The Australian Government's reform agenda — both in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and across governments — is to address the structural and systemic problems that are producing appalling outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
A generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children — Australian children — is at stake. Time is fast running out. This fact is acknowledged by Indigenous elders and leaders, as well as by government.
There are just over half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia today. There is an unacceptable gap in living standards, life expectancy and education, health and employment outcomes between them and non-Indigenous Australians. Action must be taken now to start closing the gap.
The gap is most evident in remote areas, and it is the children living in some 1200 communities in northern and central Australia who are most seriously affected. Preventable diseases are common and many residents are illiterate and innumerate. An epidemic of alcohol and other substance abuse, violence and anti-social behaviour is destroying lives in many remote communities.
Data indicate that Indigenous outcomes are generally worse in remote areas than urban areas. Compared to the non-Indigenous population, however, Indigenous outcomes across most indicators in urban areas are also poor. For example, at the last National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over who reported being victims of physical or threatened violence was similar in remote and non-remote areas. The proportion of Indigenous people in employment in urban areas is not significantly higher than in regional or remote areas. Indicators of health disadvantage are not significantly different.
Given that around three-quarters of Australia's Indigenous population lives in non‑remote locations, the absolute number of Indigenous people who are suffering from poor outcomes is often greater in urban and regional areas.
We, therefore, will not close the gap without strategies for addressing disadvantage in urban and regional centres (Table 1).
Table 1: Estimated resident Indigenous population by degree of remoteness, 30 June 2006
|Indigenous Australians||Other Australians||Proportion of the total population that is Indigenous|
|164 274||31.8||14 003 400||69.4||1.2|
|108 207||20.9||3 976 010||19.7||2.6|
|113 301||21.9||1 852 380||9.2||5.8|
|49 478||9.6||265 364||1.3||15.7|
|81 914||15.8||87 160||0.4||48.4|
|Total||517 174||100.0||20 184 314||100.0||2.4|
Source: ABS 2008 No. 4713.0 p.18
Increased funding for programs is not the only solution. We need new approaches and a greater return on investment through working strategically with the States and Territories and with the non-government and private sectors, the latter particularly in relation to a new Indigenous Economic Development Strategy.
In reforming the Australian Government's relationship with the States and Territories, we are identifying and prioritising areas of action and targets in Indigenous affairs.
In the past infrastructure and services have not been provided at the same level as those provided to other Australians. There has been under-investment, parallel service-provision in some areas and poorly designed welfare arrangements, leading to sub-standard services and poor outcomes.
The Government is starting the hard work of addressing the failures of the past.
The Government is also determined to make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people benefit from policies and programs designed for all Australians. The 'mainstream' measures in Budget 2008‑09 represent an investment in improving the lives of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
Above all we are building partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility.
Given the size of the challenge, there will inevitably be difficult decisions to make but these decisions will always be driven by hard facts and evidence.
All of our policy-making will be based on the analysis of available evidence. All approaches will be rigorously and regularly evaluated. Evidence and evaluation will be the key to determining where funds and policies are targeted into the future.
The Australian Government's relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is being recast through meaningful engagement, not just consultation for its own sake.
The National Apology was the first item of business for Australia's 42nd Parliament. It was preceded by the first Welcome to Country performed for the start of a new Parliament.
The Prime Minister apologised for past policies including the removal of children based on race. At the same time he opened a new chapter in our nation's history, embracing the possibility of new solutions to old problems.
The National Apology also highlighted the ongoing needs — including family reunion services and counselling — of those Indigenous Australians separated from their families and communities. In February we delivered on our commitment of $15.7 million over four years for Link Up and Bringing Them Home initiatives to support members of the Stolen Generations.
Indigenous Australians must be involved in developing and driving solutions. Actions like the National Apology are working to build the trust needed to work together on getting results.
Our 'closing the gap' commitments require effective engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at all levels. Government needs to involve Indigenous people in the design and delivery of programs locally and regionally, and share responsibility for outcomes. Solutions developed on the ground must be driven by the communities that will ultimately determine their success or failure.
I recently co-chaired an Indigenous stream within the 2020 Summit, and will be hosting other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholder groups in advancing the agenda set out by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
The Government went to the election with a commitment to set up a national representative body to provide an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice within government. We will soon begin formal discussions with Indigenous people about the role, status and composition of this body.
The Australian Government also recognises the importance of the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Detailed consultations are currently being undertaken with Australia's State and Territory governments as well as with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and other key stakeholders on the Declaration.
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