Closing the Gap Report 2015 - Speech to Parliament

I start my contribution by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the traditional owners of this land, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.I rise to make a brief contribution to the Closing the gap: Prime Minister's report 2015. In starting my contribution, I will reflect very briefly on the closing remarks of the previous speaker where he talked about bipartisanship. We are here to debate some bipartisan goals, but those goals and the fact that they are shared across this parliament should not obscure the real issues that we must consider that go to how we achieve these goals, and the role of government, whether it is a matter of leadership or investment. These are some matters that I will touch on in my contribution to this debate.

 

On that note, I was pleased and proud to be in the chamber for the full duration of the Leader of Opposition's contribution to this debate in which he starkly illustrated the challenges for all of us set out in this report. It was a compelling speech, and I hope that I and others in this chamber, on the government side as well as this side, will respond to the challenge it sets for all of us to make real the aspirations that we all sincerely share to close the gap.

This year's report tells us many things that are troubling and concerning. It finds that we are not on track in so many respects to closing the gap on a series of targets, including the gap in life expectancy within a generation; the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for Indigenous students; and the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is plain that we have not done enough to meet the standards we have set and which we simply must meet to do justice to the Australia we wish to see.

I also note, in particular, that the target of ensuring access for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities to early childhood education by 2013 has still not been met. This is despite last year's Closing the Gap report showing good progress towards this target. Instead, this year's report shows that we have slipped backwards with only 85 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early education.

This takes me to an issue that is very important to the Scullin electorate and one that I am passionate about. Last year when I spoke on the Closing the Gap report for 2014, I spent a large part of my contribution speaking about Bubup Wilam for Early Learning: Aboriginal Children and Family Centre.

This centre is one of 34 centres around Australia established and funded under national partnerships initiated by the former Labor government. Labor established these centres, because we recognise the importance of early learning for all children, but particularly for children in Indigenous communities both remotely and in metropolitan areas.

Bubup Wilam remains an important and integral part of the Scullin electorate. I am continually inspired by the work of Lisa Thorpe, the CEO; her dedicated staff; the board; and all the community members and family who are associated with it.

Last year when I spoke, its funding was under threat from this government; now that funding has been cut and the centre is currently running down its savings. It is in every sense an unsustainable position for the centre and the 70 families it services.

I have made frequent representations to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in this place and his former Victorian coalition counterparts. Neither were keen to offer anything by the way of support, much less solution. In contrast, I note the visits to the centre by the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten, Senator Peris and the member for Blair, the shadow minister, which have done much to provide a firsthand demonstration of the valuable contribution this centre makes to the community, and I hope the future Prime Minister and Minister for Indigenous Affairs, respectively.

I have also been pleased with the response from the new Labor government in Victoria, particularly from Minister Mikakos. I know that she will do everything she can to ensure the ongoing viability of Bubup Wilam. But it is unlikely the Victorian government can do this on its own. Bubup Wilam has always been a shared responsibility between all levels of government.

In government, Labor listened to the experts, recognised the problem and, with facilities like Bubup Wilam, acted to address them. The Abbott government has acted but, unfortunately, in exactly the wrong way. The link to quality early childhood education and better outcomes later on in life, particularly for those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, is beyond dispute. I note that these outcomes are also targets mentioned in the Closing the Gap reports.

The Leader of the Opposition was right in telling truths uncomfortable for this government—uncomfortable perhaps for many of us—that, if we are serious about closing the gap, we cannot ignore the cause and effect of cutting funding to places like Bubup Wilam and the disadvantage it will engender and perpetuate.

It is all too easy for the Prime Minister to talk the talk about being the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, but it is another thing entirely to walk the walk. Australia simply cannot cut its way to closing the gap. More investment is required if we are to make good on the promises we have made in this place, and so I call on this government to reverse its cuts to Bubup Wilam and the other children and family centres.


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