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Mr CHESTER  (Gippsland—Assistant Minister for Defence) (11:28): It is with great pleasure that I join the debate in relation to the 2016 Closing the Gap report. In doing so, I would like to acknowledge the largely bipartisan manner in which members have made contributions to the issue of closing the gap, not only this year but in previous years. I would like to commend the Prime Minister and also the Leader of the Opposition on their contributions to the House in that regard.

The Australian government—like the opposition, I am sure—is committed to closing the gap. This Closing the Gap report for 2016 shows that some progress has been made on targets, but progress has been mixed. There have been some significant gains in recent decades in some regards but other areas where there is still a lot more work to be done.

This year the report showcases examples of significant success for the Australian government and the Indigenous community in relation to health, education, employment and economic development for people right across the nation. It demonstrates, as the Prime Minister indicated yesterday, that partnerships between government, business, individuals and communities right across Australia are essential to yielding positive results for Indigenous people. For its part, the Australian government will continue to focus on the key areas of health, education, employment, economic development and community safety and will seek to work very closely with our state and territory governments, our local governments and our broader communities on achieving progress in relation to closing the gap.

I would like to go through some of the key targets and report on some of the progress in relation to the Closing the Gap initiatives. The target of halving the gap in Indigenous child mortality by 2018 is on track, which is positive news. The Indigenous infant mortality rate has more than halved over the past 16 years. The actions we are going to see from the government into the future will assist in continuing to achieve that target. We know the best start in life comes from effective prenatal and postnatal care, parent and family programs and support for vulnerable children. The government has invested $94 million over three years from 2015-16 on the Better Start to Life approach, which increases access to child and maternal health services.

Deputy Speaker Irons, as you would know coming from the great state of Western Australia, providing for a healthy start in life is the very first step on the journey to a good education for our young Indigenous people and young Indigenous families. Without a health start in life young people, young Indigenous people in particular, will turn up to our early child care, our early child education or our primary schools unprepared for the education journey. From my own perspective, my wife works as a teachers aid at a primary school in Lakes Entrance where we have many young Indigenous children come to our school. She is constantly working with those children to ensure they are in a position to take full advantage of the education experience which is available to them. Early health education—making sure that children are avoiding ear infections and are treated when required and that any eyesight issues are treated as required—ensures that these young children are in a position to learn when they reach our school classrooms.

The other target I want to mention briefly is the target of 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds being enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. Since 2008 more than $2.8 billion has been made available to state and territory governments to increase participation in early childhood education programs. Over the next four years the government will invest around $40 billion on childcare support through the Jobs for Families Child Care Package. Obviously, our Indigenous children will share in the benefits of that program.

The closing the gap school attendance target set for 2018 is not on track. That is alarming and should alarm all members of this place. Progress will need to be made to accelerate our efforts in this regard for the target to be met. In my home town the local secondary college has been very creative and innovative in the way it has endeavoured to make sure its secondary school curriculum is relevant and attractive to young Indigenous students. One of the challenges we face is that, for many of our young Indigenous children in the Gippsland region, their own parents’ experience of education has not been an enjoyable one. So these young Indigenous children may not necessarily value education themselves, as their parents are not necessarily passing down to their own children any great joy for the education system, and that is a challenge for us. We need to reinvigorate enthusiasm amongst our young Indigenous students—particularly in those early years of secondary college—and make sure that they understand there is a pathway for them through education into further training and into the workforce in the future. While there is a sizable gap remaining in school attendance, there is an enormous challenge for the state and federal governments to continue to work in partnership to reduce that gap.

The target of halving the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020 is actually on track, which is positive news. Over the long term there have been improvements in apparent retention rates to year 12 for Indigenous students, up from 32 per cent in the late 1990s to 60 per cent in 2014, and that is important. We know in the 21st century that young people need to do well at school. They need to get as far as they can with their education, whether it is through the VCAL or the VCE programs in the Victorian education system. As I said earlier, setting them on their education journey begins with getting them ready for preschool and the early years of primary school; supporting not only the young individuals themselves but also their families; and giving them a pathway or a vision of what the future may hold for them—giving them hope that, at the end of this education journey, there is the opportunity for economic independence, and that economic independence comes with the prospect of a job at the end of their education or training. When we talk about employment, the simple fact is that we are not getting enough Indigenous young people into either casual, part-time or full-time employment. The target is not on track.

I would like to talk briefly about the role the Australian Defence Force is playing in helping young Indigenous people achieve employment within the ADF. Indigenous people have a long and proud history of contributing to the defence of Australia. Although often an ignored part of our culture in the past, there are remedies at play at the moment to make sure that the involvement of Indigenous members in the Australian Defence Force is well recognised in all of the events of the Centenary of Anzac and the centenary of World War I. It is such an important part of those commemoratives events.

The Australian Defence Force has made some headway in regard to ADF Indigenous employment. Our numbers are currently 1.5 per cent—up from 1.3 per cent in August 2013. Within the Australian Public Service, Indigenous employment is moving well. It is up from 0.8 per cent in August 2013 to 1.4 per cent.

Defence is working towards an Indigenous workforce employment target of 2.7 per cent, which is higher than that recommended by the Australian Public Service Commission of 2.5 per cent. I have had meetings with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Parliamentary Secretary Alan Tudge, who are both very keen to see how the Australian Defence Force can play a significant role in helping with Indigenous employment issues.

One of the challenges is making sure that young Indigenous people are ready when they turn up to apply to join the Defence Force. I would like to acknowledge the work done by the ADF with its pre-employment courses in making sure Indigenous Australians have a capacity to meet the entry standards of the ADF. The Australian Defence Force cannot lower their standards if someone has a lower education than necessary, but they can work with the young Indigenous person to increase their capacity to meet the ADF standards. These courses focus on some of the key fundamentals, as you would expect, like language, literacy and numeracy skills, fitness, life skills, military skills and both Indigenous and military culture.

There is a very positive story to be told by the Australian Defence Force, and I intend to tell it more often in the future—about the way the ADF is working with Indigenous communities to try and make sure that young Indigenous people have the opportunity to take that first step within the ADF, whether it is in the Army, Navy or Air Force, but then also progress through the ranks and have that opportunity to reach higher ranks and excel in their chosen field.

I would like to congratulate the department’s staff and the ADF personnel who are working in this regard and their efforts to support Defence’s targets in relation to Indigenous employment with genuine practical activity to achieve the steady growth that is required. There are a number of different programs that have been deployed through the Australian Defence Force, and they will continue to be deployed in the years ahead. I congratulate everyone involved in those programs.

Finally, in my community of Gippsland we are working well in a range of fields to try and close the gap in health, education and employment—and we continue to make progress. But, as I have said before, we in this place need to commit ourselves to always doing better in the future. We need to do better as a parliament, as a nation and as local communities.

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