We need to place Indigenous voices at the centre of our progress - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

We need to place Indigenous voices at the centre of our progress


Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (11:15): It is both a pleasure and a surprise to follow the member for Newcastle in this debate. It's a pleasure because she is an articulate and passionate advocate for better engagement with Aboriginal people and with Torres Strait Islander people and she is someone who constantly works to put her money where her mouth is, to go out to the community and listen to people. It's a surprise because I would have thought I'd follow a Liberal Party speaker in this debate, but seemingly the Turnbull government has run out of speakers in relation to the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap statement, even though they're in majority government. So I'm a bit surprised to be up next, after the member for Newcastle, but there you have it.

The Closing the Gap statement, of course, cannot be considered in isolation. It must be considered in the context in which it was originally created by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. As you'll remember, as everyone of a certain age will remember, the entire nation had been moved by the Bringing them homereport, brought down in 1997. I certainly remember where I was and how I felt at the time that report was brought down, and on hearing the stories—you almost can't call them stories; it's almost too kind a word for the harrowing accounts of what happened to children, what happened to parents, what happened to families. I was reminded of how that felt recently, on the weekend, when I attended an event organised with Link-Up and with the state of Queensland to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of Prime Minister Rudd's apology. That was an excellent event.

Link-Up is a sterling organisation. It is an organisation that reunifies members of the stolen generations with their families. Sometimes that's very joyous, sometimes they get time with parents they have had no time with before and sometimes it is very sad. Sometimes it's sorry business. Sometimes it's reunification, not with a living parent but with someone who's already passed away, at the graveside. So it's very important work and it's work that must be absolutely endorsed.

At the event held on the weekend with Link-Up and the state of Queensland, the former Prime Minister and member for Griffith, the Hon. Kevin Rudd, spoke in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the giving of the apology. Many other people spoke at the event as well, but the people who were there I think would have found the most striking speech to have been the one given by an elder, Brian Gray, a member of the stolen generations, who told us what it was like for him as a three-year-old and a four-year-old. He told us of the treatment that he suffered and what that had meant for him as he grew older and grew into an adult. There wasn't a person there who wasn't crying. And there wasn't a person there who didn't want to reach back through time and stop it. But we can't, of course. We can't do that.

We can express the nation's feelings about what happened and we can commit to doing better—and that's what the apology was. The apology was an acknowledgement of pain. The apology was something that brought our nation together and forced us to confront the past. And it forced us to do it in a way that would inspire us to do better, not just in relation to the removal of children—and, of course, that remains a significant issue today—but in relation to all of the measures by which the quality of life of someone who was born Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in this country can be assessed in a comparative way with everyone else. That's what closing the gap should be about. That's what the Closing the gap report was about, and I wanted to thank Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for what he did and for his leadership.

I made this point when I spoke at the event with Link-Up on the weekend. After the Bringing them home report, there wasn't consensus. The apology wasn't inevitable. It wasn't something that would definitely happen. It was really far from that. Calls for an apology were radical politics back then. We had to march; we had to fight—all of us, with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people leading that, of course, and other members of the community, allies, standing beside them. It seemed impossible that anyone would apologise and that the then Prime Minister was staunchly opposed to a national apology being given. But with the change of government, with the new Prime Minister, what had previously been impossible was done.

Now, 10 years later, it seems as though it was inevitable. It seems as though it was something that was always going to happen, but, of course, it wasn't. It took that leadership from the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to bring us together, to unify us. He has many legacies, of course, but one of his greatest legacies, if not the greatest, is that his work, his leadership and the leadership of others with him in the cabinet at the time, have brought us together to commit at least to measuring and to actually asking, 'What's going on?'

There is a saying in business: you don't manage what you don't measure. It's the same for our nation. We have to measure, because it forces us to admit that we're not doing well enough, that we're not meeting the targets that we set, that we're falling short as a nation and that, in doing that, we're letting down our friends, our colleagues and complete strangers. We're letting them down. So it is with this year's Closing the Gap statement. Three measures out of seven are on track. That's better than last year. The reduction in child mortality is on track, the improvement of involvement in early education for Indigenous kids is on track and year 12 attainment is on track. But there are four other measures that aren't, and isn't it terrible that life expectancy is one of those that are not on track and that employment is not on track?

I think it's appropriate to note that the Prime Minister is seeking to review the targets. In doing so, I hope that he will not try to make them less ambitious. We need ambitious targets. As was the case with the apology, some things seem impossible until they're done; then you've done them and you move on. We owe it to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be ambitious and to have ambitious targets. As the member for Newcastle said so eloquently, we need to think about why we're failing and think about the role of Aboriginal and Islander led organisations, or the lack of them, in our success or otherwise.

Being able to speak a few words in Ngunawal, as the Prime Minister can, is great. What's even better is listening to the words that are spoken to us by Aboriginal and Islander people. It's not enough, as the member for Newcastle said, to recite the proposition that we will do things with Aboriginal people, not to them. That's not enough. We have to walk that talk.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was too readily dismissed by this Prime Minister and this government. If we're serious, and we should be, because we have to be, then respect should be paid to the Statement from the Heart. We should acknowledge the importance of truth telling. We should acknowledge that we need a voice to this parliament, a continuous voice to this parliament, so that it's not close the gap speeches once a year but a continuous engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about what we're doing—about what the parliament is doing and what the executive government is doing. And ultimately we need to come to the view that treaty is something that we can do, that we can have a more mature relationship as a nation and that we can be reconciled in a much fuller sense of the word.

The apology was so crucial. It was such a watershed moment for our nation. It was absolutely fundamental and necessary for healing and for progress. But it's not enough of itself, because we need to continue to push. Let's never stop seeking to make progress, and let's place Aboriginal and Islander led organisations and voices at the centre of the progress that we seek to make.

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