8 March 2023

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:10): Closing the gap is a powerful concept because it bridges from the symbolic to the practical. The concept of closing the gap is to establish and pursue measurable, verifiable targets to achieve genuine equality in outcomes, in outcomes that are real to people’s lives, in outcomes that are real to the opportunities that they and their families and their children have. That’s why it is important that each year we assess progress, speak honestly and address directly the challenges that come with closing the gap. It is a stain on Australia that the gap exists and the gap is as wide as it is. It is a stain that successive governments of different persuasions have invested significant sums of funds, energy, policies in attempting to address, and in some areas some success has been achieved. But too much of it has not been closed. The gap is too wide and, we must acknowledge, in some areas is still widening.

The Closing the gap report that was handed down late last year, as I acknowledged at the time, was the first such report following the new national agreement and implementation plan that had been released just 12 months earlier under the previous government. It had involved a long and genuine process of engagement and consultation to establish new targets in genuine partnership with First Nations peoples. It had worked closely with the Coalition of the Peaks, and I want to again acknowledge them for their work in the establishment of the targets and the process against which closing the gap policies and measures are now pursued.

It is pleasing to see that against those measures there are new priorities and, importantly, new, more granular targets in place which reflect very genuinely the input of First Australians to establish them and to identify their priorities. But, most importantly, it is about giving that direct focus on the attributes that we seek to achieve change through in terms of genuine closing of the gap and the changes that are necessary to do so. In too many areas we are not making progress, and in some we are even going backwards. School readiness, adult incarceration rates, suicide rates are all highlighted statistics that paint a bleak and continually concerning picture. Sometimes, indeed, they present as contrasts in the Closing the gap report, if we genuinely get into the data.

We’ve seen significant growth and achievement in terms of the percentage of children enrolled in preschool. Target 3 was identified as being on track, improving. Similarly, target 2, as identified by the Productivity Commission, concerned babies born with a healthy birthweight in 2019. It’s improving, on track, according to the Productivity Commission’s assessments against targets. And yet we see in target 4, the rate of children commencing school who are developmentally on track, going backwards, worsening. Much work is required to drill down below those types of statistics and understand: if we are achieving more babies born with healthy birthweight; if we are enrolling more children in preschool; what are the causes that are seeing fewer children commencing developmentally on track when they begin their school education. The same types of questions can be posed across a range of areas in relation to incarceration, employment, health and other types of outcomes that are assessed in detail through closing the gap. That’s why this is a valuable process: because it has set transparent targets for government; because they are transparently assessed independently by the Productivity Commission; because it is done with direct engagement with community, as it should be; but, ultimately, because we can use this information and analysis to see what is working, but to see where things are failing and to pursue the types of policy changes through consultation and engagement with all those affected that can help us to genuinely close the gap. We owe people no less than to remove such a stain on Australia.