Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on Closing the Gap

11 August, 2021


I'm honoured to speak tonight on Closing the Gap: Commonwealth Implementation Plan 2021. In doing so, I acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri elders of the Canberra region, where parliament gathers. I acknowledge the traditional custodians of my area here in Warringah, where I speak from this evening. Their names remain contested but they are part of the longest living surviving culture in the world. In acknowledging them, I acknowledge their sorrow and I commit myself to genuine healing. I also recognise that their land was never ceded.

In 2019 a 12-year-old schoolboy, Dujuan, the star of the moving documentary In My Blood It Runs, went to the UN to plead with them to listen to him. He said at the time, 'The Australian government is not listening.' The stories and statistics that define the gap between Indigenous Australians and the general Australian population are appalling. This is a shame on all of us. While the Closing the Gap agreement is a step in the right direction, I reiterate my response to this implementation plan, as I did when the agreement was first announced last year. It does not go far enough. As with so many things this government does, it is simply not ambitious enough.

In parliament last week we heard that even if the targets to reduce Indigenous incarceration by 2031 are achieved, Indigenous adults will be 11 times more likely to be incarcerated and Indigenous youth 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than the rest of the Australian population. These are not acceptable statistics. There are some simple things that we can do to quickly reduce this rate and this inequity. The most obvious is by raising the age of criminality and incarceration from 10 to at least 14 years of age. This was up there on Dujuan's list of wants that he read to the UN in 2019. It's abhorrent that we're still locking up children as young as 10 years of age. The rate of recidivism for those locked up at such an early age is huge. This has a profound impact on their future prospects and outcomes.

This year the Council of Attorneys-General again failed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from just 10 to 14 years of age. In response, 48 organisations publicly released their submissions. Ninety per cent of those submissions highlighted that it is in breach of international human rights law or international standards to keep the age at 10. Ninety-six per cent said the current laws are contributing to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in prison. Priscilla Atkins, the chair of NATSILS, said that no child belongs in prison. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 is one action the Australian government can take right now that will have an immediate and generational impact to end the incarceration of First Nations kids and give our kids a brighter future.

What is the government waiting for? It's pretty simple: children belong in classrooms and playgrounds, not in handcuffs, courtrooms or prison cells. The $1 billion of funding announced to fund the Closing the Gap agreement is an important step in the right direction. I welcome the cooperation of the states and territories and the Coalition of Peaks. We need a greater voice for Indigenous people and a seat at the table, and the Indigenous Coalition of Peaks is incredibly important. There's a lot of work to do. I don't doubt that more funding and effort will be required. I particularly welcome the $378 million announced for the redress scheme for members of the stolen generation. People in Warringah care deeply about this issue and convey to me on a frequent basis their disappointment that the government has been unable to find the ambition or the bravery to actually move ahead with one of the biggest issues that need to be solved.

I'm so disappointed that a key element which drives the gap is still not addressed—that is, the lack of recognition for Indigenous Australians in the Constitution and the establishment of a voice to parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I accept the invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and I so desperately and dearly hope that the government could too. The referendum is not funded in these measures, nor was a national campaign to educate the population about the need for constitutional recognition. We need Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. We need an Indigenous voice in the Parliament of Australia, and only then will we make substantial progress towards closing the gap. While I welcome this renewed commitment to closing the gap and the consultation with the coalition, the peaks and the national cabinet, I reiterate my call to the government for Prime Minister Morrison to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, devise a question and publicly commit to a referendum on a voice to parliament without delay and put the referendum to the Australian people during what remains of 2021. There is no doubt we are now approaching another election that will be coming up in six to eight months, and this has still not been addressed.

Over recent weeks we've seen incredible feats by our Indigenous athletes: Ash Barty conquering Wimbledon, and Patty Mills carrying our flag and leading our nation in the Olympic opening ceremony, then lifting the Boomers to an historic win on the basketball court and proudly celebrating with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flag. We saw the Matildas proudly display the Aboriginal flag before their first match. I wish the chamber would have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flag flying as well. As a country, we have to get better at acknowledging our Indigenous heritage and celebrating it. There's no doubt that when we can achieve that, when we can do that and celebrate that heritage, is when we will all grow, because it is the heritage of all of us. As Australia, it will only be then that we can all truly be proud, and we will be the richer for having truly recognised our cultural heritage.