Closing the Gap key to national wellbeing

Published on Tue 25 February 2020 6:20pm

Mr Wilson (6:20pm) — The annual Closing the Gap statement is a penetrating window into the character and wellbeing of our country. All else aside, we cannot be at peace with ourselves when the circumstances of so many First Australians situate them in a parallel world—a world where everything is squeezed and tilted away…

…from basic standards of social inclusion, health care, educational attainment, economic opportunity, cultural respect and freedom from discrimination. We can’t be at peace with ourselves, because, one way or the other, that is the case for too many Indigenous Australians.

As others have noted, within the seven key areas of marked disadvantage only two of the Closing the Gap targets are currently on track. That means we are not making progress to address the fact that child and infant mortality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids is twice as high as the rate in the broader population, the fact that life expectancy is so different for Indigenous people or the fact that employment participation remains widely divergent. It’s interesting to note that the Closing the Gap summary refers to the unchanging gulf when it comes to employment participation as being stable. ‘Stagnant’ would be a better word. If your mantra is that the best kind of support that government policy can deliver for people is a job, then you’d have to judge yourself pretty harshly on those numbers.

In 2018 the Indigenous child mortality rate was 141 per 100,000. For non-Indigenous kids it’s only 67 per 100,000. It is a terrible gap. We can’t accept it. The rate of Indigenous child mortality was falling until 2012 but it has risen again since that time. The target to close the life expectancy gap by 2031 is not on track. Indigenous Australians live on average eight years fewer than non-Indigenous Australians. One thing we need to be clear about is that the response to the lack of progress under the Closing the Gap framework cannot be to adjust the framework in order to let ourselves off the hook of achieving real change. That would be a cop-out and an abdication.

I want to specifically mention the issue of suicide. Before I do, I acknowledge the essential work of Lifeline. I make the point that anyone feeling at risk or having dark thoughts should speak to someone by calling 131114. It’s been very welcome to see the Prime Minister announce the creation of a permanent national commissioner to investigate suicides among Defence Force personnel and veterans. As we rightly apply ourselves to the awful and unacceptable rates of suicide among those who serve or have served in our defence forces, so we must acknowledge and be appalled by and galvanise ourselves in response to the scourge of suicide in Indigenous communities, particularly among Indigenous kids. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are 2.8 per cent of the Australian population. Do we reflect enough on the fact that 25 per cent of all children who died by suicide over the last five years were Indigenous kids? The Kimberley in Western Australia has the nation’s highest rate of youth suicide. I was with my predecessor, Melissa Parke, when, as the Parliamentary Secretary for Mental Health in 2013, she announced in Fremantle the first national strategy for Indigenous suicide prevention—an initiative that was largely discontinued under the Abbott government.

Rob McPhee, the deputy CEO of the Kimberly Aboriginal Medical Services and co-chair of the Commonwealth funded Kimberley Aboriginal Suicide Prevention Working Group, has written about the kind of effort that is needed:

Any sustainable response must go to the deeper, underlying historical causes of hopelessness and despair, which contributes to suicide. This isn’t just a problem among children; the suicide rate peaks in those aged between 25 and 34.

These deeper causes include intergenerational trauma. Poverty, racism, social exclusion, substandard housing, and economic marginalisation of our communities are the legacies of colonisation.

There’s a clear element in what Mr McPhee says that goes to the unresolved question and the unrequited promise of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That came from a process that was based on listening to Indigenous Australians. Yet what was clearly communicated through that painstaking work: the decision for proper recognition, the need for truth-telling and agreement-making processes in the form of a makarrata commission and a First Nations voice to parliament—these simple, sensible, vital steps forward have so far been ignored. It’s true that by speaking in this place alone we will not bring change. That’s one of the reasons it’s so vital that we work harder to listen to what Indigenous people are saying

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