Closing the gap report 2014

I thank the opposition for their assistance in this matter. In this discussion on Aboriginal disadvantage, I would like to acquaint the House with the Noongar people of the south-west of Western Australia. At the time of European settlement of the area there were between 6,000 and 10,000 Noongar people living in the south-west, in a region roughly south and west of a line from Jurien Bay, about 200 kilometres north of Perth to Esperance, which is 800 kilometres south-east of Perth. This includes the Perth metropolitan region, an entire south-west land division. Evidence suggests that they have been living in that area for at least 45,000 years. Today around 30,000 people living in the region claim Noongar heritage, making this grouping the largest Aboriginal language group in Australia. Around 10 per cent of these live in my electorate.

In the Forrest electorate the Noongar language grouping is split into two groups, in geographical terms by the Capel River. North of this is the traditional home of the Pindjarup and, south, predominantly the Wardandi. It is also one of the most urbanised areas, with the majority living in the Perth metropolitan region. As we know, the Noongar community has produced some of AFL’s best footballers, such as the Matera brothers from the West Coast Eagles and Stephen Hill from the Dockers.

Today around a third of the AFL’s Indigenous players across Australia are Noongar. This is a group of Australians with a proud history and a strong culture. It is also a group that works to encourage and support their people. For example, the South West Aboriginal Medical Service, based in Bunbury, also provides an outreach service in regional centres like Collie. It is really critical that the AMS get out to these small communities.

The Noongar community have actively targeted education as a key priority and I commend them for that. They have seen marked improvements in graduation rates at both the secondary and tertiary levels. That is exactly what we need to see and that is their intention. Of course, there is still much more to do in terms of closing the gap for the Noongar community, but I am really encouraged, as they would be, by what is in place.

Members should note that the term ‘Noongar’, although often seen spelled in different ways, means ‘the people’—or, perhaps more literally, human being. This is similar to many other Indigenous populations around the globe whose name for themselves means the equivalent of ‘the people’. The Noongar community is a great reminder to us all that we are not dealing with a language group; we are talking about human beings. Too often in discussions we can fall into the trap of generalisation and we can talk about them as a group rather than individuals with dreams, hope and aspirations.

It is not difficult to understand why, as so many Australians do not even know an Aboriginal person. So perhaps they have no individual experience to call upon. For many, the only experience they have of an individual Aboriginal person is on television, where they sometimes see and hear messages that are not always a positive experience. So it is most appropriate that the word ‘Noongar’ be remembered in this debate and that the focus should be on providing opportunities for individuals and families. In doing so, we can raise the level of the debate and focus on improving health, education and employment opportunities for individual Aboriginal people throughout this nation through their individual empowerment—for it is these three things that will drive the future of the next generation of Aboriginal and Noongar communities.

Of these, for me perhaps the greatest need is education. The rate of Aboriginal students attending and graduating not only high school but also tertiary education has to be lifted yet again. I was at an ECU graduation in my electorate recently and one of the teachers came and saw me afterwards and said, ‘We need to make sure we have more young Aboriginal people graduating as well,’ and I support that. We know that through education come greater job choice, greater job satisfaction and greater job security. This rule applies to us all, including Aboriginal people—and, like us all, having meaningful employment is ultimately tied to our self-esteem and self-worth.

We have seen the government engaging with leaders of the Aboriginal community, like Warren Mundine, who want to step away from welfare and sit-down money and instead focus on step-up money—stepping up to education and employment and self-empowerment and self-determination. On these issues, the Prime Minister is to be congratulated for his leadership and his genuine and heartfelt commitment to the Aboriginal community. Surely even his fiercest critics have no choice but to endorse this.

The Prime Minister has also moved away from a range of issues in the Aboriginal engagement. By personal demonstration, Tony Abbott has demonstrated his long-term commitment to improving outcomes for Aboriginal people. I am looking forward to seeing what the Prime Minister will do in this area over the coming years, because this new focus on personal empowerment has so much potential. It was good to hear in his statement that Australia is on track to achieve some of the Closing the Gap targets. It is a good thing that the target to halve the gap in child mortality within a decade is on track to be met.

On a personal level, I was pleased to be informed that we are already close to meeting the target to have 95 per cent of remote children enrolled for preschool. In this, as in so many other areas, the work continues. Surely the first step is to know what percentage is actually attending as well as just enrolled. Again, this knowledge should soon become available. Of course, getting Aboriginal children to start their education journey is important—but, surely, our target is to get them to the end of it. To this end, to be told that the target to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020 is also on track to be met is great and welcome news.

I, like I am sure all members, am saddened that Indigenous employment has not progressed and may, in fact, have worsened. This needs to change, but surely education is the key to better employment outcomes. So it is my fervent hope that the small but stepped changes we are seeing in education will bear fruit in employment. It may well be a slow process and perhaps a generational change, but we start by getting children into school and we address the outcomes of schooling. To date, there has been very little improvement towards halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy and this needs to change as quickly as possible. In his address, the Prime Minister said:

We are all passionate to close the gap, but we may, I fear, be doomed to fail until we achieve the most basic target of all: the expectation that every child will attend school every day.

These are wise words, but we need to go further. School attendance is not enough by itself because it is the outcome of learning that is the key. This is the true measure, as the Prime Minister has said: how many Aboriginal people graduate from high school and tertiary courses as individuals with high levels of literacy and numeracy skills, because this will lead to employment and from employment should stem a range of other benefits.

To date there has been almost no progress in closing the life-expectancy gap between Aboriginal and other Australians, which is still about a decade. In my view education outcomes lead to employment outcomes, which lead to self-esteem outcomes, which lead to health outcomes. As the report on Closing the Gap shows, there is no quick fix by jumping straight to health without addressing the things that impact on it.

The coalition government proposes to add a new target to Closing the Gap targets to end the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years. Right around the country, it should be possible to be proudly Aboriginal and a full participant in modern Australia. I want to commend a little school in my electorate, Harvey Primary School, that has really made an improvement in its attendance, in the past 12 months in particular, through its own resources.

Every state and territory has agreed with the Commonwealth on the need to publish attendance data for every school. At 40 remote schools, the Commonwealth is already funding new anti-truancy measures that, on day one of the 2014 school year in some communities, seem to have boosted attendance from under 60 per cent to over 90 per cent.

It has often been repeated that history judges a nation by how it treats its most vulnerable members, and history is watching our actions closely. Let us let self-empowerment through education be the legacy we leave on this issue.