Julia Gillard tells parliament that there have been some successes and some continuing failures in addressing indigenous disadvantage.PT0M0S 620 349
It isn't often that Tony Abbott begins a speech with the words ''Paul Keating was right'', but it happened during a rare outburst of bipartisanship when the nation's parliament reviewed progress toward closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage on Wednesday.
The Opposition Leader employed the words of the former Labor prime minister to define a mission that is embraced by both sides of politics and, increasingly, businesses across the country.
''As long as there is serious indigenous disadvantage in our country, it constitutes a stain on our nation's soul,'' Mr Abbott quoted Mr Keating as saying. ''Until the first Australians can fully participate in the life of our country, we are diminished as a nation and as a people.''
Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivering the fifth Closing the Gap speech on indigenous disadvantage. Photo: Andrew Meares
Mr Abbott also welcomed Prime Minister Julia Gillard's candour in delivering a mostly positive, but mixed, report card on progress towards meeting six targets that were agreed after former prime minister Kevin Rudd delivered the formal apology to the stolen generations in 2008. ''We need this level of candour to achieve genuine progress and genuine closing the gap.''
Ms Gillard reported that the pledge to deliver early childhood education for all four-year-olds in remote communities within five years would be achieved this year. Two other targets, the halving of child mortality rates within a decade and halving the gap in year 12 education attainment by 2020 – were on track to be met.
But Ms Gillard reported that, despite some progress, a ''massive and unacceptable'' gap remained between indigenous and non-indigenous employment and that in some areas of literacy and numeracy, results had gone backwards.
Only three of eight reading and numeracy indicators were tracking as expected and the other five required ''considerable work'', she reported. Moreover, the central aim of closing the life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians has become more daunting.
The annual report on progress says indigenous male life expectancy – where the estimated gap is at 11.5 years – will probably have to increase by almost 21 years by 2031 and observes ''the current rate of progress will have to gather pace if the target is to be met''.
Ms Gillard used her speech to attack moves by the Northern Territory and Queensland governments to wind back alcohol reforms, declaring: ''I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again.
''The government will take action in response to any irresponsible policy changes that threaten to forfeit our hard-won gains.''
She cited the dismantling of the banned drinkers' register in the Northern Territory and the possible easing of alcohol restrictions in Queensland. Mr Abbott said he shared the Prime Minister's concern about the banned drinkers' register, saying it should be re-instated.
He also applauded Ms Gillard for her action to secure Labor's first indigenous member of the federal parliament in Nova Peris, saying: ''I believe it would help us immeasurably as a parliament and a nation to have more indigenous people in this place to support the work of my friend and colleague, Ken Wyatt.''
Both leaders committed themselves to the passage of the proposed referendum recognising indigenous Australians, with Ms Gillard declaring that, without it, the nation's story would remain incomplete ''and the soul of our nation will remain unhealed''.
Indigenous leaders welcomed the progress, but pressed both sides of politics to commit the resources to fund programs to close the gap. They also pressed for two new targets to be included to reduce incarceration of indigenous people and the level of violence in communities.