Closing The Gap Report 2020

By Terri Butler MP

25 February 2020

As happens every day in this place, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. Here in the Canberra region, the traditional owners are the Ngunnawal people and the Ngambri people. I also want to acknowledge my colleagues and fellow parliamentarians who are Aboriginal people: the Hon. Linda Burney, Senators McCarthy, Dodson and Lambie, and the Hon. Ken Wyatt.

When the Closing the gap report was presented to parliament, the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Anthony Albanese, made a speech in which he made some, I think, very poignant and telling remarks. He said that closing the gap:

… adds up to nothing but sentiment and speeches, if this occasion becomes merely a ceremonial renewal of good intentions and a promise to do better next time.

He reflected on the Closing the Gap targets and said:

It is an indictment that, of all these targets, we’re on track for only two. The problem was not that the targets were too ambitious … the failure to meet these targets is our failure.

Of course, in saying 'our' failure, he wasn't referring to one or a few members of this parliament; he was referring to all of the members of this parliament collectively. It's important that responsibility for the failure to meet the Closing the Gap targets be laid at the feet of the parliament. And it's appropriate that responsibility and accountability—two of the words that the Prime Minister used in his speech during the debate to take note of the Closing the gap report—be laid at our feet as members of parliament. And it's also right that criticism be laid at our feet. I'm very grateful that Anthony once again recommitted Labor to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and to a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to parliament, which is one of the components of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It is important, when we talk about why five out of the seven targets are not on track, that we think about the centrality of power in influencing the failures that have been laid at our feet. The failure to be on track for five out of seven Closing the Gap targets tells us that change is needed when it comes to power structures. Self-determination and autonomy require power. As Professor Megan Davis has said, 'A partnership where people can genuinely make informed choices and form their own pathways is not possible without structural reform.' This means that we can't continue to take an approach to addressing the targets in the Closing the gap report without also addressing the fundamental power relations that exist.

To give one example, in response to this year's Closing the gap report, Dr Chelsea Bond and David Singh have responded to that report by writing about the importance of transforming relationships of power. I want to quote from their article, which is called 'More than a refresh required for closing the gap of Indigenous health inequality'. They specifically talk about health inequality in Indigenous communities, as well as Indigenous health more broadly. I want to quote extensively so please indulge me. They said:

What is required is a broadening of our intellectual investment in Indigenous health: one that invites social scientific perspectives about the social world that Indigenous people occupy and its role in the production of illness and inequalities. In this way, we would come to understand that race needs to be better conceptualised before we understand the ways it matters to health outcomes.

Through this we might also come to realise the limitations of drawing too heavily upon a medical response to what is effectively a political problem, enabling us to extend our strategies beyond affordable prescriptions for remedying individual illnesses to include remedying the power imbalances that cause the health inequalities we are so intent on describing.

We might then be prepared for the radical reconfiguring of relationships of power between Indigenous and non‐Indigenous people that are necessary for achieving better health outcomes, whereby Indigenous peoples could be considered the solution to better health rather than the cause of ill health, where Indigenous research institutions administer Indigenous health research investments rather than be advisors to them, and where Indigenous peoples are the architects of health advancement rather than accessories to failed health policy frameworks.

They went on to say:

That any of these suggestions might appear as radical propositions is perhaps a more telling and tragic indictment of what little progress has been made in over a decade of the Closing the Gap approach, more tragic than the statistical tale that is told each February on the floors of the Australian Parliament.

I also want to note that in the discussions of the role of power there are few more obvious manifestations as violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Recently, the Hon. Linda Burney MP was quoted in the press about violence in Australia particularly against Indigenous women. She said:

People need to recognise that for Aboriginal families, these are not statistics, they are real people.

She went on to say:

It's not just people murdered or people missing, but it's the injury as well that goes unnoticed …

The thing that I am very incensed about, it's not just the murders, but the actual hospitalisations, permanent disabilities, and the maiming that takes place.

In this ABC report, the ABC said:

Nationally, Indigenous women make up 16 per cent of all female murder victims, despite comprising less than 3 per cent of the population.

It went on to say:

The ABC obtained exclusive data revealing, in some states, Aboriginal women also made up 10 per cent of unsolved missing persons cases. These women were often presumed dead.

Celeste Liddle wrote about this phenomenon recently in an article called 'Aboriginal women continue to disappear silently as we've done for decades'. She said:

A few years back, I spent a lot of time trawling through the lists created by feminist groups such as Destroy the Joint and Real for Women of victims of violence against women, and identifying the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women amongst these lists. I've spoken about this before but it was incredibly tough work, not just because the statistics were heartbreaking but also because so many of the cases would have one police report and no media follow up. These women often went further unmentioned and unnamed – their cases were never taken up by the media, the trials of their killers were not covered, they remained invisible to the rest of the country.

It's very clear that when it comes to violence we need a stronger approach to making sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have the structural power, in a collective sense, that they need to make sure that the violence is brought to an end. Violence has been a theme of this week, of course, given the circumstances in my own electorate recently and elsewhere across the nation. It is important that when we talk about violence we also think about those women who go missing and are never found, whose families live for decades not knowing what happened.

I met recently with Senator Kim Pate, who's a senator in Canada, alongside the founder of Sisters Inside, Deb Kilroy, to discuss this issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australia. Senator Pate is leading a campaign on a very similar issue in Canada. This is an issue that requires further consideration and further attention. It requires those things so that we don't have cases like this one. And I'll return to the ABC report that I mentioned that cites:

Widjabul woman Rhoda Roberts has worked as a journalist, broadcaster, director and festival programmer in the arts and says two women in her family have just "disappeared".

Her twin sister was 39 years old when she disappeared. They subsequently found her body, and her killer was never found. Back in 2002 Ms Roberts' cousin, Lucy McDonald, vanished from her Lismore home. She's never been found. These cases are horrifying and deeply distressing, and we need to focus on them. That also means not cutting funding to the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum. It means not cutting funding to WESNET. Thirty-one per cent of their safe phones go to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. These programs make a serious difference to the lives of women, but we must absolutely address structural reform to ensure that people have power.