February 26, 2014
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (11:35): I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the annual statement on Closing the Gap and, in doing so, I commend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for the manner in which they have contributed to this debate. I also commend other members who have already spoken to the statement. The speeches in the House and in the Federation Chamber have demonstrated that there is bipartisan support to work with all levels of government and the community to address Aboriginal disadvantage in our nation.
It is worth noting this is the first time that Tony Abbott, as Prime Minister, has had the chance to report to parliament on the progress on achieving key targets relating to issues of life expectancy, mortality rates, early childhood education, reading, numeracy and writing, year 12 achievement and employment outcomes. In his speech, the Prime Minister indicated that the target to halve the gap in child mortality within a decade is on track to be met and that the target to have 95 per cent of remote children enrolled in preschool is already close to being met. We should soon know what percentage of preschoolers are actually attending as well as being just enrolled. The target to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020 is also on track. This is the good news, as the Prime Minister reported to the House.
The bad news is that there has been almost no progress in closing the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and other Australians, which still stands at about a decade. There has been very little improvement towards halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy. As for Indigenous employment, the Prime Minister reported that, if anything, it had slipped backwards over the past few years. We are not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful targets.
I recognise during the Prime Minister’s speech that he went on to propose a new target for our existing Closing the Gap targets, which is to help end the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years. This is a good initiative and it sends an important message to our community—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 11:37 to 11:44
Mr CHESTER: We need to improve the school attendance rate for Aboriginal children because we know that a good education is the key to a good job, and a good job is the key to economic independence and the freedom that it brings to our communities. As I have said before in this place, this is not the responsibility of governments alone. If the burden falls solely on the shoulders of MPs and public servants, it will surely end in failure. This is the joint responsibility of us all—black and white, young and old, schoolteachers, students and parents. From my personal experience, I fear that some parents in my community do not value education enough and their attitude flows through to their children. It is not just a problem for our Aboriginal children in Gippsland—we need to keep working to raise the aspirations of all children, particularly those from lower socioeconomic or disadvantaged backgrounds, and instil in them the importance of a good education.
Some of our schools, it must be said, are already working very hard and they are outstanding teachers who are making progress in embracing the Aboriginal students in our community, but I do believe others could do more. It is not always easy because some of the students do have significant behavioural issues which makes it easier for teachers if they actually do not attend and disrupt the class. I acknowledge that, but in the longer term we need to keep improving the attendance rate to give all students the opportunity to achieve their full potential. As the Prime Minister himself noted, there is enormous goodwill across the nation to achieve positive changes among our Indigenous communities.
There is no question there will be setbacks on the journey, and I would like to briefly mention one such setback today. In recent weeks in my community of Lakes Entrance there have been several incidents which are now in the hands of the local police. I will not speak on the details of the alleged assaults and thefts but I will acknowledge they have led to increased tension between some members of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in my town. But I believe we have the capacity to overcome these challenges. So much good work has already been done in recent times by our sporting and community groups to bring our communities together that we cannot allow isolated incidents like these to stop that progress. People have every right to be angry when crimes are committed, but I urge the community to let the police carry out their investigations and deal with any offenders. It is a difficult time for our community but we need to keep working together. There are many Aboriginal families who are equally hurt and frustrated by the alleged crimes and who do not deserve to be tarnished by the actions of others. We must not allow an even bigger gap to develop between Indigenous and non-Indigenous families in our community.
When I spoke on the Closing the Gap progress last year, I talked about the need to make a real difference in the lives of Aboriginal people throughout Australia, and I endorse the building blocks of Closing the Gap which have been supported through the COAG process. They are about early childhood development, schooling, health, economic participation, healthy homes, safe communities, and governance and leadership. We need to make sure that Aboriginal children are healthy from an early age to give them a good start in life so that, when they reach school, they are ready to learn. We need to help them and their families to value that education with the real prospect of a job at the end of their education and training pathways. As much as is humanly possible, we need to make sure that young people growing up in Aboriginal homes have a safe living environment, and there is a shared responsibility in providing such an environment. Governments cannot control what goes on in every home, every day and every night. Individuals need to take responsibility for their own actions and, in my community, I see many young and old leaders in the Aboriginal community who are leading by example. They are providing a safe home environment for their children and valuing education. They are keeping their families healthy and participating in community life. They are protecting and preserving their cultural heritage at the same time. There are so many success stories, and we need to reach out to those families and encourage them while also developing strategies and programs to help those who are not capable, for whatever reason, of caring for themselves.
I have spoken before about the gap in Aboriginal participation in the social and civic life of our communities. I fear that many white Australians would hardly know any Aboriginal people at all. Most of them would not have sat down and had a cup of coffee or shared a meal with an Aboriginal person. Most of us would claim to care about outcomes for Aboriginal people but, in our busy lives, I believe that most of us have never had the opportunity to really engage at a social level. We need to do more to break down those barriers which exist between black and white in our nation. It is terrific that we cheer for our Aboriginal athletes like Cathy Freeman and the new Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, but we need to do more in our daily lives to build strong relationships which can overcome setbacks, like the one I mentioned earlier in my own community.
I have been very fortunate in my life to have very close relationships with some Aboriginal people through my family ties. That has helped me to be better informed on issues and shaped my attitude towards public policies in this area. The grand speeches are undoubtedly important because they send the message that the government and the nation is keen to help and cares about these issues, but I still believe it is the little things—the practical steps on the ground in our communities—that will make a real difference in the longer term. For example, I hade the opportunity last year of coaching an under-13 football team in Lakes Entrance. As a football coach, I am a true member of parliament—I think we won one game for the year. But it was good to have the opportunity to have several Aboriginal boys in our team. It was good for them, because they got to be involved, and also good for the other boys in the team to play alongside them because it helped break down some of the social barriers which exist. Now when I see those boys down the street in Lakes Entrance I can say g’day to them and ask them about their day, and I hope they do not see a white bloke in a suit asking them questions, giving them a hard time or checking up on them. I hope they see a dad who has boys the same age and who is actually interested in them and their lives. It is little things like that which can help break down the barriers I refer to. I am looking forward to watching those young boys progress in our community not just in sport but also in their education, and in their community and working lives. This is a gap I believe we can all help to address in our daily lives through friendship and goodwill, and I am convinced that every small step along this path will pay huge dividends in the future. By building up mutual respect and encouraging greater participation in all aspects of community life, we can make a real difference in the outcomes for Aboriginal children.
In closing, I want to briefly touch on my role as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence and highlight the efforts that have been made in Defence to support Indigenous communities. I believe there are huge opportunities within Defence to improve employment outcomes, in particular, for Indigenous Australians. As one of the largest employers in the nation, with 100,000 personnel in the Australian Defence Force and associated Public Service roles, Defence has a target of increasing its Indigenous representation from the current 1.2 per cent to 2.7 per cent. The former government’s Defence white paper identified Indigenous affairs as an area of focus for Defence, and in my meetings with Defence personnel over the last six months I have continually reminded them of the need to achieve those employment targets. Senior Indigenous advisers have been appointed and efforts are being made to market Defence as an employer of choice among Indigenous communities. But, as we have Indigenous representation of 1.2 per cent currently, in comparison to the Indigenous community of 2.4 per cent of the total Australian population, you can see we still have a long way to go in achieving those targets. The engagement which is occurring now is important, along with recognising the often underrated role Indigenous people have played in the ADF throughout its history.
I believe there are real opportunities for Defence. Defence has come a long way in working to recognise the role of Indigenous people in the Australian Defence Force history, through participation now in Anzac Day ceremonies, through NAIDOC Week and through other dates of local and national significance. In Northern Australia, in particular, the Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units are engaging with remote Indigenous communities. As a side issue, I note that many members of this House have volunteered to participate in the Indigenous elements of this year’s Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. Announcements in relation to those deployments will be made in the near future. It is very pleasing to see the number of members and senators who chose to participate in either the community program or the Regional Force Surveillance Units. Again, it is a small step but it is a practical step towards improving our understanding as MPs. It also helps to build respect in those communities and respect among MPs. I am also looking forward to participating in the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program later in the year, around September.
Our nation is on a journey when it comes to Closing the Gap initiatives. For as long as we continue to experience unacceptable rates of violence and substance abuse or poor participation rates in paid employment and health outcomes, which are still well below the national standard, we know we still have a long way to go on this journey. But progress is being made, and there are people in this place, on both sides of the chamber, who are working very constructively on these issues. We must continue to strive to work together at all times for the benefit of current and future generations.
I thank the House.