Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Closing the gap – our national project – Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Perth

Location: Perth


I would like to begin by thanking Robert for welcoming us to your country today.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Noongar people, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Thank you to Liz Ritchie and CEDA for having me today.

And thank you Paul for that introduction.

I am sure it will be a very interesting afternoon.

I am sorry that I will not be able to stay for the discussion after lunch but would like to acknowledge the other speakers today:

  • Bill Lawson, who has been awarded an Order of Australia for his development of the national youth assistance initiative, the Beacon Foundation and is also a member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition.
  • Duncan Ord, Deputy Director General Department of Indigenous Affairs
  • Warren Mundine, Chairman of GenerationOne

It is now five years since we began the closing the gap project.

An appropriate timeframe for reflection on what we have achieved.

And with an election imminent this year, a time to reflect on what is yet to come.

In many ways, five years is not a very long time.

Certainly not a long time when the scale of the task we are undertaking is considered.

But in the world of Indigenous affairs, five years of consistent national, properly funded policy, is not the norm.

Too often in this world, sustained change has been put in the too hard basket – constrained by lack of political will, lack of money, lack of understanding.

With closing the gap we have made it our task to change that.

We have made closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage a national project.

One that all governments are responsible for, but which is not owned solely by governments.

A project that demands involvement from community, from businesses.

And a project that most importantly involves Aboriginal people.

People who are changing the way their communities work. From places where frustration and disconnection were the norm and to be unemployed and receiving welfare was the expectation, to the fostering of a desire to work and a willingness to take up local economic opportunities.

Our national project is possible because we have said sorry – words that Aboriginal people waited such a long time to hear.

When then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology, he made it clear that those historic words were not just to be a clanging gong.

Those words have been matched by our actions to close the gap.

And we are continuing the journey of recognition as we build support for a referendum to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution.

So that we continue to foster the mutual respect and the strong relationships we need to make the closing the gap project a success.

This national project is far from finished. It requires sustained vision, commitment and investment from all of us.

When we came to government in 2007, there was no policy framework and no national plan.

In the previous five years alone, there had been three different Federal Indigenous Affairs Ministers.

These shifting sands meant policies changed before Aboriginal people could even begin to engage with them, let alone input into them.

Money was cobbled together from leftovers, without structure and without long term certainty.

While there were individual successful projects within this policy confusion, they occurred in isolation.

The years where the previous government refused to say sorry meant the relationship was scarred by ongoing hurt and mistrust.

And the overall effect was a culture of low expectations, of confusion and anger about how government, community, business and Aboriginal people could work together.

This confusion and the terrible gap in life expectancy were key reasons for us to develop the Closing the Gap strategy.

To provide a clear path to progress.

Through the specific and ambitious targets we set in 2008:

  • To close the life-expectancy gap within a generation.
  • To halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade.
  • To ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities within five years.
  • To halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade.
  • To halve the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rates by 2020.
  • To halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade.

We are accountable for our work towards achieving these targets. With clear measurements and the sort of data collection that has never occurred before.

Collated and presented to the Parliament each year by the Prime Minister.

Our national project.

And underneath the targets, the funding that makes achieving them possible.

Through our National Partnership Agreements with the states, in vital areas such as health, education and housing.

Making this a properly funded national project. Not just for one year, not just over the period of the forward estimates, but with funding provided for up to ten years.

And we have shown our willingness to continue that commitment – just last week announcing $777 million to renew the National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Health.

With our $3.4 billion ten year investment in Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory.

Because without sustained, adequate funding, we cannot achieve significant reform.

I think that too often in Indigenous Affairs it is too easy for commentators to make glib statements about how money is being wasted, or outcomes aren’t assured.

Forgetting that without proper funding, without the assurance that money will be there next year, and the security to plan into the future, that the outcomes are very shaky at best.

Without money, you don’t get new houses.

Without money, you don’t get welfare reform programs.

You don’t get jobs and skills training. You don’t even get assistance for business to employ Aboriginal people.

Of course money isn’t everything.

But together with the framework we have put in place through Closing the Gap, we now have clear expectations for all of us – governments, community, business and Aboriginal people.

We all have a role to play and we all have responsibilities to each other.

The work under our framework is beginning to see results.

This year, we meet our first target – ensuring access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities.

Our historic levels of investment under the national partnership agreement on early childhood education mean there are now more children than ever before participating in preschool or early education programs.

Because there is no more important start for children, than getting that early learning in and preparing for the schooling to come.

All the evidence tells us that participating in pre-school means children 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.

At the other end of children’s schooling, we are ahead of schedule towards meeting our target to halve the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rates by 2020.

And in the health area, we are on track to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five.

Helping us achieve our targets, are the building blocks that sit underneath.

Here we are also making great progress. Healthy homes – more than 1,600 new houses built in remote areas and 5,300 refurbished.

Meaning more children are going to sleep in safe and healthy environments.

Again, the result of a properly funded, clearly articulated plan – our $5.5 billion National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing – funded over ten years.

All achievements that should be celebrated.

All achievements that have been possible because we have a properly funded, clear national plan, keeping us all accountable to our responsibilities.

We have also been clear from the beginning that fundamental to our work to close the gap has been rebuilding the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Because we can’t move forward together if we are not actively addressing the past.

We began this work with the National Apology.

And we continue it with our work to build support for a successful referendum to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution.

We are committed to meaningful constitutional reform that reflects the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that unites the nation.

The next step in our ongoing journey of recognition.

I strongly believe that fundamental to our closing the gap project is improving Indigenous economic development and employment.

And one of the most exciting changes I have seen during my time as Minister is that Aboriginal people’s expectations of government are now that we will help foster the conditions that allow for good jobs and for economic independence.

And their expectations of themselves now include achieving economic independence through work.

This hasn’t always been the case. The welfare paradigm that was built up from the ’60’s and ’70’s did affect the expectations people had of themselves and of government.

There were incredibly important gains made in these decades – through the 1967 referendum, through the land rights movement.

But we should be honest about the effect of welfare support without expectations – it did not create incentives for work.

Today, Aboriginal people from across Australia are knocking on my door to talk about jobs and economic development opportunities.

I recently had a visit from a group from the Martu people of the Western Desert – one of the most remote parts of our country.

The first thing they told me was how people in their community want to work.

And then they updated me on how, through the Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation, they were investigating the potential for new tourism ventures on the Canning Stock Route.

And taking advantage of opportunities offered through the minerals industry on their lands.

In the Northern Territory, on a recent trip to Groote Eylandt, I met workers from GEBIE – Grooyte Eylandt and Bickerton Island Enterprises.

This group of local entrepreneurs had started constructing houses as part of the work being done under our $1.7 billion housing investment in the Northern Territory.

From that beginning, they’d moved onto to contracting to help build a major road on the island, and work on local mining projects.

Taking the skills they had gained through one opportunity, and building them into ongoing work.

As a government, it has been our job to make sure we have the conditions in place to facilitate this shift to work, as well as the shift in expectations from welfare to independence through work.

This is why I have been an unwavering supporter of the Cape York welfare reform trial we have been operating in partnership with Noel Pearson and the Cape York institute since 2008.

Again, this work requires significant investment – to date the Australian and Queensland governments have invested more than $100 million in this trial.

And our recently released evaluation found it is making a real difference – particularly in restoring positive social norms and parental responsibility.

Ian Trust from the Wunan Foundation in the East Kimberley has an excellent story to demonstrate the shift in expectations being created in his community.

He explains that in the past, people from Fitzroy Crossing were able to look after themselves and their families – just like successfully crossing a river.

But now, when people are trying to cross the river, they’re dealing with the fast current and crocodiles of welfare dependency and substance abuse.

And if they don’t have the skills to take responsibility for themselves and their families, they risk drowning or being eaten.

This is why as a government we have also been supporting Wunan to develop a welfare reform model that meets the needs of their community and creates new expectations around personal responsibility.

Another key task for us as a government has been to remove the barriers preventing people from getting into real jobs.

Previous governments had shirked this task.

With the consequence that when we came to office, there was still an exemption in place for job seekers in some remote areas, allowing them to avoid participation requirements.

An exemption that we lifted in 2009 when we introduced employment services to remote areas for the first time. Until then there was no expectation or support for people in remote communities to look for work.

We have reformed the Community Development, Employment and Participation (CDEP) program, so that the expectation is no longer that people will be endlessly stuck in ‘getting ready’ training programs, but will take up real jobs.

As part of this, we created more than 1,500 real jobs in Indigenous communities by converting positions previously subsidised by CDEP into jobs with proper wages and conditions.

In addition, 2,241 ongoing jobs were created in the Northern Territory under the Northern Territory Jobs Package.

This year, we take the next step in this reform.

Our new $1.5 billion Remote Jobs and Communities Program will begin on July 1.

For the first time, providing an integrated ‘one stop shop’ for job seekers in remote communities.

No more fly in fly out job contractors.

The Remote Jobs and Communities Program will get people ready for real jobs.

Importantly, the program will be based on the needs of local communities.

It is not ‘training for training sake’.

It is not based on the expectation that a second class job is good enough.

Because it is very clear that everyone’s expectations are now much, much higher than that.

Having a clear policy framework in place has also provided the space for Australian businesses to step up and make closing the gap part of their work.

Businesses are an essential part of the closing the gap project.

Tomorrow I will be visiting Newmont Gold in Boddington – another of many examples of how the minerals industry is working with Indigenous people to create jobs and economic opportunities.

And part of the work flowing from the memorandum of understanding on Indigenous employment the Australian Government has signed with the Minerals Council of Australia.

And we are seeing mining companies work together with Aboriginal people to reach native title agreements that will provide economic benefits for generations to come.

Such as the agreement achieved in the Pilbara between Rio Tinto and the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, which includes binding commitments to deliver training, employment and business development opportunities.

We have also investigating the Indigenous Community Development Corporation model, which has been the product of significant work by the National Native Title Council, the Minerals Council of Australia and leaders such as Marcia Langton.

None of this work has happened in isolation.

It is possible because we are working across so many fronts – to provide better houses, better health services and better schools.

It is possible because we have clear goals, clear commitments and ongoing funding.

In just five years, we have come a long way towards closing the gap.

We have said sorry. And we are pressing forward to a successful referendum for constitutional recognition.

But we are not done. We can’t return to the fractured, uncertain and short term policies of the past.

We have made our commitment clear and we need to see our investments sustained.

And we can’t do it alone. We must keep working together – governments, community, business and Aboriginal people.

And with you – the Indigenous and industry leaders here today.

Thank you to all of you here today for the role you are playing in this national project.