Shayne Neumann MP
Federal Member for Blair

Australian Labor
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Anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations


New South Wales Parliament, Sydney

I pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and to their elders past and present.

It is an honour to speak with you this morning, as we meet to commemorate the eight anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.

I acknowledge former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – so central to our reason for gathering.

Most importantly, I acknowledge those members of the Stolen Generations who join us from across the nation.

Thank you for sitting with us today.

Thank you for your courage and persistence.

Thank you for continuing to share your personal stories with us – they are painful, but they are stories we need to hear.

With your indulgence, I’ll speak briefly of my memories of February 13, 2008 – the day Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology.

I was one of many new members first elected to Parliament at the 2007 election.

For our “Class of 2007”, the weeks following the election were a time of transition and change.

We set up my electorate office.

We stocked it with stationery and employed our staff.

We started to serve the community.

The days passed in a rush and it was soon early February and time to head to Canberra to be sworn in.

On Tuesday 12 February 2008, I sat as Member of Parliament for the first time.

Then came Wednesday and the first order of business of the 42nd Parliament – the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.

It is a day I won’t ever forget.

I was privileged to hear Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speak and to share the day, in some small way, with members of the Stolen Generations and to witness their utter relief at the words of regret addressed to them.

Kevin spoke for us all that day – every one of us.

He apologised on behalf of the Parliament and the people.

He spoke what was in our hearts.

He had the courage to say those long overdue words of sorry to our First Peoples.

He stood in our national Parliament and declared – without equivocation or qualification – that we are sorry.

He told the truth of our history - acknowledging more than 200 years of dispossession of land, destruction of cultures and languages and the entrenched and continuing disadvantage of the First Peoples of this land.

He said we are sorry.

Sorry for taking the children away from mothers, from families, from culture and community.

Sorry for the profound grief, loss and suffering inflicted.

Sorry for the discrimination and dispossession.

They were his words but they came from our hearts.

This was Parliament at its best and a turning point for the nation.

But, as Kevin said that day, the apology was the first step in our reconciliation journey, not the last.

While the apology remains as important today as it was eight years ago, we have much to do to honour the full intention and meaning of the words Kevin spoke on behalf of the nation.

We must never retreat from the challenge of racism and discrimination that continue to stain our  national conscience.

We must continue to demonstrate our commitment to the apology through our actions and our sustained commitment to reduce Indigenous inequality.

This week the annual ‘Closing the Gap’ report provided a snapshot of that inequality and our efforts to reduce it.

There were bright spots in the report.

It showed good progress in reducing the rates of child mortality and improving the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students finishing Year 12 or equivalent

However, of the seven Closing the Gap targets, these are the only two on track to be met.

The report highlights the many challenges that remain, with little progress in key areas of education, life expectancy and employment outcomes.

I want to mention a few examples of where work is required.

In Australia today, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is still more likely to die younger and find it more difficult to secure a job than other Australians.

An Aboriginal adult is 15 times more likely to go to prison than any other Australian.

An Aboriginal adult is more likely to go to prison than to university.

That is a national disgrace.

We cannot close the gap while Indigenous incarceration, victimisation rates and family violence are at national crisis levels.

That is why Labor has committed to justice targets and a justice reinvestment approach to prevent crime, reduce victimisation and improve community safety.

Here’s another example.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are six times more likely to suffer from blindness than other Australians.

However, 94 per cent of this vision loss is either preventable or treatable.

Much of it is due to Trachoma, a wholly preventable infectious eye disease.

It is a shameful embarrassment that Australia is the only developed country where Trachoma is found.

 And in this country, Trachoma only exists among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – where it is endemic in two out of three remote communities

To put that into perspective, if we address vision loss alone, we would account for around 11 per cent of the gap in health outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians.

That’s why Labor has promised to provide funding towards closing the gap in eye health and eliminating Trachoma in Australia by 2020.

Then there’s education – the focus of four of the current  seven Closing the Gap targets.

To close the gap in educational outcomes, we must ensure that every Indigenous child in every classroom receives the individual support they need to achieve their best.

That is why, under our policy Your Child Our Future, Labor has committed to fairer needs-based funding for schools, with extra support and targeted programs for 195,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

There is much work needed to close the gap.

Closing the Gap on inequality, injustice and inequity faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians must remain a national commitment, one too important to risk.

But we have other business to finish.

We must also recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.

Constitutional recognition is a significant step towards building an Australia based on strong relationships and mutual respect.

We cannot afford to lose momentum on this most important issue.

This week Bill Shorten announced that Shorten Labor Government would hold a referendum on constitutional recognition in its first term - and that the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1967 Referendum would be a propitious date.

As Bill said, it’s past time for recognition.

However, for constitutional recognition to succeed it must be meaningful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The change must be real and substantive and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must be at its heart.

That’s why the work of the Referendum Council is so important and why we support it.

Eight years ago tomorrow, Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology to the Stolen Generations that began our reconciliation journey in earnest.

It was a day many thought they would never see.

So many had waited so long for those true words of regret, remorse and repentance. 

And it set us on a path of healing, spiritual, physical and emotional.

We’ve come some distance but we’ve further to travel and this week’s Closing the Gap report shows that we must rededicate ourselves to that task.

It was a privilege to speak with you today.

Thank you to all of you. And thank you Kevin.