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Thursday, 21 February 2008
Page: 1139

Dr STONE (1:26 PM) —I rise to support the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008. The government will bring forward through this bill the funding and recruitment of 50 of their promised 200 extra teachers to staff schools in the Northern Territory emergency response communities. Elementary education—in particular, in literacy, numeracy, English language and computer skills—is a critical requirement for any individual wanting to fully participate in Australian society and in our economy. For generations now many Indigenous Australians have not had that elementary education. Compared to other Australians, Indigenous Australians have too often had lower school attendance and retention rates, and poorer quality education when they do go. Few Indigenous students have been able to access higher education and training compared to non-Indigenous Australians.

It is estimated that as many as 7½ thousand Indigenous school aged children in the Northern Territory do not go to school or preschool. But, ironically, in most communities the teachers, classrooms, chairs and desks would not be there to accommodate the children if they showed up tomorrow and started to attend regularly. Obviously this is not acceptable, and the Northern Territory government must do better.

Obviously any increase in teacher numbers to work in Indigenous communities is welcomed by the opposition. When in government, we did a great deal to improve Indigenous education, access and support, and we saw some improvements in outcomes. But we did not expect that the staffing problems in the emergency response communities would be solved with just 200 extra teachers over the next four years.

A recent Australian Education Union report called Education is the key: an education future for Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory estimated that with full attendance in schools, which was of course the aim of the intervention measures introduced by the John Howard government, the following additional staff would be required: 1,360 teachers, at a cost of $204 million per annum; 300 assistant teachers; 85 teacher assistants for preschool programs; 100 home liaison officers; and 100 Aboriginal and Islander education workers. The total operational cost for this additional staffing was estimated to be some $264 million per annum.

The opposition is concerned that what is proposed in this initiative is only a drop in the ocean and does not take into consideration the additional resources for the incentives that will need to be offered to attract and retain qualified staff in the next four years. Even more significantly, this bill does not recognise the importance of building the Indigenous communities’ own professionally qualified teaching and related school workforce. The John Howard government saw this as a priority and designed and resourced programs to ensure more Indigenous teachers could step into the classroom and not only offer excellent professional service but also act as role models for up-and-coming future teachers amongst their young Indigenous pupils.

As I have said, we applaud the new government for joining us in acknowledging the importance of, and indeed the very urgent need for, improving educational opportunities and standards for Indigenous children in the Northern Territory—indeed, throughout Australia. But, as I say, we question both the adequacy of their response at this stage and their piecemeal approach. As the nation knows, the John Howard government responded to the shocking conditions affecting the lives of Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory by declaring and resourcing the emergency response. A key element of this response was our determination to ensure the Northern Territory began to meet its responsibilities in providing adequate school infrastructure and teaching staff to accommodate all children of school age in these prescribed communities.

But we were also particularly concerned that members of the regional Indigenous communities had the opportunity to train and become qualified professional teachers, or assistant teachers or school student mentors, themselves. We wanted to end the long-established practice whereby the Northern Territory government was staffing—or, rather, understaffing—their schools on the cheap, exploiting the work of teachers aides, for example, who were not paid or supported as a part of the Northern Territory’s normal teaching or school support service. Instead, these Indigenous teachers aides were only paid a CDEP allowance, sometimes with a top-up, even when the individuals had been continuously working in the schools for years.

As part of the emergency response, we asked the Northern Territory government to transfer these teachers aides—and they were mostly Indigenous women—onto real salaries with genuine professional development opportunities and career paths. We gave the Northern Territory government some $30 million to help meet half the cost of transitioning these workers to real jobs and real salaries. I would like to know what has happened to these funds and this initiative under the new Labor government. This was an excellent initiative. I want to know: is it continuing—given that Minister Macklin has apparently changed her mind about the need to replace CDEP, the Indigenous work for the dole scheme, which sadly saw so many Indigenous Australians on sit-down money, with no prospect of a job, no training and no sense of purpose for the future? We aimed to replace CDEP with real job opportunities, real training, career prospects and, in particular, we targeted teachers aides in schools in the Northern Territory and saw that they needed special recognition. I note that the member for Lingiari is now sitting across the table from me, and he in particular would understand the very real needs of these Indigenous teachers aides who were exploited year after year while they were simply paid a CDEP allowance. I ask him to make sure that the Northern Territory government is doing what it promised the John Howard government under the emergency response.

We also had a number of other incentives in place to encourage and support the training of Indigenous teachers throughout Australia. These programs included the National Indigenous Cadetship Project, which assisted Indigenous people to complete a degree to become qualified teachers. There was also the Indigenous Fellowship program, which provided financial and study support to assist Indigenous DEET employees to complete teaching degrees. And there was the Indigenous scholarship program which offered similar support for Indigenous teachers.

I hope these programs have not also been slashed by the razor gang, like so many programs aimed at rural and regional communities throughout Australia. I refer, of course, to things like apprenticeships in agriculture and horticulture, and the living away from home allowances, the cutting of which will disadvantage not only non-Indigenous rural and regional Australians but also, and particularly, those in Indigenous communities, who have great career prospects in the local pastoral industries and who need living away from home allowances because of the remoteness of many of their homes from training institutions. This government has slashed the funding for those programs, and I think it is sheer hypocrisy then to talk about any real concern for Indigenous Australians when such cuts have been made.

Our emergency response recognised the need for a comprehensive approach to the problems associated with school non-attendance and poor outcomes for Indigenous children. This included health checks for all children, to detect and treat, amongst other things, any hearing or sight problems which were holding back those young students. And we recognised that many Indigenous students, or those not attending school at all, were going hungry. So an important part of our comprehensive approach was the funding of the provision of hearty school breakfasts and lunches, to be prepared and supervised by community women, who were also being trained in nutrition and safe food handling. I would like to know what has happened to those programs. We have not heard much about them in the 90-odd days since Labor became the government.

So we in the opposition applaud the government’s recognition of this critical issue of ensuring that our young Indigenous Australians living in the Northern Territory emergency response communities have a better chance of a decent education. We ask, however, that the minister study all the elements of our response, including: the need for literacy and English language training for parents, and the need for them to become competent with computer use; the provision of adequate meals to students; followed-up health checks; decent accommodation for all teaching staff; and adequate classrooms. Most importantly, we ask that this government explore, and make sure we have, the creation of real opportunities for people in the Indigenous communities to become the qualified staff, as well as the support staff, in these and other schools in the future.

Finally, I strongly urge the Minister for Education and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to hold the Northern Territory government to account, and to monitor and measure their spending and their performance as they are given federal funds to do the job—a job that they have had responsibility for for a very long time and a job they should have been doing much better. Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory have always deserved a better chance in life, and I am pleased that this government is recognising our emergency response initiatives. But I ask them to adopt a comprehensive approach and to look a little harder at how limiting this bill appears to be.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Sidebottom)—I thank the member for Murray for her contribution and for her patience earlier. I have pleasure in calling on the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel.