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Monday, 4 July 2011
Page: 7502

Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (17:29): As I commence speaking in support of the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2011, I am proud to follow the member for Hasluck and the member for Fraser—the member for Hasluck because of his particular authentic voice in this debate as the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives and the member for Fraser because of his obvious passion for and commitment to education. In these times when politics and politicians are maligned nearly as much as climate scientists and economists, I think it is important for people who might be listening to this debate to understand that the work of the House involves people working across boundaries in the interests of the nation. That is the kind of work that I came here to do as the member for Robertson, and that is why I am very, very proud to be speaking today to this bill, which is firmly and squarely targeted at changing life outcomes for the most underprivileged and most isolated people in this great nation of Australia, our Indigenous people.

This bill itself demonstrates that the Gillard government are deeply committed to governing with a clear and dedicated focus on closing the gap that we have to simply accept exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in terms of not just living standards but every possible measure of life outcome: health, wellbeing, educational status and opportunity. Of all the tools at our disposal to achieve these equitable goals, education, in my view, is the most powerful one—and there is much research to support this. The adequate provision of education has been proven over and over, time and time again, as the greatest equaliser of opportunity available to a society. The Gillard government is absolutely committed to closing the gap in Indigenous education disadvantage. In my view, it is essential that it remain our most important objective.

Of all the national issues, this one, perhaps more than others, has a very particular local face in a range of different settings across the nation. I will always—and as I speak here today I want to particularly—value and appreciate the local Indigenous community in my electorate. The Central Coast is an area that has been proudly inhabited by the Darkinjung-Guringai people. I will always feel privileged to be the representative in this parliament of the land in which the Aboriginal elders of my region continue to hold their custodianship with such care. The coast certainly has a proud Indigenous history, and members of the Indigenous community have always sought to maintain and strengthen their cultural heritage, but the reality on the Central Coast is similar to the reality around the rest of the nation: our Indigenous kids are underrepresented in terms of health and wellbeing, they are underrepresented in the successful completion of schooling, they are underrepresented in our universities and they are underrepresented in their opportunities to be full, successful and participating members of our society with all the choices that are afforded to children who are born to non-Indigenous parents.

The purpose of this amendment bill is to extend funding amounting to $133.5 million for non-Abstudy payments for the calendar year 2013. Additionally, this bill will reduce by $157.7 million in net terms the appropriations allocated for non-Abstudy payments to fund previously agreed government policy and initiatives. While decision making that shifts money in economically responsible ways is necessarily a difficult task for all governments, we in this government understand that we must remember, in the allocation of funding, that it must go to where it is most needed and can have a powerful and positive impact on our communities. The changes to funding arrangements reflected here reflect changed arrangements which were implemented under reforms to federal financial relations.

It is always important to consider that not only is it important to provide welfare to Indigenous communities but its provision must be enabling for the communities. It must be efficient, it must be effective and it must be—as the member for Hasluck so clearly outlined—directed at real, practical outcomes. 'It's not about the money,' he said. 'It's about what we actually make happen, what we make possible, what we envision and what we deliver for Indigenous communities with Indigenous communities.' The new arrangements reflected in this bill provide greater autonomy for states and territories to tailor their own policies to suit local circumstances. This is a very important part of the bill—that the face of need in each community is different and that that needs to be taken into consideration at the state level as well as at the totally local level. The circumstances faced by Indigenous Australians vary phenomenally throughout this Commonwealth. It is appropriate, then, that policies in relation to education should also vary. Reform to the Commonwealth-state relations in Indigenous education policy has been immensely beneficial in the development of a policy aimed at closing the gap. An example is the approximately $80 million transferred to the Northern Territory national partnership agreement. This COAG agreement is aimed at closing the gap, and a significant part of the agreement is the National Partnership Agreement for Indigenous Early Childhood Development. When it comes to changing outcomes for Indigenous children, we must constantly acknowledge the power of investing in early education.

We talk about expectations—and I want to say a little more about that later. Expectation about what is possible for every child is at the heart of a teacher's role, but teachers do not do this alone; it is parents and the community in toto. It is often said it is not just the family that raises a child—it is not just the mother and father—it is the village. Early childhood exposure to great quality education changes expectations for everyone. It changes expectations for the children themselves when they begin to see other ways of doing, other ways of being, other ways of knowing, other ways of listening and other ways of speaking. In a clearly and carefully dedicated formal education setting that is combined with the sound advice of policy and research in early childhood, we begin early on the journey that might have positive outcomes for future generations of Indigenous Australians.

The National Partnership Agreement for Indigenous Early Childhood Development commits $564.6 million—that is a large amount of money—over six years. It is currently funding 36 children and family centres. I have not had the opportunity yet to visit one of those, but I certainly hope that I will have the opportunity, because the people working there are doing some of the most important work in our community. They are the people who will build these potential futures. This COAG agreement is designed to meet the specific needs pertaining to particular states and territories, who will develop and implement their own plans in consultation with their local communities.

The bill also reflects the government's election commitment to increase support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from remote Indigenous communities attending non-government and non-remote boarding schools. This initiative is really about making it possible for individuals who have different needs to receive different responses. There is no one Aboriginal culture; there are multiple Aboriginal cultures. There is no universal student; there are multiple individuals, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who need particular responses. The uniqueness of the human person is a challenge for all educators. This bill does many of the structural things that allow teachers to actually begin to do that kind of dedicated work.

Sadly, not every Indigenous Australian child will have access to the program, but significant numbers will. This really does have the potential to change lives. As a former teacher, I am very well aware, having spent 25 years in classrooms, that education transforms lives. I am passionate about education because I have seen it. I have seen kids arrive with low expectations and I have seen them at the end of 13 years of schooling, having been well engaged, being able to do wonderful things and fulfil their dreams. Sadly, some children have never had those possibilities offered to them. I see Australians who represent great resources, to themselves, to their families, to their local communities, to their nation and, indeed, potentially to the world, who, by the time they have left school, do not have the skills or the belief in themselves that they need to advance and really become the best people that they can be. Education is a rich field in which to work and a great education is a holistic experience. It empowers students intellectually, socially and, just as importantly, emotionally and culturally. This program of supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from remote areas to attend non-government schools has the potential to provide that empowering experience. But such programs must always be mindful of the challenges faced when moving from one cultural setting into another cultural setting. There is a lot of research about students from disadvantaged social backgrounds having two language practices, trying to identify in a tertiary setting and using a particular discourse capacity in that context and then also having to go back to their own families and talk, live, work and speak in different ways. This is not a small thing that we are asking. That is why it needs to be offered to particular kids who look like they are able to take up that opportunity and why it needs to match their particular needs.

Every Indigenous student who finishes secondary education and gains a tertiary qualification is benefiting their community. They are benefiting their local community, the Aboriginal community and the Australian community. The more successful we are at promoting education in remote Indigenous communities, the more able we are to improve the life outcomes of those individuals and their communities and to close the gap, which really is a shame and a blight on our national history at this point in time.

As a member of this parliament and this Australian community in 2011, I often hear the general public's frustration at the Commonwealth-state blame game. Indeed, I understand that in our federal system Commonwealth and state governments inevitably dispute. However, Indigenous affairs is an area of policy where we must not fail. We must not allow this gap to be maintained. It is for this reason that I am heartened by the fact that there is a defined COAG agreement, aimed at closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Commitment to cooperative targets is also demonstrated by the newly updated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014. This action plan commits the Australian government to 55 clear actions concerning the educational outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people. These 55 actions are linked to six priority domains, which are reflective of an outcomes based holistic approach to education: school readiness; engagement and connection; attendance; literacy and numeracy; leadership, quality teaching and workforce development; and pathways to real postschool options.

These six areas are critical and foremost and, under this agreement, each state was able to tailor how they approach those policy objectives in their own context. One approach I found particularly encouraging was the New South Wales strategy of developing a personalised learning plan for all Aboriginal students, in conjunction with students, parents and/or caregivers and teachers, including Aboriginal school personnel. In particular, it was focused on students' wellbeing in spiritual, cultural and personal domains. If we do not attend to those realities, then students will not be likely to engage in the intellectual domain.

This approach demonstrates the ideal that each student is a unique individual, with different strengths and weaknesses and a different personality that needs different responses. We must never forget that this legislation and the COAG agreement are being discussed here in this place today because, in 1967, again, very belatedly, the Australian people voted to enable the Commonwealth to legislate for Indigenous Australians. It is our responsibility in this federal place to have high expectations of ourselves and of the Indigenous community to be able to achieve these goals. It is therefore imperative that the Commonwealth use every power that we have at our disposal to assist in improving the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

It remains a concern to me that, in 2010, only 64 per cent of year 9 Indigenous students achieved at or above the minimum standard in reading, compared to 92 per cent of non-Indigenous students. Twenty-four per cent of Indigenous students in remote areas achieved the national minimum reading standards. That is just not good enough.

Despite the challenges that face us, the Australian Labor Party and this government understand the importance of education and its enabling capacity. As a member of the House, I certainly have a vision for an Australia where Indigenous Australians have equity in outcomes and, on the basis of that, I commend this bill to the House. (Time expired)