Closing the Gap

Federation Chamber - Ministerial Statements

At the heart of the reconciliation movement is a profound and simple truth: Australia is and always will be Aboriginal land. First Nations people loved and cared for this continent for millennia, long before many of our ancestors first arrived by boat. They fought fiercely to defend their homes and they have battled bravely ever since against exclusion, disease, oppression and discrimination, trying to preserve for their children, and for all of us, the world's oldest living culture.

I stand in this place today to share with you my frustrations on the Closing the Gap strategy. While I still commend the last Labor government on this commitment and its positive intention in establishing the Closing the Gap strategy, after 10 years of well-intentioned and well-crafted words from numerous political leaders, today I reflect that not enough has really changed in that time. We must refresh the Closing the Gap targets for it is not them that have failed; rather, it is governments, both state and federal, that have failed to take necessary action to meet them. The uncomfortable truth is there is a dramatic gap between the Australia that the overwhelming majority of Australians inhabit and that inhabited by many First Nations people around our vast country. There are deficiencies in justice and jobs for our First Nations people, as there are in health care, in housing and in opportunities for Aboriginal children to get a good education.

Without revising these targets and reviewing our activities, the cycle of ongoing discrimination and disadvantage will continue. Communities continue to be torn apart by poverty, violence, abuse, addiction and alcohol. The truth is there are still men and women being arrested, charged and jailed not because of the gravity of their offence but because of the colour of their skin. Aboriginal people are still suffering from diseases that the rest of us will never know and are still dying at an age when the rest of us are contemplating retirement. The truth about children and young people who are suffering violence and taking their own lives in numbers is a circumstance that should be shaming us all into action.

The initial Closing the Gap strategy introduced by the Rudd government went a long way in promoting changing this story.

However, despite the inter relationship between the areas addressed by that strategy and its goals, the over representation of Aboriginal people in Australia's prisons draws attention to the lack of a justice component to the strategy. There is no focus on dealing directly with the over-representation of Aboriginal Australians in our prisons and criminal justice system, and yet not dealing with that issue prevents us from dealing with all the other areas of focus for the strategy as well.

We need to refocus our messaging and our strategy because, instead of just being tough on crime, we need to also be tough on the causes of crime, as well as how we come to these often inequitable outcomes. I implore this government and indeed this entire parliament to work with all state and local governments and community organisations to bring about a true nation-reaching, grassroots, active, place based justice reinvestment approach before we lose more people to recidivism, crime and inter generational welfare dependency.

I've been passionate about changing this story for some time now. I am proud that, during my term as President of the Law Society of Western Australia and as a director of the Law Council of Australia, I have contributed to these organisations adopting the Diversity and Equality Charter as well as continuing to press for better funding for access to justice and closing the Indigenous justice gap. The greatness of a nation is judged by the way that it treats its most vulnerable. Alas, when it comes to Indigenous incarceration, we are neither a strong nation nor a great one. This is something that we can and must do something about, because we must ensure that Australia is indeed a great and strong nation.

Research by Save the Children in Western Australia has found that one in four young people in detention is from Perth's south-eastern suburbs, predominantly the areas that I represent in the seat of Burt. In recognition of this shocking statistic, the Youth Partnership Project was founded with the belief that children are not born bad but rather are born into complex environments that can lead to significant behavioural problems. The Youth Partnership Project model provides an early targeted support for young people aged 10 to 12 with complex needs, by working with the WA Police Force, many different state government agencies and local government to identify young people, many of whom are Indigenous, who are at risk of going down a juvenile justice path.

From this model has come the Armadale Youth Intervention Partnership. This place based intensive intervention recognises that merely being tough on crime does little to remedy the causes of crime or reduce crime from occurring. This program is now also being expanded into Gosnells.

In WA, we spend around $56 million a year on juvenile detention. Imagine if some of that money were being invested in early intervention programs like AYIP or directed towards better education and prevention programs to teach families about the dangers of alcohol consumption while pregnant, to teach more about foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. We would be spending a lot less on corrective services and instead gaining a lot more from the people who we have helped and decreasing crime rates.

There is an opportunity here to change the story of people's lives from one of poverty and another generation of welfare and public housing dependency into one of being employed taxpayers. It's up to all levels of government to support programs such as this and to connect to grassroots programs and organisations who are at the front line, preventing the entry of a child into the justice system.

I recently met with some graduates and new attendees from the Armadale Youth Intervention Project. The results have been outstanding, not just for the children who have participated in the program but for their families and the wider community. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of the next class of 2019 and the new Gosnells program as well.

For every day that a young person is kept out of juvenile detention, we save $815 in Western Australia. Given that approximately one in four juvenile detainees comes from my electorate, the government investment in this program, the AYIP, pays a huge dividend. We will not have to spend as much on police, courts or corrective services, whilst gaining a lot more from the people that we have actually helped. We need to provide more opportunities for at-risk kids, not just in the electorate of Burt but across the country, before they end up in the juvenile justice system. These sorts of programs are really important to our community and critical to how we together can change their story and the story of our community.

The few programs that I have mentioned in this speech and many others that I have seen and explored around the country are not only focusing on crime of a particular sort. The reason that they were brought into existence is to reduce instances of such crime, often in response to a critical indicator of rising crime rates. The crime in question, by and large, is crimes of violence against white Australians and property crimes, whether home burglary, shoplifting or property damage. Again, the victims are predominantly white or non-Aboriginal. What the programs in response have to deal with, however, is the trauma and disconnect inflicted on these communities by such crime stemming from numerous and far more serious crimes committed against them, usually by those close to them, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse and drug abuse. It is of course completely right that we should be addressing these, but should we not be acting to prevent this crime in the first place and assisting these victims of these crimes because of the seriousness and importance of these crimes and the trauma caused to these victims in and of itself not merely as a by-product or because it's a way of reducing crimes committed on more mainstream members of our society? Here in lies the rub: Aboriginal people are caught up in the criminal justice system at a disproportionately higher rate than non-Aboriginal people not only because they commit a disproportionate amount of crime but because they are also a disproportionately higher proportion of the victims. Yes, the thing swinging people into action is when a nine-year-old shoplifts, not the trauma inflicted on a child and the way that it may ruin their life forever for yet another generation.

All of that brings me to one of my other major social justice passions: keeping women and children safe in their homes. I've spoken in this place many times about my previous work with Starick's services and the import work that it does in my community providing refuge and outreach services for women and children fleeing domestic and family violence. I've spoken many times previously about the need to adequately fund refuges like Starick to keep women and children safe. Indigenous women and girls are 35 times more likely than the wider female population to be hospitalised due to family violence. Starick House, the domestic violence refuge in my electorate, tells me that more than half the women who present to their shelter fleeing domestic violence are Indigenous. We must close the gap.

The flow-on consequences of this government's inaction, of its dust-gathering slow results in invoking any sort of change or progress, must be made a priority. A Labor government will make justice reinvestment a national priority because detention and jail time for young people should be a rarity, not a right of passage.