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Wednesday, 1 March 2006
Page: 51

Mr SNOWDON (1:00 PM) —That was an entertaining little address by our friend from the Riverina. I am not sure how accurate it was, but she was certainly entertaining. I am sure she will get full marks for marketing at her next assessment, whenever that might be. As we know, marketing exercises are not always truthful—

Mrs Hull —Oh!

Mr SNOWDON —I am not suggesting you weren’t; I am just making a general comment about marketing. We know how untruthful many of the government’s own public marketing exercises have been. Nevertheless, I understand the member’s commitment to her communities, and her proud boasts of being able to get large slabs of government pork—I mean money—for her electorate. I am sure her communities are most grateful to her because of that.

There are a number of issues I want to address in my contribution to this important discussion on the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Amendment Bill 2006. I note the words of the amendment moved by the member for Jagajaga, condemning the government for:

(a)   failing to deliver urgently-needed capital funds and literacy support in time for schools and students to achieve the benefits of those funds;

(b)   failing to protect the integrity and probity of its program for tutorial literacy vouchers, especially in the appointment of brokers for the delivery of tutorial assistance in some states;

(c)   approving capital funding under its ‘Investing in our schools’ program in an unfair and unequal way between schools and regions, and

(d)   failing adequately to take into account the relative educational and financial needs of schools in the allocation of capital funding under the ‘Investing in our schools’ program;

and calling on the government to:

(a)   ensure that all programs are administered in ways that deliver maximum educational benefits for students;

(b)   take steps to assure the educational integrity and probity of its tutorial assistance for students with literacy needs;

(c)   direct some of the unspent funds for tutorial assistance for students with literacy needs for use by schools to develop appropriate programs for their students, in consultation with parents; and for the professional development of teachers to improve their literacy teaching skills; and

(d)   support improved accountability provisions for funding under the capital grants and tutorial assistance programs”.

Let me say at the outset that these programs are important. While the government members will decry the concerns which have been expressed by the member for Jagajaga and other members on this side of the House, it is important to understand that members on this side of the House are highly motivated to achieve the best possible educational outcomes for Australian students, regardless of who they are, regardless of their family circumstances and regardless of where they live. I think we share that objective across the chamber. Our reluctance to endorse what the government is doing whilst we are supporting the bill is because of the way in which these funds have been made available and the government’s inability to get the funds out in a timely manner.

My concern is that we need to spend more money on these types of programs, particularly for the people in my electorate of Lingiari. You would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Baressi—and it bears repeating for the benefit of those people who might be listening to this debate—that the seat of Lingiari encompasses all of the Northern Territory except Darwin and Palmerston, and includes Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands. Arguably, it represents the most disadvantaged of all Australians. Around 40 per cent of the constituents of Lingiari are Indigenous Australians. They live mostly in small, remote and isolated communities, far away from metropolitan centres and far away from services and, as I will explain later, they have poor educational outcomes. These poor educational outcomes need to be addressed. These programs are one way of addressing those poor educational outcomes.

It is important to appreciate the fundamentals of living in remote communities and the disadvantages that such people suffer. In the Northern Territory that disadvantage has been compounded by in excess of 25 years of neglect by previous governments before the ALP was elected to the Northern Territory government in 2001. Successive conservative governments in the Northern Territory took concrete decisions not to spend on educational infrastructure in an appropriate way for remote communities. As a result, the educational attainment level for Indigenous Australians who live in those places is very low—the lowest in Australia. The capital infrastructure in many communities until recently has been very poor—indeed, very run down and in need of great repair. In some places there is a need to relocate the educational facilities. In many places up until the last election cycle in the Northern Territory not one Aboriginal student had graduated out of their home community to tertiary entrance—not one. That is an absolute indictment of successive CLP—Country Liberal Party—administrations in the Northern Territory.

Unfortunately, that situation is also an indictment of the federal parliament and successive governments, both Labor and Liberal. They were not prepared or were not able to intervene in such a way as to force a recalcitrant Northern Territory government to spend funds in an appropriate way—funds which were made available to it for Indigenous education purposes.

It is worth pointing out that, in that context, the Northern Territory government is noted for hiving off in excess of 50 per cent of moneys allocated for Indigenous education by the Commonwealth—hiving off 50 per cent and more for its own purposes. As a result, it is no wonder that many schools were not receiving the full benefit of moneys made available by this parliament, either in the years when the Labor government was in power here in Canberra or subsequently when the CLP was in power.

That all changed, thankfully, when the CLP was booted out by the people of the Northern Territory in 2001 and a Labor administration was elected to govern the Northern Territory. Things were normalised. More moneys which were supposedly for direction by the Commonwealth into Aboriginal education were actually meeting the people’s needs on the ground. That is not to say that things are perfect. Recent work done at the community of Wadeye demonstrates very clearly that, in terms of funding, Indigenous communities on a per capita basis are significantly underresourced compared with their counterparts, whether Indigenous or not, who live in metropolitan centres of the Northern Territory or, indeed, elsewhere in Australia.

That is a real problem. It becomes an increasing problem when you understand how Indigenous students—students who live in remote and very remote communities—fare when we address the issue of benchmarking and performance measures. I have some real issues to do with benchmarking. I believe that the way the benchmarking levels are set and the way in which they are tested are inappropriate. Nevertheless, they are tested. Benchmarking has been agreed by the state and territory government ministers, along with the federal government, which has imposed its will. People will remember the debates in this chamber on Dr Nelson’s remarks about this issue of national benchmarking when he was the minister for education.

What do we know about benchmarking? Let me begin with non-Indigenous communities. For non-Indigenous students in 2004 and 2005 in the Northern Territory, the figures for those who achieved national reading benchmarks were 87 per cent for year 3 and 91 per cent for year 5. By comparison, the achievement rates for remote Indigenous students—those who achieved the national reading benchmark—in 2004 and 2005 were 20 per cent for year 3 and 21 per cent for year 5. If we go to the maths benchmarks—the national numeracy benchmarks—the figures for 2004-05 for non-Indigenous students were 97 per cent for year 3 and 89 per cent for year 5. They are commendable results. If we look at remote Indigenous students, the figures are 48 per cent for year 3 and 16 per cent for year 5.

Whilst I qualify my remarks by saying that I have real concerns about the approach to benchmarking that has been adopted, nevertheless it has been adopted. Those figures demonstrate the parlous state of Indigenous education in remote parts of the Northern Territory in terms of achieving those educational benchmarks.

Thankfully, the Northern Territory is starting to invest significant amounts of money in trying to address and remedy these shortfalls, but it is worth referring to the Bills Digest for this legislation. It refers to the issue of achievement levels and what that means in terms of life experience and life opportunity. It refers to a recent Access Economics study that says:

... early school leavers receive lower wages than their more skilled counterparts, are less likely to participate in the labour force, and are much more likely to experience periods of unemployment …

The Bills Digest then refers to findings of a Dusseldorp Skills Forum survey saying:

... the proportion of young people considered ‘at risk’ has remained unchanged for two decades and reaffirms the plight of early school leavers ...

The Dusseldorp Skills Forum is further quoted as saying:

About two-fifths of young people who left school after completing Year 10 (45 percent) or Year 11 (40 percent) were not studying and either unemployed, in parttime work or not in the labour force in May 2004. The corresponding percentage in these activities for young people who completed Year 12 (23 percent) is about half that of other school leavers.

The point of raising that in this context is this. If you understand that there are no high school opportunities for young people who live in remote communities and who are already behind the eight ball when it comes to the literacy and numeracy benchmarks that have been set across the country, you understand that in most instances they have no opportunity to even get to year 10, let alone year 12. As a consequence of that, we end up with a whole lot of problems which become important to this community. That means that young people who might otherwise have real lifetime opportunities because they have a good educational foundation and skills that they have been able to acquire during their schooling are not able to use them to obtain a job directly in the labour market, access further training or skill development at a TAFE or similar institution, perhaps do an apprenticeship, or go on to year 12 and perhaps get tertiary entrance. That is important and they are the goals we want all Australians to achieve.

The people I am referring to have next to no hope of achieving that objective. Because they do not have the skills necessary to get jobs in the broader labour market, they are condemned to a life of great frustration and uncertainty, which inevitably means that they will be unemployed for long periods of time and, as a direct result of that, will end up in a severe poverty trap. In disadvantaged remote communities, because of the lack of infrastructure not only in education but also in housing and health, people in a severe poverty trap have major difficulties in meeting the high standards set by government for the objectives they should be achieving.

We hear a great deal of discussion about passive welfare and the need to engage people in the labour market, to have jobs—something which this government boasts about. Let me say this: the life opportunities of the people I am referring to are being frustrated and undermined by the failure of successive governments to provide the resources necessary to equip and provide them with access to appropriate educational and training opportunities. If they cannot get access to those appropriate educational and training opportunities, they are going to be a long-term drain on the Australian taxpayer’s pocket. And when they are a long-term drain on the Australian taxpayer’s pocket, they will inevitably be blamed. They will be accused of not making a contribution to the community and they will be insulted, in the way in which they have been continually over 12 or 18 months, by those who abuse them for being on welfare.

Let us understand this: if we want to get people off welfare and give them those opportunities that we all expect to have for our children, then what we have to do is invest—invest significant taxpayers’ resources into making sure that the foundation skills that all people require to get on in life are provided to all Australians, regardless of who they are and where they live. That is the challenge.

Whilst the intention of these programs is well placed, unfortunately they have not proven to be as successful as they ought to have been. It is a matter of some concern that, in the context of these programs, education providers in the Northern Territory have not been properly consulted and the experts on the ground—the Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training—have not been listened to.

I wrote to all schools in my electorate at the end of last year about two matters: firstly, encouraging schools to put in submissions to the Investing in Our Schools program and, secondly, seeking information and feedback about changes to direct funding of Indigenous education assistance.

I had already spoken in the House on the issue of Indigenous education assistance on several occasions and condemned the government for its lack of consultation with key stakeholders, a stance which was shared by many submissions to a subsequent Senate inquiry into targeted assistance for Indigenous education.

In 2004, the former Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, made announcements about accelerating educational outcomes, especially in the area of Indigenous education. I am most concerned that those schools and students whom I referred to earlier—and there are many thousands of students who live in these remote communities in the electorate of Lingiari—had to wait so long and complete so much paperwork to access funding for capital grants.

The former minister for education wrote to me in December 2004 asking me to keep schools informed about the Investing in Our Schools program. I received another letter in February 2005 saying that by mid-2005 the first round of grants would be allocated. That was the first round, for grants less than $50,000. Unfortunately, only now are schools finding out about the second round of funding—for grants greater than $50,000.

I received another letter, from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Science and Training, on 15 February 2006, announcing $2.5 million worth of grants to schools in the Northern Territory. Interestingly, that correspondence states that, in 2005, the allocation of funds for the NT was $1.77 million and that the extra funding was from bringing forward some of the 2006 program funds to help deliver more projects now.

If funds had been overcommitted in the Territory for 2005, and this bill is to move uncommitted capital infrastructure funding from 2005 to 2006, as well as to bring forward 2008 funding to 2006, in what states were funds undercommitted in 2005 or uncommitted in 2005? What areas have been overallocated? Are they now to miss out for the next three years?

What message is this sending to principals and teachers and, indeed, parents in these remote communities? If I were a principal, the clear message would be to apply right now for any funds that may be available, as next year there may not be any. If anyone thinks this is any way to manage infrastructure equitably and fairly then I disagree.

I refer to the tutorial voucher initiative—I have already referred to the poor outcomes in literacy and numeracy—and I make this observation: not one voucher has been taken up in the Northern Territory in 2005. The government’s program for using contracted brokers is totally inappropriate in Indigenous communities and now, I understand, the Commonwealth has reluctantly and belatedly come to an arrangement with the Northern Territory government to provide a service. This could and should have been achieved 12 months ago. (Time expired)