Children and Health Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 Speech

It gives me pleasure to speak on the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition and Other Matters) Bill 2022. This is a bill that will amend multiple acts in order to strengthen the regulatory framework around Aboriginal self-determination in Victoria. I want to make some overall comments, then say something specific to Hawthorn and Victoria, and then my final words will be on Indigenous reconciliation.

The evidence is clear that if you want to improve health and social outcomes for Aboriginal people, Aboriginal self-determination should be implemented. This bill reforms several areas of law to achieve this goal and further improves provisions that uphold the importance of culture for the safety of Aboriginal children. It is a straightforward principle that Aboriginal people are the best placed to lead and inform responses about Aboriginal children and families. The bill itself marks considerable progress in key commitments under the Wungurilwil Gapgapduir: Aboriginal Children and Families Agreement of 2018. This agreement is rooted in a commitment to reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal children in child protection and alternative care. This is going to be done through advancing Aboriginal models of care and transferring decision-making for Aboriginal children to Aboriginal community controlled organisations. It also aids us in our attempts to close the gap and reduce the rate of over-representation of Aboriginal children in care by 45 per cent by 2031.

More than this, this bill will also enshrine Aboriginal self-determination in health legislation. It will also specifically acknowledge the Victorian treaty process, as well as our shared goal of increased autonomy and Aboriginal decision-making. One of the key changes contained within this bill is how it provides critical enabling functions to support the expansion of the Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care program. This program allows Aboriginal agencies to make decisions and provide culturally grounded support for Aboriginal families. This is another case of self-determination in action, and it is working.

Now to come to Hawthorn, the traditional owners in my electorate of Hawthorn are the Wurundjeri Willum people. I would like to thank their council for being incredibly supportive of our Bills Street public housing development, as it is actually on their land. Indeed I warmly welcome legislation like this, and I have found the people of Hawthorn to be, by and large, supportive of reconciliation. The Victorian Closing the Gap implementation plan is built upon genuine collaboration with our First Nations groups and wider Aboriginal community. It is our duty as a government to do everything in our power to assist Aboriginal communities in being drivers of genuine change. That is why I am proud of this legislation—because it represents our approach of prioritising self-determined solutions, solutions that promote culture and community as the cornerstones of closing this gap.

Turning now to Victoria, every jurisdiction in Australia, including Victoria, has a significant over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. We are committed to reducing this over-representation, with the tripartite agreement between the Aboriginal community, the Victorian Government and community organisations. In the 2020–21 Victorian state budget we committed over $55.8 million over four years to continue and expand the Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care program. This program works, with Aboriginal children being reunified with families in 22 per cent of cases under this program, compared to 11.1 per cent when managed by the department’s child protection practitioners in areas where Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care is operating. This work is not easy, but it has been stirring to see the collective efforts of everyone involved in doing everything possible to meet these targets and ultimately improve outcomes for our First Nations people. I have been thrilled to see the work in this vital area undertaken at Swinburne University, with the Moondani Toombadool Centre and the 2023 reconciliation action plan. The recent development of a new part of the AD building will bring together staff and students, creating a new space for First Nations people to build a strong community in both Swinburne and Hawthorn. I have been consistently impressed by the work Swinburne has done in this area and was glad to see them support the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Concluding then on Indigenous reconciliation in general, in the Closing the Gap strategy we are guided by the overarching belief that when our First Nations people have a voice in the design of policies and programs that affect them, those policies and programs achieve better outcomes. It is going to take the combined efforts of local, state and federal governments to make serious progress in this area. I am heartened by the commitment of the new Albanese Labor government to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and I fully reject the dogma of the conservatives opposed to the Uluru statement. Our First Nations people should have a voice; it is as simple as that. We, as a government, must strive to keep working with our First Nations communities to help drive change and to close the gap. More than 50 different stakeholder groups participated in consultation for this bill, signifying our commitment to a broad legislative process. There is no getting around the fact that the over-representation of Aboriginal children in child protection is a symptom of a significant gap between our outcomes for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people across the socio-economic indicators. That is why we are passing this legislation. It is why we will continue to pass legislation—because we are committed to closing the gap.

There is no doubting that this is a gap created by past policies, that intergenerational trauma exists and that it was once deliberate government policy in this country to disconnect Indigenous Australians from their culture, from their country and from their families. I am proud of the Indigenous heritage of Hawthorn, Victoria and Australia. I earnestly believe that the commitment of our new Prime Minister and the Australian Labor Party to the Uluru Statement from the Heart has heralded a new era in Australia’s relationship with First Nations people. We simply cannot allow children to continue to be separated from their families at high rates and so many Indigenous youths to be languishing in detention centres. For these reasons I commend the bill to the house.