Statement on Closing the Gap: Tony Abbott





I rise with pride to follow the Prime Minister on this occasion and I do congratulate her on a fine speech. And may I say, Mr Speaker, that it is on occasions such as this that our Parliament is at its best because we are discussing a noble objective on which we are all ... agreed. So, I congratulate the Prime Minister. I congratulate the former Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, for his role and his work. The historic apology was a very significant milestone in our national life and it is appropriate that we remember that on a day such as this.

It was gracious of the Prime Minister to also acknowledge her predecessor but one, Prime Minister Howard, and his commitment to the cause of constitutional recognition of indigenous people. Prime Minister Howard had a long personal journey when it came to indigenous issues. It was a difficult journey in some ways for him. One of the best speeches he ever gave, Mr Speaker, was that to the Sydney Institute in I think October of 2007, where he spoke of his personal journey on indigenous issues. We are all on a personal journey when it comes to this subject, Mr Speaker, but I think I can say this; that for quite some time now there has been a new spirit, a new spirit of appreciation and engagement of Aboriginal people on the part of the leaders of our country. When we are dealing with indigenous issues, we do not think of ourselves anymore as solving problems, we think of ourselves as building a nation and that is what we do today when we consider how we can better and further close the gap.

I want to thank, Mr Speaker, all of the people who have helped me on my personal journey to better understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal issues and Aboriginal people. I particularly want to thank my friend Noel Pearson for the miles that he has walked with me, literally, as well as metaphorically, towards this great goal. I thank Warren Mundine. I don’t agree with all of Warren Mundine's positions, but nevertheless, he is a great Australian who has been very gracious and he has been very appreciative of work that we have done as well as work that his own party has done towards this great goal. I also want to thank today people like Mick Gooda and Sue Gordon. I want to particularly thank those latter two for the support they gave me just a couple of weeks ago when we had a difficult situation which involved both me and the Prime Minister.

Can I, Mr Speaker, remind the House of what I think was perhaps the most lapidary remark of the former Prime Minister in his apology: 'unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.' A resonant statement. It should be a resonant statement, evocative as it is, not just of the great issue before us, but of our great heritage of love and of reaching out to people. We must always remember that: unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

The Prime Minister has given us some very encouraging statistics today. There is much to be grateful for. There is much to take satisfaction in. There is much to be proud of in what the Prime Minister has told us today. And I do not want to quibble, Mr Speaker, because I know that, were I in her position, I would be recounting similar statistics to the House. They are important. And yet, Mr Speaker, so often when we look at the statistics, when we hear the statistics there is a nagging sense that they can obscure as much as they reveal. So often the statistics are a record of what government is doing, rather than a record of how people are living. It is excellent, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government that we are moving towards halving the gap in so many of these areas, but a gap which has been halved is not a gap which has been closed and, in the end, it is not good enough merely to halve the gap – we have to close the gap.

It was very encouraging, Mr Speaker, to hear the Prime Minister tell us that access to preschool for all four-year-olds living in remote communities would be achieved next year – remarkable, remarkable, wonderful, praiseworthy – and yet it’s one thing for people living in these communities to have access to preschool for their four-year-olds; it is another thing to ensure that all the youngsters are attending preschool. This is the big challenge and this, if I may say so Mr Speaker, is the real test of whether we are building civil society in the remote indigenous communities of our country.

So often when we hear the official reports we know the effort that officials are making. We feel a palpable sense of the goodwill behind these reports and yet we don’t get a sense that individual lives are improving and that communities are flourishing. We know there are better resourced schools in remote Aboriginal communities, but we can’t be sure that Aboriginal children are really better-reading, better-counting, are really more familiar with what they need to know in order to be first-class Australians in the modern world.

We know that much money is being spent, that much effort is being expended to provide better housing in remote indigenous communities. But can we be sure that these houses are more cherished by their current occupants than the poorer houses of a generation ago were by theirs? We know that much good work is being done in the area of indigenous employment – and I thank and acknowledge people such as Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest and Dick Estens for the work they have done in this area – but still there is not nearly enough indigenous employment in the real economy as opposed to indigenous employment in Aboriginal organisations and in the governmental sector.

You see, all of us – every Australian and every human being – wants to be able to think that his or her life has been at least as good as the lives of his or her parents and that the lives of his or her children will be better than the life that he or she has led. How many Aboriginal people can honestly say today that their life has been better than that of their parents? How many Aboriginal people can honestly say, as they look at their kids, that they are confident that they will have a better life – a life of more self-respect, a life of more fulfilment – than they themselves have had? These are the challenges before us, Mr Speaker, and again I commend the Prime Minister, I commend all Members of this House for the diligence and the goodwill that they bring to these issues. But I do think there is still a long journey for all of us to make.

The statistics are important and it is good that the statistics are more sophisticated than they were; that ever more effort is being put into their accurate collation of these statistics, but sometimes I think that the official statistics can overcomplicate things and again, Mr Speaker, I have said it to this House on previous occasions, but it is worth repeating – and I will repeat it whenever I get the opportunity – there are simpler, easier-to-collect statistics than those which the official statistician labours over which I think would give us a truer picture of the real state of indigenous society, particularly in remote communities.

How many children are attending school every day? It should be 100 per cent, or near enough to it, and yet we know that it is not. And yet there is no reason why that roll could not be called a couple of times during the school day, and we know there is no reason why, in each indigenous school right around the country, those statistics could not be published on a month-by-month basis so that we know exactly what is happening in that school because exactly what is happening in that school is a microcosm of what is happening in that community.

We know, Mr Speaker, despite all the good intentions, despite all the declarations, that very many indigenous people don’t attend employment programmes. We know that because we go to indigenous communities, Members of this Parliament and we see the number of youngsters and adults who are plainly not engaged in school or work in the middle of the day. Why couldn’t the statistics be published on a week-by-week basis of precisely how many people have been attending work programmes in remote indigenous communities? Again, that would give us a truer snapshot of the real life of these communities than the more elaborate statistics with which the statistician busies himself.

Finally, Mr Speaker, we all know that in happy communities the trauma that presents to the clinic is normally the result of something that might have happened in a football match or something that might have happened while mustering stock, and yet we also know that much of the trauma that presents to clinics in remote areas, is the result of various forms of domestic violence. This statistic, too, should be collated on a week-by-week, month-by-month basis and it should be published because these are the statistics which would tell us what is really happening in these communities and so I would very much commend to the Government this proposal of mine, that in addition to the statistics that the Prime Minister referred to, these simple, easy to gather statistics on school attendance, on work attendance and on trauma presentation, community by community, be collected and published on a regular basis.

I know what these communities are like, Mr Speaker. I haven’t lived there. I haven’t stayed there as much as I would have liked, but nevertheless I have spent enough time in the remote places of our country to know what they are like and I know that if there is an all-night party, as there often is, the adults do not get up to go to work, and if the adults do not get up to go to work, the children do not get up to go to school and if the adults do not work and the children do not learn, we will never close the gap, we will never close the gap – that’s why there is more, much more that can be done.

As I said, Mr Speaker, we know that by dint of vast efforts by government, superhuman efforts by individuals, that better services are being delivered in the Aboriginal communities of our country – but we cannot be sure, as yet, that a better life is being enjoyed by Aboriginal Australians. Real change, Mr Speaker, does not happen in this Parliament – although sometimes it might start here, sometimes it might be reflected here – real change begins in the places where people live. I would again say to the Parliament what I said this time last year: that we should try, as far as we can, within the limitations of our official lives, to be more engaged with the real life of Aboriginal people. I have had the privilege of spending some longer periods of time in some of the remote communities of Cape York, in Coen and in Aurukun, and last year Noel Pearson took me to some of his sacred country and I then spent a couple of days helping with a building project not far from Hopevale.

All of us are different. All of us have different demands on our time but the more this kind of thing can be done, the better for policy-making; the better for the quality of government when it comes to Aboriginal people. I say to the Parliament that should I become Prime Minister, it is my firm intention, my commitment, to spend at least a week every year in a remote indigenous community with officials – because it is not enough for the politicians to become more familiar with the real life of these places – the officials, upon whom so much depends, also need to become more familiar with the real life of these places. If it is good enough for the Aboriginal people of Australia to live in these remote communities, it ought to be good enough for the Prime Minister and other members of the government to stay there.

We can never forget the importance of good governance in remote Australia. Some people, such as my friend and distinguished former colleague Fred Chaney, go so far as to say that remote Australia is a local version of a failed state because of the problems of governance in these places. Not only do we have the usual at times not always well-coordinated efforts of state and federal government, but we have extra issues of governance with land councils, and then we have all of the non-government organisations doing good work, but so often they are falling over themselves when attempting to deal with problems. So, the result is that in remote areas we often have the most governed but least efficient communities in the country. This is a very serious issue and it does need to be tackled.

Mr Speaker, at the risk of straying into partisanship, I think I do need to raise today the issue of the wild rivers legislation, which has now been before this House for the best part of three years, one way or another. It is a modest bill, the wild rivers bill, that I have now put it several times before this Parliament. All the wild rivers bill seeks to do is ensure that Queensland wild rivers declarations can only apply with the consent of the traditional Aboriginal owners. I am not against wild rivers declarations. I accept that where the traditional owners want them, they should apply. But if indigenous people are really to be in control of their own land, if they are to enjoy genuine land rights, surely this is not too much to ask. Yet this modest bill of mine, which has but a couple of operative clauses and which runs to less than nine pages, has now been subject to no fewer than five inquiries by committees of this House or the other place. This modest bill is so inquired into that you cannot but conclude that those who control this Parliament are not trying to analyse it, they are trying to bury it. I fear that it will be up to a new government in Queensland to rectify the pusillanimity of this House when it comes to restoring indigenous rights in this important way.

Finally, let me turn to the proposal for constitutional recognition of indigenous people – a bipartisan objective. I should say that the Coalition has a good history here. Whatever faults we may have in this area, whatever mistakes we may have made in the past, the Coalition has a proud history when it comes to efforts to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution, starting with the proposed preamble that was put to the people back in 1999 and continuing with the former Prime Minister's efforts that the Prime Minister has mentioned earlier today. I devoutly hope that we can bring this to pass, but it does have to be a unifying moment for our country. What we have to try to do is recreate the fervour and the sense of unity that was captured in the 1967 constitutional change.

To succeed, any constitutional change in this area has to be completing our Constitution rather than changing it. People have to sense that this is unfinished business that is being addressed rather than a new Constitution that is being created. I applaud the work of the expert committee, with which I have had much discussion, but I do think their recommendations are the first word rather than the last word in what should ultimately be put to the people.

Whatever differences the Prime Minister and I might have, whatever differences other members of her front bench and I might have, I will work as constructively as I humanly can – and I know members of the Coalition will work as constructively as we humanly can – to try to get a proposal that can bring us together. We will not be taking a lowest-common-denominator approach to this. We will not be saying what is the least that people will accept. We will be trying to adopt a highest-common-factor approach to this. What is the best that can be achieved at this time? What can be achieved at this time that future generations can look back on with pride and say: “This generation has genuinely advanced our country?”

So, what we need, Mr Speaker, in conclusion, are more meaningful statistics about the real life of the Aboriginal people in this country, more meaningful engagement between Aboriginal people and all levels of government and meaningful action in this Parliament to match the marvellous and uplifting words which are so often spoken in this place. That is what will lead to real reconciliation. That is what we need in order to make our country whole. If we do all that, maybe the time will come when we no longer have to need Closing the Gap statements, because the gap will indeed have been closed and this country will be everything of which it is capable.

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