I am pleased to present my third annual report to Parliament on ‘Closing the Gap’ between Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians. We are halfway through our ‘Closing the Gap’ decade and it is time to be honest.
The good news is that a large majority — about 65 per cent of Australia’s 550,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders — are working in capital cities and regional towns, earning the same wages as other Australians Their children achieve national literacy and numeracy standards. Like other Australian youngsters, they go on to vocational and university education and jobs. Almost 70 per cent of these working Indigenous families own or are buying their homes.
We honour the successful struggle of these Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to overcome prejudice and hardship.
We value the rich heritage that Indigenous Australians contribute to our culture.
We thank these Indigenous Australians. Their success has reduced Indigenous infant mortality rates and increased Indigenous life expectancy at no cost to the taxpayer. They have succeeded by their own efforts, rather than by relying on government benefits.
But if we are honest, we have made little progress in fixing the dire conditions on Indigenous lands, where about 75,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders languish on welfare. This is where Indigenous dysfunction — illiteracy, poor health, alcohol abuse and violence — is concentrated.
In 1998, the government set a target to ‘close the gap in Indigenous education’ within four years. This did not happen. So, in 2008 we halved the target and doubled the timeframe. While the COAG Reform Council has highlighted progress in four indicators, the lack of progress in the other 16 measurements shows we are not on track to meet our target of halving the gap by 2018.
We know the failure of Indigenous education is not due to indigeneity, remoteness or lack of funding. Programs like teaching children to count with rocks and leaves have failed to deliver results. It is not surprising that Northern Territory students in 40 Indigenous ‘Homeland Learning Centres’ — so-called schools that do not have qualified teachers every day — cannot read, write or count.
My government will only fund proven literacy and numeracy programs. We will financially reward schools that deliver improved NAPLAN results.
Former Northern Territory Administrator Ted Egan said he ‘had never been more despondent about the prospects for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory’ than in January 2013. Communities on Indigenous lands still lack the private businesses and jobs that make the rest of Australia prosperous.
We are spending $5.5 billion on the largest Indigenous public housing program ever mounted in Australia. I am pleased to report that we are ahead of schedule for refurbishments and on track for construction of new houses. Unfortunately, on completion of this ten-year program, the number of families on Indigenous lands without a house — 9,000 — will be the same as when the program started in 2008. Building a further 9,000 public houses would cost another $5.4 billion.
My government recognises that only private housing can fill the gap. We know that traditional landowners on Indigenous lands want to own homes and that many can afford them.
Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. These agreements guarantee everyone ‘the right to own property alone as well as in association with others’. But because they cannot obtain secure title for a home, people living on Indigenous lands cannot own a home they can leave to their children and are denied benefits such as the First Home Owner Grant.
My government will act to make these fundamental human rights available to Australians living on Indigenous lands. In the Northern Territory, we will enable 99-year leases for private housing. Lease covenants will protect Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders against the alienation of their lands.
We will work with the states to deliver homeowner rights on Indigenous land. We are pleased that the Queensland government has begun discussions about
individual titles on Indigenous lands.
Leases for business premises will enable Indigenous entrepreneurs to start shops, cafes, motels, fruit and vegetable farms and other businesses. This will build a real economy on Indigenous lands, the only solution to pervasive welfare dependence in Indigenous townships and outstations.
Poor education, lack of jobs and poor housing are responsible for alcohol and drug abuse with their accompanying violence and poor health. Income management has been beneficial. We will extend it to all welfare-dependent families. It is not acceptable that taxpayers’ money is spent on alcohol, drugs or gambling.
My government has spent unprecedented amounts on Indigenous health programs. But no one can deliver first-world health in a third-world slum. Decent housing and jobs are essential if those living on Indigenous lands are to have the same life expectancy as other Australians. It is unacceptable that developing countries like Ghana have eliminated trachoma while it still exists on Indigenous lands.
In cities and regional towns, too many young Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are on welfare that destroys their lives. Unemployment and other benefits will only be paid to those in education, in training or actively seeking jobs.
We will introduce 40-hours-a-week work-for-the-dole programs for all able-bodied welfare recipients. It is not acceptable to my government that workers who put in 40 hours a week and pay taxes fund unlimited leisure hours for welfare recipients.
The more than $5 billion of taxpayers’ funds we devote annually to Indigenous-specific programs has not delivered results. We do not begrudge this expenditure. We are a wealthy nation and should spend whatever it takes to end Indigenous disadvantage. But Indigenous-specific funding is being wasted on programs that do not achieve results because they are not subject to rigorous evaluation.
We are appalled to find a Steering Committee of senior federal, state and territory public servants supporting Indigenous programs knowing they ‘have not undergone rigorous evaluation’. Many programs listed by the Closing the Gap Clearing House are justified by anecdotes rather than evaluation. It is as though it is ‘culturally inappropriate’ to evaluate the effectiveness of Indigenous expenditures.
I will instruct the public service to provide no funding for programs, Indigenous or not, that are not openly evaluated. Public servants who disburse funds without rigorous evaluation are welcome to hand in their resignation.
Professor Emeritus Helen Hughes has written widely on Indigenous issues.