Speech to Parliament: Close the Gap

I represent the land of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people in the south-east of Sydney. I recognise and respect that the land and water around Botany Bay and the beautiful coastline of Sydney's south-east has been their home for tens of thousands of years.

The Aboriginal people of our community have had, and continue to have, an enormous influence on our area and community. Their love of, and connection to, that land and sea and the fact that they have cared for and nurtured that environment for tens of thousands of years is really important in our community.

Many of the placenames in our community—beaches like Coogee—derive their name from Aboriginal language. Coogee derives from 'koojah', which in Bidjigal means 'the place of seaweed drying'—a reference to the seaweed that regularly washes up on Coogee Beach even to this day. Maroubra, the famous surfing beach in our area, derives its name from 'Morooberra', the name of an elder who lived in the sand hills around that beach at the time of European colonisation. Botany Bay is also known as Kamay in the area and the surrounding area is known in Bidjigal as Curiwal. This language still is present in the placenames and areas that many in our community love so much.

The Aboriginal people of the community I represent, the Bidjigal and Gadigal people, around Botany Bay were the first Aborigines in Australia to have contact with European settlers—the first to see Captain Cook's vessel the Endeavour sail into Botany Bay; the first to see Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet sail into Botany Bay. I think it is fair to say that, ever since that time, Aboriginal people in our community and no doubt throughout the rest of Australia have had a diminution in their happiness, and have felt a disadvantage that has continued to this day. That disadvantage, that reduction in happiness, manifests itself in the quality of life statistics when we compare Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

The statistics are quite alarming. When it comes to life expectancy, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians is 10 years. It is a huge chasm that, unfortunately, is not getting any better. When it comes to rates of completion of high school there is still a big gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians. The most shocking of all the statistics, I believe, is in rates of incarceration of Aboriginal men. If you are an Aboriginal man in Australia you are 15 times more likely to go to jail than a non-Aboriginal Australian. In fact, a young Aboriginal man is much more likely to go to jail than to go to university—a shocking statistic in itself that completely explains the disadvantage that Aboriginal people face in Australia.

Each year during NADOC Week I visit Long Bay jail in our community. I can tell you that Aboriginal young men are way over represented in Long Bay jail and every other jail throughout Australia. I see and talk to these Aboriginal men who have been incarcerated and you see this lack of hope in their eyes, this lack of any hope in their lives into the future. It is as if two centuries of discrimination and disadvantage is being carried around on each and every one of their shoulders and it manifests itself in this lack of hope.

This view that they do not fit within our society, despite the fact that this group of people and their ancestors have been here longer than any Europeans, and their ancestors have cared for and nurtured this place for tens of thousands of years and have established a culture and a history that is longer than any other anywhere in the world—is something that we have to change. We have to tackle the shocking rates of incarceration of Aboriginal men in Australia.

I was really proud of Bill Shorten, as the Leader of the Labor Party, for putting this issue on the agenda in his response to the Closing the gap report in the parliament yesterday, for committing to working to campaign and to develop policies to deal with the shocking rates of incarceration and, most importantly, for pointing out that cuts in funding, particularly to Aboriginal legal services do have a dramatic effect on the rates of incarceration of Aboriginal young men in Australia. So full credit to the Leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten, for putting this issue on the agenda and saying that we do need to have a target for reducing rates of incarceration of young Aboriginal men as part of the Closing the Gap targets.

The issue is: how do we reduce these gaps in incarceration, in life expectancy, in rates of education, in rates of preventable disease? In my view, it begins with respect: respect for the Aboriginal people and their history and heritage here in Australia; respect for their connection with the land; respect for their culture and the Dreamtime; and respect for our fellow Australians, respect for them as our fellow Australians. And then using that respect, harnessing that respect, to overcome prejudice and to break down some of the barriers of divisions that still do exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Using that respect to work with Aboriginal people to overcome some of the disadvantages they face, to close the gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in this country.

It can be done. It has been proven and shown that it can be done. In a number of the Closing the Gap target areas we are making some progress. In terms of halving the gap in child mortality by 2018, we are on track: Indigenous child mortality rates have fallen by six per cent since 2008, and the gap has narrowed by 34 per cent since 1998. In terms of the target to halve the gap for Aboriginal Australians aged 20 to 24 in year 12 attainment or equivalent by 2020, we are on track: the rates of year 12 attainment for Indigenous students is up from 32 per cent in the 1990s to 60 per cent in 2014. We are making progress in those two areas.

Unfortunately, in other areas we are not on track. In terms of closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids in school attendance, we are not on track. We are not on track when it comes to halving the gap of employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018. We are not on track when it comes to closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation. And we have had mixed progress in halving the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy achievement by 2018. So there is clearly more work to be done, and we do need to add that issue of incarceration to those Closing the Gap targets, because the rates of incarceration of young Indigenous men are simply too horrifying for us as a country to ignore any more.

In conclusion, I pay my respects to the Bidjigal and Gadigal people of our area. I respect you for the contribution you have made, for the nurturing you have given to the land for tens of thousands of years. If we are going to make progress on closing the gap, we need to ensure that we respect the Aboriginal people of Australia and their contribution to our nation, and that we harness that respect to break down prejudice, break down disadvantage and get on with genuinely closing the gap here in Australia.

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