2009 Victorian Fabian Society Annual Dinner

Author: Jenny Macklin MP is the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

Thank you for this opportunity to talk about our first 18 months in Government and to look ahead to the future - as we pursue our ambitious reform agenda to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. 

Within months of coming to office, we moved to re-frame public debate and fundamentally re-engineer Indigenous policy. We acknowledged and apologised for the injustices of the past. 

We set specific and measurable targets in housing, health, education and employment and allocated unprecedented funding.  And, very importantly, we took the first, significant steps towards re-setting our relationship with Indigenous Australians to clear the way for new partnerships founded on mutual trust and respect. We are doing this because decade upon decade of failed government policy has left a legacy of intergenerational poverty, despair and hopelessness. 

Strong action and tough decisions have already been taken. And there will be more.  

Sometimes this takes us into controversial territory – where some people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous feel uncomfortable. This is when a genuine and honest relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is so important. Because, as we’ve learnt from the past, attempting to impose solutions does not work. 

To support the drive for change, we are working across all levels of government in partnership with Indigenous people. In remote Australia, we are overhauling the way we deliver services and infrastructure to communities to put an end to the disjointed, ad hoc approach of the past. All state and territory governments have signed up to the new Remote Service Delivery Strategy which is being delivered initially in priority locations across the country. As part of this concentrated and accelerated approach, these communities will be the first to receive the facilities and services you would expect in any Australian town of the same size.  The infrastructure and services that support healthy social norms so people can reach their potential and businesses can develop and grow. Police on the beat, a community hall to meet in, a sportsground, a health clinic, a school with teachers. 

To do this, we are working with local people to develop a plan for each community to meet their specific goals and needs. Up in Fitzroy Crossing for example, work has already started on a community plan for the future. Workshops have been held and goals established across health, education and training and housing. Getting housing right is critical to restoring positive social norms. No family can function normally in an overcrowded, dilapidated house where you can’t cook a meal or have a shower. Children can’t get up for school in the morning if their sleep has been disturbed by the noise of adults drinking and fighting. 

To overcome years of neglect, we are making the largest ever investment by any Australian Government in remote Indigenous housing - $5.5bn over ten years. Such a level of investment demands security of tenure to protect assets and make sure ongoing repairs and maintenance are done. Secure tenure is central to our Indigenous housing policy - in the same way it underpins public and private housing markets around the country. 

In the past, the absence of secure tenure has seen millions of dollars poured into Indigenous housing with abysmal results. Houses were built but no one took responsibility for repairs and maintenance or collecting the rent. And now they are unliveable. That’s why I am insisting on secure tenure. We require a lease agreement, so governments have the legal right to go on to a property to meet their responsibility to carry out repairs and maintenance. And so tenants sign up to the requirements of normal tenancy agreements. 

Of course, around 70 per cent of Indigenous Australians don’t live in remote communities. They live in our cities, regional centres and country towns. Under our unprecedented social housing investment, Indigenous people in urban and regional areas will benefit from the increase in the supply of social housing.  For example, in the Northern Territory we are constructing 44 units in a Seniors Village in Palmerston, an area where Indigenous people make up approximately 37 per cent of all public housing applicants.  

With the state and territory governments we are investing $1.6 billion to start to meet our targets in health to close the life expectancy gap within a generation. And to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade. To prevent and better manage chronic disease - we are funding 133,000 additional health checks and 400,000 additional chronic disease management services. To overcome persistent problems with hearing and vision - we are expanding eye, ear and dental health services, concentrating on Indigenous children.

And to support families -  we are establishing 35 child and family centres in areas of need, improving access to antenatal care, pre-pregnancy, and teenage sexual reproductive health programs and maternal and child health services.  

Recognising that education is key to turning around disadvantage, the Government has dedicated funding so that by 2013, every four year old child will have access to a quality, affordable early childhood education program delivered 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year in the year before formal schooling. Indigenous students are disproportionately concentrated in schools in the most disadvantaged communities. In a national partnership with the states and territories, we are investing $1.5 billion in these schools across the country.  This will pay for hiring the best teachers, providing intensive tuition and classroom support and strengthening home-school-community partnerships to lift achievement.   

We are also working to address literacy and numeracy and invest in reforms to lift the quality and capacity of teachers.  For example, in New South Wales highly accomplished teachers will now receive enhanced salaries of almost $100,000 for remaining in the classroom and teaching in some of the most disadvantaged schools where their skills can have the greatest positive impact.   

To tackle the intergenerational cycle of welfare dependency, we are substantially restructuring employment and training programs to give people the skills they need to get and keep a job.

The Indigenous employment program has been reformed and expanded, with the Government investing $764 million to respond to the specific needs of Indigenous jobseekers, Indigenous businesses and employers. It’s targeting regional areas and specific industries with labour shortages as well as developing strategies to recruit and retain Indigenous workers.

The Community Development Employment program has also been reformed to focus on remote regions where there are limited job opportunities. It will now deliver community development and work readiness services – including up to 3,000 on-the-job work experience placements. We’re bringing to an end the wide-spread use of CDEP workers who were delivering government services without proper pay; a practice that has denied many Indigenous Australians meaningful career opportunities, and basic work entitlements.   

I do believe it's the responsibility of government to make reforms to shape a society which protects and nurtures our people, especially the most vulnerable. It is our responsibility to give people the structures and support they need to live safe, healthy and productive lives in strong, resilient families and communities.  

Every decision we make must be in the best interests of those who are most vulnerable - especially children. But governments can't and shouldn't be responsible for everything. There must be individual responsibility. And people must look out for each other. Whether it’s people taking responsibility for being good tenants. Or young school leavers taking responsibility for their future - looking  beyond a life spent on welfare as their only option for the future. Or parents taking responsibility for their family’s wellbeing and their children’s health, safety and education. 

And when I look back on the last 18 months I see so much cause for optimism and hope. I’ve seen it in urban and regional communities like La Perouse, Walgett and Lake Condah. And out in the Kimberley, in Arnhem Land, on Cape York.  

At Billard, in remote Western Australia, where I met Mary Victor O’Reeri who lost two brothers to suicide and confronted the tragedy by organising a national suicide summit at her remote outstation.  

Instead of being bitter and angry, Mary wants solutions. And she has set about finding them, bringing 147 people - among them judges and government ministers - to Billard for the Blank Page Summit on suicide. For Mary it wasn’t about waiting for someone else to come up with the answers.Because as Mary says, “We are the people we are waiting for. 

As a government, we are the people who must be there with support. Because the future is a shared responsibility. The Government also understands the great responsibility we have to make the reforms which are vital to heal, unite and restore human dignity and cultural pride. These are the quieter, but still significant steps forward, that sometimes slip beneath the radar. 

Reforms which recognise the vital role of pride in culture in shaping people's aspirations and choices. The healing power of the Apology gave us a once in a lifetime chance to change old attitudes. By recognising the wrongs and injustices of the past. By acknowledging that we have among us, the custodians of the most ancient human cultures stretching back 60,000 years.

To sustain cultural pride and identity, we are coordinating the efforts of government, cultural institutions, educators and researchers to preserve Indigenous languages as an integral part of our national heritage. We are increasing support for native title representative bodies - understanding that native title will always be a real and powerful acknowledgement of Indigenous culture and the ongoing connection to land.

Native title also has enormous potential to deliver practical, structural change to give generations of Indigenous Australians a better future. For example, in resource rich areas, native title agreements can bring considerable economic opportunities which are vital to sustain healthy, functional communities.

To help heal the enduring wounds of history, we are overhauling the process of the repatriation of Australian Indigenous remains from international institutions to make them more inclusive of Indigenous aspirations. To address trauma and healing, we are setting up an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation with a strong focus on the unique needs of the Stolen Generations. 

To give Indigenous Australians a new voice, we are establishing a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Representative Body. Last week, in his report to government, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma set out the Steering Committee’s vision for a new national representative body.  In his words: “to re-invigorate and transform the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community sector so that it is increasingly representative, collegiate, and focused on building strong national partnerships.” 

And we have pledged our support for the aspirational framework set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - affirming the human rights of all Indigenous peoples. Human rights were central to the discussions I had recently with United Nations Special Rapporteur, Professor James Anaya who the Government invited to visit Australia. 

We shared much common ground - on the legitimate entitlement of Indigenous people to all human rights based on principles of equality, partnership, good faith and mutual benefit.  

We also discussed the Government's firm commitment to the most basic of human rights - the right of vulnerable people, in particular women and children, to live free of violence, abuse and neglect. It is my great conviction that the human rights debate we should have in this country must be in the context of what is the shocking reality of life for many Indigenous Australians living in the poorest parts of Australia. 

Uppermost in my thinking is the responsibility I have as a Minister to protect the defenceless, particularly women, the elderly and children. It is every child’s right to be born without the crippling, lifelong disadvantage of foetal alcohol syndrome. It’s their right to grow up in a family, where they are loved and cared for. This basic human right to be safe and well, is made explicit in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And it was echoed recently by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which stated that, “the best interests of the child cannot be neglected or violated in preference for the best interests of the group.” 

I know that issues like income management and alcohol controls are controversial but at their heart they are aimed at delivering on a most fundamental obligation of a government –  protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable. And there’s evidence that they are having positive outcomes. 

In Aurukun on Cape York Peninsula, closing the tavern and reforms introduced under the Family Responsibilities Commission have seen a significant reduction in crime and alcohol-related problems. Just this week, there was further evidence of this from retired Queensland District Court judge, Michael Forde. He revealed that since alcohol restrictions were introduced in Doomadgee and Mornington Island in 2003, there has been a 50 per cent reduction in violent crimes each year. 

In Yuendumu and Wadeye women have told me that income management means there’s more money to spend on food and other basics for their children. In Fitzroy Crossing - where strong men and women led by Emily Carter and June Oscar campaigned to restrict alcohol sales - life is healthier and safer. Fewer people need hospital treatment for injuries sustained in alcohol-fuelled fights; there are fewer alcohol affected teenagers and birth weights in babies have increased. 

Importantly, 12 months after the introduction of alcohol restrictions, a survey by the University of Notre Dame in Western Australia found almost universal support for the change. While the evidence shows these measures are having a positive effect, I know people have concerns about the impact of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act on the morale of Indigenous people. 

Although many people in the prescribed communities in the Northern Territory recognise the benefits of income management, they feel they been treated unfairly. We cannot afford to have this erode their trust in government and other institutions. These include the people who are vital to making their communities safer and healthier - doctors, teachers, police and others who provide essential services. That’s why we remain firmly committed to removing the Racial Discrimination Act exemptions from the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation.

We are revising the NTER measures to ensure that they are indeed consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act.  

Over the past three months, we have held more than 500 different meetings across the Northern Territory ranging from formal community meetings and regional workshops to small group discussions. All these discussions were held to gather people’s views on measures including income management, alcohol restrictions, five year leases and community stores licensing. 

A wide range of views were expressed and these will be considered as the Government decides on the future direction of these measures. There’s no denying the complex and difficult challenges that lie ahead. Or the time it will take and the strength and determination we will need to meet them.

I am committed to doing two things.

First, continuing and strengthening our efforts to work with Indigenous people, in partnership, respectfully, to find solutions to the many problems they face.

Second, ensuring that the most vulnerable people in the Australian community, Indigenous women and children, are the central focus of government policy. This sometimes requires hard choices. It often involves robust policy measures. It may not be popular or unanimously acclaimed. But it is the right thing to do. 

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