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Monday, 4 July 2011
Page: 7512

Mr LAMING (Bowman) (18:10): In considering the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2011, the question that comes before anyone who debates this issue on either side of this chamber is the No. 1 concern of school attendance. While we as politicians can continue to mouth the promises of small programs, small financial transfers and small gains in attendance in restricted areas and small cohorts in different parts of Australia, the only thing that will measure our time in public life will be whether we have turned education for Indigenous Australians in remote and rural Australia around so that attendance is something equivalent to what we see in the mainstream. It is great to focus on closing the gap, but today I want to look through the prism of the national quality framework and see what we have achieved since it was first raised back on 3 July 2008, to see some progress in Indigenous outcomes in both early childhood and later education. Secondly, I will look at the human rights issues around school attendance and compare them to worldwide concerns. Thirdly, I will look at the social and, fourthly, the economic implications of school attendance.

When we listen to our words today decades from now, the question will be not, 'Could we fill our 20 minutes with examples of what a government is doing?' but, 'Were we actually achieving any change whatsoever?' There are scarce few examples in this country of successful achievement in getting Aboriginal kids to school. I can start with a list of reasons, but our job is not to continue to expand on the list of reasons. We have one single role in this place, and that is to turn our words—our good words on both sides of the chamber—into reality, particularly in remote and rural Australia. So, while I have seen very, very alarming statistics that talk about only 24 per cent of Indigenous Australians even having a high school in their community and 40 per cent of Indigenous Australians completing year 12 but only 10 per cent of Indigenous Australians actually graduating from year 12, let us remember that it is magnified enormously the more remote or rural the area is. So, in areas like the Warlpiri communities around the Tanami of Yuendumu and Lajamanu, we have seen massive falls in school attendance at the same time as we were attempting the Northern Territory emergency intervention. It was not through any fault of the intervention. The intervention made it clear: send your child to school or face the impact of quarantining. The great problem is that quarantining was extended to absolutely everyone, and here we are, three to four years later, with an almost anthropological fascination with the intervention—watching, looking, talking about it and measuring it—but school attendance has not changed. No, school attendance flatlined for three years after we brought this intervention in. We got an initial 20 per cent jump, and it has sat there at 60 per cent ever since.

My great concern in those prescribed communities is that 40 to 45 per cent of Indigenous children simply do not go to school. I will say it again, and it will be remembered decades from now: it is Australia's greatest human rights violation that Indigenous Australians do not go to school. There is no greater tragedy for this nation. We know that levels of maternal education predict the futures of kids. We know that should be our No. 1 priority after child safety. But we are getting nowhere.

As I said, through the prism of the national quality framework, we talked about it in July 2008. We then talked about it again in October 2008. Then, Indigenous Australians can be delighted to know that on 2 July 2009 we accepted a revised version of the previous year's document—so there went one year. And now I move forward to 2011, and I say to Indigenous Australians, what have we delivered to you in the form of Children and Family Centres? This conversation started years ago. The kids who were most vulnerable in grade 1 are now most of the way through primary school, and what can I report to you? I can report that we had a press release in May saying that they were looking at setting up, in temporary premises, in the middle of this year, an arrangement for Doomadgee, Mareeba, Mount Isa, Ipswich, Mornington Island and Cairns. What about the other 16 remote Queensland communities? Nothing. It is one thing to run around and look for pilot schemes and roll things out in selected communities, but ultimately we need to remember we have two concurrent objectives here. One is the quality numerator—that is, how well we teach the kids. But no matter how good the quality is, if the denominator of school attendance is not there then quality means nothing. The great challenge is that we will have a rollcall and report that an Indigenous child has turned up at school but they are not there at lunchtime. They are gone by lunch, and they are not there on the other days when we are not counting the roll.

I now move to the second issue, the social issues in remote Australia. We put way too much pressure on bureaucrats and, in particular, on principals to be policing and pushing Indigenous liaison workers out to pick kids up from school in buses and cars. And for too long we have hung off the excuses of not having a pair of shoes or food in your tummy as an excuse not to go to school. But it is the other way round; the kids must be at school. There is no corner of this nation where there is not a law that clearly and explicitly points out that very fact. We are failing to apply ordinary laws that apply to the rest of Australia in remote Indigenous Australia. We are effectively creating a racial divide: a two-tiered system where the very rules that apply in most of Australia are exempted in Central Australia. And all most people would ask for is that the rules are applied.

As I said in my second point, from a social perspective I can appreciate there are damaged and incapacitated people in every community. There may well be more in some than others. So it is beholden upon us to identify those people and help their children because that is a child protection issue and that is No. 1. We know from the Bath report that there are 800-plus reports of completely uninvestigated child welfare issues. That is a failure, and without that being fixed we cannot even talk about education.

I have a fair bit of respect for teachers who say we need more resourcing, that we need better skilled teachers in remote areas and that we need to keep them there longer. They are all very important issues of continuity and quality of education. But, as I have said before, the denominator here is attendance. If kids cannot turn up then their parents need to bring them. And if kids will not stay at school because the minute the parents leave the children leave, then we have an issue where we must ask our parents to stay at school. We may well have to rethink education models and admit that, as was traditionally the case in Indigenous Australia, education was a multigenerational process. It is quite possible that caregivers need to remain at school and be accommodated in school grounds. I just ask the question: are we prepared to reconsider the way we deliver a Western education to promote attendance? I will have any discussion in any community about parts of the syllabus which Indigenous Australians do not support or have concerns about, but ultimately this is a discussion we should have had decades ago.

Fred Hollows identified this in the seventies. He found out a century too late for Indigenous Australia that education fundamentally had to be a buy-in process from the very families who send their kids to school. I can understand that it looks like there are no jobs at the end of the tunnel, but that is an argument for another day because No. 1 has to be school attendance, and that comes only through parental acceptance of its importance. When I visit Indigenous communities parents do tell me just that, but they will also tell me: 'Whether I send my kids to school or not, I'm quarantined. So there's no great incentive if I've improved my efforts in sending a kid to school. I don't see many carrots for sending my kid to school in a direct and real time. And ultimately if I thumb my nose at the system and I say, "Well, you've quarantined me and there's nothing more you can do," the reality is it is quite right, there is very little that the system can do.' So at some point we need to say that kids not attending school is just as serious as a range of other child welfare issues, and we need to be able to talk to aunties and extended families about ways of getting those kids to school.

There is a very easy way to reduce the number of kids that are in this situation—that is, to engage a community and ensure there is buy-in. There is nothing worse than going to a remote community where they say: 'We don't have much to do with that mob. We don't know the teachers very well; they come and go. We certainly don't have confidence that they're teaching the right things.' Then there is a driver for engagement with the community, and I would like to see more flexible state education systems start that conversation.

When Marion Scrymgour, as the NT education minister, moved English to a position of pre-eminence and then the intervention backed it up with mandatory four hours of English education at the start of the day, I can see what they were trying to do. But we have thrown out the entire cultural underpinnings of bilingual education for Indigenous Australians. Every other part of Australia teaches languages other than English as an alternative for kids, but we have lost that in many parts of Indigenous Australia that develop fabulous bilingual curricula. We need to bring that back, in no way threatening English because you need to learn English to be able to learn in English, so English must be a core part of education. But to remove the right of a community to have cultural and traditional elements in their curriculum is inviting disaster and disengagement. What we cannot afford is to lose these wonderful young kids at the ages of 10 or 12 when they go through subincision and other traditional processes and we lose them to education until they have gone through their final ceremony. In that period between 12 and 16 we have our greatest challenge in retaining kids, particularly in remote Australia, within our schools. The answer to that is simple: the answer to that is to talk about extended families and to talk to the senior caregiver—who is not always the mother. We need to talk to aunties and elders and ask them what we have to do for the children in your care in terms of keeping them at school. Once we have had that discussion in a community about what is valued in a curriculum it becomes far more powerful.

I have the sense that we are caught somewhere either side of this debate. Centrelink can approach an individual for not sending a child to school, and then at a community level we are trying to negotiate with elders. But in the middle there we need to remember that the strongest remaining part of Indigenous culture is the family group. Perhaps we have to talk to parents and say that part of the parenting payment is being a parent and part of being a parent is sending your kid to school. If they are not sending them to school, I would genuinely ask the question as to whether they are fulfilling their obligations in a modern society to your children.

Noel Pearson said in his Quarterly essay that we need to start thinking about Indigenous Australia not as being doubly disadvantaged but as being able to walk in both worlds and having the best of both. It is completely possible that Indigenous Australia, if it thinks about where it wants to be a decade or a generation or more from now, will say: 'We can retain our connection to land but we do not have to live there 100 per cent of the time. We can go and live where there is work. We can orbit from our communities and have the best of mainstream culture while having our connection to spirituality and the land.' Perhaps that is where we are heading. But it is time for Indigenous Australia to have that debate with itself, because that is a uniquely Aboriginal discussion to be had. I know that if that was to occur then education would be a fundamental part of it.

From our point of view, in the mainstream we need to recognise the important role that mothers, aunties and grandmothers play in education. I cannot see why in remote Indigenous Australia mums and aunties cannot be more than just teacher aides; they can be fundamental parts of an auxiliary volunteer education arm in a school. They could come along and do what auxiliaries do in hospitals, which is support your own education system. We have seen at Batchelor college the important role that elders can play through staying in residential colleges. That should apply in every community in which there is a school. The last thing that we can afford is to set up creches, preschools and kindergartens where Aboriginal families are encouraged to hand the kids over the fence and walk away. That works if you have to go to work, but leaving Indigenous parents completely separated from the education system that is over that fence is not the future.

We may have to be novel; we may have to try new things. But there is one thing that we should never back away from here: we must achieve the same school attendance results that we achieve in the mainstream in remote Australia. That can only start by allowing education departments flexibility, supporting the principals and not making them the policeman at the same time and having Centrelink work very closely on early identification of kids who do not go to school.

In the end, I appreciate that not all parents have the capacity to ensure that their kids go to school every day. But that is a child welfare issue as much as it is an education one. We need to take those children and talk to the extended family—the aunties—about getting them to school. As I have said before, we need to get them engaged with extended family.

Once we achieve that, the final part is the economic implications of school attendance. Everywhere you go, you will see worldwide that an extra year of formal education can do incredible things to a family's earnings over a life. So our priority must be to keep Indigenous kids at school—and particularly when they hit grade 7, because we know that from grade 7 to grade 9 when there is no high school to go to we have a huge drop out of kids.

Those figures that tell us that only one in four Aboriginal kids who stay to grade 12 actually graduate from grade 12 present us with another challenge, and that is whether we should be shifting large numbers of remote and rural Indigenous Australians onto welfare through Newstart. Is it right that large numbers of kids in areas where employment levels are down below 25 per cent should be shifted straight on to welfare payments? My argument is that that mitigates against exactly what we are trying to do, which is engagement through workforce participation. What we know is that all of the antisocial elements—such as alcohol or drug abuse—will always be higher where workforce participation is lower. It simply stands to reason. There are certain social problems that can only be addressed by engaging a greater proportion of people in the workforce. So as long as those figures roll along at around 25 per cent, I argue we can never ever start to get any form of improvement in social issues such as drugs, petrol and alcohol. It starts at school: once you keep kids at school, you give them a chance to transition to meaningful work, training or orbiting. We can do that in the time we have here in public life. But it will take the enforcement of laws that exist in this country now, throughout central, remote and rural Indigenous Australia.