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Turnbull: we are committed to doing things with, not to, Aboriginal people

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tabled the 10th annual Closing the Gap report into indigenous health, education and other life outcomes on Monday. Below is his full statement to the House of Representatives.


Yanggu gulanyin ngalawiri, dhunayi, Ngunawal dhawra. Wanggarralijinyin mariny bulan bugarabang.

Today, Mr Speaker, we meet on Ngunnawal land. We acknowledge and pay our respects to Ngunnawal elders past and present. We pay our deepest respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today and right across our nation. I acknowledge Minister Ken Wyatt, Senators Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy and the Member for Barton, Linda Burney. Thank you for your wise and powerful voices, First Australians, leading the way for many more in years to come.

Mr Speaker, Galarrwuy Yunupingu describes his culture as a ‘gift’; a gift to the nation bestowed upon us all and he’s right. But Indigenous culture is not frozen in time. It’s constantly evolving. It’s dynamic, it is ancient and modern. It is old as the 65,000 year old rocks and tools unearthed at Kakadu last year and as new as Reko Rennie’s “Lighting the Sails” on the Opera House or the hand-painted Rolls Royce he drove across his grandmother’s country—Kamilaroi country—to reconnect with his spiritual home.

Lucy and I recently visited the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies AIATSIS here in Canberra. We learned there, that before European settlement, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians spoke up to 600 dialects of languages. AIATSIS has grouped these into six or seven key language families that are as different, one from the other, as Latin is from Chinese. When we consider that there are just three language families in all of Europe, we get some idea of the enormous diversity and knowledge contained in Australian Indigenous languages. Australian languages, as Galarrwuy reminded us not so long ago. The largest language family in Australia is called Pama-Nyungan from the words for ‘man’ in the far Northeast and South West and covers about seven-eighths of the continent. The other language families, non-Pama-Nyungan so-called, are found in the far north, from the Kimberley across to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

At the last election the Government promised to protect and help revitalise Indigenous languages. Later this month, we will hold a National Indigenous Language Convention on the Gold Coast to help fulfill that commitment. Language is the great carrier of culture and so much of our Indigenous languages is like poetry – almost impossible to translate. These are complex concepts, enriching us remarkably. AIATSIS is doing formidable work and Lucy and I were so pleased to be there congratulating them on that and I’m so pleased the Government is providing more support.

Now we acknowledge we have not always treated our First Australians with the respect we should have.

In 2018, 10 years on from the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, we have the chance to write a new chapter of history, where indigeneity is embraced and not derided. Where diversity of cultures and language embodies strength. Where individuals, families, governments and institutions operate in a relationship of high expectations.

Now the work of AIATSIS reminds us that far from the stereotypes of poverty and despair, our First Australians are proud peoples who have intimate knowledge of these lands, whose songs date back to time out of mind, who connect all of us – all Australians – to the oldest continuous cultures in the world. This truth should be a great source of pride for all of us. This ‘gift’, in Galarrwuy’s words, should be honoured.

Mr Speaker, Indigenous leaders have written to me saying: “despite some small gains, First Peoples across the nation concede that the Closing the Gap targets were inappropriate and that there was no community buy-in from the outset”. Well, that has to change.

Last week, COAG hosted a delegation of Indigenous leaders as part of our commitment of doing things ‘with’, not ‘to’ Indigenous people. We heard very clearly the desire for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be equal partners in this work and in Chris Sarra’s words: “to have real skin in the game,” in terms of accountability and opportunity. We heard the need to take the time to get the refresh of the Closing the Gap targets right and COAG agreed to extend the timeframe for concluding the refresh, to October 2018.

We must work diligently, but respectfully and this will allow us the time to do both.

This three-way engagement—the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – will build more accountability into a refreshed agenda. I welcome First Minister’s representatives and First Ministers here today.

We cannot close the gap if we do not have equal participation in the economy. One of the most effective ways to tackle disadvantage is by ensuring that everyone is included and shares in its benefits. Now, on this side of the chamber we are determined to build a strong economy, where everyone who can work, is able to find employment. Our push for an internationally competitive tax system is designed to enable all Australian businesses, including those owned and operated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, to invest and grow.

In 2012-13, Indigenous business secured just $6 million of contracts through federal government procurement. Since we set targets through our Indigenous Procurement Policy in 2015, I am pleased to announce Indigenous businesses have now won over $1 billion in government contracts. This program, which is a great credit to the Minister Nigel Scullion, this program has exceeded all expectations. It is being emulated, as you would have seen at the gathering earlier with the BCA.

Now, a new $213.6 million Bayinguwa project – which is the Aboriginal name for Garden Island in Sydney – to design the refurbishment of the Garden Island naval base. It has just been awarded to a joint venture between Indigenous business, PSG Holdings and Lend Lease.

As part of our commitment to do things ‘with,’ not ‘to’, we engaged some 200 Indigenous businessmen and women from across the country to develop the Indigenous Business Sector Strategy, which we’re launching today to help meet the extraordinary growth in the sector. Indigenous Business Hubs will be created across the country, starting with Western Sydney to take advantage of our City Deals and our Government’s record investment in infrastructure, including the Western Sydney Airport itself. These Hubs will be one-stop shops for Indigenous businesses to access the myriad of support services that are out there, all in the one place.

The Indigenous Affairs Minister Senator Nigel Scullion is currently working with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, the largest Indigenous representative body in the country, on ensuring the hub is designed by, and tailored for, Indigenous Australians. We have formed an Indigenous Reference group to ensure Indigenous people in northern Australia are full economic participants in the Northern Australia Policy. Indigenous Australians either directly own or have legal rights to most of the North: 66 per cent of Queensland, 80 per cent of the Northern Territory and 94 per cent of Western Australia is communal freehold Aboriginal land, or claimed or determined Native Title land.

My commitment is to do all that I can and the Government will do all that we can, to ensure that Indigenous Australians play a central role in our nation’s success story in every respect.

Just like Lola Greeno, Yvonne Koolmatrie, or Daniel Boyd, accomplished Indigenous artists whose work inspired and challenged us in the Defying Empire Exhibition at the National Gallery mid-last year.

Our Australian of the Year award finalists Dion Devow, Johnathan Thurston, and Dr Tracy Westerman.

Business people like Daniel Jones, who runs his own contracting company in Timber Creek in the Northern Territory.

Thomas Hudson, who is expanding his Indigenous tourism business on the Cape York Peninsula.

Kristal Kinsela, who spoke so eloquently at the COAG meeting last Friday, who said that her Indigenous business went from three staff to 15, also thanks to our Indigenous Procurement Policy.

Dr Kim Isaacs also at the COAG meeting, a GP from Broome with whom we reflected on the deep significance of liyan, a holistic concept of wellbeing and connectedness in the Yawuru language.

Ray Pratt, who has grown his company Dice Australia, into one of our leading technological service providers in the construction and renewable energy sectors.

Mr Speaker, these great Australians and many others like them prove that the solution to closing the gap rests within the imagination, the ingenuity, the passion and the drive of Indigenous people themselves. Government must be an enabler of this success. Too often we are quick to highlight the despondency and deficit, which does nothing to help those who aspire to be like Kristal, Thomas or Raymond, to work hard, contribute and succeed, all the while being proud First Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Today, I table the 10th Closing the Gap report.

Every day we see proof that many people’s lives are improving. As part of the Closing the Gap refresh, state by state targets will help give us more granular and specific local insight to progress or lack of progress and more precisely where more focused effort is needed.

Mr Speaker, I can advise the House three of the seven Closing the Gap targets are on track this year, giving us the most promising result since 2011.

The target to halve the gap in child mortality is back on track.

The life expectancy target is not on track, but life expectancy has been increasing and between 1998 and 2016 the overall Indigenous mortality rate declined by 14 per cent.

Up to 51 per cent of low birth-weight births to Indigenous mothers have been attributed to smoking during pregnancy and rates of smoking during pregnancy are still at 45 per cent in 2015.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, tobacco smoking is the most preventable cause of ill-health and early death. Among Indigenous Australians, smoking directly causes about a third of the incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease and around one in five deaths.

That’s why Minister Ken Wyatt has announced $184 million towards reducing smoking rates.

Mr Speaker, I can report that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged five are the first cohort of any children nationally, to reach the 95 per cent immunisation target. The target to have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025, is also on track this year.

Today, around 14,700 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are enrolled in early childhood education the year before full-time school. We must continue to ensure those children are attending, not just enrolled, in order to receive the full benefit.

The target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020, is also on track.

Nationally, the gap has narrowed by more than 12 percentage points over the past decade, but we need to lift the quality of these outcomes. We heard that very powerfully at the COAG Special Gathering of Indigenous leaders last Thursday.

The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 is not on track this year. But the data does show that the gap is narrowing, especially in reading in Years 3 and 5 and in numeracy in Years 5 and 9.

The target to close the gap in school attendance by 2018 is not on track this year. Over the next decade, we will put in place a nationally consistent, needs-based funding system for all schools, with record investment of $249.8 billion, including a $4.4 billion loading for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We await David Gonski’s report on how to ensure those additional funds are spent effectively. But we cannot let this opportunity pass to improve the effectiveness of our record level of spending on education.

The employment target is not on track and great challenges remain in community safety, health, incarceration rates and family violence, which we discussed also at COAG last week.

Our new Time to Work program will bring employment services into prisons, so Indigenous people can leave with a focus on work and break the cycle of incarceration.

The Specialist Indigenous organisation, We Al-li, is delivering trauma-informed training to all 14 Family Violence Prevention Legal Services across Australia.

We promised to work in partnership with communities and we listened to the cry for help from leaders, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in Ceduna, the Kimberley, the Goldfields and Bundaberg. Strong women like Amanda Bennell and Betty Logan who are here in the chamber today. The Cashless Debit Card is not for everyone. But if a community has stepped up and asked us for help, as these communities and their leaders have done, we must put politics aside and listen. We’re committed to stopping the welfare-fueled violence and misery. We will put the rights of children far above arguments that are driven by ideology. We hope that common sense will prevail as we seek support for the Cashless Debit Card for those communities who have chosen to use this tool to make their communities safer for everyone.

Mr Speaker, I recognise good health underpins the Closing the Gap agenda. Our Government continues to invest substantially and to work closely with communities in a wide range of Indigenous health programs.

From July last year, our Government has been supporting the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health sector through a new Network Funding Agreement with the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. This funding agreement was developed in consultation with the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health sector to inform national policy and support community controlled organisations on the ground. In 2017/18 we provided $20 million to ensure our commitment to working with Indigenous Australians is a reality.

Mr Speaker, the last decade has given us a richer understanding about what works and what doesn’t and the most valuable lesson has come from applying Chris Sarra’s advice to do ‘with’, not ‘to’.

Data that ends up in a spreadsheet at the ABS here in Canberra, is meaningless. Too much is written about communities and not nearly enough is written for communities.

To give effect to doing things ‘with’ and not ‘to,’ data must be local and it must be made available to communities; to local decision-makers who need it to know what is happening on the ground, to track changes and monitor progress.

Now, this is a big shift.

The first step was bringing Indigenous funding into Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, so we could understand where the money was being spent. Then last year, I announced more than $50 million in funding to strengthen Indigenous research and evaluation so that we know both where money is being spent and what the results are.

As the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory highlighted, the underlying problem was not the level of overall funding, but that investment is not rigorously tracked, monitored or evaluated to ensure that it’s appropriately distributed and directed. Provided the legislation passes – and we call on those opposite to support it – our new Indigenous Productivity Commissioner will work with the Productivity Commission to apply greater rigour to assessing what works and why.

I can announce today, Mr Speaker, that we’ll trial a new Indigenous Grants Policy which will look at how the billions of dollars we spend on Indigenous-related grants might better support growing Indigenous organisations.

Before the Indigenous Advancement Strategy was announced, Indigenous organisations received 30 per cent of the Indigenous programs and activities funding. Now 50 per cent of the value of the IAS goes to Indigenous organisations. We want to lift this even further by leveraging the successes of the IPP.

Mr Speaker, as Andrea Mason puts it: “it’s about us, and anything that’s about us needs to be shaped by us.”

We’re doing more to use local expertise to design solutions to local problems and our best example of that is Empowered Communities. We are hopeful that through the Closing the Gap refresh process, this model can be expanded beyond the existing eight sites to more communities seeking to work in a place-based regional governance approach and one that meets the needs criteria set by the Empowered Communities leaders.

That will require stronger leaders. That’s why we are committed to the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity Program, who also join us in the chamber today.

Mr Speaker, I’ve said before that our relationship must be based on mutual respect.

We must also seek common ground, guided by the values that make us all Australian.

Values of mutual respect, equality and equal treatment under the law.

Our position on the Referendum Council’s recommendation of a constitutionally-enshrined national Indigenous representative assembly, was not reached lightly. We came to our decision only after very careful consideration. The Government remains absolutely committed however to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution.

I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition on the 8th of December last year, concerning our shared commitment to recognition and the establishment of a Joint Select Committee to work on it further, bringing together in its consideration the work of the Referendum Council from last year, a Joint Select Committee on Recognition in 2015 and of course the Expert Panel of 2012. I was pleased to receive the Leader of the Opposition’s response last Friday. I expect we can now progress this important matter and establish the new Joint Select Committee.

Mr Speaker, last year I was humbled to participate in a Gumatj men’s ceremony in Arnhem Land. Painted in ochre, these men carried traditions and knowledge that are tens of thousand of years old. Yet later that afternoon, Nigel Scullion opened the Gumatj Mining Training Centre that has enabled local Yolngu people to gain skills to work in their own mine. Rather than walking in both worlds, these men and women had made their worlds into one seamless continuum. Participating in ceremony and the economy, is self-determination in action. Just like the 16 Indigenous postgraduates currently studying at the world’s leading universities – five at Cambridge, three at Harvard and eight at Oxford – thanks largely to the Aurora Foundation. So now three per cent of our Australian postgrads at those universities are Indigenous, pro rata to the Indigenous percentage of the Australian population.

These great role models, and so many others like them, remind us and reassure us that as we embrace the diverse, resilient and powerful cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, we will build a stronger Australia for everyone.

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.