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Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Page: 11145


Ms GRIERSON (Newcastle) (17:45): I am delighted to speak on this recently released report, Our land, our languages. It is a particular pleasure to follow the member for Moreton and the member for Banks. The member for Banks's commitment to advancing issues that are of importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is well known and well regarded in this House. So following someone who was not on the committee but who is giving the committee the full credit I think they deserve is very special.

It was a great privilege—a real personal privilege—to be a member of the committee and a member of the inquiry that led to this report. My electorate of Newcastle has approximately 3,500 Indigenous people, which is 2.6 per cent of my electorate, which is higher than the New South Wales and Australian average. My electorate also hosts the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre. When people think of Newcastle, they think of an urban city. They do not necessarily think of the wonderful work being done by Indigenous people around their culture, identity and learning. I am very proud to be the member for such a dynamic Indigenous community. I am also an educator of some 30 years experience before I came to this House, so to be engaging around learning, teaching, self-esteem, pride and all those wonderful attributes that shape good learning in a variety of settings across this country was an absolute delight and it will stay with me forever.

The inquiry was extensive. It took over a year, and we received 154 submissions. So, if you out there thought that Indigenous languages were not a big issue, you were absolutely wrong. Estimates are that, yes, at the time of colonisation there were 250 Australian Indigenous languages in use and that today, in terms of a strong language spoken across age groups by a significant number of people, there are 18 well-established languages. But, as the member for Banks so rightly pointed out, 61,000 people disclosed in their census return that they speak Indigenous language. That is marvellous, and I agree with him that it is a pointer to the fact that Indigenous people are taking great pride in the work that individuals, families and communities are doing to reclaim language, to celebrate language, to share language, certainly to revitalise language and to maintain existing languages.

The report does recognise and celebrate the languages of Australia's Indigenous people, who of course are the original owners of this land. We witnessed firsthand the wonderful groundswell of commitment to Indigenous languages. That was from individuals doing grassroots work, just saying, 'I'm going to incorporate this into everything I do,' and putting it into performances, right through to organised institutes making research studies, documenting, collating, archiving et cetera. Overall it was a very impressive and passionate commitment that was, I think, very moving for all of us. I remember in Adelaide a young teenage woman who explained to us how important it was for her to be part of reclaiming her language, and that was very moving. You also saw elders in some communities who could only speak in their Indigenous language. But to see that variety—to go to Broome and see Indigenous park rangers coming in after work to be trained so they could use their Indigenous language to enrich the experiences of tourists and people coming to visit their place, their land—was very moving and very inspiring.

And we had the great pleasure of going to a school in Utopia, sitting under their BER facilities so we were not out in the sun, to meet with the community and the young people and to go into the classroom to see where two languages—Indigenous language and Standard English—were being interwoven in a way that was respectful and successful. I acknowledge the wonderful work of individual principals and schoolteachers in different schools who were committed to learning success.

The reality is that, as this report states, education success does come from respecting first language, using first language as the basis for all learning. We quote in the report a World Bank report that said:

Children learn better if they understand the language spoken in school. This is a straightforward observation borne out by study after study … Even the important goal of learning a second language is facilitated by starting with a language the children already know. Cummins and others provide convincing evidence of the principle of interdependence—that second language learning is helped, not hindered by first language study. This leads to a simple axiom: the first language is the language of learning. It is by far the easiest way for children to interact with the world. And when the language of learning and the language of instruction do not match, learning difficulties are bound to follow.

How true. As an educator I know that. I visit our schools, as many members do, seeing lots of our refugee communities from all different countries, and I know that there is not enough attention paid to supporting the language a child brings with them.

But we were privileged to witness the groundswell, and I particularly acknowledge the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre from my electorate. It has developed a special computer program: a database that enables the gathering, organising, analysis and production of language materials to aid in language education and training. We also saw in Tennant Creek the Papulu Apparr-Kari Aboriginal Corporation, which supports 16 language groups in the Barkly region through a range of activities and resources. I mentioned Broome because it was quite outstanding that the Mabu Yawuru Ngan-ga language centre supports the teaching of the Yawuru language in schools in the Broome area. I bought several T-shirts with Indigenous artwork and words, and they were a great hit with so many people. I applaud their work. I met a teacher there who understood the importance of first language and had gone and trained as a linguist to make sure she could match the needs of her education community. Those are stories that are very powerful. The Gidarjil Development Corporation we met produces booklets teaching Darumbal language and culture to children in schools across Central Queensland. The Many Rivers Aboriginal Language Centre just north of my electorate has developed dictionaries for about seven Indigenous languages in New South Wales. So these were wonderful experiences, and we were very fortunate to be part of that.

I would like to draw attention to some of the recommendations because some are particularly necessary and to be followed up by government. I think they point to wonderful frameworks for learning, teaching and advancing not just Indigenous languages but the participation of Indigenous people in this wonderful, important process. We of course first recommend that the Commonwealth government include acknowledgement of the fundamental role and importance of Indigenous languages in our Closing the Gap framework. It seems to me that that is something that should not have been overlooked, but it has been. We recommend that there be signage around the country used for place names and landmarks in local Indigenous languages. Some local councils and communities have done that, I know, but it is a bit of a no-brainer—why haven't we done that? Of course we should be supporting that sort of marking and recognition around our country. We also recommend that parliamentarians have a role to play in noting their Indigenous communities, Indigenous language and trying to embrace Indigenous language. I think it is true that it does start with us and we should be good role models always. We talk about supporting programs that allow Torres Strait Islander applications to be considered for arts funding. You would not have thought there was a particular constraint on Torres Strait Islander communities being eligible for funding for these particular programs. We also recommend that by March 2013 the Commonwealth government develop and announce an implementation plan, given its endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2009. It is not enough for governments to sign things and then not have an implementation plan that brings that about.

We also dealt a lot with the education settings. The ones that I am particularly pleased to see are the use of language nests programs in early childhood learning centres and preschools to be set up under national partnership agreements. We have also recommended, and I think these are particularly important, that through the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood there be protocols of mandatory first language assessment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children entering early childhood education. Yes, teachers and educators should know, they should be able to assess language in children's original or home language—their first language. They should not make assumptions; they should actually assess, and they do need tools to do that well. We also want more resourcing, of course, for first languages.

What I also think is excellent is that we recommended that the minister for education work through the standing council to develop a NAPLAN alternative assessment tool for all students learning English as an additional language or an additional dialect. That is not just for Indigenous kids, that is for everyone. I think that it is very true that when you go to schools and you see the wonderful work being done but then the children have to slot into a formal setting that does not recognise their language. I think that is a very powerful recommendation as well.

We also emphasised the need to have Indigenous teachers, and to fast-track the training of Indigenous teachers is so important. When you go to remote communities like Utopia or Halls Creek, the people tell you: 'We want to be the service deliverers in our own community. We want to be trained to be the health workers, the teachers, the teachers' assistants, the teachers' aides, the administrators, the community developers. That is what we want.' Some of that training has to be done in their language because they want to stay in their community. I do think career pathways require a great deal of attention. Remote Australians are very special, but they are very different too. They have very different circumstances, but they have the same ambitions and the same aspirations, so many of our recommendations go to supporting those aspirations.

We would like to see the acquisition and documentation and sharing, if it is appropriate, of resources that Indigenous communities develop around language. We would like to see a national Indigenous interpreter service, and we would particularly like to see more effort made by the government to put into place immediate measures to ensure access to Indigenous interpreting services in the health and justice sectors in particular because that is life-affecting. Too often we heard of women taken away from their communities to have their babies being told things about their foetal health, the baby's health or their health and not understanding one word of it. That is particularly sad and it is life-threatening. We also know that in the criminal justice system often Indigenous people were not even aware of what they were being accused of or what the consequences of that were. So particularly in the health and justice sectors we would like to see some immediate measures put in place to make sure Indigenous people have access to Indigenous interpreting services in their languages.

Overall it was a wonderful report; it was a wonderful experience for all of us. How do I know that? How do I know it was a successful and great report? I would love to share with the House this letter I received from Daryn McKenny, from the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre. He says:

Can you please pass on our thanks and congratulations to Sharon on her part as a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, in an excellent report into our Aboriginal languages. The report 'Our Land, Our Languages' released yesterday was and is everything that we have needed for a long time.

I was quite moved by that. It continues:

We hopefully now look forward to this report being acknowledged and acted upon in Parliament.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the work of the chair, the member for Blair, and my colleagues who were on the committee as well as the wonderful secretariat who were dedicated to making sure that we gained the information, the insights and the experiences. I certainly want to thank all the Indigenous people who so generously enriched our experiences and our lives and who made their knowledge, their pride and their commitment part of our work.

My colleagues have also reported on this, but it is important to say again that Indigenous culture enriches the lives of every Australian. It enriches our identity. It gives us more commitment to our place and more understanding of our place in the world. I congratulate and thank everyone involved in this wonderful report.