Closing The Gap

National flag of Australian Aboriginal on a flagpole

In recent weeks I’ve had the privilege of spending some time with this year’s Senior Australian of the Year, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann.

We last met the day before the 13th anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.

Miriam-Rose hails from Naiyu community – also known as Daly River – in the Top End.

When she was a child, her two-year-old sister Pilawuk White was snatched from her mother’s lap, another victim of the Stolen Generations.

Miriam-Rose didn’t see her sister for another 14 years.

In that time, Pilawuk was sent to a mission on the Tiwi Islands, before being taken to Adelaide and adopted by a non-Aboriginal family.

Miriam-Rose said, and I quote:

"Through people talking around the community, I learned that Pilawuk was taken for having a white father and was put with a white family to have a better life. Did she?"

End quote. Only Pilawuk can answer that.

But we know that taking children from their families and trying to assimilate them was a failed, cruel policy.

In many, many cases the amputation of those children from their families, culture, and country did immeasurable damage that is still being felt today by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

It has been a recurring intergenerational trauma.

We know that, though decades have passed since that policy ended, that we still have so, so far to go to close the gap.

An apology to the Stolen Generations came late, even in 2008.

It was a simple and deeply necessary first step down the long road of healing.

But 13 years later, we haven’t gotten too much further down that road.

It’s been 16 years since the Social Justice Report called on Australia to rise up to the challenge of closing the gap.

But last year, only two of the seven targets were on track.

Life expectancy for Indigenous Australians still hasn’t caught up to that of their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Labor supports the new approach to Closing the Gap, and the new targets.

But we shouldn’t just be renewing targets with deadlines that are even further down the road.

We need to maintain the commitment and do the work today.

Because in another 10 years, an entire generation will have passed from when we first set ourselves this task.

It’s been more than three years since the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for a Voice to parliament to be enshrined, for a treaty to be progressed, and for truth-telling to occur.

Labor is committed to all three.

First Nations people have told us time and time again, for decades, that if we want to see real, meaningful, lasting change, then they must be at the centre of decision-making.

We won’t be able to close the gap and truly right the wrongs of the past until we take that to heart, and put it into action.

We could do this before the next election, if there was the will from the Government.

Last week, former PM Kevin Rudd visited parliament.

It was great to see him, but it was also a reminder of how much we’ve lost under those opposite.

The human history of the Northern Territory encompasses 600 centuries, beginning with the arrival of the world’s oldest continuous culture.

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen some major events, including:

  • The transfer of governance from SA to the Commonwealth
  • The horrendous Coniston massacre of 1928
  • The Bombing of Darwin in 1942
  • The Wave Hill Walk-Off in 1966
  • The attainment of self-government in 1978
  • The traumatic Intervention in 2007
  • And the Apology of 2008

In 1982, the late Professor Alan Powell from Charles Darwin University wrote:

"The Territory is still overshadowed by the legacy of its past; a land of miners and cattlemen scattered thinly over vast areas of desert and savannah, of a single city clinging to the northern littoral and another 1500 kilometres away in the middle of Australia; of scattered settlements and the overarching, brooding presence of the people whose ancestors imbued the land with their spirit 40,000 years before Western civilisation began, for here alone, at more than 30 per cent of the Territory population, do they form a major political, social and economic force."

The First Nations people of our country are a massive source of pride, a heritage of survival against the odds for millennia, and a culture of connection to country and all creatures great and small.

We need to listen to their voice.

Next month, "Change Fest" is coming to Canberra, so we all have an opportunity to listen to these voices.

Change Fest has a simple goal: for Australia to be a country where all its communities thrive, and where children have a safe home, are healthy and educated, and have a strong sense of identity and belonging.

I hope all members here will consider listening to what they have to say.

It’s a good step down that long road towards closing the gap.

Luke Gosling is the Federal Member for Solomon and a former Army Officer.