Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Prime Minister for his contribution.
I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people.
I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.
I acknowledge the members of this chamber and the other of Indigenous heritage and the contribution that they make to this place.
It was of course, in February 2009, when the first Closing the Gap report was tabled in this Parliament.
Mr Speaker, the Coalition is proud of our record in government and in opposition contributing to the Closing the Gap objective.
We worked with Australian governments at all levels and indeed the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations to reach, in 2020, a National Agreement on Closing the Gap.
That National Agreement articulated four Priority Reforms centred around collaboration, empowerment, structural government reform, and data management.
In 2021, we released the first Commonwealth Implementation Plan to support the National Agreement.
That Plan committed more than $1 billion towards new measures to help Close the Gap and address those four Priority Reforms.
That first Commonwealth Implementation Plan rightly established clear targets and actions to hold the government to the mark in Closing the Gap.
Mr Speaker, the Coalition was provided with the 2022 Closing the Gap Annual Report this morning.
So, of course, we will need time to consider the findings in full, but I thank again the Prime Minister for his statement today.
We welcome the progress that has been made in several areas.
Specifically, that more Indigenous babies are being born with healthy birth weights; that the number of Indigenous children enrolled in preschool is increasing; and, that there has been a 30 per cent reduction in the rate of Indigenous young people, aged 10 to 17 years, in detention.
In terms of the latter, the former Coalition Government’s allocation of $2.4 million in April of 2021 to bolster custody notification services has clearly helped to reduce Indigenous children incarceration rates and of that we are very proud.
On behalf of the Coalition, I thank and congratulate all those across the nation whose deeds and contributions have made a meaningful difference in these areas and many others.
But most concerningly are the findings that some targets have gone backwards.
Those in the areas of Indigenous adult incarceration rates, Indigenous suicide rates, and indigenous children removal rates.
Mr Speaker, the Coalition stands with the government in wanting to see practical measures which can address these areas and we welcome the measures the Labor government has taken which build on those that we made in government.
Mr Speaker, there is no question about the passionate intent of all in this place to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians, to see better standards of living and education outcomes, reduced mortality rates, and the stamping out of domestic violence and crime; to see, in particular, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have the same opportunities as any other Australian child.
That passionate intent reflects the resolve of the Australian people.
In addition to Closing the Gap initiatives, we must ask ourselves this question:
‘Are there opportunities to put a foot on the accelerator where we need to do it most?’
On the 27th of October, I advised those in this place that Senator Jacinta Price and I had visited the Northern Territory.
Women and mothers despairingly told us about the rampant abuse that was happening in that community on that very day.
I want to reiterate the comments I made then:
This is in our country, in the year 2022.
What’s happening on the fringe of communities is a disgrace.
Children are sleeping during the day and missing classes to avoid being at home during the hours of darkness from fear of being sexually abused or assaulted.
They were the first-hand accounts of elders and Indigenous women in the community and their voices need to be heard.
We in this place know that child sexual abuse is widespread in those Indigenous communities – that it has been normalised, tragically, in some of those families.
It is why I called on the Prime Minister in October to hold a royal commission to examine these allegations, these claims from community leaders and elders within those Indigenous communities.
Today, I call on the Prime Minister again to hold a royal commission as a matter of urgency.
Something the Coalition would wholeheartedly support.
It’s something that we can do right now – to put our foot on the accelerator – to improve Indigenous lives.
It is something we can do ahead of a referendum on the Voice – and we shouldn’t wait to do it.
Mr Speaker, Australians want to know, quite reasonably, that our country is able to have a reasonable debate in relation to a significant proposal being put forward by the Prime Minister in relation to a Voice to Parliament.
As part of that civil discussion, there needs to be acknowledgement that there are strongly-held views on both sides of the debate – both in favour and against – within the Indigenous communities in our country, within every community across our country, and that their views should be heard with respect, their contributions should be made and heard in respect, and the differing opinions don’t amount to racism or don’t amount to some abrogation of responsibility or a lessening of the desire to see an improvement in the lives of Indigenous Australians.
But Australians want to know whether a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament will be able to deliver those outcomes that we all burn for, that we want now, in Indigenous communities.
But how are Australians supposed to make an informed decision at a referendum when they are deprived of the details?
Now, it’s been more than four months since the Garma Festival when the Prime Minister announced the government’s proposed textual changes to the Constitution in the form of three additional sentences.
It’s now been more than three months since the Prime Minister’s meeting and press conference with Shaquille O’Neal.
But Australians are none the wiser about the Voice – the what, the who, the where, the when and the how.
These are reasonable questions, and the most elementary questions remain unanswered:
Is the proposed constitutional amendment the only form of words the government is willing to consider?
Does it have an open mind to other suggestions?
Who will be eligible to serve on the body?
What are the prerequisites for nomination?
Will the government clarify the definition of Aboriginality in order to determine who can serve on the body?
How will members be elected – chosen or appointed?
What’s the tenure of members?
How many people will make up the body?
How will the body be funded?
How much will it cost taxpayers annually?
Who will oversee the body and ensure it’s accountable?
Can the body be amended, or indeed abolished, if needed, in extraordinary circumstances?
What are the body’s terms of references, its responsibilities, and its duties?
How will the body interact with the Closing the Gap process?
How will the government ensure that the body hears from voices who don’t already have a platform in Australian public life?
Will the government rule out using the Voice to negotiate any national treaty?
Is the body purely advisory in nature, or will it have decision-making capabilities?
The Prime Minister’s noted that ‘it would be a very brave government’ which ignored the Voice.
Now, that remark alone raises questions about the extent of the Voice’s powers beyond being an influential body which makes representations.
Now, these are some of the questions, but there are many more – too many to list today.
But in the absence of the basic details, it is no wonder that there has been speculation surrounding how the Voice will operate.
These are decent Australians asking these questions of their Prime Minister and many concerns and questions which Australians have are reasonable and warranted.
In matters as important as constitutional change, details must never be an afterthought.
Australians will be charged with a matter of utmost national importance.
If the referendum is successful, a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament will be a body without precedent. It will be a major change in how our country is governed.
So, Mr Speaker, Australians do have a right to know what they will be voting for.
Australians deserve to know whether a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament will be able to deliver practical outcomes in Indigenous communities and how quickly that can take place.
That it will not be – as some Indigenous leaders have expressed to me, with concern – an elitist model which represents a capital city view at the expense of remote communities.
Some of those opposite laugh. I was in Townsville only a few weeks ago with the Member for Herbert speaking with Indigenous women on an island only a couple of kilometres off Townsville and on Palm Island those women expressed concern to us about the need for a Voice and in fact in favour of a Voice when it was explained to them.
But they made it very clear to us that they didn’t want the Voice to come from Townsville.
They wanted their Voice to come from Palm Island, from their small community, because they believed that their voice to date had not been properly heard from those even as close as Townsville, let alone Melbourne or Sydney or Brisbane.
So, their views shouldn’t be scoffed at. Their views shouldn’t be dismissed. Their concerns should be heard and their reasonable questions answered.
That is not unreasonable.
Mr Speaker, Australians can’t make a proper assessment simply based on three proposed sentences to change the text of our Constitution.
The government has to disclose sufficient details and we support them in doing that as soon as possible.
It should not fear a public that is interested in understanding more about how we can get to the destination that we all burn for and all desire for and all wish to achieve as soon as possible – and that is for better outcomes for Indigenous children, that is better outcomes for those that are incarcerated, that is better outcomes for the mothers who are raising children in abject poverty in our country in this year.
Mr Speaker, the Coalition commits itself to work with the government in closing the gap on these important issues.
There is no gripe about the amount of money that’s required.
I’ve had the great fortune of being in this Parliament for over 21 years.
I’ve sat on Expenditure Review Committees and around Cabinet tables and leadership groups during that period and never once, never once, have I been party to a discussion or heard a discussion about why we should be pulling money out: only about why we need to put more money in.
There is no doubt in my mind that the same conversations, conversations of the same nature, the same intent, would have been held around every Cabinet discussion, every Expenditure Review Committee discussion, every leadership discussion under Labor administrations as well.
There is a desire in this place to continue to spend what needs to be spent but to do it in a way that provides practical outcomes for people who are living without housing, children who are exposed to a childhood that robs them of the innocence of that childhood, totally and absolutely unacceptable in our country in any year, let alone in this year.
Mr Speaker, we will provide support to practical measures, we will work with the government to provide assistance to those Australians who are most in need, but we shouldn’t be afraid of having a national conversation about the best way, the best path, to achieve that outcome which is in the best interests of Indigenous Australians and, ultimately, in the best interests of all Australians.