Closing The Gap Report

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (18:48): It is a pleasure to speak on this very important issue before the House. I suggest that each year, as we annually hear the report on the Closing the Gap progress—or, sadly, lack of progress in too many of the targets—it is an opportunity for each of us to take our responsibility up and to participate in this chamber on those matters. I want to recognise firstly, in my contribution, the original inhabitants and custodians of the land on which we meet today and to pay my respects to their elders past and present, to pay my great respect to the resilience of our first people and to also acknowledge the great contribution that they make to the Closing the gap report and to the consideration of it as we go forward.

I want to cover just three areas of this year's Closing the gap report. There are many significant issues for us to confront in it, but I would like to particularly focus, firstly, on education and employment—obviously, with my shadow portfolio of vocational education, it is an issue that I watch closely and take a great interest in—secondly, on the issue of constitutional recognition and, thirdly, on the issue of the justice system and incarceration rates.

The Closing the gap: Prime Minister's report 2016 makes it very clear that postsecondary education—in fact all the stages of education, but postsecondary education in particular—is intrinsically linked with Indigenous opportunities for employment. In fact, the report tells us that Indigenous graduates have strong employment outcomes. In 2014, around 77 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduates were in full-time employment following completion of their award, compared with 68.1 per cent of all graduates, so there is an even stronger link for Indigenous people between completing a postsecondary qualification and achieving employment. In particular, I want to draw the House's attention to the fact that in 2014, 55 per cent of all higher education students in Australia were female, but among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, 66 per cent were female. This contrasts with the Indigenous participation in vocational education and training, where the majority of Indigenous students were male—that is, 55 per cent.

That comes from the NCVER report. If we look at that report in some more detail—if people are interested, it is Equity groups in total VET students and courses 2014, their most recent publication—it tells us that in 2014, there were 146,500 Indigenous students. They made of 3.7 per cent of all students. That has been an improving outcome. It had a slight dip in 2013, but over the years the participation rate of Indigenous students in vocational education and training has sustained. There is a worry in the figures. The success rate, if you like, which is called the 'subject load pass rate', was 83.4 per cent for all students in the sector. However, for Indigenous students it was 74.4 per cent. That in particular indicates, I have to report to the House, the lowest completion rate. Students with a disability were slightly higher at 74.6 per cent. Students from a non-English-speaking background were 80.7, and students from rural and remote localities were 85.6. So whilst we have sustained the participation rates, we really need to focus on improving the success and completion rates for Indigenous students.

The reason for that is clear from the 'closing the gap' report itself—that that would directly indicate the success and opportunity for Indigenous Australians to get employment, and we all know that employment is one of the key factors for addressing broader disadvantage, including many other areas such as health. The higher a person's educational attainment, the greater their connection to the workforce, then all the other factors show improvements as well, so it is an area where I think we have to give a great deal of focus and attention. I do want to just mention the factors many of you in this place would know. Sadly, there were quite a number of media reports last year about some of the less-ethical private providers in the vocational sector who were out in Indigenous communities particularly targeting Indigenous people to sign up for diploma-level courses that were inappropriate to their needs and left them with very large debts. They were using really unscrupulous inducements to get people to sign up. I am pleased that significant changes have been made by the government in their requirements for those sorts of courses, and we have been happy to support them. But we have to remain vigilant, because these sorts of sharks find a new way to swim around the new regulations, and they target the most disadvantaged.

I also wanted to acknowledge the significant importance of constitutional recognition. There is a chapter in the report on that. It makes it very clear that part of the 'closing the gap' effort has to be achieving constitutional recognition for our first Australians. As the Leader of the Opposition said:

Including the first members of our Australian family on our national birth certificate should be the shared goal of all Australians.

Indeed it is. I think that it is very important. I commend the proposal first put forward by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, which Labor supports, that May 2017, being the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, would be a very appropriate time in which to hold the referendum for a national vote of recognition. I am pleased that Bill Shorten, the leader of the Labor Party, has indicated that, if elected, a Labor government would deliver a referendum in that time frame. It is a really important step that we should also pursue.

Finally, in the few minutes left to me, I want to make the point that there is a continuing tragic story in the justice system for Indigenous people. To be honest, I first became deeply aware of it when I worked in the juvenile justice system in New South Wales with an alternate program, which was the Youth Justice Group Conferencing Program. We had a lot of Indigenous young people go through that program. It remains the case, as the Australian Institute of Criminology points out, that Indigenous Australians experience contact with all levels of the criminal justice system as both offenders and victims at much higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians. They are very overrepresented in prison populations. The imprisonment rate is around 12 times that of the rest of the Australian population. Despite making up less than three per cent of the overall Australian population, our Indigenous brothers and sisters make up 40 per cent of those imprisoned for assault offences. Rates of overrepresentation are even higher in juvenile detention. A 10- to 17-year-old Indigenous person is 24 times more likely to be in detention than a non-Indigenous young person of the same age. That is a tragedy. We know that, as people become more caught up in the justice system, their opportunities for breaking out of that cycle become much more difficult.

Bill Shorten, in his contribution, made an important commitment for Labor in terms of addressing this issue. He made the point that, at the first COAG meeting under a Labor government, the first item on the agenda will be setting new targets to close the gap in justice—tackling the appalling incarceration rate amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and focusing on preventing crime, reducing violence and victimisation, and boosting community safety, not just in remote communities but in our cities, our suburbs and our regional towns. The scourge of violence is something that is on all our minds when we look at all of our communities, but Indigenous people being caught as either perpetrators or victims has become a cycle that must be broken. It should be taken up, as the Leader of the Opposition has indicated, with specific targets and specific efforts to address it, in particular to save another generation of young people from either suffering from violence or being part of the cycle of violence. I commend the Closing the Gap report to everybody for good and close examination.