Ms LEY (Farrer—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (12:44): I would like to associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister, the Minister for Indigenous Australians and the Leader of the Opposition. I also want to acknowledge those here today who’ve made the journey to our nation’s parliament on this important occasion. I’m delivering this statement on behalf of our shadow minister for Indigenous Australians and senator for the Northern Territory, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. The opposition notes that this annual report was only made available a short time ago. While we welcome the progress that appears to have been made in some areas, we note that some outcomes have worsened. There is still plenty of work to be done, and we hope that a deeper look into the findings will illustrate how the gap exists differently in different parts of the country.

Today we once again stand here in this place and talk about closing the gap. The term has been so enmeshed in our national lexicon that the gap is now fused, in the minds of millions, with Indigenous disadvantage. Perhaps, when we first envisaged the term all those years ago, we did not anticipate that we would once again be standing here today with that gap still clear and present. Indeed closing the gap has become almost euphemistic. We refer to the gap when really what we are talking about is the lived experience of a group of Australians who die younger, are assaulted and sexually abused more often and are trapped in the cycle of poverty and despair. We talk about the gap when really we are talking about real people, real Australians, living their lives here in our country.

We should question this language because today we are confronted not with a gap but with a chasm. We are confronted by a chasm of life expectancy, a chasm of domestic violence, a chasm of despair and a chasm opportunity. Bridging that chasm will require much more than another statement in this place. Bridging that chasm will require more than another report or another program, as important as that work may be. Bridging that chasm will require us to change the way we approach these seemingly intractable issues, and that is exactly what our shadow minister for Indigenous Australians has done. As she notes, this annual report and the three-year review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap released last week come at a critical period of time for Indigenous affairs in Australia. We have arrived as a nation at a new juncture when it comes to the area of social effort. Now is not the time to sit back; now is the time for new practical action.

We must address disadvantage where it exists, not at a simply racial level but where specific help is needed, because those chasms of opportunity can be found across our nation. We must work with communities at a local level and not treat all Indigenous Australians as one homogenous group. On this point we should note the hard work and considered words of the member for Berowra, who said in a similar speech before the referendum:

… there are already significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices out there that are talking to government, and governments need to listen to those voices. Listening to the experiences is what partnership in closing the gap is all about.

We note the contributions of the 11 Indigenous senators and members of parliament, including of course Senator Nampijinpa Price. The federal parliament currently has 11 elected Indigenous members and senators, but it’s important to remember that the experiences of the nearly one million Indigenous Australians vary dramatically between each other. Indeed those 11 members in our parliament appear in both houses from parties right across the political spectrum and represent five of the seven Australian states and territories. If the target of closing the gap is to be reached, if we are to bridge that chasm, we must do away with the idea that there exists a silver bullet, a one-size-fits-all solution to Indigenous disadvantage or a remedy that will work just as well for someone living in remote Australia as it will for someone in a capital city.

This requires a restart of sorts—a fundamental rethink of our approach to Indigenous disadvantage that begins with a closer look at the organisations and bodies that exist right now with the purpose of closing the gap. Natalie Siegel-Brown, commissioner of the three-year review, said recently:

To date, most government actions and plans to implement the agreement relabel business-as-usual, or simply tweak existing ways of working. The agreement can and should be a blueprint for real reform, but governments will need to move beyond business as usual and address the entrenched attitudes, assumptions and ways of working that are preventing progress.

Today we mark 15 years since the first Closing the gap report was tabled, yet Aboriginal on Aboriginal violence remains an all too real problem. On the streets of Alice Springs, throughout the Northern Territory and across the country, rates of domestic violence within Indigenous households are devastatingly high, drug and alcohol abuse are all too common and children are often abused, sexually assaulted and treated in unthinkable ways. Education rates are low, traditional owners struggle in their fight to use their own land for economic opportunity, and, as we have seen recently, organisations and individuals exploit them for personal gain.

In the face of these challenges, we cannot allow ourselves to be frozen in a state of indecision. Now is the time to take new, practical action and bring greater focus to this critical area, because clearly something is not working. It is the view of the opposition that only a thorough audit of those organisations will reveal what that is and, conversely, where some groups are having success that might be emulated. Only a royal commission into Indigenous child sexual abuse will reveal the full extent of the problem and what we must do to put an end to it. Accountability and transparency are fundamental to the approach that Australians have asked to take in addressing Indigenous disadvantage, and it is accountability and transparency that must form the basis of this next stage.

Each year members of this parliament rise to speak about closing the gap, and yet the chasm persists. We celebrate the few targets that appear to be on track while lamenting too many targets that aren’t being reached. We need to make this year different. We must use this opportunity not simply to mark another report but to mark a new approach—a fundamental rethink of the current method, a questioning of the premise from which we launch our fight for real change and an end to the separatism that has characterised our approach thus far. But it will require a clear eyed examination of our existing public policy and a renewed focus on practical action in every corner of this country. It is our hope and our belief that we can achieve this together.