Australia, Reconciliation and Race
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 lives have been forever-wounded by the inhumanity, indifference and insensitivity of generations of white Australians.
And I honour our Indigenous brothers and sisters who are with us today on this the eighth anniversary of the national apology.
In 2008, on behalf of the parliament and the nation I apologised for the indignities we had inflicted on the Indigenous peoples of this ancient land since the earliest days of European settlement 220 years before.
For reasons I will never fully understand, my predecessor had for so many years refused to do so.
But it was good day for nation when the Opposition then joined the government in bipartisan support for the national apology.
With the Apology, I sought to follow in the steps of those who had gone before.
Those who had struggled to secure the 1967 Referendum.
Whitlam, the Racial Discrimination Act, and Northern Territory Land Rights.
Keating, Redfern and the Native Title Act.
And now those engaged in the hard business of Constitutional Recognition of the first Australians.
The fight has been long and hard.
It has been led by Indigenous Australians who have demonstrated great courage and great determination when the cause of Aboriginal justice and reconciliation with white Australians seemed remote.
The setbacks have been many.
The progress has been, at best, uneven.
Of the many steps that have been taken, perhaps the apology was the least of them.
The truth is we have a long way to go.
Closing the Gap
The Indigenous community, and the community at large are right to ask the question “has anything really changed?”
Or was it all just words, dispatched nobly into the ether, accompanied by a fleeting, national “feel-good” moment which failed to deliver real change in the real lives of Aboriginal people on the ground.
It’s important to reflect carefully on this.
To listen carefully to what our Aboriginal brothers and sisters are saying.
And to look carefully at the data we have generated to measure what progress or regress may have been achieved.
I have always been of the view that social justice without measurement is little more than sentiment.
That is why at the time of the National Apology I also embedded within the resolution of the Parliament a National Closing the Gap Strategy so that we could measure over time what changes we had achieved in health, education, housing, employment and longevity.
We established specific targets and specific timeframes for their realisation.
We began collecting data, in many areas for the first time.
And through an intergovernmental agreement with the states and territories, we managed to get all levels of government rowing in the same direction through the National Strategy on Closing the Gap, signed in Darwin in December 2008.
And most critically, I committed myself and my successors, to delivering an annual Closing the Gap statement to the national Parliament outlining the data.
Establishing where there has been progress.
And where there has been little.
And bringing about a candid national conversation on what is working, what is not and what must be done next.
Prime Minister Turnbull delivered the 2016 national statement on Closing the Gap to the Parliament the day before yesterday.
I thank him for it.
I thank him for its bipartisan spirit.
And I look forward to the day when we can remove the last vestiges of any mindless partisanship in the broader national debate on Indigenous policy so that we can focus all our collective political and policy energies on the core task at hand.
On closing the gap – not as an aspiration – but as a reality.
This year’s report card is once again mixed.
But I would gently remind its detractors that it is better to have a report card based on objective data than none at all.
And remember there used to be none at all.
Because back then some of the data was simply too disturbing to disrupt polite conversation, so it was judged better to have no such data at all.
Without data, while acknowledging its limitations, we would be left in a world of subjective pain, forever tilting at windmills, however nobly, or ignobly.
Let’s recall what these targets are:
- Close the life expectancy gap within a generation
- Halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade
- Ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities within five years
- Halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade
- Close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by the end of 2018.
- Halve the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 attainment rates by 2020
- Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade
So how have we gone? With the data we know:
- The target to close the gap in life expectancy is not on track, based on data since the 2006 baseline.
- The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track.
- As for the target on access to early childhood education, in remote areas, 85 per cent of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2013. The target has now to been revised to achieve 95%.
- The latest data shows mixed progress on the target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy for Indigenous students by 2018. Across the eight areas (reading and numeracy for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9), the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving national minimum standards is on track in four of these eight areas.
There has been little change in the rate of school attendance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from 2014 (83.5 per cent) to 2015 (83.7 per cent). Progress will need to accelerate from now on if this target is to be met.
- The target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020 is on track.
- The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is not on track.
As the Prime Minister said in the parliament, the report contains some good news and some bad.
We should celebrate the good.
For example, the reductions in Indigenous child mortality.
The improvements in many of the measures in literacy and numeracy.
And the increasing retention rate for Indigenous year 12 completion.
And we should focus much greater effort on the bad.
For example, no improvement in Indigenous school attendance rates.
Nor in employment.
Nor in indigenous longevity.
At the very least, we now have some transparency in the data.
Because before we had little, and in some cases none.
Additional Measures of Indigenous Disadvantage
I have argued previously that we should also add to the original closing the gap targets.
We should add one on Indigenous higher education rates.
And COAG needs to consider a target to reduce the nation’s appalling Indigenous incarceration rates.
Even in America, there is a growing bipartisan campaign to reduce the incarceration rate of African Americans which has reached frightening proportions.
Let us remember that the Indigenous incarceration rate in Australia, in the last available ABS Census of 2013 shows Indigenous Australians while making up only 2.5% of the total Australian population, represent more than a quarter – 27 % – of the total Australian prison population
As I stated last year, we also have to prevent the emergence of a second stolen generation as the number of children being removed from their parents continues to grow.
I do not criticise the authorities for these removals as their core concern must be the protection of the child.
But as a community we must be creative in coming up with other solutions for caring for these children without complete removal from Indigenous communities.
And we must be co-designing these solutions with Indigenous communities themselves.
Otherwise we run the real risk of total, long-term, social alienation as these children become utterly lost from their Aboriginal identity.
The Problem of Racism
Friends, as we reflect today on the state of Indigenous Australia, it is impossible to ignore the current debate about racism in our country.
This is a difficult subject.
It is a sensitive subject.
But it has now become unavoidable.
Five years ago, as Prime Minister I said I did not believe that racism was at work in Australia.
Perhaps I was just naive back then.
Perhaps just wishing that the better angels of our nature had begun to prevail in a newly reconciled Australia.
Or perhaps I was just plain wrong.
I am conscious of the fact that I have spent the better part of the last two years living in the United States.
I don’t follow the daily ebb and flow of this nation’s political and public discourse.
But I do listen carefully to the Indigenous debate.
And in particular what indigenous peoples say.
Over the last year or so we have seen the treatment meted out to Adam Goodes.
When I spoke out about this last year, people screamed back that it wasn’t because Adam was Aboriginal. It was just that they disliked his behavior as a footballer.
I’m not exactly a connoisseur of the finer points of the game.
But I think that’s 100% bullshit.
An Aboriginal friend of mine recently put it in these terms: he said that for him there was still the “low, steady hum of racism” in this country.
And in the nearly two decades I have known him, he has never, repeat, never raised racism with me before.
He told me of the story of his mum and dad recently sitting down in a country cafe after a long drive for a cuppa.
They sat in their booth.
The serving staff came along and then served everybody around them, including those who had come in after them.
Thinking there had been a mistake, his dad went up to the counter and asked for two teas for himself and his wife.
The person at the counter just stared at them.
And did nothing.
They left and resumed their drive north.
My friend is not given to exaggeration.
Vicariously he felt the humiliation his parents had gone through as they relayed the story sometime later.
To me this story sounded more like one from the Birmingham Alabama of the 1960s rather than regional Australia half a century later.
I spoke to someone last night, not Aboriginal, but a black Australian, who told me that he just couldn’t put up with it anymore being called a “monkey” by one of his co-workers, and had left his firm after seven years.
He also told me proudly about his Aboriginal wife, a university graduate with multiple degrees, but also was the recipient of racist remarks.
Some will challenge how widespread the problem is.
The truth is it’s difficult to tell.
But next time you meet an Aboriginal man or woman, ask them what their experience has been.
Start here this morning and ask the Aboriginal people at your table.
You may find what they have to say is more confronting than we white folks are ready for.
Certainly I have found it that way.
Surely this is not the Australia we want it to be.
I’ve listened carefully to what Stan Grant has said about racism in contemporary Australia.
Just as I’ve listened carefully to Nova Peris.
And I’ve listened to others.
All have said to me they do not believe this to be symptomatic of the mainstream of Australian society, where they find people to be overwhelmingly warm, welcoming and inclusive.
That is Australia at its best.
That’s the Australia I know and love.
That’s the Australia we readily identify with.
But there is another side, seemingly a small minority, which we need to name for what it is: racism.
It’s harder for our Indigenous brothers and sisters to do so.
It’s hard to defend yourself when you are the target
The question for the rest of us is what do we do when we see racism at work.
Whether we just stand around.
Fearful we will be labeled as politically correct.
Or just fearful of sticking our neck out when a fellow Australian, who happens to be black, is being bullied.
Leaving it to others to act.
By being silent, we convey consent,
We diminish our notion of a fair go for all.
We also diminish ourselves.
And in doing so, we diminish this great nation of ours as well.
Some will say this is just a collection of anecdotes.
I have already said that I don’t believe this racism represents the mainstream of our society.
But the data tells us racism remains a real problem for a not insignificant minority.
Polling published by the Lowitja Institute in Melbourne in 2012 on the attitudes of indigenous people in Victoria, both metropolitan and regional, found that 97% had been targets of verbal or physical abuse, or discriminatory behavior, in the previous 12 months.
67% said they had been spat on or had something thrown at them.
And 82% were told they were less intelligent.
Polling on racist attitudes or on racist behavior is notoriously difficult.
But it would be wrong to conclude that we do not have a problem
Australians don’t like talking about racism.
The truth is nobody does.
As I said at the outset, this is a difficult conversation to have in our country.
But we should bear in mind the impact of racist remarks, “jokes” and behavior.
It’s not funny if you are on the receiving end.
It’s deeply hurtful personally.
As one Aboriginal friend said to me recently, even if it is a small minority who have this view, the words once spoken still carry a great weight, because they are powered by the force of history.
It’s like a cancer that eats away at the fabric of our society – the fabric that binds us together as the wider Australian family.
And that is not good for any of us.
So what can be done?
The next time any of us see or hear racist behavior, don’t be silent.
Don’t allow our Indigenous brothers and sisters to stand alone.
Call it out for what it is.
And shame it.
For racism in any form has no place in the Australia of the 21st century.
We are a small country in a large world.
We are also strangers in our own region where our large neighbours are of radically different ethnicities and cultures.
The secret for our national future in this troubled world is to be the west in the east and the east in the west.
Comfortable and conversant with the multiple cultures of our region, and respectful of their diversity.
Just as we are comfortable and engaged with the multicultural society we have become at home.
And none of this can be sustained if we are uncomfortable in our engagement with our Indigenous peoples whose continent we now share.
I have spoken today on a sensitive subject.
But it is only one part of a far broader picture.
I agree with Prime Minister Turnbull that we should celebrate the great achievements of Indigenous Australians.
In education where we are seeing Indigenous teachers returning to their communities.
In health where we are graduating Indigenous doctors and nurses.
In politics with people like Ken Wyatt, Nova Peris and others in the Federal parliament – and I hope Stan Grant soon to join them.
In business where we see Indigenous enterprises springing up around the country, like Message Stick.
In the professions where we see more Indigenous lawyers, doctors and nurses.
In diplomacy where we have our first Indigenous Australian appointed as an Ambassador abroad and when I visited him recently he was going great guns and well-respected by the host country.
In the many foundations that are doing excellent work including:
- The Aboriginal Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) where we now have nearly a thousand Indigenous kids in the best boarding schools in the country and where half of them are going on to higher education, and the other half to a trade;
- The Clontarf Academy which has graduated thousands of indigenous kids in centers right across the country, steering them on through Year 12, studying a trade, and finding a job.
- Yalari which also does great work supporting kids through boarding school and beyond;
And now there is my own National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians (NAFIA) which was finally granted DGR status in December and which I have begun with $100,000 of my own funds (hopefully to be matched by many others from the corporate community) to sustain the spirit and substance of the apology into the future.
Much that is good is happening.
Yet there is still much despair.
But let us hold these two in tension.
We cannot afford to exhibit a form of national “learned helplessness” on whether we can in fact close the gap.
On whether we can in fact fully reconcile our peoples.
The challenge is complex – but not intractable
Without a vision, the people perish.
With vision, and with absolute determination, hard work, and creative policy tailored to the needs of individual communities, we can indeed turn our vision for a reconciled Australia into reality.