National Reconciliation Week - speech in Parliament

Mr GILES (Scullin) (21:18): I rise this evening to acknowledge National Sorry Day, which occurred yesterday, and National Reconciliation Week. Unfortunately, I could not be at yesterday's unveiling of the City of Whittlesea's Sorry Day Space, a community reflective space dedicated to members of the stolen generations and the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri-willam people. Donna Wright of the City of Whittlesea and the Whittlesea Reconciliation Group deserve much credit for organising this important powerful event.

That events like this occur is a heartening sign of progress that has been made in this area. It was not always so of course, nor was it inevitable that we would be able to acknowledge past wrongs. The road to reconciliation is a long one and we have some way to go. Progress can feel like a long time coming and sometimes like it may never be coming at all, but I am very proud to be a member of the same Labor Party as Whitlam, Keating and Rudd, all of whom in their own ways led this country along the path of reconciliation.

In 1975, Gough Whitlam returned traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people, bringing an end to their long struggle to reclaim their traditional country. In 1993, Paul Keating transformed the national conversation with his Redfern speech, and in 2008 Kevin Rudd of course gave the National Apology in this parliament. The Rudd government also initiated the Closing the Gap strategy which committed state, territory and Commonwealth governments to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. Recently in this place, I and others welcomed the Prime Minister's claim of support for these targets and in particular his remarks in response to the Closing the Gap report released in February this year. It is important that whichever party is in power, the Prime Minister of the day plays a leadership role in advancing the cause of Indigenous Australians. It is important because, as I said earlier, there is much to be done.

The most recent Closing the Gap report found 'no improvement in Indigenous school attendance over five years', and that 'existing strategies are having no overall impact on school attendance'. The report also found no progress on the employment target and that, while Indigenous life expectancy has improved, the pace of change is far too slow to close the gap by 2031. There were signs of hope including that the target of halving the gap in child mortality within a decade is on track to be met, as is the target to halve the gap for Indigenous people aged 20 to 24 in year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020. NAPLAN results indicated that progress is being made in the area of education, although the lack of progress in remote areas remains troubling.

In light of this report, and like many other Australians, I watched with dismay as this government delivered its budget where it failed to commit funding to continue the work of previous Labor governments, by cutting $534 million from Indigenous programs with no detail as to where the axe will fall. The Deputy Chairman of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, Dr Ngiare Brown, has denounced these cuts, saying she was concerned that 'there are actually going to be cuts to frontline services, which we were promised would absolutely not be the case'.

The government is also axing the Council of Australian Governments' Reform Council, which collects data to check if states, territories and the Commonwealth are meeting agreed targets. Aboriginal and Tones Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, raised his concerns about this saying:

If we don't have decisions made on the basis of the best evidence that we have available to us, we ... might as well be just making up things on the back of beer coasters again.

Last week, the COAG council released its final report, and this indicated that after five years of government spending on Closing the Gap, there have been gains in education but the unemployment divide continues to get wider.

I like to think that we all know how important the early years are in childhood education, for individuals and society generally. It is an investment in our people and in our future. In the Scullin electorate, we are very lucky to have Bubup Wilam, an early learning centre established under the Indigenous Childhood National Partnership Agreements as part of the Closing the Gap agenda. This centre operates at its capacity enrolment of 74 children. The centre's community-run structure and ethos are integral to its success in providing support to local families in Melbourne's north, and a real sense of social and cultural connectedness.

Bubup Wilam is rated as meeting National Quality Standards, and exceeds these standards in many areas. Lisa Thorpe, the CEO is doing fantastic work I am so proud of Bubup Wilam's achievements. It is a success story this government should be seeking to emulate. But given the cuts to the Indigenous portfolio in the budget, this centre and the families and community it services are under threat.

Bubup Wilam contributes to advancing the worthy goals—the bipartisan goals—contained in the Closing the Gap report. I have written to the Victorian and Commonwealth ministers, highlighting this issue and pleading with them to continue funding this vital community service. To date, I have received no response.

The families and community who rely on this centre have in effect been told to sit tight and wait from between six to twelve months. This is not good enough, and it is not helping to close the gap in Melbourne's north.

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