Ministerial Statements - Closing the Gap

12 March 2013

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (20:41): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate in response to the Prime Minister's report to the parliament on the Closing the Gap report for 2012. The annual report to parliament has occurred each year since Prime Minister Rudd offered the official apology to the stolen generation on behalf of the nation in 2007. I was very pleased, as I am sure many of us were, to have been able to be present in the chamber on this very significant and moving occasion. At the time I said:

… there is so much that was stolen because of these policies and it is so important that we reach out. We do … through to an ongoing commitment to make sure that Aboriginal people's opportunities in our country are improved.

 finished my contribution with the comments of many of my local constituents who also wished to express their support for the apology and the commitment to closing the gap. I concluded:

There is no doubt that each of us in this place will be particularly keenly endorsing and supporting the current government's commitments to closing the gap so that the apology issued last Wednesday will actually be the beginning of a whole new period for Indigenous Australians and an opportunity for them to take some of the many privileges that are their rights as citizens of this nation.

In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a set of targets which included firstly, the close the life expectancy gap within a generation—that is, by 2031; secondly, to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018; thirdly, to ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013; fourthly, to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018; fifthly, to halve the gap for Indigenous students in year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020 and, finally, to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians by 2018.

Subsequent to the apology and the COAG agreement, both Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard have provided a full report to the parliament on the release of the Closing the Gap report each year. On 6 February this year, Prime Minister Gillard provided the most recent accounting for 2012.

In introducing her report, she told the House:

Closing the Gap is a plan of unprecedented scale and ambition, a plan not only to uplift the lives of Indigenous Australians but to do so in a shared endeavour of partnership and respect. That high level of ambition commits us to two decades of annual reckoning until we bridge the gulf that stands between us. Few if any of the men and women who sit in this parliament today will still be here when a future Prime Minister delivers the final Closing the Gap statement in 2031. A short walk to this despatch box that we hope will mark the end of a monumental journey. Wherever we are on that day, the people of this land will want to hear one thing. That we have, at last, accorded Indigenous Australians the health care, education, job opportunities and community services they deserve.

This is a legacy that I am sure any of us would be pleased to see outlive each of our individual careers.

This is a significant year. As the Closing the gap report identifies, it is the 20th anniversary of the Native Title Act being passed, it is the fifth anniversary of the national apology to the stolen generations and it is the year in which the first of the targets set back in 2008 will be achieved: ensuring all Indigenous four-year-olds living in remote communities have access to early childhood education within five years—that is, by 2013. In her speech, the Prime Minister reported that the Closing the Gap target, for all Indigenous four-year-olds living in remote communities to have access to early childhood education, will be achieved this year. This is particularly important, as it is well established that the early years are critical to the establishment of healthy, happy children and that being well-prepared for formal education is an invaluable investment that more than returns the cost of the investment.

The Closing the gap report itself identifies that children who attend quality preschool programs are more likely to be successful at school, stay in school longer, continue on to further education and training, and fully participate in employment and community life as adults. The report identifies the following achievements:

Data from 2011 reveals that 91 per cent of Indigenous children in remote areas are enrolled in a preschool program. This data, consistent with the governments' commitment regarding delivery, indicates that the target of 95 per cent enrolment will be met this year. The Government is working with Indigenous communities, large and small, to ensure children are enrolled in school and get to school and that the benefits of attendance are realised. Providing access to quality preschool programs is an important basis for better school attendance.

I am personally very interested in the education based targets for the reason that educational achievement is inextricably linked to overall improvement in life outcomes. The report on the fifth target tells us:

Results from the 2011 Census show the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Year 12 or equivalent attainment is narrowing. In 2011, the proportion of Indigenous 20-to-24-year-olds with at least Year 12 or Certificate II was 53.9 per cent—a 6.5 percentage point increase on 2006. This means progress against the target of halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020 is ahead of schedule.

The report continues in addressing the fourth target, to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous within a decade:

… between 2008 and 2012 the percentage of Indigenous students at or above the National Minimum Standards in Year 3 Reading increased by 5.9 percentage points. However, overall progress is mixed. Of the eight cases where the NAPLAN results in 2012 can be compared to the progress points set for 2012, three results are above or close to the 2012 trajectory points. In the other five cases, progress will need to accelerate if the target is to be met.

In her speech, the Prime Minister reflected these mixed results, including the fact that 'in year 9 writing the 2012 gap is almost double that—35 percentage points' and that 'year 3 reading actually declined in 2012 after improving between 2008 and 2011'. The Prime Minister stated:

I cannot conceal that these literacy and numeracy results are a source of personal disappointment.

I feel that we would all share that disappointment and would have a determination to turn those results around and, very importantly, sustain the achievements that have been made.

The full report provides extensive details on the progress of all of the targets and the related initiatives aimed at achieving the target outcomes. I encourage members of the public who are interested in this issue to look at the full report. It is undoubtedly the case that health and life expectancy, housing and employment, and security and participation are all important components of a full life to which all Australians deserve access and which far too many Indigenous Australians are often blocked from achieving. To quote the Prime Minister once more, she said:

It is the work of an entire generation and work that has begun with us.

I feel that it is a heavy responsibility that we should gladly carry as it is inconceivable that we would put this task down and walk away, as too many have done in the past.

I commend the Closing the gap report to the House and, in particular, encourage people to remain committed to achieving the six targets, as I am sure that all in this House remain committed to their achievement.