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"The old ways are not working" - PM says governments must listen to Indigenous communities to close the gap

Dechlan Brennan -

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has addressed Parliament on the 16th anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generation, promising to drive cultural change across all levels of government to help address entrenched Indigenous disadvantage and inequality.

The Prime Minister, who earlier in the day told a breakfast the 2008 apology to the victims of the Stolen Generation by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd remained his proudest day as a parliamentarian, told parliament on Tuesday: "The price of failure over successive governments isn't just counted in dollars, it's measured in lives."

"It is important to reflect on the Apology, and the courage and grace of the survivors who made it possible," Mr Albanese said. However, he noted the scathing report by the Productivity Commission into Closing the Gap was a harsh reality check.

"Anniversaries matter deeply," he said. "But what will shape the future is the actions we take now."

"Sixteen years after the Apology, only 11 out of 19 socio-economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are improving; just four are on track to meet their targets.

"What should give us pause is that outcomes have worsened for four critical targets – children's early development, rates of children in out-of-home care, rates of adult imprisonment, and tragically suicide."

In 2022, 4.6 per cent of all deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were due to suicide. This compared to 1.6 per cent for non-Indigenous people.

Indigenous children are almost eleven times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children and a string of incidents in NSW, along with the Yoorrook Commission's recommendation for a stand-alone Indigenous child protection system in Victoria, has thrown the disproportionate removals into the spotlight.

The Prime Minister used his platform to announce several new programs and initiatives on Tuesday to address the systemic disadvantage for Indigenous people.

These include a new national First Nations children's commissioner; a new remote jobs program aimed at creating 3,000 jobs in remote Australia over the next three years, at a cost of $707 million; wifi upgrades for more than 20 remote communities in partnership with NBN; and real time reporting on deaths in custody.

He told the parliament listening to Aboriginal communities, groups and individuals was vital to closing the gap.

"If we want to close the gap, we have to listen to people who live on the other side of it," he said.

"Canberra must be willing to share power with communities; to offer responsibility and ownership and self-determination; to let local knowledge design programs; to trust locals to deliver them and to listen to locals when they tell us what's working and what isn't.

"That's a culture change we have to drive – in this building, in the public service and across governments at all levels."

Mr Albanese said the Productivity Commission had made it clear "the old ways are not working".

"Decades of insisting that Government knows best, has made things worse," he said. "We must find a better way – and we must do it together."

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton agreed with Mr Albanese that a new approach to Indigenous policy was needed but repeated his calls for a royal commission into child sexual abuse in remote communities.

The proposal has been heavily condemned by First Nations and children's advocates as racist and unnecessary; however is supported by opposition spokesperson for Indigenous affairs Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. He also reaffirmed his calls for an audit of Indigenous spending.

"Billions of dollars over many decades have not translated into the outcomes that Indigenous Australians deserve," Mr Dutton said.

"Any more bureaucracy and more bottlenecks will prevent the money going where it's needed most."

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