Closing the Gap Report

February 20, 2019

  I've remarked on numerous occasions both in this House and outside how privileged I consider myself to have been elected as the member for Werriwa and how important it is to properly represent the constituents of not only my electorate but the whole of the country. This was crystallised again yesterday, when I was able to be in this Chamber while the members for Lingiari, Barton, Forde and Warringah gave their contributions to this debate, and last week when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition spoke as well. It's deeply disappointing to me that 11 years after the apology and the release of the Closing the gap reports that little has changed, and it is clear that so much more work needs to be done with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to improve the way they live and their opportunities.

Before I go further, I acknowledge the traditional owners of our country. I also acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, whose land on which this parliament meets, and the Dharawal, Gandangara, Dharug and Tharawal people, whose land on which the electorate of Werriwa is based. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging and I acknowledge that this land here and the land on which I live, work and represent in south-west Sydney was, is and always will be Aboriginal land.

Indeed, the electorate of Werriwa takes its name from the Aboriginal name for Lake George. I drive past Lake George each time I make the journey to Canberra. The powerful winds and golden light that flex across the dry plains make it a difficult landmark to miss. It serves as a powerful reminder of the Indigenous heritage of the Canberra region, with its ties to the name of the electorate I represent.

My speech this evening takes the path that I believe all Australians must consciously take in putting reconciliation efforts front and centre of all we do. We cannot have a conversation about how we might close the gap without thoughtfully and critically engaging with the history of the land which we call home.

The Darug people are the traditional custodians of much of the land across the electorate of Werriwa. The Darug people suffered enormously at the hands of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and other early settlers in the Western Sydney region. Their land, food, water and children were taken from them. They were divested of their culture to be made more European. Diseases brought by settlers, such as tuberculosis and measles, further diminished their numbers. By 1840, fewer than 300 Darug Aborigines were alive. That was 10 per cent of the original population.

To set the stage today in empowering Indigenous Australians towards success, it's important that we frame current statistics not only as markers of deficit but also as markers of survival. What I have just described in the above circumstances is common to all of our First Nations people. Behind each statistic presented today is a tale of triumph against some of the most harrowing circumstances that mark this nation's past. Now we are at a point where we agree that Indigenous Australians deserve the best possible circumstances to thrive upon their own terms. I agree with the member for Maribyrnong when he said last week:

… there is good news but not enough good news … hope but not enough hope … progress but not enough progress.

The fact of the matter is that one of the oldest living societies in the world, Indigenous Australians, managed magnificently for over 65,000 years without colonial interference. In the past few years, we've had books like Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia and Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu. Books like this speak to the incredible, sophisticated ways that First Nations people managed the land and the waterways of Australia for tens of thousands of years. A well-known example of this is the Brewarrina fish traps, in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Yet this area of Australia continues to suffer under the actions of modern-day Australia. When I see the devastation of the fish kills, the constant devastating cycles of drought and flood and the harm that modern-day life in Australia does to a once carefully cared for country, I think we have a lot to learn from the people who managed to live productively off this land for the last 65,000 years. It is with this in mind that we must take a leaf out of the book of Indigenous people and ask what we can do best to empower you.

The new Western Sydney Airport, in my electorate, provides a new opportunity and a fresh start in the age of reconciliation. I'm pleased to say that I know, as a member of the community consultative committee, that the WSA corporation and the government are working closely to ensure that the Aboriginal heritage is recorded and managed sensitively during the construction of the airport. There have already been eight stakeholder forums, and discussions are underway with those who know the land and have history with the region, ensuring that the airport will be built with First Nations input.

The Western Sydney City Deal also includes a strong commitment to Indigenous job targets, jobs for First Nations people, to ensure that there is clear impetus to include and engage Indigenous Australians front and centre with the prosperity that this project will bring to our region.

These may seem like small measures, but the institutional change required in closing the gap is going to take time and commitment. We need to build our institutions in Australia to include governance and input from our Indigenous people. I was disappointed to hear the Prime Minister discussing the changes in the statistics as wins and victories. Of course the statistics go some way to measuring the level of disadvantage that Indigenous Australians experience. But things like institutional empowerment and government input are so much more important and so much harder to measure. Only through self-determination, governance and input will we be able to truly empower our First Nations people.

I am proud to be part of the Australian Labor Party, a party that recognises the fundamental importance of Indigenous voices within our sphere of national government. I wholeheartedly support our measures to formally ensure that Indigenous Australians play an integral role in our nation's governance structures. An Indigenous voice in the parliament is absolutely crucial. This will ensure that all our parliaments have in perpetuity First Nations input on laws and lawmaking for Australians' futures. So too is the inclusion of the additional recognition in our Constitution.

We can't go back and correct the wrongs of the past, but what we can do is commit ourselves to closing the gap, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to improve health, living and educational outcomes as soon as possible. And we need to commit ourselves to doing that now.