Prime Minister Tony Abbott is delivering his first address to parliament on the annual Closing the Gap statement about improving indigenous people’s lives.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told parliament that his personal mission is to help Australians open their hearts on indigenous policy.
In delivering his first annual Closing the Gap statement as prime minister on Wednesday, Mr Abbott recalled the watershed moment for him on indigenous affairs was Paul Keating’s landmark Redfern speech in 1992.
Back then he was a staffer for opposition leader John Hewson.
“It has become a personal mission to help my fellow Australians open their hearts as much as to change their minds on Aboriginal policy,” he told the House of Representatives.
“We are a great country … but we will never be all that we should be until we do better in this.”
The annual Closing the Gap report has highlighted poor progress on improving indigenous employment and student results.
Mr Abbott intends to make the next year all about getting kids to school and people into jobs.
He announced that a new target would be established: ending the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous school attendance within five years.
“No-one ever received a good education by not going to school,” he said.
“It’s hard to find work without a basic education and it’s hard to live well without a job.”
The report shows there has been no progress on the target to halve the gap between the number of indigenous and non-indigenous people with jobs within a decade.
It also shows that while the country is on track to halve the gap in year 12 completion rates by 2020, progress is lagging on improving literacy and numeracy for indigenous school students.
There has been a small improvement in life expectancy but progress needs to accelerate.
Progress is on track to meet the target to halve the gap in death rates for indigenous children under five within a decade.
Mr Abbott said for two centuries Australians had collectively failed to show to indigenous people the personal generosity and warmth of welcome they “habitually extended to the stranger in our midst”.
When they had made attempts to help, they tended to work for them rather than with them, to objectify them rather than personalise them.
“We saw problems to be solved rather than people to be engaged with.
“If that hardness of heart was ever really to melt, I thought that change had to include me, because you can’t expect of others what you won’t demand of yourself.”
Mr Abbott spoke at length about the time he had spent in Aboriginal communities, first as a backbencher, then as a minister and shadow minister.
He repeated his pledge to spend a week in East Arnhem land later in 2014 along to make indigenous policy the government’s primary focus for a few days at least.
“After 226 years of intermittent interest at most, why shouldn’t Aboriginal people finally have the prime minster’s undivided attention for seven days.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten urged the government to work with existing processes and funding to meet the targets, not just rip it up because it was Labor’s work.
“Let’s not go back to a blank piece of paper, just to enhance a claim to authorship,” he told parliament.
“Together, let us build on the foundation that’s been laid and let the closing of the gap be a cause that we can all be justifiably proud of.”
Meeting the gap targets was the work of the whole nation and success would only come when Aboriginal people were central to the political process.
Labor would support Mr Abbott’s plan to set a new target for school attendance, Mr Shorten said.
It would also work with the government to develop a proposal for changing the constitution to recognise indigenous people and to put that referendum as soon as possible.
Mr Shorten spoke of his recent visit to Nhulunbuy, 800 kilometres east of Darwin, where Rio Tinto is planning to close its Gove aluminium refinery.
He told parliament the closure would mean widening the gaps in employment, health and education opportunities for Aboriginal people in the town.