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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1810

Mr JOHN COBB (11:00 AM) —Aboriginal culture is quite obviously and undeniably part of the fabric of this country and is and always will be part of the enduring fabric of my electorate of Calare in western New South Wales. However, while the government continues to funnel funding and programs into Indigenous communities throughout western New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Queensland, the Indigenous people of my part of the world face many of the same hardships as those people in Queensland, the Northern Territory and elsewhere. They have the same problems, the same social issues and the same entrenched lifestyle factors that have caused the situation that we have today. But in every situation there are nuances; there is a need for flexibility and a need to target programs—and I hate using the word ‘programs’ in this situation—and ideas and to allow people to have flexibility within them.

The Wiradjuri people of western New South Wales have themselves taken steps to break down some of the cultural issues, but they have gone much further than that. Programs such as their language program travel to schools and educate younger generations with a positive influence. They are proud people, like anybody else, but what this does is regenerate pride in their own history and, hopefully, in what their future will be within Australia, particularly within my part of the world. The program is run by tribal elders, it is embraced by students and it has received numerous awards acknowledging just how much good it is doing in terms of people getting on with their lives and feeling good about themselves. The program is devised by the Wiradjuri people themselves and is working to close the gap which has been spoken about today. A program like this one should be a benchmark and, unfortunately, I have to say that this program is probably the exception to the rule. A program needs to be versatile, it needs to be targeted, it needs to be flexible and it needs to be relevant to the region in which it is practised.

In the two years since Kevin Rudd’s much praised apology, the efforts to close the gap have in fact done little to acknowledge the culture of Indigenous people in my part of the world, the electorate of Calare, in western New South Wales, and even less to provide the communities with the power, the resources or the ability to help themselves to close that gap. I am not sure that I like the term ‘close the gap’. I think it is about being able to fit in within your community and getting on and having a productive life. However, we are using that expression.

There are few better examples of the mismanagement involved than in the failure of Kevin Rudd’s policies in the town of Wilcannia, in western New South Wales. According to the most recent census, around 50 per cent of the population identify themselves as Indigenous. In fact, it would be far, far higher than that. Wilcannia is one of several communities in the area serviced by a host of welfare and support programs. But they are all based somewhere else and Wilcannia is screaming out for a different solution. There are 55 agencies servicing the area and they are all fly in, fly out. They show up, they work and they leave. There is very little community ownership, no sense of connection to the people or the land and no empowering of the community to actually come to grips, deal with and target the program in the way that they would see fit.

As an illustration of the total lack of planning, there are four different employment agencies—in a town which officially has, I think, about 500 people in it—serving about 150 people. The scarce funding being put towards closing the gap in this area is quite obviously dramatically missing its mark. This is a case of putting people on the ground for the sake of having people there, for the sake of saying that there is actually a program.

This is one issue where I hate to bring politics in because if dealing with the problems of employment and the other issues surrounding our Indigenous community were easy then any government would have solved them a long time ago. So I am not trying to pretend this is an easy case. But when you have four employment agencies in a town this size and there are 55 different agencies flying in and out all the time, then it is obviously not targeted.

The general manager of the Central Darling Shire, based on Wilcannia, has seen the waste of resources. He summed it up best when he said, ‘The real issues aren’t heard in the shadow of a whiteboard during a 10-minute visit.’ And obviously they are not. If you sit around under gum trees for long enough then you might find out what will actually work and what might be done. It does not take 55 agencies and four different employment agencies to sit down and listen and come to that conclusion.

Most of these employers—who, I am sure, are well intentioned—work on 12-month contracts. We know that real solutions and progress take longer to develop and stick with than that. I do not like saying this, but the methods being employed by the current government are outdated. They do not work. We have known for ages that they do not work. The issues of Wilcannia are subtly, and in some cases not so subtly, very different to those of Ivanhoe, Cowra or Orange. The ‘one size fits all’ method does not work. We need people in the community to be trained. They need to be local, to be on hand and to have the conversation under the gum tree, whether it is on the Macquarie, on the Lachlan or out on the Darling.

With 70 per cent of funding going towards training and employment, surely there is room to make this happen. In the nine or 10 years or whatever that I have been around this place—and I have been out in the far west my whole life and thought I knew a bit—I have realised that being a member of parliament certainly does teach you a lot more about certain areas. Through being a parliamentarian I have certainly learnt more about the situation of our Indigenous people in the areas of employment, lifestyle and health than I ever knew before, and I do not pretend to be anything like an expert on it. But the one thing I have come to learn is that a job is worth a hell of a lot more than any social program that has ever been devised, because a job is the greatest social program that we can provide.

I bring this up because places like Wilcannia and Burke are not far, in effect, from places like Cobar, which has been through a bad time employment-wise in the last 18 months because of the mine but is on the way back up again. The fact that at a place like Cobar, for example, you can work in the mines and have 10 days on and 10 off, or four on and four off, certainly lends itself to the lifestyle of people who feel tied to their land because it is not far to travel a couple of hundred kilometres—it is no big deal—when you get four or more days off. I have been trying to support this for ages. I guess we got knocked on the head when there was the huge downturn in the copper industry, which is the lifeblood of Cobar. But it is now coming back, so I would love to see these programs funnelled in and saying, ‘What we can do is provide for you to travel to Cobar, work your four or five days—whatever the mine can work out with you—and then you have time off to return home.’ There is not much point doing training and employment programs where there are no jobs. Basically, that is the situation particularly in Wilcannia and also in places like Burke. But there is a way around it if we can have flexible programs that deal with the situation on the ground.

In Cowra and Orange, where there are jobs and opportunities, what the Aboriginal Employment Service have come up with is going to businesses and saying, ‘We can find someone to do that job if you’re willing to employ an Aboriginal person.’ That is a totally different situation, but it is a waste of time at Wilcannia. So we need to be flexible. Politics aside, we must be flexible and talk to the Wiradjuri people in that particular region and ask, ‘What’s going to work here?’ Never lose sight of the fact that a job is the main social program that everybody needs, whether you are a member of parliament or you are sitting on the banks of the Darling. That part does not change. This is one issue that should transcend politics. I hope and pray that, whether we are talking about Orange, Cowra, Burke or Wilcannia, we can look at it in a local sense, not in an Australian sense and not in the sense of: ‘How can we have a program so that we say we’ve got a program?’