are with us today.

Non-Indigenous members of the board will include the Nation’s leading meddlesome priest, Father Frank Brennan, whose work on Indigenous Australia has been recognised across the country over the last quarter of a century.

Additional board members will be added during the course of this year.

We intend to work closely with bodies like Reconciliation Australia as we see no point whatsoever in reinventing the wheel.

I emphasise once more that a core focus of the Foundation will be Closing the Gap into the long-term future and to help keep the national spotlight focused on this central critical objective.

I hope to be in a position to formally launch this National Apology Foundation at its first official fundraising function by year’s end.

Many, many, many good things have been done by Indigenous individuals and institutions across the country.

These are simply too numerous to mention.

But their common denominator is this: progress is possible.

We are not condemned to a future which sees a continuing division between the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Beyond the intrinsic principles of social justice, the importance of which are self-evident, there is also something wonderfully imaginative about Indigenous Australia becoming such an embedded part of our future national consciousness.

How we project Australia to the rest of the world.

How we build a country which lives in harmony and equity with its Indigenous communities.

And a country whose creative edge, through its dance, its song, its paintings, and its stories of the Dreamtime is writ large in the minds of the world.

And for Australia, this is something new.

Rather than trying to hide our Indigenous origins from the rest of the world, instead fully embracing our Indigenous identity as part of our wider national identity.

The nation we are becoming in the eyes of the world.