2019 Closing the Gap Statement

Release Date: 
14 February 2019

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many local Aboriginal elders who I have got to know in this role, Tyrone and Wally Bell, Matilda House, Paul House, Tina Brown who take on the role of welcoming us to their country.

I have learnt so much from you and I thank you for your generosity in welcoming us to your land.

And I want to acknowledge all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who welcome me onto their country, to their community and their family.

I have been privileged to serve the past five years as Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

I want to acknowledge Senators Dodson and McCarthy, I acknowledge your leadership as both Senators and as Aboriginal people. We may not agree on a range of matters, but I value the contribution you make and I do listen closely.

I am pleased that the annual Closing the Gap report brings Indigenous affairs to the forefront of our Parliament. It is an opportunity to highlight the issues Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have told me matter to them most – getting a job, getting kids to school, and keeping communities safe.

Unfortunately, many in our nation will limit their discussion to a snapshot of progress or lack thereof against the targets. An assessment of failure in Indigenous Australia.

But as Roy Ah See, Chair of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, said - we need to move from a deficit discussion to one that acknowledges where more work is needed but celebrates the outstanding contribution Indigenous people make, and the success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in every community.

I for one, would like to stand here and declare that all the targets are on track.

To stand before the chamber and declare that there is no longer a gap between outcomes for Indigenous and non‑Indigenous Australians.

However, these are long-term intergenerational issues. And as such, change takes time.

The Prime Minister’s statement this morning outlined that only two out of seven targets are on track.

That we are on track in early childhood enrolment and high school completion.

And if you take a closer look at these targets – you can see that these are areas where the Commonwealth has a direct lever to change.

We made getting children enrolled in early childhood education a key focus across the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

We provide direct funding to organisations that provide scholarships, mentoring and support to Indigenous students to get to school and stay in school. Like the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. Clontarf. Stars Foundation. Role Models and Leaders. The Broncos Academy. AFL House.

And it was so exciting to work with the Prime Minister and the Member for Warringah to secure a historic $200 million Indigenous Youth Education Package that will secure the future of the next generation of Indigenous Australians.

In addition, we’ve announced today that we will waive the HELP Debt for teachers who work, and importantly, stay working in very remote communities for four years.

This is important, because as we know, building relationships and working together takes time. It’s no good having a teacher fly in for six months and then leave. It is absolutely essential, to build trust and relationships in community to deliver change.

And, we’ve extended the Indigenous Procurement Policy to boost the Indigenous business sector further.

Through the Indigenous Procurement Policy, we’ve supercharged growth in the Indigenous business sector.

Since its establishment in 2015, Indigenous businesses have delivered 11,933 contracts worth over $1.83 billion. It’s proof of what happens when we set targets right.  


So from 1 July 2019, IPP 2.0 will introduce a target of 3 per cent of the value of Commonwealth contracts are to be awarded to Indigenous businesses within a decade. This is in addition to the existing IPP target that 3 per cent of the number of Commonwealth contracts are to go to Indigenous businesses.

What I am pleased about, and want to share with the Chamber today Mr President, is that we are seeing change. We are seeing positive signs of success on the ground in many areas.

More children are getting the benefits of an early education.

More mums are accessing antenatal care, not smoking during pregnancy and getting their children immunised.

More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living longer.

More Indigenous people are in work, and especially more women are employed.

More Indigenous people have Year 12 qualifications.

To lose hope based solely on achievement of targets fails to recognise all of the achievements. The hard‑working leaders and communities across Australia.

Like Djwambawa Marawili and the Baniyala traditional owners who have established a corporation to take on, for the first time ever, the responsibility of a delegation of Land Council functions.

Like Andrea Mason, who has worked tirelessly to improve health and wellbeing, and tackle the tough issues like domestic violence in the NPY Lands.

I ask that you remember to listen to the voices and wisdom of the Elders like these.

It is in working together in genuine partnership that success is possible.

We, as members of Parliament, as policy makers here in Canberra, must genuinely listen to communities about what works and partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

When we get it right, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are empowered to take charge of their own destinies, we see enormous success.

Listen to the 1,473 Indigenous businesses who have grown and seized opportunities under the Indigenous Procurement Policy.

Listen to the 60 per cent of Indigenous organisations tackling some of the most difficult social issues under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

Listen to the Empowered Communities leaders, who are leading the way on working together with government to drive change on local community priorities.

And listen to the Traditional Owner groups who have worked hard to have 220,000-odd hectares of Aboriginal land handed back in the Northern Territory since 2013.

When we work together, success is possible. We hear more stories of local achievements.

Like fisherman at Nardilmuk in the NT, working together to turn their tradition and hobby into a thriving business across the Territory.

Like the Nantawarrina Rangers removing and selling more than 9,000 feral goats on their country in South Australia.

Like the young shearers going through the Merriman Shearing School in Brewarrina in New South Wales.

It is clear from these examples that when we support the economic prosperity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there is a whole-of-community benefit.

From next month, we will begin reforms on the Community Development Programme, which has already supported remote job seekers into almost 30,000 jobs.

I’ve listened to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations which support the CDP:

  • The Northern Land Council
  • Arnhem Land Progress Association
  • Winun Ngari Aboriginal Corporation
  • Rainbow Gateway
  • New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council
  • Koonibba Aboriginal Corporation
  • Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation

And the list goes on.

We are giving communities greater control over CDP and shifting the focus to flexible, locally-led support for jobseekers.

We are listening to people in remote communities and doing what they want, not want special interest groups want.

This is the difference between words and action.

We’ve also seen huge advances in Indigenous control over land, which provides a strong foundation for building economic activity and intergenerational wealth.

Native title has now been determined to exist over around 37 per cent of Australia’s land mass and there are nine Northern Territory communities with township leases.

And I’m excited to see even more progress on Township Leasing with communities like Gunyangara now holding a township lease themselves over their own community.

I listened to my good friend, Gallarwuy Yunupingu some five years ago under the tree out at Ski Beach and heard his call to control his land.

This is the difference between words and action.

In school attendance, as a parent, I’ve said time and time again; a good education provides the best start in life.

Getting kids to school in remote communities is an intrinsic, but not intractable problem.

I am proud of what we have been able to do on remote school attendance. When we came to Government, I couldn’t stand here and tell you the extent of the problem. The data of students by indigeneity did not exist.  

School attendance is primarily a function of state governments, I was told.

But what I have seen and heard was that getting kids to school out in communities, was a huge challenge. That something needed to be done. That parents wanted their children to get an education.

So we have made this a national priority. We’ve persisted with state governments. With building a workforce. With unrelentingly shifting social norms. This change is going to take time. But I believe it is one of critical importance. It is the generations of kids that go to school that then send their children to school. We must continue to shift the dial on this.

I know my colleague, the Member for Warringah, has been impressed by the passion and persistence of these workers as he visits remote schools across Australia as the Special Envoy on Indigenous Affairs.

These are the sorts of community-led solutions I’ve been lucky to watch grow over my time as Minister.

But I’ve also seen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities go through heartbreakingly tough challenges.

Challenges driven by entrenched problems - problems for which there is no silver bullet.

But I’m proud to have been able to support communities in tackling these issues. 

Like the National Indigenous Critical Response Service supporting families and communities after tragedies, like suicide.

Like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services that provide support through Custody Notification Services for Indigenous people taken into police custody.

Like the services providing therapeutic, trauma-informed care to survivors of family violence to help them keep themselves and their children safe.

Like the dedicated through-care workers who work with prisoners to turn their lives around and stop offending.

I am deeply passionate about these issues and the work we’ve done to address them.

I entrust the next generation of leaders with the task of keeping this work going to tackle these difficult issues.

We need more Indigenous leaders to continue to challenge the behaviours and norms in their communities which lead to poor outcomes.

When brave leaders – like Noel Pearson, Jacinta Price and June Oscar – do this we need to back them in.

We need to see more existing and emerging leaders stand up and have a say.

To join the Coalition of Peaks in working with government on the next decade of reform through the Closing the Gap refresh. To get the targets right, and put words into action.

My five years as Minister for Indigenous Affairs has been challenging, but they’ve been more rewarding than I could have hoped.

Do I wish we had seen faster progress? Of course I do.

But meeting, working and speaking with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians from all walks of life has reminded me time and again of the tremendous wisdom and resilience of Indigenous communities.

I want to head bush and leave the mob with a clear message. Your future is in your hands. Keep fighting for it.

To paraphrase the Prime Minister’s striking and determined words this morning: there is nothing we can’t do when we work together.

I can’t wait to see the bright potential of Australia’s next chapter, and our First Australians, unfold.