Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall expresses her support for the Voice to Parliament and the Closing The Gap plan

14 February 2023

I rise to speak in response to this motion on the 15th anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations and the introduction of the latest Closing the Gap implementation plan. In doing so, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri elders of the Canberra region, where parliament gathers. I also acknowledge the traditional custodians of my area in Warringah. Their names remain contested, but they are part of the longest surviving culture in the world. And in acknowledging them I acknowledge, too, their sorrow and the cost of sharing this land, and I commit myself to genuine healing—and I acknowledge that the land was never ceded.

I commend the Albanese government's commitment to closing the gap for Indigenous Australians and support the 2023 implementation plan introduced on Monday, accompanied by the $420 million of new funding for practical action. The implementation plan represents an important step forward in enacting the promises made by this government. The government must emphasise working with Indigenous people on policies that will affect them. That is so important.

I firmly believe that the Voice will be a vital contribution to future Closing the Gap implementation plans and other policies impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The success of Closing the Gap must be determined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities themselves. The third review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap tells us that, as a government and as a parliament, we need to move away from giving updates and seeking endorsement and towards enabling and sharing decision-making. The progress of some targets in the plan continue to go backwards, including children's school readiness, child removal rates and incarceration rates.

We need to work on coordination across related areas like alcohol and drugs and like health and mental health and to look at the links between areas such as housing, unemployment and health. We need to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander local groups, hear their feedback and work on engaging with grassroots communities. It is so clear that, while progress has been made in some areas following the 2008 Apology, Australian governments along the way have failed to truly close the gap, in so many drastic areas. While so many in our communities are faced this year with the question of the referendum and the Voice, it's important that people remember where we are.

Child removals: in fact, in 2020 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represented around 37 per cent of children in Australia living away from their families. That is increasing at a staggering rate. So whilst we celebrate the Apology to the Stolen Generations that shocked so many by making them understand the rate of the practice of removing children from their families, to know that in 2020 we still have a rate that shows an over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed says that this is not working. To compare, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent about six per cent of the total population of children in Australia. They are six per cent of the population but make up 37 per cent of the children living away from families. The number of Indigenous children being removed from their homes has increased over the past decade. Of these children, those who are adopted are usually placed with non-Indigenous families, removing them from culture and community. We must acknowledge the fact that the number of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care is now greater than the number of those removed during the decades of the Stolen Generations. That is just a staggering fact. Obviously, it's indicative that there is a serious flaw in our system; what we're doing isn't working.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility: let's illustrate this differently. Sixty-five per cent of children aged between 10 and 13 held in juvenile justice systems are Indigenous. Our government currently invests far more in out-of-home care support, taking children to live away from their families, than they do in actually solving the issues that lead to child removal. It's also the product of the age of criminal responsibility. In the majority of states and territories in the country, it's still only 10 years of age. There has been debate and some progress towards raising it to 12. But the recommendation is 14, and I urge the government to increase the age of responsibility to at least 14 years of age to bring us more in line with international standards and to reduce the contact of our youth with the criminal justice system. We know that this is the beginning of a spiral—of a journey that doesn't end well—and by having such a low age of criminal responsibility, it discriminates, and Indigenous youth are over-represented. The story of Dujuan from the documentary IMBlood it Runs is truly heart-wrenching. His plea to the United Nations in 2019 highlighted that raising the age would make a huge difference.

The rate of recidivism from those locked up at such an early age is huge. This was made plain in the report released late last year by the Attorney-General at the Standing Council of Attorneys-General:

Studies have shown that the younger the child is when first having contact with the justice system, the more likely they are to go on to reoffend.

The key recommendation of that report was to raise the age to 14. The states have committed to a plan to raise the age to 12, which many experts claim will be virtually meaningless. It's pretty simple: children belong in classrooms and playgrounds, not in handcuffs, court rooms and prison cells. I'm not excusing where there are instances of civil unrest and difficulty, but we know the current approach is not working.

Underlying factors: ultimately, these statistics are a product of the government's—successive governments'—historical failures to intervene early enough to prevent intergenerational trauma. Without concrete action being taken to close the gap, the government will likely look back on our time, marked by so much child removal, and will be apologising again. Child removals are just one example of the issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. Many Australians did not know the extent of the removals occurring during the Stolen Generations, and were shocked in 2008 when the apology was done by former prime minister Kevin Rudd. But we must acknowledge the statistics we have access to surrounding child removals and other issues today, and the fact that they are still so bad, or we risk these issues continuing and getting worse.

Why the Voice matters in this context is just so clear. The Voice to Parliament would represent a step in the right direction. It is the next step towards our reconciliation. The National Agreement on Closing the Gap's priority reform No. 4 aims for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to:

…have access to, and the capability to use, locally relevant data and information to set and monitor the implementation of efforts to close the gap, their priorities and drive their own development.

This must embody how we pursue the implementation plan and the Voice to Parliament. Indigenous representation and advice in parliament will prove instrumental in achieving the goals set out in the 2023 implementation plan, and it will aid the government's continued mission to close the gap.

As a country, we have become far better at acknowledging our Indigenous heritage and at celebrating it. We are such a lucky country, in that we have the oldest living continuous culture in the world—some 65,000 years. It boggles the mind to even stop to think about it. Yet we are still so far from truly recognising it, acknowledging it and celebrating it.

We need to get much, much better at the crucial step of inclusion and engagement, of providing genuine opportunity and optimism for our Indigenous people. For so many communities, their history is ultimately Australia's history. By improving their lives and outcomes, we improve all our lives and outcomes. That's why it is with excitement but trepidation that we engage this year in this process of conversation and listening when it comes to the referendum and finally achieving constitutional recognition.

I remind so many that, when the Constitution was drafted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not included and not consulted. They were not in any way referred to. That is an omission that needs to be fixed. It is a very basic step. So it is with trepidation that I think that, this year, we're going to have a conversation as Australians—a mature conversation about what kind of nation we want to be. We can't undo the wrongs of the past and we can't change them, but we can certainly decide what kind of Australia we want to be in the future. I have a deep, deep faith that we can be a much better Australia.