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Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Page: 11140


Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (17:22): I rise to speak on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs report Our land, our languages: language learning in Indigenous communities. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and thanking them for their continuing stewardship of this land.

I also commend the member for Riverina for his contribution. I must say that I enjoyed it a lot more than I did his comments on the Defence annual report. I ask him to commend Stan Grant for his recommendations in this area.

I am a member of the committee, chaired by the member for Blair, who does a wonderful job. The deputy chair is the member for Murray. It is a great committee to be a part of. The three of us are also on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, so I see a lot of those two members of parliament. This is a great report to be able to rise and speak on. The electorate of Moreton is an inner city electorate. Nevertheless, there is a significant Indigenous presence in my electorate. In fact, 50 per cent of Indigenous Australians are actually located in urban environments. Whilst this report involved travelling to remote parts of Australia, nevertheless, 50 per cent of Indigenous Australians are located in urban areas.

In my electorate of Moreton I have Murri School, on Beaudesert Road, a wonderful independent private school devoted to Indigenous Australians, and Southside Education School, which certainly has a significant Indigenous population. It particularly caters for young women who already have children. It has a creche as well that looks after the children, to provide a higher school education for people who might not be able to get it because of having young children. Also, the Watson Road State School and the Acacia Ridge State School also have some significant Indigenous populations. In my electorate of Moreton, there have been many initiatives to make sure the Indigenous community in Moreton is recognised, valued and appreciated. Recently, I was taking note of the great contribution from the Sunnybank RSL, who have been working with the Indigenous community at Acacia Ridge to have a war memorial dedicated to the Indigenous Australians who made a significant contribution in World War I and World War II. In fact, if you are ever out in my home town of St George and you go along the bank of the Balonne River, you will see a war memorial to Len Waters, who was an Indigenous RAAF fighter pilot in World War II. They are actually making a movie about his life. His family are a significant family in St George. All his grandchildren and nephews and nieces are famous footballers. The stories of our Indigenous fighters were not told for a long time in Australia. I see that the member for Banks is in the chamber, and he would know this much better than me. Even in this parliament, this story was not told.

Perhaps it became a much more significant story in 1992, when the High Court finally put to rest that furphy, that notion of terra nullius. In addition, in terms of recognising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that had populated Australia for so long, it put aside that notion that we are a monolingual nation: at the time of white settlement, there were at least 250 living languages being spoken in Australia and in terms of dialects, some say, up to 300 or 400. Now, sadly, we in the committee can report that there are only about 18 strong languages—that is, languages spoken by significant numbers of people across all age groups. There are other languages that are alive that only have a small number of speakers and there are many that are asleep, awaiting a time when they will be reawakened.

This report put forward by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs goes a significant way towards making sure that Australia does not let these backward steps happen on our watch. We want all of these languages to be living languages—and I say that having been an English teacher for 11 years; I understand how important language is in terms of shaping identity, in terms of our culture, in terms of giving identity to our children and in terms of raising our children. The reality is that, for every one of those horrible stickers that I see on the back of a car saying 'If you live here speak English', we should point out that there are significant numbers of Australians whose languages were here long before there was ever a white footprint in Australia. We heard evidence that one in seven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language speakers actually do not speak English well or even at all. We do not see that on those stickers.

The recommendations flowing out of the committee report have already been embraced by Minister Garrett and Minister Crean, I see—a speedy response from the executive. While not the formal governmental response, there has already been a willingness on behalf of Minister Garrett and Minister Crean, and other members of the executive, to further this. We want to recognise the role and importance of Indigenous languages and preserve them and their heritage. Why would we do so? Because not only is it intrinsically right but also it improves outcome for Indigenous people. It is the right thing to do and we should do it; that is our responsibility as a good government.

This was a unanimous report—a unanimous report. I see the member from Newcastle, who was on the committee with me, is in the chamber. Despite the range of political views in that committee, we were able to come up with a report in which we all agreed that this was an important thing to do. And there are simple things we can do. Obviously, there is not one rule that can be applied equally to the remote parts of the Northern Territory and the middle of Sydney or Brisbane. But there are significant things you can do even just with the signage of place names and landmarks, making sure that there is a local Indigenous language that tells that story. I see it at the park right around the corner from me and commend the Brisbane City Council, which started this process years ago.

Certainly something that I do in all my citizenship ceremonies is stress to new Australians that they should try to find a couple of words in the local Indigenous language, wherever they are, that can be used in conversation to show that connection with place and with land that existed long before white Australians arrived here. So it was not just in terms of the Indigenous languages policy. Obviously some of these initiatives cost money. But we also made a recommendation that a lot of these language related projects be endorsed as a deductible gift recipient by the Australian Taxation Office so that these great projects could be taken up by big business, perhaps mining companies in certain areas, so that they can ensure that connection between their efforts in a community and their space.

Something we touched on and which will be taken up by other members of the parliament is that the Commonwealth government should support constitutional changes to include the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, which was recommended by the expert panel on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians. That is something that was easy for us to support.

In terms of learning Indigenous languages and Standard Australian English, we realise that the Gillard Labor government, building on the initiatives of the Rudd Labor government, has a strong commitment to education. One of the things we received evidence of was the problem of first language assessment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children when English is not necessarily spoken well or at all. As I said, one in seven ASTI-language speakers do not speak English well or at all. From my background as a teacher I know that this is something we need to step up in terms of engaging with Indigenous-language teacher training and also the people who provide support. We have to invest some money, engage with the universities and have the ministers for education work through the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood so that we get the right accreditation and the right qualifications to get the best possible things happening in our schools. Part of that is also the interpreting and translating of Indigenous languages. We had lots of great evidence in some remote areas about the great work that is being done, particularly by elders and significant grandparents in school communities, when they have the chance not only to educate but also to talk about culture and bring dignity and support to people in schools.

So there are a significant number of recommendations—30 in all—and I look forward to the government responding to advance them. I particularly commend the chair, the member for Blair, for great work in holding this together throughout, and also the secretariat for the great work that they did. I look forward to working on the next project in this committee.