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Tuesday, 11 March 2008
Page: 1295

Mr SLIPPER (1:46 PM) —I would like to commend the honourable member for Kalgoorlie for his very erudite and thought-provoking speech in relation to Indigenous education in remote parts of Western Australia and, more specifically, in his electorate of Kalgoorlie. I am pleased that right across the parliament we have this sense of wanting to do something about the plight of our Indigenous people. While I do not always agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, I do commend her comments in her second reading speech when she said, ‘We have to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia,’ and then referred to the Prime Minister’s commitment to closing the gap in life expectancy, in educational achievement and in employment opportunities; to halving the gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes; to providing opportunities for Indigenous Australians within a decade; and to halving the gap in infant mortality rates within a generation.

It seems to me that we have collectively thrown money at the problem over the years. It is almost as though we are at times focused on process rather than on outcomes. It is almost as though we are trying to salve the nation’s collective conscience by throwing money at the problem instead of looking at improved outcomes for Indigenous people.

As the shadow minister indicated, the opposition do not oppose the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008; however, we do have some concerns about it. We do worry because it appears to be a piecemeal approach. While, from my point of view, having 50 extra teachers is obviously a step in the right direction, I would ask the Deputy Prime Minister—who I think is, deep down, a very reasonable person—to consider, in a bipartisan way, the point made by the member for Kalgoorlie when he referred to a lot of these communities which do not seem to have any real purpose for existence. I am not sure whether or not the member for Kalgoorlie is right, but I do think it is something that really ought to be looked at, because we have finite resources and we want to redress Indigenous disadvantage as much as we can.

Quite some time ago, when I was Chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, we sought from then Minister Wooldridge a reference into Indigenous health. I thought it was appalling that the gap between the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians was so wide. Ten years or more down the track, the gap has not been reduced. We have spent lots of money on Indigenous affairs. I do not begrudge the money we are spending but I do regret that, from the point of view of the community—particularly the Indigenous community—we do not seem to be achieving the outcomes.

I am aware that this bill is partly to fulfil an election promise that was made by the government. I do commend the fulfilling of election promises, because one of the problems we have in Australia is a sense of alienation from the political process, where people cynically think that politicians are prepared to do anything and say anything to get into office and then, once they get elected, lose the commitment to their promises. I do commend the government on bringing in this particular bill, but I am wondering whether it was a well-thought-out promise. I would hope that the government looks at what the previous government did, because neither side of politics has a monopoly on good ideas and common sense, no-one has a monopoly on good intentions and no-one has a monopoly on doing the right thing or the wrong thing. I am not for a moment claiming that the Deputy Prime Minister is suggesting she does have a monopoly on compassion, but we need to do whatever has to be done to redress Indigenous disadvantage while at the same time making sure that the Indigenous community actually achieve positive outcomes. There was, prior to the Howard government’s election to office, a move away from focusing on outcomes towards focusing on process, and often we gave Indigenous groups the ability to self-determine how or where funding would be spent.

We were all appalled by the many stories of unscrupulous non-Indigenous bureaucrats coming in and making decisions for people who did not have adequate experience, regrettably, to make those sorts of decisions, with the result that there was a vast waste of money. That then created the political environment for someone like Pauline Hanson to come into the political scene. She spoke about waste; she spoke about theft; she spoke about fraud. She did for a while obtain strong support from some sections of the community.

While wanting to empower Indigenous people, we ought never to lose sight of the fact that what we need is an improvement in Indigenous outcomes. By all means, have your self-determination on the way through, if that is a better means of attaining outcomes, but I would hate to think that we are spending huge amounts of money on the one hand focusing on process and in doing so forgetting the real purpose of these programs. The real purpose of these programs is to remove Indigenous disadvantage. I would love to see an Australia where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are absolutely equal in every respect: with respect to opportunity, with respect to success in business and with respect to education. I know that is an aspiration shared by all of us. Where we differ at times is on the way that we actually get to that very desirable outcome.

The former government did quite a lot in relation to Indigenous education, in particular the upskilling of teacher aides to become fully qualified teachers. The reason we wanted to achieve that was of course to give increased educational opportunity. My understanding is that the former government gave up to $30 million to the Northern Territory government for that purpose. We are not quite sure at the present time whether the current government will continue that process, particularly given the fact that the current government is now reviewing its former pledge to abolish CDEP.

The bill before the House is fair enough as far as it goes. I hope that those 50 teachers, at a cost of over $7 million, will assist in educating and upskilling Indigenous children in remote communities. I would reiterate my request that the Deputy Prime Minister consider the point that was made quite reasonably by the honourable member for Kalgoorlie that we really ought to look at whether some of these communities should exist. Obviously, many of them should but maybe there are some that should not. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister, being a reasonable person, will in fact consider that, because, let us face it, we simply cannot go on as we are. We have been in this country now for more than two centuries. We find that Indigenous Australia is probably as badly off as it has ever been. The former government had lots of very positive policies in the area of practical reconciliation, but I think that we need to move forward as a parliament, as a community, to try and erase those elements of Indigenous disadvantage which continue. We need to focus on outcome rather than process. As a small step towards a successful outcome, the coalition does support the bill currently before the chamber.