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Monday, 19 September 2011
Page: 10440

Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (11:27): When the member for Warringah first introduced the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011, he said that he was working for the economic advancement of Aboriginal people, that economic development is important to the future of Aboriginal people and that access to the benefits of all Australians is the right of Aboriginal people. In this view, he is not alone. Many of us on both sides of the House have worked hard on the issue of Indigenous economic development.

The member for Leichhardt has done a great deal in his own electorate, but I need to correct a couple of statements he made in his speech. He said that clauses 4(3)(b) and 6 were new; that is not in fact the case. Those clauses were in the 2010 bill.

As a member of that House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics I visited Far North Queensland in late November 2010 and early March of this year. Our inquiry was broadly into Indigenous economic development, not just the wild rivers issue. We heard from over 50 people in the public hearings and took 39 submissions. We visited Brisbane, Cairns, Weipa, Bamaga and the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation in Far North Queensland. What quickly became apparent to all of us on the committee was that Indigenous economic development in Cape York is a complex and an important issue.

Mr Katter: Seriously? Do you realise you have never spoken—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): The member for Kennedy!

Dr LEIGH: It is vital to get the economic development framework right. We on this side of the House are strongly committed to improving the opportunities and the life outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We deliver an annual Closing the Gap report. We have to continue to consider the full picture when it comes to Indigenous economic development. One part of that picture is mining. That has been brought to the fore over recent years. In the last decade, the price of alumina—one of the key minerals in the Cape—has risen by more than 50 per cent. It is important that we remember the role that mining plays in economic development. The national picture for mining is that it contributes 5.6 per cent of our GDP but employs only 1.3 per cent of the total labour force. The same picture shows up in the Cape. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from the 2006 census show that there were 19 Indigenous people in the Cape who were employed in mining. That is 0.7 per cent of Indigenous employment in Cape York. We should be open to the possibility that mining has a bigger picture to play in the employment base for Cape York. We should always be looking to possibilities, but we should be clear-headed and guided by the facts that we can see in the most recent census data. Mining is an important part of our economy, and is helping produce record terms of trade, but it produces fewer jobs than its share of the national economy.

I agree with Noel Pearson who says that education has to be at the heart of Indigenous policy, that education has a critical role to play in overcoming inequality and disadvantage. The role of education in economic development was reinforced to me when I visited Cape York last year and this year. As part of the committee's hearings I had a conversation with Ms Yunkaporta about Noel Pearson's Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy, which is an initiative championed by the Minister for Families, Housing, Communities and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. The program offered by the academy has four components focusing on class, club, culture and community. As Noel Pearson recently wrote, the Class program immerses students in numeracy and literacy using the Direct Instructions programs. Students need to achieve a mastery of 90 per cent at their level before they can move on. Tests are done every five to 10 lessons and both the students' and teachers' performances are carefully monitored.

Club ensures that kids do not miss out on those future opportunities, providing extracurricular activities that many children in non-Indigenous communities already enjoy—including the hope to one day include foreign languages and Shakespeare classes. Culture helps children learn the local Aboriginal languages and their culture and traditions. In-school activities are supported by the Community program. School attendance and readiness for school are carefully monitored. A food program provides meals during the day—

Mr Katter interjecting

Dr LEIGH: I hear the member for Kennedy laughing, but education is an important part of Indigenous economic development. For those of us on this side of the House, Indigenous education is no laughing matter. This program provides meals during the day and families are helped to manage funds to cover educational expenses. Pearson states in his essay Radical hope:

Man cannot live by bread alone, but he does need bread, and in the modern world the broader economy is where he'll earn it.

That is why education is so important for the economic development of Cape York and the economic development of our nation.

Boosting the quantity and quality of education in Australia will flow on to improve the level of innovation in the economy. It will allow for more rapid diffusion of new technological changes. The boost to living standards that we get from improving our education system will rival any of the big economic reforms in Australia's history. It will rival floating the dollar, bringing down the tariff walls, enterprise bargaining or competition policy. Education then flows on to new jobs in Cape York. You can see the opportunity for that if you drive from Bamaga north to the very tip of Australia where you will see the ecotourism lodge which is, alas, now something of a wreck, but which offers great potential to be a new ecotourism centre for Australia. The white sands are breathtaking. The area has great potential to be a tourism destination. Not everyone in Cape York will be employed in the tourism industry, but it is a critical part of Indigenous economic development—the broader issue into which our committee inquired.

The causes of disadvantage in Cape York and the Gulf are complex, and we need long-term, considered approaches. We need to provide real opportunities, real jobs and sustainable development. I believe addressing disadvantage and creating opportunity through education are perhaps the most important thing we can do. The government respects the views of Aboriginal leaders in the Cape York area—

Mr Katter: No, you don't.

Dr LEIGH: and will continue to actively engage with them—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): The member for Kennedy may miss out on his opportunity to speak if he is not careful.

Dr LEIGH: in developing solutions for a sustainable and effective model of economic development and one that allows Indigenous people in Cape York to work towards and build the 'radical hope' of the future—a radical hope in which education provides the skills, economic opportunities and the ability to create and innovate new ideas and industries. As part of the government's commitment to economic development for Indigenous Australians we have agreed with the Queensland government to establish a new service for people in Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria, which will guide Indigenous applicants to develop new business and economic development proposals and assist them to effectively utilise the processes under the Wild Rivers legislation.

The importance of education, economic development and the future for the Cape was best put to me by Phyllis Yunkaporta, a witness appearing before the committee. She told the committee:

The education system, as I knew it before, has been of low standard. The curriculum in the past, as it is in all cape Aboriginal communities, has been of very low standard. By the time our children go out to mainstream schools they are hardly there—a child in grade 8 still has the understanding of a child in grade 1. Speaking for Aurukun, I was one of the persons who were invited to the States last October; I went to New York and Los Angeles visiting African-American schools. What we have brought back to Aurukun is a new kind of teaching method and we are having that implemented in the school. Of course it took time. At the beginning it pretty much had been, in my words, chaos before that. Since having this new program come in, if you come to the classrooms in Aurukun the kids are fully focused. This new method of teaching has got them going. The teacher is full-on with the tasks given and you cannot believe it when you enter those classrooms—it is as if some of those kids are play-acting. They are not; they are just full-on, focused. I guess in time we have to have expectations for our children to be educated in a way where they have to balance both worlds—the Western world and the traditional way. Of course we want them to hang onto the traditional way because that is where they are going to be identifying themselves for the future. And with them having to venture out into mainstream, we want them to compete. It is a competitive world out there. We want our black little kids to start taking on the world. That is the aim of all this.

Ms Yunkaporta's views highlighted to me—and to many of us on the committee—the importance of a holistic picture with Indigenous economic development. It is absolutely critical that we recognise there is not a single industry that is going to be part of the cape's success. Cape York Indigenous communities need the building blocks of education and the sustainability of strong jobs. And they need effective leadership that is willing to argue strongly for the interests of people on the cape.

If anybody went on this inquiry believing that there were simple solutions to economic development in Cape York, they should have come away disabused of that notion; they should have come away recognising that Indigenous development on the cape has many futures ahead of it.

I will return to the point I made at the start of this speech, where I referred to some statements that the member for Leichhardt made. The member for Leichhardt referred to clause 6 of the legislation. Clause 6 remains unchanged from the previous version of this bill. It details a process for obtaining agreement for native title holders. The heading of that clause refers to 'native title holders', which is not defined in the bill. It is unclear whether the details for obtaining agreement of native title holders could also include owners as defined in the bill or just the native title holder of the land. As a result, this is potentially a cause of uncertainty as to how agreements, which are a central component of the bill, would be practically achieved. This uncertainty is one of many uncertainties in the bill.

As we saw in the committee's inquiry, there are many Indigenous stakeholders in Cape York, and Indigenous stakeholders operate on different levels. Some groups will claim to speak for larger populations, but, as our inquiries went on, it would sometimes turn out that people were not comfortable with others speaking on their behalf. So the absence of a definition of 'native title holders' is one of the concerns that I have about the bill before the House.

I think it is critical that this debate focus on the big picture, on Indigenous economic development and not pretend—because it would be wrong to do so—that the only factor affecting Indigenous economic development in Cape York is the Queensland wild rivers legislation. It is not. It is a small part of a much larger picture. I would like to close by paying tribute once more to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Mr Noel Pearson for the work they have done together in improving Indigenous education in Cape York. If anything is to be the key foundation stone for Indigenous economic development it is getting school education right. I pay tribute to both of those people for the careful thought they have put into securing that outcome.