Sometimes when confronted with problems traditionally put in the too-hard basket, the temptation is to give up. During my time as Indigenous Affairs Minister, I have refused to allow this to be our attitude towards improving the lives of indigenous people in the Northern Territory. Through the hard work done as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response in the past four years, we have made some progress in improving people’s lives.
Indigenous people in the Territory, particularly women, tell me they and their families feel safer, their children are better fed and clothed, and less money is being spent on alcohol and gambling.
Women such as Laurel, who I met last month in Hidden Valley, one of the Alice Springs town camps. Laurel now lives with her two children in anew house with a garden she is proudly growing. She told me that at last she could care for her children properly. She has a kitchen she can cook in, a shower that works, bedrooms for her children and a yard for them to play in. Outside Laurel’s house, a street of neat houses is taking shape. Paved streets, streetlights, house numbers, letterboxes and wheelie bins: what you’d expect in any ordinary suburb. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case across the Territory.
Compared with other states, the Territory has the widest gap between indigenous and non indigenous people. In life expectancy, infant mortality, education and employment, the gap is still too large.
Through our work during the past four years, the federal government is now present in more indigenous communities than ever. We are on the ground and we will not be walking away. But we recognise that governments cannot tackle these problems alone.
I have heard from many people that the way the Northern Territory Emergency Response was introduced by the previous government, without consultation, has caused anger, fear and distrust among indigenous people.
I do not want this to continue to be a barrier that prevents government from working in partnership with indigenous people, leaders and communities. Because I know that we will not succeed in tackling the priority issues that continue to contribute to indigenous people’s disadvantage if people do not feel respected to take responsibility for their own lives.
That’s why this week the government has released a discussion paper, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory, about directions for future work. We now want to talk to indigenous people and other Australians about how we tackle the issues that remain.
One of the most serious challenges is education. It is not acceptable or fair that so many children in the Territory still do not go to school and get the benefits that a decent education brings.
In the past four years, we have tackled some of the conditions hindering children’s ability to get an education. By investing in decent housing we are giving children the space they need to study and sleep undisturbed by the noise and chaos of overcrowding.
Through income management family finances are stabilised so there is money to spend on school uniforms and books. In addition, regular health checks and a better diet and early intervention activities such as playgroups help children thrive at school.
But it is clear there is still much to be done. And government cannot do this alone. Parents must also take responsibility for ensuring their children attend school.
Schools need to be at the heart of a community and school attendance needs to be non-negotiable.
Likewise, we know there is more to be done to break the cycle of welfare dependency and ensure more people realise the benefits of having a job. People must take responsibility for getting and keeping a job, with support from government agencies such as Centrelink and Job Services Australia.
We are also determined to do all we can to reduce the devastation and community dysfunction driven by alcohol abuse.
It’s time for a serious discussion about sanctions and the consequences of people’s actions. We want to hear from indigenous communities about local solutions to alcohol abuse and what governments can do to help more.
Our next steps need to be based on evidence of what works.
I know from discussions I have already had with people in the Territory that the issues we still want to tackle — education, jobs, alcohol abuse — are the issues many indigenous people confront every day.
I will be travelling to talk with people in several communities in the Territory in the coming month, so that we can build stronger futures together. Because this government will not let the remaining challenges slip into the too-hard basket.
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