I appreciate this opportunity to make some remarks in relation to the Ministerial Statement on Closing the Gap.
I would argue that Indigenous reconciliation remains the greatest piece of unfinished business in our nation today. Sure we have issues right now with the coronavirus, but we’ll work our way through the pandemic in months or perhaps a few years time. But Indigenous disadvantage in this nation has taken us decades to confront—to even admit to it—and it has proved to be an incredibly difficult area of public policy to resolve; we just heard from the previous speaker, the member for Solomon, about some of the challenges we continue to face. We’re making progress, but there’s so much more work to do.
The Closing the Gap Implementation Plan sets a foundation for the Commonwealth’s efforts in achieving the targets in the national agreement over the coming decade, and I want to commend the minister, who I regard as a personal friend, for the work he has done and the work that he is doing in this portfolio. He is making a difference on the ground.
The plan does provide an overview of the Commonwealth’s existing actions that will contribute to closing the gap, as well as new investment and future areas of work. It is a whole-of-government plan which has been developed across the Commonwealth and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners—in particular, the Coalition of Peaks. It does show that the Commonwealth is serious about delivering on the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. As I said, there is more work to do to achieve the outcomes and targets in the national agreement and to embed the priority reforms across the Commonwealth. The plan is welcomed. It provides a path and a set of actions to achieve these outcomes and it will allow the Commonwealth to review and improve its approach to achieve these goals over time.
But governments can’t achieve the change we need in isolation. This has to be a partnership with our communities and it must include every Australian. I will repeat my comment from the outset: this is the greatest piece of unfinished business in our nation today. I believe, and I hope, that Australia is not an inherently racist country, but there’s no question that racism exists in our nation. Whether it’s through intolerance, through self-interest, through fear or through a lack of respect or understanding, we know racism does exist and we need to be eternally vigilant. We need to call it out and we need to commit ourselves to educating ourselves and to be better every day. And we need to understand that even comments that were once made in jest and which once may have seemed funny are comments that today would be seen to be ignorant, and that unintended remarks that were never intended to cause offence can cause offence and can cause harm. This is a journey that I think we’re all on: we need to understand that the generational damage we’ve experienced in Australia will need generational change.
Today I was viewing an interview that Australian football champion Eddie Betts had given on one of the television talk shows in relation to a much-publicised case in the last 10 days involving an Adelaide Crows footballer who had racially vilified a teammate. In his comments to the panel, Eddie said, ‘You’ve got to call out racism when you see it; there’s no room for racism in Australia.’ That’s patently self obvious to us, but why is Eddie Betts having to make those comments again today?
Racial vilification has been identified, sadly, through many high-profile sportspeople just in my lifetime. When you think about the AFL, there is the historic moment of Nicky Winmar pulling up his shirt and pointing to his skin, Michael Long and the Long Walk, and Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin from the Sydney Swans. It staggers me that, in this day and age, one of the most gifted, highly respected and inspirational footballers, Eddie Betts, still has to give interviews and still has to talk about racism in a way that clearly was emotionally draining for him. He said he was tired. He said it hurts. It’s impossible for us, as whitefellas, to stand in this place and to understand the pain of someone like Eddie Betts.
At its core, it is about respect. It is up to all Australians to commit themselves to being better than this. If a high-profile Aboriginal person like Eddie Betts, who has given so much joy to so many football fans, can find himself in tears trying to rationalise the racism that still exists today, how is it for a young Aboriginal boy or girl growing up without that opportunity and without that advantage yet still feeling racially vilified? It is a challenge for us all. This issue of respect and giving hope to future generations of Aboriginal people is a challenge we must all be prepared to take on.
Eddie Betts today invited us all to go on a journey together. I accept his invitation to go on that journey with people like Eddie and all Aboriginal people in Australia to support them in their efforts towards equality and reconciliation. But it’s one thing to stand here and make speeches. Again, I’m reminded of a very famous football scene. I guess, if we’re talking about Eddie Betts, we might as well keep talking about football scenes. It is of the late John Kennedy and the 1975 VFL grand final. The Hawthorn football club was being by flogged by North Melbourne and John Kennedy made this famous speech: ‘Do something! Don’t think! Do! At least you can come off and say, “At least I did something.”‘
We can’t just make speeches; we have to do something. We have to do something every day. I commend again the minister for his work on the implementation plan, but it has to get down to individual Australians doing something every day. I’ve commented before in this place on the need to find more opportunities in our own daily lives to talk and listen to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Again, it’s about understanding the cultural differences. It’s taking the time in our own lives in our civic society and our civil society, not just cheering on footy champions or tennis champions or other sporting greats or just having a professional working relationship with the occasional Aboriginal person we may come across in our professional experiences. It’s taking the time to sit down for a cup of coffee or to have a meal.
I would hasten to suggest that most Australians of European background would hardly have an Indigenous friend or have had a meal or a beer or a cup of coffee and taken the time to understand their experiences. When we think about doing something, I challenge Australians to read about the Indigenous experience. Do something like understanding their stories and understanding the challenges that too many still face today. Do something like teaching our kids to recognise and identify racism and to call it out where they see it. It saddens me that the struggle remains real and the challenges remain great. While the commitment in this place is commendable, we need to turn it into better outcomes on the ground. We all need to do something.