Remarks: National Apology Breakfast – Kevin Rudd


Co-chair, National Apology Foundation

26th Prime Minister of Australia


Remarks: National Apology Breakfast

12 February 2021

It’s been my pleasure every year since 2011 to be in Sydney for the anniversary of the Apology.

First at Government House.

Then at Parliament House.

Both within a stone’s throw of where European occupation and settlement of Australian began 232 years ago and the long saga of Indigenous dispossession began.

And I look forward to the day when we all Australians – black, white and people of every colour –  share a national day which brings us together rather than tears us apart.

I’m pleased to join you today from Meeanjin – or, as we call it, Brissie – and the land of the Turrbul and Jagera nations, whose land this has been across the millennia and I pay my deepest respects to all their elders past, present and still to come.

I also pay tribute to Message Stick and Michael McLeod for their continued commitment to ensuring this important occasion is not forgotten after what has been a year of living dangerously for all of us.

Closing the Gap

One year ago, with great caution and considerable reservation, I welcomed the Morrison Government’s move to adjust the Closing the Gap targets.

He used the word “refresh”. I wasn’t so sure about “refresh” because it sounded too much like a marketing makeover to me.

Back then, I set out three benchmarks by which I would judge it.

One, what would the new targets be?

Two, what resources will be allocated to meet those targets?

And three, how will we access the data to review success or failure against those targets?

In terms of what the new targets are, there is still not clarity. We now have sixteen targets with another four under negotiation.

When he announced this revamp, Prime Minister Morrison said he wanted “realistic or achievable” targets.

As it has transpired, many of them are fuzzy in the extreme. Deliberately so.

They call  for a “sustained increase” in this.

Or a “significant and sustained” trend in that.

Others again appear designed to be met without any government action at all – at least according to the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.

Being “achievable” doesn’t mean we make the targets so small that we get to give ourselves a giant pat on the back to say the job is done.

That’s not an “achievable” goal. That’s just a bullshit goal.

I nonetheless wait to see what the different jurisdictions have to say when they publish their implementation plans mid-year.

In terms of resources, my second criteria for evaluating the Morrison “refresh”, the situation is grim.

When my government first pushed the Closing the Gap framework through the Council of Australian Governments, we jointly committed $4.6 billion to achieve the six targets we set.

$4.6 billion.

After I came second in the 2013 election, Prime Minister Abbott added an additional target but cut more than half a billion dollars from programs to advance the lot of Indigenous Australians.

That funding still hasn’t been restored.

Now we have sixteen targets, and four more under negotiation, and the government has committed less than $47 million to achieving them.

$47 million. That’s not even 10% of what they’ve cut.

It’s not like this government has been clutching parsimoniously the purse-strings of the national budget.

Nope. They’ve been spending like drunken sailors. John Maynard Keynes would blush.

Australia’s net debt is on-track for $1.3 trillion – about seven times what the Coalition inherited from Labor.

And the deficit this year will be $214 billion – also seven times bigger than we left them.

And yet – despite shovelling money out the door at a rate of knots – there wasn’t a dollar spent on social housing (including indigenous housing) in this country, despite it being a proven economic multiplier.

During the global financial crisis and the great global recession that followed, we invested $5.6 billion to build or refurbish almost 200,000 homes for people in need.

Reviving that program could put roofs over the heads of our First Australians, get others out of over-crowded homes, and provide good jobs for Indigenous people on the way through.

Instead, we get the HomeBuilder program – a renovations subsidy for people on six-figure salaries who already have $150,000 to spend.

That’s not to discount the jobs supported by that program, but is it really the best use of taxpayers’ money? I don’t think so.

My third metric was this: how will we access the data to review success or failure against those targets?

Some governments have shown they’re pretty effective at dodging scrutiny and hiding data.

On the day of the Apology, we built a simple integrity measure to make sure that the Closing the Gap data doesn’t go missing.

Every year, for the last 13 years, the Prime Minister of the day has stood up in parliament to mark the anniversary of the Apology and presented a report on their government’s successes and failures to Close the Gap.

It’s called accountability. I did it. Julia Gillard did it. Tony Abbott did it. And Malcolm Turnbull did it.

It’s a very simple integrity measure.

Now Canberra is awash with rumour that for the first time since the Apology, it’s not going to happen this year.

If that happens – and I hope it doesn’t – Prime Minister Morrison is going to dodge that modest exercise in annual accountability.

There’s no good reason why he shouldn’t present a comprehensive report on the commonwealth government’s progress on each of these targets next week.

We managed to do it during the Global Financial Crisis, when the world was spiralling into a global recession.

Mr Morrison can surely do it during the current crisis.

If he isn’t prepared to face annual scrutiny like all his predecessors have – Labor and Liberal – it is the beginning of a crabwalk away from accountability to our First Australians.

I hope he has a change of heart over the weekend.

Uluru Statement
The Apology was one step in a long journey towards reconciliation as the arc of history slowly bends towards justice.

Closing the Gap is another.

Responding to the Uluru Statement from the Heart is the next.

The Uluru Statement remains, at just 439 words, a most remarkable document.

Its core demands are threefold: a national Voice to parliament, enshrined in the constitution, part of a wider act of constitutional recognition of the First Australians, and a Makarrata Commission to oversee truth-telling and treaty-making.

On a national Voice, Mr Morrison appears more focused on navigating the internal political shoals of the far right than he is on delivering effective constitutional change.

He’s tilting towards legislating a form of national Voice but without any form of constitutional entrenchment.

I’ve been around the political block a few times. And I don’t agree.

I can tell you that, without the deep change that comes with a referendum which enjoys bipartisan support, the political right will always seize every opportunity to trash such a limited national Voice as illegitimate.

If you doubt me, I only point out the examples of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Both of these exist under legislation.

Both are subjected to rolling campaigns of delegitimisation, the withdrawal of funding and threats of abolition.

A Voice to parliament that lacks constitutional protection will be no more permanent than the dozens of quasi-autonomous government agencies that are created and abolished by governments every year.

There’s a reason why the Indigenous leaders who framed the Uluru Statement chose a constitutionally entrenched national Voice. They want it to be permanent. They want it to be above the ebb and flow of partisan politics. They want it to be part of the established national political architecture. That’s why so many Indigenous leaders are sticking by the idea of constitutional entrenchment. And I stand with them.

Meanwhile, this “legislation versus referendum” debate is designed to distract from other great matter outlined in Uluru: a Makarrata Commission leading to a treaty with our First Nations.

To those who set out to attack, challenge or water-down the Uluru Statement, answer me this…

What core Australian economic interest is diminished by formally making peace with our Indigenous Australians along the terms of the statement?

I can think of several core economic interests that might be enhanced – but can you tell me any that would be diminished?

They can’t.

Because there are none.

There was an arguable case with land rights. But there are none with this.

The uncomfortable truth is the debate about Uluru isn’t really about substance.

It’s all about the symbols of the white identity politics of the far right.

Just another battle in the seemingly endless culture wars in which any advancement – no matter how modest – in the cause of reconciliation must be opposed in order to throw more raw meat to the extreme right, thereby sustaining the wider coalition of interests that makes up the fragile fabric of Australian conservative politics.

For them, it’s no to constitutional recognition.

No to a constitutionally entrenched national Voice.

And it’s no to a treaty.

Do they really believe any of it?

Who can tell?

But the arc of history will continue to bend towards justice.

Because ultimately the arguments advanced against our great cause of a fully reconciled Australia will collapse.

And that’s because there is so little substance lying behind them.