Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Closing the Gap report – SKY PM Agenda, Interview with David Speers

Program: SKY PM Agenda

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DAVID SPEERS: Jenny Macklin thanks for your time. If we can go through some of the findings here first of all. Let’s start with infant mortality. We still have the rather shocking figure there, kids under five, babies and young toddlers, still twice as likely to die before the age of five if they are Indigenous. Does that still shock you?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well it doesn’t shock me because I’m far too familiar with it. But what it does do is demonstrate that we still have an enormous amount to do. This is an area where over the last ten years or so there’s been some improvement but it’s still plainly, completely unacceptable and makes it so important that we keep on with some of the things that we know work. And that’s why I was pleased to see the initiative that the Prime Minister announced today to expand the mothers and babies programs because we know these mothers are looked after when they’re pregnant, if they get their antenatal checks done. When the baby’s born, the baby’s more likely to be a decent weight, and then of course, you need good care after the baby’s born and that means the mother needs to go and get herself checked and also the baby checked. So these are very positive things but of course we know we’ve got a lot to do.

DAVID SPEERS: These centres are no doubt a good thing but difficult to get them in every community, isn’t it? Is that the end goal to try and do that or (inaudible) do you actually have to target more populous centres?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we’re certainly targeting our efforts because we want to make sure that we have these services where we have most Indigenous mothers and babies, but we do want to expand it as much as we possibly can. We’ve put an extra $9 million into it today, but of course there is continuing need. We know we’ve got to do more but it’s been very important to get these new services up and running.

DAVID SPEERS: On literacy and numeracy there has been some improvement in kids in Years 3, 5 and 7. It’s gone backwards though in Year 9, that’s particularly in the area of their writing skills. Do you put that down to more absenteeism, as kids get older, get to that sort of 15 year old mark, that they’re not turning up at school?

JENNY MACKLIN: Partly attendance, partly because their earlier years have undoubtedly not been adequate as well. So we are seeing it’s good to see some improvement. I have to say only small improvement. We have a lot to do in this area as well, but to really focus in on these older students, the students around Year 9, we’ve announced today some additional flexibility around the trade training centres. One of the things that we know works is to have these trade training centres, including in the remote parts of Australia, and what we’ve done today is change the rules so that people in those remote schools will be better able to get access to the trade training money. So we do think that will help encourage students of that age range, boys and girls, to come to school.

DAVID SPEERS: Part of the approach has also been a carrot and stick approach when it comes to school attendance hasn’t it? Are you going to further that avenue? Are you going to pursue more of that welfare quarantining and other measures to try and tackle this attendance problem?

JENNY MACKLIN: We are, and as part of our major welfare reform initiatives, the legislation is in the Parliament right now. What we’re proposing is that for any parent who’s on parenting payment for a period, if they don’t have their children at school on a regular basis then they will have their income managed. I’m very disappointed that at the moment the Opposition is saying that they are going to oppose this measure. This is really the first time we’ve seen a proper link to apply right across the Northern Territory to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parents to really say to them, you’ve got to get your kids to school. You’ve got to get them to school when they’re young, but you also have to get them to school when they’re teenagers. We know how critical it is that children go to school on a regular basis and we are not going to be able to close the gap until we address these attendance problems.

DAVID SPEERS: On the employment figure there has been a bit of improvement there but it’s still a big gap of 21 per cent comparing Indigenous to the non-Indigenous employment ratio. Again is this a consequence of the remote communities that there aren’t the employment opportunities there?

JENNY MACKLIN: Once again there are many explanations. One reason for the improvement is because the economy’s been growing and we’ve seen both Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment improve, so that’s certainly a positive thing. But we are still way behind and particularly in remote Australia. It’s partly because there’s a lack of jobs, but it’s also because of these very, very poor education results. If people can’t read and write, if they aren’t doing well in numeracy, the chance of them being able to get a job is very slim. So education is absolutely critical.

DAVID SPEERS: Tony Abbott is also saying that there’s not enough being done to allow Indigenous people to create work and he’s pointing in particular at Queensland and the Wild Rivers legislation there that he wants overturned. Now what is the Federal Government’s position on that, are you comfortable with Anna Bligh doing this in Queensland?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we’ve made it clear that we won’t be supporting him playing politics with this issue. We know that the best way of dealing with issues is sitting down and working through them. So let’s just put that specific issue to one side. Going to your broader point about business…

DAVID SPEERS: Well no, if I could get a specific answer on the Wild Rivers legislation, what is the decision?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we’ve made our position clear, we won’t be supporting it. We will not be supporting…

DAVID SPEERS: But do you support Anna Bligh or not on that?

JENNY MACKLIN: We’ve said that we’ll sit down and discuss the issue with the Queensland Government and with the Traditional Owners. We know that there have been some applications for development already approved. So I think we actually have to look at the facts. But I think it’s also important to resolve these issues by discussion rather than a heavy political act which is what …

DAVID SPEERS: Has there been this discussion? I mean this isn’t out of the blue. This has been on the table for a long time? You could, according to some views overturn it if you wanted. Where are we at with this?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we’re involved in discussions with the Queensland Government and as I said that’s exactly the way that we think we should proceed. We want to do it in a sensible way. We think that unfortunately we have the Leader of the Opposition deciding to be political about these issues rather than practical.

DAVID SPEERS: But are you comfortable with it or not? Do you have concerns about it?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we have a desire to see economic development right across Australia for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I have been told that there have been development applications agreed to in the areas covered by the Wild Rivers legislation, so plainly some development is possible. Whether there’s any room for any other development is a matter for discussion and I think we should do it in a sensible way.

DAVID SPEERS: All right. The final figure I wanted your thoughts on, the life expectancy gap. Again, some improvement but really only incremental.

JENNY MACKLIN: I think this is very important because we know that there have been improvements in the data that have given us these changed figures, so we don’t want to claim any credit for the change in a figure from 17 years to 11. That is about improvements in the data. And I think that really does demonstrate to all of us just how important it is to get the information right so that we can target our efforts in where they are going to work.

DAVID SPEERS: An Indigenous man is, according to the figures, is only going to live eleven and a half years shorter than a non-Indigenous man. The gap is 9.7 years for women. You know in this day and age that’s still a big, big gap. Are we going to see this closed in our lifetime?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well all the advice we have is that it will take a generation to close this gap because one of the most significant factors influencing that gap in life expectancy is a very high level of chronic disease, chronic illness particularly for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. And so addressing all of those problems that come from smoking, obesity, we know that we have a very, very significant chronic disease load and problem in the Indigenous community. So we’ve got to really attack that issue while at the same time working with mothers and babies for those children who have been born today.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, Jenny Macklin, thank you.