National Apology Breakfast 2015

18 February 2015 – Sydney, Australia

The State of the Indigenous Nation

On the Seventh Anniversary of the National Apology to Indigenous Australians.


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

I honour the Stolen Generations whose mistreatment over nearly a century represents a stain on the Australian soul, and to whom the National Apology was delivered.

Just as I honour my Indigenous brothers and sisters who have chosen to be with us here today.

Politics can be an ugly business.

Politics without purpose even more decisively so.

But when these two propositions combine, that is politics and purpose, we can, just occasionally, surprise ourselves with the good that we can create together, and even sustain together.

Seven years ago today, as the first parliamentary act of my Government, we surprised ourselves as a nation when together, Government and Opposition, finally resolved that the time had come formally to apologise to the First Australians for centuries of unbridled abuse.

And 7 years ago, we the Parliament also resolved that for this Apology to be anything more than a symbol, that we should also agree, together, that we should commit ourselves to closing the yawning gap between the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It is a minor miracle that 7 years later, despite the ebbs and flows of the ugly business that we call politics, that this framework for organising our efforts, for analysing our successes, and understanding our more numerous failures, remains intact.

Most other things fall victim to the mindless vicissitudes of what passes for our national political life.

Yet this framework, and the numerical measures contained within it, has not.

We anchored it in the formal Inter-Governmental Agreement of the Commonwealth, States and Territories in the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments I convened specifically for that purpose in Darwin later in 2008.

And so Government and Opposition, Commonwealth and States, Labor and Conservative: we all agreed to subject ourselves to the hard yardstick of closing the gap within a generation.

And against this yardstick, the truth is our achievements have been meagre.

I am glad, nonetheless, that the yardstick itself remains.

Very simply, the purpose of the Apology I delivered to Indigenous Australians was not to provide the nation a fleeting feel-good moment.

The purpose of the Apology, and the national strategy of Closing the Gap that accompanied it, was to unite the nation to harness our collective energies, breaking break the cycle of Indigenous advantage for the future.

Despite our many differences today, it is the hope of all Australians that we retain that spirit and that resolve for the future.

Importance of Data in Closing the Gap

Numbers, real numbers, can be a troubling thing.

They hold us to account.

They separate the high rhetoric from the base reality.

And that is why they are important.

Everyone can produce an anecdote, whether to advance a particular prejudice, or else to confront it.

But very few of us, and usually it’s left to governments alone, can produce the data that tells us whether we are succeeding or failing in closing the gap, or whether we are just standing still.

The data is precious.

It has taken years to assemble.

Because when I was elected Prime Minister, very little existed at all.

So we had little choice but to collect, collate and publish virtually from scratch.

It seemed that we had become so embarrassed by the scope of Indigenous disadvantage that we just didn’t want to know.

Or perhaps we didn’t want the world to know.

So my first challenge to our Parliament today on this 7th anniversary of the Apology is very simple: do not allow the withdrawal of the resources necessary for the proper collection of the data we will need for a generation to come, if we are to map our progress, and where necessary our regress, in closing the gap.

As I said in my first Closing the Gap annual report as Prime Minister back in February 2009: “We need a new beginning, a new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy failure; a new beginning, a new partnership, on closing the gap with sufficient flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional indigenous communities across the country but instead allowing flexible, tailored, local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership; a new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings across the nation.”

So the fact remains, we need more data, not less.

That’s because policy and programs need to be guided on the core question of “what works” and “what doesn’t” by the data, not by some gut instinct dreamt up one evening in the Members’ Bar.

Otherwise precious public funds will be spent on programs for which the evidence is thin, or non-existent.

It is the grossest form of false economy to refuse to spend a million dollars on data before spending a billion dollars on a program.

And let us be clear: this year’s Productivity Commission Report and earlier reports by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare are absolutely clear about where the data continues to be deficient.

Closing the Gap : The Report Card So Far

This year’s Closing the Gap report is a sobering document.

As is the report released by the “Close the Gap Campaign” Steering Committee co-chaired by Kirstie Parker and Mick Gooda.

Both reports should be read carefully by policy leaders across the nation.

Together they document modest success and many failures.

At best, we have been presented with a mixed picture, with some success in infant mortality rates and year 12 attainments, insufficient gains in life expectancy, and major problems still apparent in early childhood and primary education, and employment.

The National Steering Committee Report on Closing the Gap contains more sobering data in the health profile of Indigenous men and women, with particular emphasis on diabetes (three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians) and kidney disease (two times the rate).

In all these areas, policy must continue to be adjusted in response to the data, if Closing the Gap is to become more than a permanent depressing yardstick of policy failure.

Indigenous Incarceration Rates

There are other areas of Indigenous data which are currently not sufficiently emphasised in the debate on Closing the Gap.

And that is the explosion in Indigenous incarceration rates.

Australia is now facing an Indigenous incarceration epidemic.

And this in turn is negatively impacting various other Closing the Gap targets.

Consider the following:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians make up only 2.3 per cent of the adult population, but made up 27.4 per cent of the adult prison population.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults were imprisoned at 13 times the rate for non-Indigenous adults.
  • Since 2000, the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased 57 per cent, while the non-Indigenous rate has remained constant.
  • The rate of imprisonment for Indigenous men is more than 10 times the rate for Indigenous women.
  • But, the female imprisonment rate is growing rapidly, with a 73.7 per cent increase since 2000.
  • Odds are, if an Indigenous person is released from prison, they’re more likely to re-enter prison than an Indigenous child is to finish school.

These are alarming developments. Indigenous women in particular are critical to the future strength of Indigenous families and communities.

They play an important role in the care of children, providing the future generation with a stable upbringing.

Continued growth in the number of Indigenous women in prison will have a long-lasting and negative impact on the wellbeing of Indigenous families and communities.

One of the contributing factors to all this is the operation of the bail laws of the States and Territories.

  • Indigenous young people are 23 times more likely than non-Indigenous young people to be on remand.
  • In WA, 45 per cent of Indigenous juveniles in custody had not been sentenced.
  • In NSW, the rate of juveniles on remand who will not receive a custodial sentence is as high as 84 per cent.

The single biggest factor in this is the physical and financial inability to comply with bail conditions, including the lack of appropriate accommodation available to young offenders whilst they are awaiting sentencing.

We are seeing the emergence of this new crisis in Indigenous Australia beyond anything seen before.

It is the subject of escalating anxiety in Indigenous communities across the country.

For this reason, I argue we now need a further Closing the Gap target on reducing Indigenous incarceration rates.

The current trend will continue to be destructive for Indigenous families and communities nationwide

Just as it will become prohibitive for the Australian taxpayer.

Just as it As Mick Gooda has said: “As a society we do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than at school or university.”

A Second “Stolen Generation”

Another emerging, disturbing and partly related set of data is the rapidly growing number of Indigenous children being removed from their families.

This is a complex area of policy because our laws rightly attach the first priority to the protection of the child over any other consideration.

The horrific events in Cairns in recent times remind us of this more than ever, of the importance of communities reaching out to those in need, reminding us afresh of the deep wisdom “that it takes a village to raise a child.”

The data on the removal of children is dramatic.

While comprising only 5 per cent of the national child population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up 34 per cent of all children placed in out-of-home care.

In 2008, 5,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were in out of home care.

This has risen dramatically to more than 13,900 in 2013.

This represents a 400 per cent increase in the rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care since the 1998 release of the Bringing Them Home Report.

While child neglect and the safety of all Australian children, including Indigenous children, is paramount, Indigenous leaders argue that alternative caring arrangements for such children are not being worked out with extended families, as they could and should be.

State and Territory jurisdictions have primary responsibility in this area, but funding for community– based services appears to be dwindling.

Professionals from within the sector point to existing barriers to recruiting Indigenous people into the kinship care system – the current process of recruitment itself, remuneration that values Indigenous kinship carers at much less than foster carers, and the professional and material supports that currently make caring for kids too difficult – as reasons why alternative caring systems are not working as they were designed to.

That is why an increasing number of Indigenous leaders are beginning to speak with growing urgency of a new, emerging, “stolen generation.”

Because of the direct relationship between this and the exploding incarceration rates for Indigenous Australians, the separation of children from wider family and kinship groups at an unprecedented rate must also now be explicitly addressed within the Closing the Gap framework.

The safety of the child must always come first. The question is: where are they better cared for, and how is that best arranged.

There are many great stories emerging across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia as well.

Many of them are with us in this room this morning.

You see it in their faces.

You hear it in the tales of pride from their families.

In the schools.

The universities.

The graduation of Indigenous doctors.

The growth of Indigenous businesses.

The election of more Indigenous members to our Parliaments.

And these are the stories of inspiration that must always temper us in moments of despair.

Sometimes I fear we unnecessarily polarise the national debate between the exclusively “welfare models” of the past and the exclusively “personal responsibility models” advocated for the future.

The truth is this is becoming a sterile debate.

We need a middle way.

We need a flexible approach for the future which embraces the idea of a safety net for all who need it, as well as the incentives necessary to obtain self-reliance.

If we look at the Indigenous employment challenge, arguably the most serious of the Closing the Gap challenges identified in the 2015 report, we will not improve the employment participation rate by simply withdrawing funding from basic programs.

Unemployed Indigenous Australians have individual needs.

Like non-Indigenous Australians, the most effective way to find work is individual case-management between the education system and the labour market where at present so many just fall through the cracks.

And this costs governments money.

But the yield longer term is worth the effort as jobs are secured, benefits surrendered and families supported.

Making welfare to work for Indigenous Australians is about tailoring the safety net to individual circumstances until such time as it is no longer needed.

Second, national policy goals and measurement against those goals, as reflected in a national Closing the Gap strategy, are crucial.

But local flexibility in the programs deployed in each of Australia’s thousand plus Indigenous communities is equally crucial.

Each program should be held accountable for its results against a fixed set of measures.

But we should also fully embrace a policy of allowing a hundred flowers to bloom in the choice of what programs are most likely to work locally.

Because in the dozens of communities I have travelled to over the years, across this vast continent, each one is unique.

Third, let’s add the tragedy of Indigenous incarceration to the formal list of Closing the Gap goals over time.

If we fail to do so, and to act effectively, this factor alone may undermine most of what we seek to achieve elsewhere.

Finally, there are the Stolen Generations themselves.

They are the core of this enterprise in reconciliation.

And for many, their lives, or those of their loved ones, have simply been destroyed.

So for them, let us be wary of repeating the errors of the past, by creating what they fear might become “a second stolen generation.”

This does not decry the virtue of those who care for Indigenous children now.

It is instead a question of better exploring the care alternatives with the wider family and kinship group.

But there is also for the Stolen Generations the unfinished business of the past.

If we are now considering the question of compensation for those who have been victims of abuse by the churches through the current Royal Commission, as I see from recent reports we are, the time has therefore also come to look afresh at the question of compensation for those surviving members of the Stolen Generations.

Remember these are the people who in many cases suffered systemic and personalised abuse at the hands of the same churches.

But in these cases, as a direct result of the conscious decisions of the Governments of Australia, both State and Federal, to take them away from their families and entrust them to institutions who then in many cases abused them.

I am proud of the Apology to our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

I am proud that as a nation we then agreed to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I am proud of the fact we haven’t shrunk from the measures we have set for ourselves, even when they tell us that many of our efforts are floundering.

I am proud that we added to the fabric of our national laws protecting the interests of Indigenous Australians when my Government ratified the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, when those before me refused to do so.

And I will be proud of that day when these, the First Australians, will finally achieve proper recognition in our Constitution – the legal charter of a Commonwealth of which we all are members.

There is much, much work still to be done.

The last thing our Indigenous brothers and sisters would want would be for us to give up in despair.

There is too much at stake for that.

For my part, this time last year I said I was planning to establish a National Apology Foundation.

We have now done so.

I Chair a board of seven eminent Australians, all committed to the mission of sustaining the spirit of the Apology and the practicality of Closing the Gap.

The majority are Indigenous.

We have met throughout the year.

We have held roundtables with Indigenous leaders from across the country who support our Foundation’s mission.

We are in the process of securing DGR status.

We hope to raise funds to help ensure the data continues to be collected.

To help close the gap specifically in education.

And to help the ongoing practical challenges of the Stolen Generations themselves.

I thank Pat Turner, Jackie Huggins, Bruce Baird, Charles Passi, Frank Brennan, Christine Fejo King, and Tim Goodwin for their commitment.

I thank KPMG and Herbert Smith Freehills for their generosity and assistance.

I’m pleased that the National Apology Foundation consumes half the staff resources of my office as a former Prime Minister of Australia.

It will, I hope, be my own personal vehicle for making a contribution in the great task of full and final reconciliation of all the peoples that make up this great land of ours. Australia.