PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra:
I rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I appreciate that, in the main, the Leader of the Opposition did not try to make partisan points in this debate. Indigenous affairs has typically been above partisan politics. If you look back at the history of the efforts which have been made by governments of both persuasions, none of us has had a terrific track record on it despite enormous goodwill on both sides and the billions of dollars which have been invested. I do think that Australians want both sides of the parliament to work together for the advancement of Aboriginal people and leave the partisan politics behind us as much as possible.
I reflect upon the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap speech earlier this year, in which he said:
For so many of us in this place, few things matter more than the lot of Indigenous people. For so many of us, this is personal—not political.
I know that that is absolutely the case for the Prime Minister, who has made the advancement of Indigenous people one of his handful of top priorities, which is really the first time that has been done by an Australian Prime Minister. And it is personal to me. I have worked on and off with Indigenous people and Indigenous organisations for 15 years now, including giving up a corporate career to go and work with Noel Pearson for three years up in Far North Queensland. So it is important for me personally, it is important for the Prime Minister personally, it is important for our side of politics and, indeed, it is important for the other side.
I was disappointed, though, with the Leader of the Opposition’s comments in relation to the debate we had last week on remote communities. In an interview, he suggested that the Prime Minister just wanted to move Aboriginal people off their land. I thought that was beneath the Leader of the Opposition. I thought it was actually quite a disgraceful comment, and I asked him to withdraw the comment. The reason I did say was that, firstly, the comment was wrong; it is not the case that this is what the Prime Minister wants to do. Secondly, I made the point that it was in some respects hypocritical because Labor, when they were in government, made decisions not to invest in, for example, further housing resources in the homelands communities but to focus those resources on the larger communities. And when it came to the municipal services debate, they were trying to make the same agreements with the Western Australian government that we made.
What did happen in relation to that debate, which the Leader of the Opposition was referring to, was that, firstly, there was an agreement made between the Australian government and the Western Australian government to transfer responsibility for municipal services from the Australian government to the state government—because the state government is closer to the ground, through local councils who run municipal services everywhere else in Western Australia.
That was the first thing that happened.
The second thing that happened was that the Western Australian government had made at least some decisions, if not an indication, that they wanted to look at some of the very small communities in terms of the ongoing investments that were made there. Those very small communities—they are in the hundreds, I believe—typically only have one or two families. I was informed today that there were 130 communities, as you might call them, consisting of 500 people in total. These are not the larger settlements that we talking about. These are the very small ones. I met with the Western Australian minister for regional services today. He informed me that no decisions have been made. Rather, he is starting to think about some 10-year planning, and deep consultation will occur during that process. That is what is going to occur.
We do need to have a mature discussion about the remote communities, because in many cases they are not healthy places. We all know that. Despite the investments which have been made into those communities, they are not healthy places. In many cases there are very few jobs available. The statistics show—and I appreciate that the member for Lingiari is upset at me for saying this—that in many cases there are very few jobs in those locations. The proportion of young people aged 17 to 24 who are in full-time work or training is only 17 per cent in the remote communities. We do need to think deeply about that, because we know that if people are not engaged in education or in work then their opportunities going forward are so much narrower. At the same time we want to ensure that connection to land is there, that the culture survives and that the culture is enhanced. They are some of the difficult discussions, the mature discussions, which were occurring over the last week—at least in some quarters.
I would like to pick up on another point that the Leader of the Opposition made in his debate. In essence, probably the most substantive point he made was that we need to be talking to Indigenous leaders and Indigenous people and we need to be listening to them—and he is absolutely right. We need to be doing that, and we should always be doing that. But the implication was that the government has not been doing enough of that or has not been doing much of that at all. I would just like to correct that, if that indeed was the implication.
We have an ongoing engagement and an ongoing discussion with Indigenous leaders. We do that in part through the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council. We do that in part through the Prime Minister spending a week in a remote community each year as he has done for, I believe, the last 10 years—and he has continued to do that as Prime Minister. No other Prime Minister has ever done that. He does that in part through the work which Nigel Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, does in speaking to people across the country on a very regular basis. He does that in part through me, as his parliamentary secretary, supporting him in this agenda in terms of my engagement and travels with these people. He does that through the members of parliament, many of whom are in this chamber now, who represent areas with significant Indigenous populations. And within this chamber, sitting here—and speaking in the future—is the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt, who we are very proud of.
When we came to government we did a number of things immediately to advance the Indigenous cause. First of all, we put the Indigenous programs underneath the Prime Minister, so we have a Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs. This gave Indigenous affairs status and it gave it greater authority. Next we made some decisions at a philosophical level to put some sharp focal points around school attendance, work and community safety. Why are those priorities? Because, in some respects, kids learning from adults and adults working for sustenance has underpinned every thriving community for all of human history. If you fail to have kids learning from adults and if you fail to have adults working for their sustenance, then it is so much more difficult to address some of the other issues. If people are educated and people do have jobs, then typically other things tend to take care of themselves. Hence our absolute sharp focus on those three things.
We have made some governance changes which are designed to streamline the approach and devolve power down to the regional level so that our officials can be problem solvers, not just contract managers—and we are in that process presently. Finally, we have already put in place many practical measures to improve and assist with the advancement of Aboriginal people across the country. Those very practical measures include some of the school attendance measures which are already in place, many of which have had terrific success and seen school attendance rates go up by 15 percentage points. There are other places where we have not had the same sort of success we would like to have had.
We have had 5,000 jobs created through what is called the VTEC, which is training into a job—such a different way of doing training than the traditional ‘training for training’s sake’. We have done many other initiatives, which are being informed by the Forrest review, including this week when we announced that we will have a procurement target of three percentage points. We have announced that we will increase the Indigenous employment rate, and we will be making more comments about what corporate Australia can do as well. None of these are easy. All of these are on the path to improving and advancing Indigenous peoples, and we look forward to working with Indigenous Australians in this cause.