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Thursday, 21 February 2008
Page: 1142

Mr SNOWDON (Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) (1:37 PM) —I congratulate you, Deputy Speaker Sidebottom. I have not had a mate from the Apple Isle sitting up in that seat before. Well done!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Thank you.

Mr SNOWDON —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008, which amends the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 by appropriating $7.162 million of additional funding over the 2008 school year for the recruitment of 50 additional teachers as part of the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to provide $56.8 million of funding over the next four years for an additional 200 teachers in the Northern Territory. As the Minister for Education said in her second reading speech, there are an estimated 10,000 school aged children in communities affected by the Northern Territory emergency response. Of these, best estimates are that only some 8,000 are enrolled at school, leaving up to 2,000 school aged children not enrolled at all. A further 2½ thousand enrolled students do not attend school for sufficient time to benefit from their educational experience. That is 4½ thousand students in total.

It may come as a surprise to the opposition, but, if they care to check Hansard, they will see that I have been talking about this issue for some years and saying that there are thousands of young Territorians who have no access to any educational opportunities to speak of. I estimated that there were around 5,000 of them over the age of 13 who had no access to any educational opportunity, including vocational education, nor any opportunity for literacy development at even the most basic level. I am pleased with this announcement, but I am not sure that their understanding of the problem is as good as it should be. I fear that, when we do more work, we will uncover the grim reality that a lot more will need to be done.

Others have spoken about the urgency and need to set practical targets to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Nowhere is this more the case than in the Northern Territory. Last week, we had what I think was the most moving experience of my almost 20 years in and out of this place, and that was the apology to the stolen generations. The day before that, we had the welcome to country. These are truly historic opportunities that this parliament has grasped. I was pleased to see the bipartisan support which was given to the apology. We now need a true sense of bipartisanship about addressing all of the issues that confront Indigenous Australians. Again I ask those who might not otherwise have heard what I have said over previous years to examine the record and see how often I have raised the issue of poverty for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. I say that as someone who has lived in the Northern Territory for over 30 years, who has lived and worked out of a small Indigenous community, who has worked as a teacher in the Northern Territory, who has worked for an Aboriginal organisation and who is well-known around the Territory and understands it. The appalling statistics that we all know about are a sad indication and an indictment of the parlous performance of previous governments—Labor and coalition—over the last generation in addressing Indigenous disadvantage.

The member for Bonner is sitting in this place. Her sister is well known to me. In fact, I taught with her sister in Darwin almost 30 years ago. Her sister and her husband now work in the Aboriginal community of Ramingining in the north-east of Arnhem Land. They will be able to tell my colleague about the nature of events that have occurred in and around these communities and the need for investment to address disadvantage. Blame is not the way to deal with these issues; we have to deal in partnership with people and understand that treating people as objects will not get us the result we are after. The people who we are concerned about must be part of the solution; they must be partners in developing and agreeing upon the solution. We will not get improvements unless there is ownership at a local level. This goes for education as it goes for housing, health or any of the other indices that are used to portray the parlous state of Indigenous welfare and poverty in remote parts of Australia.

Frankly, that approach is important wherever people might be, whether they live in the bush at Ramingining or in Melbourne, Sydney or anywhere else in Australia—even in your own electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker. Things will not work unless there is ownership. We have to appreciate, as I have said on many occasions, that the notion that a one-size-fits-all approach will actually accomplish an outcome across the breadth of this nation is a folly. We need to be working with people at the local level. We need to understand that. Even a place like the Northern Territory has a great deal of diversity within it, and understanding that diversity is as important as making the money available.

It is about not only understanding the diversity but also understanding that, when we are talking about diversity in this context, we are talking about cultural difference. It is about understanding that, in the context of these communities in the Northern Territory, we are talking about people who by and large—and I said this with the greatest of respect to those who have had educational opportunities in the past—will have left school by the time they are in grade 8. By and large, they will have English as a second, third or even fourth language. English is not their first language and nor is it a priority for many; they converse with one another in their own languages. When we want to provide people with new educational opportunities, we have to appreciate cultural difference. We have to understand how to cross that cultural divide. We have to understand the cultural priorities that people might have. We have to understand the difficulties that come with teaching people concepts of which they have no knowledge or experience.

Just because we have a national curriculum, for example, that says we must have certain outcomes by year 3, year 5 or year 10, does not mean it is easy to achieve—in fact, in these communities it is very difficult. We have to appreciate in the first instance that what we are talking about is communities that are at the least bilingual and in most cases multilingual. The transfer of knowledge, giving people the capacity to understand what we are in fact wanting to do, is sometimes quite difficult. It is easy for us to stand here in this place and make pronouncements about what we want to achieve, but unless we go down and talk to those communities at the local level and understand their priorities, and understand the conditions in which they live, they will not get a positive outcome. That is a message that I think many governments have failed to appreciate.

But in this particular instance what we are talking about is the funding of 200 new teachers. As I said to my friend the member for Bonner, I worked as a school teacher in the Northern Territory for some years. I was involved in the Northern Territory Teachers Federation for some years. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to be engaged by the Australian National University to work with a great Australian, Herbert Cole ‘Nugget’ Coombs, to do an analysis of the impact of government programs on traditional Aboriginal socialisation in the Northern Territory and in Central Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So I have had a real opportunity to acquire some knowledge and get some depth of understanding of what might be required.

As I said earlier, schooling for the vast majority of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory is a bilingual or multilingual environment. Literacy learning and formal schooling in many remote communities often, sadly, has a short history. In some cases this current generation may be only the first to have any experience of schooling. That sounds far-fetched but unfortunately it is true. So seeking parity, as I have explained, with mainstream English language national literacy and numeracy benchmarking is a real challenge. And the people who are going to confront that challenge are these 200 teachers and all the other teachers involved in providing educational services in these schools. It is a challenge. They will see that the environment in which they work will in most cases be extremely difficult. It will be unknown to many of them and they will be challenged by it. They will be charged with developing techniques for generating greater community participation and engagement in an affirmation of, an ownership of, the value of education. In these environments they will be trying to increase parental engagement and involvement with the school system and the education of children, because, as we know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the role of parents is vital—not only parents but, in the context of Indigenous communities, certainly in the Northern Territory, extended families, kin relations.

Everyone must accept the importance of this focus that we are placing upon these communities. But it goes hand in glove with other developments and investments that need to be made, because you will not get a successful educational outcome, regardless of how good, committed and professional the teaching staff might be—or even how committed the parents might be—if when the children go home they have 25 or 26 other people living in the same house. It is a critical issue. We need to engage and understand that, while we say we want an educational outcome, we have to go back and look at the other elements. We have to understand not only the need for the provision of the educational service itself—the provision of the classrooms, the provision of the housing—but also the connection between health, housing, education and indeed life. Unless we see those connections, and match those connections, and deal with those connections in an appropriate way, then as surely as I am standing here we will not get a successful outcome.

The really challenging part for many of the teachers who will go into these communities, and something that is unbelievably terrific in many respects, and really a great honour and a great privilege, is the opportunity to live amongst and with Aboriginal people and try to understand their language, storytelling and cultural programs—their world, their view of the world. It is difficult. But it is something that needs to be done. And as difficult as it might be for these teachers, whether they live in the Northern Territory, or indeed in the electorate of the member for Kalgoorlie, who is in the chamber, it is a great privilege. Invariably they will be taken into a community and they will be amongst people who are generous, who are abiding, who are caring and who by and large, despite all the bad press, are well motivated towards their families and particularly their children. They will appreciate that, in many of the places they will locate in, they will not have the rewards that exist in places like Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne, or indeed Orange, Bathurst, Townsville—or any other major urban centre or even small town across Australia. They will be without the amenities that we see, if we live in this town for example, as just a fact of life. They might, if they are lucky, have access to ABC Radio. They might have access to a couple of television stations. They surely as not will not have access to a newspaper. They will often find it difficult to get internet connections. This of course goes to broader issues of government policy. They might find that the local police station is 100 kilometres or even more away. Unfortunately, as the intervention in the Northern Territory has highlighted, and as I know my friend from Kalgoorlie will confirm, they will find that in some places there is violence, there is alcohol abuse—and these sorts of things have to be dealt with.

When we think about these sorts of things, it is very easy for us to sit here and say we are going to provide the resources to put in place 200 more teachers. But the reality is very different. Unfortunately there are too few of us who have any really decent understanding or knowledge of the conditions and environments within which we are going to put these people and ask them to work. I think the events of last week have exposed us to the possibility that now we have a process which hopefully will lead both sides of this parliament, each of us individually and indeed collectively, to getting a greater and deeper appreciation and understanding of the issues involved so that we do not run off and make glib political statements or try and score political points off one another, because that will not produce the outcome that we are after. What we need to do is work in concert with one another.

For anyone who lives in a remote community, there will also be the bureaucratic challenges. We know—for those who are isolated and who live away from the centre—that decisions are made in Darwin or indeed in Canberra without any decent and proper understanding of what might be happening on the ground at the time. History is replete with examples of well-intentioned policies that had no applicability on the ground. We need to inform the centre from outside. When we are talking about policy development or policy implementation we go back to what I said at the outset and learn what is happening locally, understand the issues at a local level and be flexible about the application and development of policy.

There is a difficult challenge for these teachers, whether they are in the Northern Territory or in remote communities in South Australia, Queensland or Western Australia. I note the previous speaker talked about Indigenous staff. One of the ways in which we can get a better understanding of how to work with these communities is, of course, to engage locally and try and support the development of teachers at a local level. Engage people in those communities so they can acquire those skills, be remunerated properly and provide the assistance that we know they can provide within the classroom context. As well as providing for these Indigenous education workers, we must ensure that the additional teachers that we are referring to have the support to teach English oracy to the increased numbers of children who have languages other than English, and who are second- and third- and fourth-language speakers, and to help teachers cope with the high proportion of students in these communities with special needs such as hearing problems and behavioural issues.

We have to see this, as I said earlier, as a part of the whole problem and not just segmented. We need to combine all the elements of it if we are to get a balanced outcome. Importantly, also, the recruitment of these 200 teachers is a relevant issue. Whilst I have great admiration of first-year-out teachers, they do not have the experience that is required in many of these communities. We need to provide the capacity and the resources for a balanced recruitment of mature teachers who can be expected to set stronger classroom management rules and styles and mentor less experienced ones. I have great pleasure in endorsing this legislation. There is great merit in us providing these 200 additional teachers for schools in the Northern Territory, but I fear it is just the start.