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First Nations Voice

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I wish to speak to the amendments circulated in my name. Before doing so, I want to make some things very clear:

The Canberra Liberals are open to considering the proposal to establish a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the constitution. It is incumbent upon the new federal government to put forward details and a clear process by which people can engage with those details. Draft legislation needs to demonstrate how this will work, including who will be on this body, how and by whom they will be chosen, and what the body’s powers and functions will be. This legislation should be released as an exposure draft that is subject to critique before a final proposal is put forward. On this very important issue, it is crucial to get the details right.

In taking this position, we have taken our cue directly from the territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. My good friend and Ngunnawal elder William ‘Billy T’ Tompkins – whom I name with permission – was at Uluru in 2017 and put his signature to the Statement from the Heart. According to him, many other delegates did not, including the other Ngunnawal representative who was there with him.

We have been told that this pattern is reflected right across the territory. There are Indigenous Canberrans who support the Statement and its call for a First Nations Voice, and there are other Indigenous Canberrans who, for various reasons, do not, including a belief that more words on paper merely decrease the likelihood that outcomes will genuinely improve – as they must! Some Indigenous Canberrans currently have no opinion, and some are torn between two opinions. The Canberra Liberals respect all of these positions and have no desire to impose a single opinion or any kind of group-think on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Amongst those who support the Uluru Statement, not all support it wholeheartedly or for the same reasons, and not all trust the new Federal Government to get this matter right. Many are taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Like my colleagues and me, they want more details and a robust opportunity to engage with those details. This will provide an opportunity for all of us to assess the merits of what specifically is being proposed. Some who currently do not support the establishment of a First Nations Voice may change their minds. The opposite may also occur. Those who currently don’t have an opinion may form one. Those who feel ambivalent may resolve that ambivalence.

Throughout this process, the Canberra Liberals will respect diversity of thought amongst the territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents. We are willing to give the Australian Government space to develop this proposal, and we will – like many in the Indigenous community – wait on the details.

Now, to my proposed amendments. As my colleagues and I often point out, those opposite love to flirt with federal matters whilst ignoring the messes in their own backyard. In her original motion, Dr Paterson highlights some of the discrepancies from the Closing the Gap Information Repository. She chooses not to mention, however, areas in which the ACT has achieved no improvement according to this same source. These areas include the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are born healthy and strong, the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in the child protection system, and the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in the criminal justice system.

To say that this Labor-Greens government is struggling to close the gap when it comes to criminal justice is a tragic understatement. According to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last December, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males in the ACT are imprisoned at a rate 19.6 times greater than non-Indigenous males, 17.5 times greater if age-standardised data are used. In either case, this is the worst rate ratio of any state or territory.

At the same time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females in the ACT are imprisoned at a rate 47.4 times greater than non-Indigenous females. Think about that! First Nations women in this city are being locked up at a rate that is nearly 50 times – not 50 per cent but 50 times! – greater than other women. This is not only the worst ratio in Australia but is more than double the national average.

We are not holding still, either. Whilst the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has increased across Australia over the past decade, it has increased faster here in Canberra than anywhere else, where admissions of First Nations people into prison have ballooned by an average of 5.7 per cent annually.

And if these data were not bad enough, the ABS’s most recent ‘Prisoners in Australia’ report reveals that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recidivism rate here is likewise the worst in the nation, with 94 per cent of Indigenous detainees at the Alexander Maconochie Centre having a prior conviction. The ACT Government keeps locking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people up but then fails to provide the support and services necessary to help most of them never return. Detainees have had no access to structured education for over a year. Diversity of employment opportunities remains limited, as does access to computers and higher education. The promised reintegration centre still has not been funded. Years after it was created, the transitional release centre has not been optimised. And so forth. These kinds of failures should be unthinkable in the nation’s capital and our supposedly human rights-compliant prison, but for the city’s Indigenous population, this is their reality.

Troubled by this reality, in July 2020 Ms Julie Tongs, CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services, wrote to the former attorney general seeking ‘a detailed, comprehensive and independent inquiry’ of the justice system and its contact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members. This letter led to a government roundtable with community leaders on 25 March last year. According to internal documents, government ministers were prepared to ‘strongly support an Our Booris, Our Way type model for a review’. Instead, community leaders unanimously asked for a fully independent board of inquiry.

I remind those opposite that, to date, this unanimous request has never been walked back. And I likewise remind those opposite that, to date, this Labor-Greens government has still not agreed.

I have repeatedly stood up in this place to support this request from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders – something I’m proud of. In every case, the response from Labor and the Greens has been no. On the first sitting day of 2021, I moved a motion that called on the government to ‘commission and fund an external, independent inquiry’, as requested by community leaders. During that debate, Dr Paterson had a prime opportunity to signal her support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As the record shows, however, she instead voted in lockstep with her Labor and Greens colleagues to slash an external, independent inquiry from the motion. I assure Dr Paterson that Indigenous people can distinguish between genuine support when they need it and political stunts.

Earlier, I mentioned the Our Booris, Our Way review, intended to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in the territory’s child protection system. It has now been four years and five months since the steering committee presented its first recommendations to the ACT Government. Additional recommendations followed during the review, and more recommendations were included in the final report, submitted three years ago. The steering committee insisted on releasing recommendations early specifically so that they could be implemented with urgency to start ‘influenc[ing] change across the child protection system … provid[ing] better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children today and into the future’, to quote the report.

Well, we are definitely in the future now, and the committee’s hopes for reform have been dashed. When the review ended, some members of the steering committee shifted to a new committee responsible for overseeing the implementation of recommendations. In July this year, the Our Booris, Our Way Implementation Oversight Committee publicly stated that members are, quote, ‘tired and frustrated by the lack of progress and feel disappointed that … only one recommendation [of 28] has been fully implemented’. So much for the government implementing early recommendations with urgency to get real change happening!

Of course, as the minister recently explained in Estimates hearings, there is some disagreement between the oversight committee and the government regarding which recommendations have been implemented. I understand that, for example, once a policy document has been revised, this Labor-Greens government claims that it has done its job whether anything has improved or not.

To give just one example, the Our Booris, Our Way report recommended that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have universal access to family group conferences to help reduce child removals. In response, the government wrote this recommendation into policy. There is just one problem: internal government documents reveal that the referral rate for family group conferences, rather than being universal, is actually, and I quote, ‘low’. How low, no one knows, apparently not even the government, based on answers to multiple questions on notice.

This raises a very important question: if a policy exists on paper, but nothing changes, does this count as successful reform? I suggest it does not. But as the minister herself said during Estimates hearings, some of what the government wants to claim as a success has, quote, ‘not necessarily resulted in a visible and significant change in outcomes’.

The last time I checked, the sole purpose of reform is to achieve ‘a visible and significant change in outcomes’. No wonder so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say openly that they are far more interested in outcomes than in more talk. Dr Paterson was a member of the Select Committee on Estimates and so presumably heard the minister attempt to explain how the government can claim credit for implementing a reform that creates no discernible change in outcomes. Did she pay attention to this? And if so, why is she turning a blind eye to this government’s repeated failures to successfully implement the reforms required to make real, measurable differences in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Canberra?

I note that Dr Paterson wrote something about going ‘beyond the symbolic’ in her motion. We will know that those opposite genuinely hold that aspiration when we start to see real improvement in outcomes in the areas I have been discussing during this debate. Anything less is a virtue-signalling, box-ticking exercise by a lazy, entitled government that is, at its heart, incapable of genuine reform.

I therefore urge the members of this Assembly to join me and the Canberra Liberals today in calling on the ACT Government to recommit fully to the reforms necessary to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the territory’s child protection and criminal justice systems, as well as in other important areas.

Madam Speaker, I commend these amendments to the Assembly. Thank you.


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