February 14, 2017




I speak today in relation to the Closing the Gap report. It is a very disappointing and profoundly despairing document that we have seen handed down by the Prime Minister today.

I am aggrieved about it, and so should many people be aggrieved about it. This is a Government that came in, I think, with the best of intentions to reform Indigenous Affairs but unfortunately, in its first budget, cut $534 million from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs across the country.

It did not listen to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and in the first budget it cut $15 million out of assistance that had already been budgeted for by the previous Labor Government for the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, the peak Indigenous body. Thereafter it established an Indigenous advisory council that really represented no-one and continued to claim that there was an efficiency dividend in relation to these budget cuts only.

The truth is that the Closing the Gap report today is really the consequence of so much mismanagement across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. I say that because the report is stark.

It says that target after target is not being attained.

We are seeing a failure to halve the gap in child mortality.

We are seeing failures in terms of closing the gap in life expectancy.

We are seeing failures to close the gap in school attendance.

We are seeing failures to close the gap in reading and numeracy for Indigenous students.

We are seeing failures to close the gap in terms of employment.

The words 'not on track' are littered through the report.

This backs up the Auditor-General's report.

When I was the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, I wrote to the Auditor-General requesting that the Auditor-General turn his mind to the preparation of an audit report in relation to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, the centrepiece of the Abbott and now Turnbull Government's Indigenous Affairs policy.

Much fanfare heralded the Indigenous Advancement Strategy in May 2014. They committed $4.8 billion over four years from 2014-15, cutting $534.4 million over five years, much of it in Indigenous Affairs and much of it in preventative health programs.

The consequences were that many organisations that had been working in community control across the country failed to get the funding program that they needed in terms of certainty and employment. The outcomes were therefore a consequence of the failure of the Abbott-Turnbull Government.

In 2014-15, the first year of the strategy, the Department focused on transitioning 3,000 funding agreements across the country.

The Auditor-General found:

the Department did not effectively implement the Strategy.

A failure of administration. Also:

The Department's grants administration processes fell short of the standard required to effectively manage a billion dollars of Commonwealth resources. The basis by which projects were recommended to the Minister (Senator Scullion) was not clear and, as a result, limited assurance is available that the projects funded support the Department's desired outcomes.

Further, the Department did not:

  • assess applications in a manner that was consistent with the guidelines and the Department's public statements;
  • meet some of its obligations under the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines;
  • establish performance targets for all funded projects.

The performance framework and measures established for the Strategy (the centrepiece of the Abbott and Turnbull Government's Indigenous Affairs policy) do not provide sufficient information to make assessments about program performance and progress towards achievement of the program outcomes.

This is a damning report by the Auditor-General of the Government's whole strategy in Indigenous Affairs.

The grants administration was appalling. There was a kit provided before the opening of the grant funding for these organisations which are at the front line of delivering services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and whose main work is about Closing the Gap in Indigenous disadvantage.

Approximately half of the applicants under the grants program of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy did not meet the application documentation requirements.

There may be benefit in the Department testing its application process with potential applicants in future rounds.

There was an inconsistency with the guidelines in the internal guidance. So this is the consequence of this Government's Indigenous Affairs policy. We are seeing it today.

The best I can say about this report is that it actually looks like a report. In previous years we have had what looked like a brochure - a brochure that nearly had more pictures that words on it - that had been handed down as the Closing the Gap report.

It is a damning indictment of this Government's Indigenous Affairs policy.

I have been with the Member for Lingiari when the Minister talked about resetting, restarting and renewing in speech after speech. How many more times is this Government going to do that? They have failed to acknowledge their failures this area, but at least the Department has agreed with every one of the recommendations of the Auditor-General. So there is hope yet that the Government may get this right in terms of Indigenous Affairs.

In the time remaining, let me say a few things about what they could do in this space that might actually help.

How about refunding the National Congress of Australia's First People the $15 million that Labor made a commitment to do?

How about showing the respect towards the Redfern Statement that they fail to do in the last election campaign?

I went to the National Congress of Australia's First People and announced Labor's policy in Indigenous Affairs and showed respect for that, as I showed respect for the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people who are the custodians of this particular place. I pay my respects to them today. I showed respect in Redfern for that.

The recommendations of the peak bodies across the whole area, from Family Violence Prevention Legal Services through to the First Peoples Disability Network, the National Congress of Australia's First People, the Lowitja Institute, the Healing Foundation - they all stay the same thing.

They all say: Across the forward estimates, how about you restore the funding cuts? How about you actually reform the Indigenous Advancement Strategy?

It might be a good idea to listen to what Labor has been saying for about four years and listen to what the Auditor-General has been saying.

How about you actually do what you said when you were in opposition and have failed to do now you are in Government: how about you develop justice targets for closing the gap?

How about you take funding Family Violence Prevention Legal Services seriously?

How about you actually meet under COAG and put this on the table at COAG meetings?

We know that, in some parts of the country, Indigenous men are more likely to go to jail than to go to university.

We see that an Indigenous woman is 34 times more likely to be hospitalised by partner abuse than a non-Indigenous woman; an Indigenous adult is 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Indigenous adult; an Indigenous child is 24 times more likely to be in detention than a non-Indigenous child.

This is a national shame, a disgrace and a tragedy, and the Government is not taking it seriously.

The Government should also be doing something about the number of Indigenous kids who are more likely to be living not with their parents but in out-of-home care.

They are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous kids

We have tens of thousands of Indigenous kids across the country who are vulnerable and at risk in this area, and we need to establish a national target in relation to this issue.

The Government should be listening to SNAICC, the peak body that has been talking about this time and time again, but the Government is refusing to listen.

How about empowering Indigenous girls through education?

How about doing a Clontarf-type program for girls, like the Stars Foundation, and roll it out across the country?

Do you want good practice? Look at what they are doing in the Northern Territory.

Do you want to talk about best practice? Look at what the Institute of Urban Indigenous Health is doing with the Deadly Choices program in preventive health, in empowering young people and making them proud, and in supporting culture and community-controlled health services.

Look at what they are doing, do good practice and fund them. That is what the Government should be doing.

The Government should also be looking at doing something about glaucoma, which is a Third World problem that is still in Australia. They have to address that issue. Sure, Hugh Taylor and other people have been doing great work in that area, but we have to do so much more to address the fundamentals, the basics, of that. If you look at addressing those fundamentals, you will do better.

How about funding Indigenous education under the Gonski needs-based funding, which will help 195,000 Indigenous kids get the education they need? If you look at the fundamentals and the social and economic determinants, then you may close the gap.

Then the Government will have something to be proud of, and so will we as a country.