Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I want to start by thanking the Prime Minister for his words and acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.
There is a very special group of people in the gallery today and I want to acknowledge those who are present in the gallery, who are part of the Stolen Generation and thank them for being here for this 15th anniversary.
Mr Speaker, nations have complex histories.
Histories defined by achievements.
Histories marked by blemishes.
And our country is no exception.
A mature nation, though, doesn’t cherry-pick from its past; it doesn’t rewrite, or cancel parts of our history out.
Rather, a mature nation is one which speaks truthfully – and in totality – about its history.
One which embraces both the light and dark chapters of its national narrative.
Australians have every right to be proud of so much that was accomplished by our forebears.
For they helped build the modern nation in which we are so lucky to live today.
But we also acknowledge that our forebears committed serious wrongs.
The wrongs committed against the Stolen Generations were acknowledged by Prime Minister Rudd when he delivered the National Apology in this place in 2008.
He offered that heartfelt apology, without qualification, on behalf of the government and the Parliament of Australia for the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.
For the laws and policies between 1910 and 1970 which saw thousands of children forcibly taken from their families, and for the hurt, the humiliation, the pain, the grief, the suffering, the loss and indignity inflicted upon the Stolen Generations, their families left behind, and their descendants.
The National Apology was a profound moment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had been affected.
For Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. And for our nation.
Mr Speaker, fifteen years have passed since the Apology.
This is an occasion for delicate reflection.
The National Apology was about Australians acknowledging the sins of the past – ‘the cold, confronting, uncomfortable truth’, as Prime Minister Rudd put it.
And in that acknowledgement, accepting the flaws and failings inherent in our historical character with the maturity of a modern nation.
A modern nation which sees its history in the round – successes and failures alike.
As Prime Minister Rudd said:
‘… peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future.’
Mr Speaker, with the release of the government’s 2023 Closing the Gap Implementation Plan today, we welcome several initiatives.
In particular, more than $68 million dollars over two years for support to women and children experiencing family, domestic and sexual violence.
And more than $21 million dollars over five years to support families impacted by family violence.
I also want to acknowledge the Morrison Government – which worked with governments at all levels and the Coalition of Peaks – to formulate a National Agreement with priority areas of reform.
The Morrison Government also released the first Closing the Gap Commonwealth Implementation Plan in 2021.
That plan committed more than $1 billion dollars towards new measures to address some of the most pressing issues facing Indigenous Australians.
That funding included, among other things:
• a $378 million dollar redress scheme for Stolen Generations survivors in the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Jervis Bay Territory;
• $75 million dollars for country boarding schools;
• $26 million dollars for a city-country partnership program to improve school outcomes; and
• $66 million dollars for alcohol and drug treatment services.
In his historic speech Prime Minister Rudd said:
‘… symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.’
For decades, Coalition and Labor governments alike have been on a unity ticket to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians.
Whilst we welcome what improvements have been made, the conditions today in Alice Springs, as pointed out by the Prime Minister, demonstrate that the situation is, in reality, and certainly by many indicators, worse for Indigenous kids and their parents than it was 15 years ago.
We have also heard of issues in Aurukun in Queensland, in Kimberley in Western Australia, and Ceduna in South Australia.
Collectively, we have failed to close the gap.
Despite the good intentions and the deeds of so many, despite the many billions of dollars which have been invested, we have seen more-and-more bureaucracy: bigger and more centralised in its nature and it has not led to better decisions.
Too often, a capital city view has informed decisions, drowning out a regional and remote community view.
Indigenous Australians are yearning to see action which truly makes a practical difference.
For every Australian wants to see improved life outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
On this 15th anniversary of the National Apology, as we reflect on past mistakes, let us reflect on our present actions.
I fear we are failing, again, this very day, for which a future apology will be necessary.
Ironically, the situation in Alice Springs has highlighted children suffering in a harmful situation which is suffocating their chances of breaking a vicious cycle.
Authorities have decided to put culture and other considerations above the best interests of those children in leaving them in harm’s way.
Surely and understandably, the 10-year-old Indigenous child suffering abuse in Alice Springs will, in ten years’ time, ask: ‘How? How, in 2023, did you knowingly and consciously tolerate a situation where my interests were not put first?’
If it is our actions which make history – as Prime Minister Rudd put it – then it is time to think carefully about our actions.
Because our current actions – for all their good intent – are not bringing about enough practical outcomes for which we can all be proud as a nation.
We will never, as a nation, create another stolen generation.
But our actions can prevent a new generation from having their lives and aspirations stolen.
If we are to make better decisions which lead to better actions, then I ask of the government:
Bring Australians with you.
Trust them with the detail.
Appeal to their reason.
Don’t fear an informed citizenry.
If you truly want to further the cause of reconciliation, please bring them on the journey.
Mr Speaker, I want to speak directly to those in the gallery today and further afield who are part of the Stolen Generation and those who are descendants or are connected to the issue.
I want to say in an unscripted way, I apologise for my actions – and the Prime Minister’s frequently able to point it out – that I didn’t attend the chamber for the Apology 15 years ago.
I’ve apologised for that in the past and I repeat that apology again today.
In 2008, I’d been out of the Queensland Police Force for about nine years and I was still – and probably truthfully to this day still – live with those images of turning up to domestic violence incidences where Indigenous women and children had suffered physical abuse, certainly mental abuse.
I remember clearly attending Palm Island, where I brought back the body of an Indigenous woman in a body bag who had been thrust off a cliff to her death.
I remember thinking at the time that those incidences were still occurring on a daily basis in 2008.
The judgement that I formed was that if we were to make an apology, it needed to be at a time when we had addressed and we had curbed that violence and those incidences.
I failed to grasp at the time the symbolic significance to the Stolen Generation of the Apology.
It was right for Prime Minister Rudd to make the Apology in 2008.
It’s right that we recognise the anniversary today.
It’s right that the government continues its efforts, and in whatever way possible, we support that bipartisan effort.
Every Australian wants to see a better outcome for Indigenous Australians.
There’s nobody I speak to around the country – regardless of their view on the Voice – that doesn’t want to see an improved situation in Alice Springs or in Ceduna or anywhere else in the country.
People who have a different view about how we might get to that end point, how we might help people along the path, aren’t hard-hearted because they have a different view to us or a different approach to how that practical assistance might be provided.
I hope that the government can bear that in mind in the current debate.
So Mr Speaker, I’m honoured as the Leader of the Liberal Party, of the Opposition, to be here today to commemorate the 15 year anniversary.
I commend Prime Minister Rudd for the action he took in 2008 and I know that as a country we are determined to make sure that we can address, particularly those issues of domestic violence: to make sure that we can reduce those gaps that have widened in relation to infant mortality, to life expectancy, to other indicators around education and health that must improve so that we can improve the lives and the future of every Indigenous Australian.