Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Address to the Sydney Institute, Building the foundations for change

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I would like to acknowledge the First Australians on whose land we meet – the custodians of the most ancient human cultures stretching back 60 000 years.


Addressing the Sydney Institute provides an opportunity to speak in depth about public policy.

It’s rare to find the time to reflect on the whole picture, the structures and frameworks which underpin policy and implementation.

In the daily churn of national politics and of government, we focus on the practical things, the daily milestones.

And yet it’s getting the policy right, getting the systems right, that provides a platform for real and sustained change.

I want to speak tonight about the policy and the practice of Indigenous Affairs.

About how we are working to bring everyone together: governments, Indigenous people and their communities, business. To work to common goals.

And about how this work is building the foundations for change.

A fractured framework in Indigenous Affairs

In 2007, as the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, I visited the town camps of Alice Springs.

The contrast between this place, and what was familiar to me from across Australia, was brutal.

Women and children slept on mattresses in the open air, exposed to the elements. Children roamed the streets at all hours of the day and night, with no regard to going to school or getting home safely at night. Alcohol visibly ravaged communities, resulting in terrible health, terrible violence and terrible tragedy.

When the nation was looking to the future, these residents of Alice Springs were struggling to look past today.

Where the nation was riding high on the back of a mining boom, the residents of the Alice Springs town camps were waiting for the next welfare payment – as their parents and grandparents had done, trapped in a cycle of hopelessness and dependency.

People sat without work and yet in sight of jobs boards. People survived dangerous and sleepless nights within earshot of quiet suburban streets.

The Alice Springs town camps epitomised generations of failed policy in Indigenous Affairs. Not the failure of one Minister, or one Government, but of successive governments, at all levels and across all jurisdictions.

The town camps of Alice Springs gave this failure a face – a face with despair and hopelessness writ large across it.

No Minister visiting Alice Springs or communities like it across the country – as many of my predecessors in this role have done – left without a genuine desire to act.

But what Alice Springs showed was that Government action alone would not create the change so desperately needed.

Change can’t happen without Indigenous people.

It can’t happen without individuals taking responsibility for themselves, for their families and for their futures.

It can’t happen without government setting clear expectations of individuals, and supporting those expectations with action.

In 2007, government was in no position to require this, or to support it. The shifting sands of politics in Indigenous Affairs had eroded clarity and direction. The framework was fractured.

This was revealed to the nation with the release of the Little Children Are Sacred report, which exposed a confronting reality – physical and sexual abuse, the impact and extent of alcohol-fuelled violence, appalling school attendance rates.

The report triggered the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which saw much-needed investment and urgent action.

But this response occurred in isolation.

There was no plan.

Reporting and data collection was haphazard, so there was little basis for knowing what worked and what didn’t or why it didn’t.

The truth was that governments acted alone and in isolation from the work others were doing at different levels of government or across state borders.

This isn’t to say that some things didn’t work, that some things weren’t successful.

Investment in child and maternal health over the last 20 years for example has seen a significant 47 per cent decline in infant mortality in Western Australia, the Territory and South Australia.

This is the result of good investment and hard work but even in this circumstance, has been difficult to measure over time. To make sure what we’re doing is working, we must have a clear picture of outcomes, and we must be accountable.

The relationship between governments and Indigenous people was in disrepair.

There was no more telling example of this than in the Alice Springs town camps where, frustrated by being unable to secure agreement on leases, the previous Minister walked away.

He took with him his money, leaving the residents of the town camps in the same dire circumstances in which he found them.

When we came to government later that year, the Commonwealth came back to the table. We came back with a sense of purpose, and with hard heads.

But we came back too with hope that with fundamental reform we could deliver real change.

Real change so that the children of Alice Springs would grow up with a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, a good education and the best role model – a parent who brings home a pay cheque, not a welfare cheque, each fortnight.

Building the framework for change

Real change that would be replicated across the country.

A huge amount of practical work was needed – building houses, getting children to school, making communities safe, getting people off welfare and into jobs and tackling alcohol and drug abuse.

We began the work of correcting decades of underinvestment in houses, schools and health.

We are investing heavily in efforts to tackle chronic disease, including training an Indigenous health workforce and providing better follow up care.

We are investing record amounts in early childhood development.

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Plan has been negotiated and agreed with the states and territories. New figures released today show that over the last fifteen years, there has been an increase in Year 12 attainment by Indigenous students, up to 45.4 per cent from 30.7 per cent in 1995.

This is still well short of attainment rates for non-Indigenous Australians. So there is still much more work to do.

We also started work to overhaul the platform for the change we wanted to see in remote communities where disadvantage is greatest, a platform that would stand us in good stead not for five years or ten, but for a generation.

Developing a clear plan

In our first month in government, we started work on the Closing the Gap strategy – a single, overarching policy framework that would stretch across all governments.

This strategy brings together our actions and gives us a clear direction, a clear path to progress.

Our work in early childhood, in schools, in health and in economic participation.

Our work to build healthy homes and safe communities.

Our work to build Indigenous leadership and the rigours of governance to build accountable, responsible individuals, families and communities with strong social norms.

In 2008 we set specific and ambitious targets for Closing the Gap:

  • 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 years 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.

Finally, all governments are working together towards common goals.

Are signed up to these tough and ambitious targets for which we are accountable.

And this framework is showing the test of time. When we agreed to clear targets and measurement of progress against those targets, we said that if we weren’t on track, we’d go back to the drawing board.

This is exactly what happened with the $5.5 billion National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing.

The Agreement starts to address poor housing standards and chronic overcrowding in remote Indigenous communities by building up to 4,200 new houses and rebuilding and refurbishing around 4,800 houses by 2018.

In late 2009, it became clear that progress to meet these targets wasn’t sufficient. Within this framework, we renegotiated the National Partnership to ensure that jurisdictions could be penalised for poor performance.

This has created a renewed sense of urgency, a drive for states and the Northern Territory to meet their interim targets. If state governments don’t meet their targets for building houses, they have part of their housing budgets reallocated to somewhere that can.

Despite a record wet season across northern parts of Australia and significant flooding in the South East, the increased targets agreed to by States and the Northern Territory were exceeded.

In the year to June 2011, across Australia 490 new houses were built and 2,288 rebuilds and refurbishments were completed.

We are on track to meet our 2018 targets.

We are on track to deliver generational reform to housing.

We are not the first to build houses in remote communities but we are the first to build these houses on firm foundations.

Each government has now committed to build the houses, and for the first time governments don’t walk away when we hand over the keys.

Under the National Partnership Agreement, state and territory governments have clear responsibility for tenancy management in remote Indigenous communities.

This has never been agreed before.

What makes this possible is secure tenure. Where previous governments invested ad hoc in housing and other infrastructure on Indigenous-owned land with no firm legal basis, we have insisted on secure tenure.

Without secure tenure, ownership of housing assets is uncertain, responsibility for maintenance and repairs is unclear, tenants have no security or certainty and rent collection is haphazard. New houses, neglected and uncared for by governments and tenants can become slums.

Secure tenure provides a strong foundation for those houses to be built, allows for clear responsibilities to be understood, accepted and stuck to by all parties.

And housing tenants – as they are around the country – are responsible for paying their rent on time and keeping their yards tidy.

This sounds straightforward. It’s not.

The new requirements – to which States and Territories have agreed – mean that rent must be paid.

Today houses are allocated based on need. Tenants have an enforceable lease, the right to control who comes into their home and can demand repairs and maintenance. And governments have a clear responsibility.

We have built the platform for real change – change which will see houses built not only for this year and next, but for the next decade and the next generation.

Holding ourselves to account

Within the areas of Commonwealth responsibility, we have also acted.

We have reformed Commonwealth employment services so they focus on supporting work and not a life on welfare.

We are finalising an Indigenous Economic Development Strategy and supporting those native title agreements that lead to intergenerational economic benefits.

We ended CDEP in urban and regional areas where there are strong labour markets because we want to see Indigenous people working for proper wages. More Indigenous people are in jobs now as a result.

We have made sure that people who were working on CDEP wages in schools and local government jobs for example are now paid proper wages.

Many businesses are also supporting these efforts, training and employing Indigenous people as a priority.

While there is much more work to be done, especially in remote employment services, we have sown the seeds of change and put us on the path to closing the gap on employment.

We have reformed the welfare system for all Australians to better support disadvantaged people. The introduction of income management in the Northern Territory, Cape York and regions of Western Australia means that people buy groceries and not grog.

There have been vocal opponents to income management. But we looked to the evidence, including the testimony of people in the Northern Territory, and saw that it can stabilise a chaotic household and get people back on their feet. In this year’s budget we took the decision to extend income management to some regional and metropolitan areas.

The welfare reforms in Cape York are leading the way for future change in other areas of the country.

There has been some attention this week to a review commissioned by Cabinet into Indigenous expenditure.

We believe that to achieve real change for Indigenous people, we need to know what works and what doesn’t.

We need a wide range of informed views to be able to see what does work, and this is one of a range of sources for those views.

They don’t always make for pleasant reading.

To consider the evidence, as we do, you must consider all the evidence.

Rebuilding the relationship

The evidence is clear on another point: that government action alone has not been responsible for the change we have achieved, and it won’t be enough to create the enduring change we are working towards.

When we came to government in 2007 it wasn’t only the houses that were broken. The relationship between Aboriginal people and the government, particularly in the Northern Territory, was at an all-time low.

The sudden and rushed implementation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response – and particularly the calculated displacement of the Racial Discrimination Act – caused significant hurt for Aboriginal people.

It further betrayed the trust that people had in government.

And this had very real consequences.

Without a strong and robust relationship able to endure demands and disagreements, the pathway to reform hits a dead end.

It is my firm view that the provision of services by Government alone won’t lift people from poverty. People will lift themselves from poverty, with assistance and with clear expectations placed on them.

Social and community norms are the most powerful drivers of change.

While I can support change through investment and assistance, I can’t make that change happen. Individuals have to do that for themselves.

I have the clear expectation that they will do just that. I have that expectation of all Australians.

That they will send their kids to school. That they will give their children the best role model possible, a parent who goes to work each day. That they will pay the rent on time and that they will take good care of their homes.

And Indigenous people must have the same expectations of their Government that other Australians do – to support those most in need.

Indigenous Australians should also expect the respect of their government.

Clear expectations must come with respect for a person’s ability to meet those expectations.

On our first day as the new government in the Parliament of Australia, we started work to rebuild the relationship, to rebuild trust and respect for Aboriginal people.

We said sorry for the wrongs and injustices of the past.

A year later we established the Healing Foundation to help address the symptoms of trauma and its underlying causes.

The government has supported the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples to provide Indigenous Australians with new representation and the opportunity for new influence in policy formulation.

We celebrate the rich and diverse cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including through support for NAIDOC and to preserve Indigenous languages.

We have asked an Expert Panel of eminent Australians to consult widely on recognising Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.

And we have listened to people in the Northern Territory.

Loud and clear we heard from Aboriginal people during our consultations in 2009 that the displacement of the Racial Discrimination Act had caused hurt, distrust and had fractured the relationship between Aboriginal people and their government.

Last year, this government amended the legislation for the Northern Territory Emergency Response to fully reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act.

We have, in partnership with Aboriginal people, established a new way of doing things.

A way that asks more of each of us – of individuals, families and communities, and of government.

A way based on what works.

A way deeply rooted in a respectful relationship.

And a way that has at its heart the firm belief that together we can and will bring about change.

Future work – Northern Territory Emergency Response

I spoke earlier of 2007, and the situation we faced when we came into government.

This coincided with the beginnings of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, a policy that we inherited just months after it began.

We agreed strongly that there was a need for urgent action. We know though that the way this action started has caused hurt.

And over the last four years, we have worked to rebuild. We have invested in community safety – in more police, in more night patrols and in community safe houses. There are 62 more police in remote communities in the Northern Territory. There are 80 night patrols on the streets and 22 safe houses provide refuge for women and children.

There are more than 145 additional teachers in NT classrooms and every school day more than 4,000 Aboriginal children sit down to a decent meal. Nine new cr`eches have been built and 13 have been upgraded. More than 24,000 audiology, dental and ear nose and throat procedures have been delivered.

The community stores are now licensed and their governance monitored. We have made the decision to rebuild many stores in the Northern Territory with the support of the Aboriginal Benefits Account.

Our work is making a difference. Women and children tell me that they feel safer, and that they have better health services.

But despite this progress, the situation in the Territory remains critical.

Children must go to school.

Parents need to get off welfare and into work, so that those kids have a role model, someone to look up to who get up for work each day and brings home a pay cheque.

And we need to break the back of the grog problem in the Northern Territory.

Alcohol abuse is killing people. It’s ripping families apart.

It’s the reason for much of the violence and the poverty in remote communities.

Tackling grog must be done – so that we can make real change in housing, in education and in getting people into work.

The Northern Territory Government has just started some of the most significant reforms to tackle alcohol abuse. Alcohol management plans in some places are starting to have a real effect.

Over the last eight weeks, we have been consulting with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory about the next steps to rebuilding communities.

This has been a dialogue about how we build stronger futures together.

This discussion is about what happens next – where we go, and how we get there.

This was a chance for me to speak directly to people who don’t always get the opportunity to put their view.

In places like Docker River and Engawala, Maningrida and Lajamanu, and communities and regional centres throughout the Territory.

These consultations have at times been confronting.

People have been very clear with me about the huge levels of need they face, and about the expectations they have of government, and of themselves.

These are basic things that any Australian would understand – that their children grow up safely, that they get a decent education and have a future that includes a job and a roof over their heads.

The lasting impression of these consultations has been the willingness with which people are now approaching change.

Over the last few weeks, I have met people who want to do more.

We have a clear sense of purpose, a clear framework for our action and clear targets to work towards.

We are accountable for our progress and we are able to measure that progress. We are present on the ground, in a way that we never have been before.

And we have a partner in delivery, in the individuals, the families and the communities of the Northern Territory.

This relationship robust at times, and we don’t always agree.

But it’s honest and it’s open and I am confident that it is enduring.


Addressing Indigenous disadvantage is the work of a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes.

But without building firm foundations, we will remain caught in the cycle of frustration, despair and urgent need.

There will be more expectations of us as government. There will be many more expectations we have for others.

Parents and families must take responsibility for ensuring their children go to school.

People must take responsibility for getting and keeping a job.

Together we must break the back of alcohol abuse.

A strong partnership is the only way we achieve real change.

To take you back to where I started tonight.

There are now not only new and rebuilt houses in the Alice Springs Town Camps. There are street lights, street names and sign posts, letterboxes going in.

Every week there are regular rubbish pick ups organised by the town council. There is visitor accommodation that never existed before.

This is tangible and practical.

But it takes time, perseverance, and conviction.

And it takes the expectation that we will create change.