CONTINUED COMMITMENT TO INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS
In the days following my appointment as Prime Minister in September, I outlined my key aspiration that our first Australians be afforded the same opportunities and prosperity that everyone else enjoys in this great country. We pride ourselves on having built an egalitarian country where everyone has the same chance to realise their dreams and to fulfil their potential. But it is not until Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same opportunities for health, education and employment that we can truly say we are a country of equal opportunity. The expectations must be the same for everyone – from each newborn, to the child about to start school, the student dreaming of his or her future and parents trying to pay the bills and best nurture their families.
As a nation, we are a work in progress, and closing the substantial gaps in outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians is one of our most important tasks. We all share this responsibility – state and federal governments, communities, businesses and individuals, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
It has now been 10 years since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians together sparked the Close the Gap campaign, which gave impetus to the development of targets to monitor and measure progress. Since this time there has been encouraging progress, built on the combined efforts of successive governments, business, community and most importantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. But it is undeniable that progress against targets has been variable, and that a more concerted effort is needed.
I was heartened to see in this latest 2016 Closing the Gap report that there are some positive gains. For instance, Indigenous mortality rates are declining, especially those deaths from circulatory diseases (such as heart disease and stroke) and the Indigenous infant mortality rate has more than halved in the past 16 years. The fact that there is a high rate of immunisation among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at five years of age is encouraging.
But the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is still around 10 years less than non-Indigenous Australians – an unacceptably wide gap.
In education, the report shows a 70 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education courses over the past decade. And there is almost no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university graduates. An increasing proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students completing Year 12 means we are well on track to meeting the target of halving the gap for Year 12 attainment by 2020. For Year 3 reading, the target of halving the gap would have been met if a further 640 Indigenous students nation-wide met the national minimum standards.
The evidence shows that the Closing the Gap targets are closely interrelated. The data linking educational attainment with successful employment is unequivocal. Employment not only brings financial independence and choice, it is also fundamental to a sense of self-worth and pride. So in addition to a focus on early childhood education and learning at school, we have assisted around 50 Indigenous Australians into a job every day under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. That is over 1,300 new employment opportunities each month.
Indigenous economic development is at the heart of the national agenda, recognising that economic participation, underpinned by cultural participation, leads to vastly improved social outcomes. This requires a cooperative effort with Indigenous leaders and a greater emphasis on place-based solutions, while creating the right conditions for people to feel they can participate. We know from research that Indigenous businesses are 100 times more likely to hire Indigenous Australians than non-Indigenous businesses which is why we are creating an environment where Indigenous business and innovation can grow and prosper.
While many of the employment challenges are more pronounced in remote communities, it is important to acknowledge that almost 80 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in major cities or regional areas. So engagement with and support for Indigenous Australians should not be limited by where people live. As such, in addition to an obvious and necessary emphasis in remote areas, I want to see a focus from all governments on addressing the significant challenges faced by urban and regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
We know that investing in women and girls has a positive flow on effect for families, communities and the economy. Empowered women also have greater employment opportunities and reduced vulnerability to poverty, homelessness and family violence.
My first policy announcement as Prime Minister was a package of measures to improve the safety of women and children at high risk of experiencing violence, especially the disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children who are exposed to violence in their homes and communities. These measures will increase frontline services, leverage new technologies and help change community attitudes to violence and abuse.
Of course, in order for policies and programmes to deliver desired outcomes, they must not only be built on evidence, but be developed in partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities who will benefit from them. This report provides further insight into where and how we can better target our resources.
It is the responsibility of government to ensure that we truly partner with Indigenous Australians to address the disparity that still exists. A key opportunity for partnership will be through the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution. It will be the recognition of an enduring culture that forms such an intrinsic part of Australia’s identity.
It is clear that Closing the Gap is a national responsibility that belongs with every Australian. Ending the disparity is complex and challenging. This will not lessen our resolve or diminish our efforts, even when some problems seem intractable and targets elusive. Quite the opposite. It will strengthen our commitment to work with Australia’s First Peoples, to listen to their voices, and build a society of equality and opportunity for all Australians. As a nation we will walk side by side with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the journey of recognition and reconciliation, to build a promising future for all.
The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP
Prime Minister of Australia