Time For Action

Malarndirri McCarthy is Labor Senator for the Northern Territory

For the past decade, the first couple of weeks of federal Parliament has given focus to Indigenous affairs.

Together, politicians from all sides, examine the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap report and mark the anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

Once a year this Parliament has the responsibility to report to the Australian people on the progress, or otherwise, on the lives of First Nations Australians. And it must do so in a spirit of bipartisanship, which reflects its inception 10 years ago with the Apology.

The Close the Gap coalition recently released a scathing 10 year review of the Closing the Gap strategy. The review argues that higher spending shouldn't come as a surprise to people. The Close the Gap coalition reports that on a per person basis, the average health expenditure was $1.38 per Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person for every $1.00 spent per non-indigenous person. This is despite the inequity of the disease burden.

First Nations People have, on average, 2.3 times the disease burden of non-indigenous people.

Indigenous organisations at the coalface of closing the gap, have faced continued funding cuts since the 2013/14 Budget.

In the Northern Territory, community legal organisations, women's safety programs, youth programs and many others have lost so much funding that they face closure.

This year, before and after the tabling of the Closing the Gap report, I read many articles about the lack of progress on the targets. This shouldn't be a surprise. There is a direct correlation between the $500 million of cuts to funding that the Coalition Government made and the data that has been reported this year.

Some people have asked me if the targets should be scrapped. Never before has our nation just said, "it's too hard, we might just walk away from that issue". Giving up is not an option. Usually, on the day the Prime Minister tables the Closing the Gap there is a bipartisan conversation about where we have come from and where we are going.

Up until this year, all sides of politics knew that to close the gap we must work together because of the big systemic issues facing indigenous people across this country in various places - remote, rural, urban.

However, this year was different. All Aboriginal members of Parliament have been excluded from the Government's conversations about Closing the Gap. This week Opposition Leader Bill Shorten reminded the Turnbull Government that Labor is ready to work with them on the many issues facing First Nations People, but we will not wait. We will not be held in a holding pattern because of the Prime Minister's inaction, particularly on the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Each year First Nations People hear the report has been tabled and stop and think, how accurate is that of my community and family. Are our children going to finish high school? It's so expected that our children are going to go to prison, will that happen?

How many family members will be added to the dialysis waiting list? How many people do I know that will be signed to CDP? How many more people will be crammed into a house?

We know these are complex issues and that we have much unfinished business to work on. That is why Bill Shorten announced a compensation scheme for survivors of the Stolen Generations in Commonwealth jurisdictions.

He also announced the establishment of a $10 million National Healing Fund to support healing for Stolen Generations and their families. He reinforced Labor's support for the Uluru statement from the heart and constitutional reform. On February 13, 2008, Australians came together at Parliament House to listen to the Apology. In the spirit of generosity, the Stolen Generations came into the Parliament to hear then Prime Minister Rudd say, "on behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry". It is that generosity that we must hold on to.

When people tell me that closing the gap is hard, I agree with them. But I look to my electorate, home to the oldest continuing culture in the world, where ancient languages are still spoken, and despite the sometimes harsh reality of where we are at, people still have hope. Labor understands the need to include First Nations People in policy making on the issues that impact First Nations Peoples. We recognise that the solutions must be authored, owned and controlled by First Nations People.

We are capable of rising above the complexity that often clouds our ability to see clearly, to erase wilful deafness and inaction. Just because it's hard, we must never surrender the journey in the fight for equality and justice for First Nations Australians.

This piece was originally published in the Sunday Territorian on 18 February 2018

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