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Wednesday, 17 October 1984
Page: 1921


Senator MISSEN(10.50) —I wish to raise a matter which is urgent for reasons that I will show. It concerns the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Holding. It is the perilous position of the Worawa Aboriginal boarding school in Victoria which is threatened with closure or being forced to leave its premises. I was informed this evening that there is to be a meeting tomorrow of representatives of that school with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Holding, and perhaps representatives of Senator Ryan's Department. Those people are concerned that this matter should not be neglected, that the Parliament should know the situation and, moreover, that we might have some assurance from the Ministers as to the position.

I have observed that there is no Minister in the Senate at this time. I regret that Senator Ryan, or someone else is not in this chamber to take note of these matters. I notice that the Attorney-General, Senator Gareth Evans, is back; so perhaps he will deal with the matter. As I understand the situation this evening , this position, which has been unresolved for some time, is likely to come to some finality tomorrow. The school in question is a private school supported by funding from the Government. That came about as a result of representations by me and other people to the Minister for Education earlier this year. I had the opportunity of going to the school earlier this year and discussing this matter with the council members and meeting the students. It is a small school in its second year with a little over 30 students at this stage. This is one of the most promising and hopeful signs of the extension of Aboriginal education in Victoria. The students and their parents are very keen to make a go of the school. They are poor people in the Frankston district where the school is situated. They face the possibility that the school may terminate or leave the district in which many of the parents live.

As I have said, the school was in grave difficulty earlier this year because it did not have the current funding. That was overcome. The Department of Education solved it. The problem which was outstanding at that time and which is still unresolved, is the permanent position of the school. It had leased very suitable premises in Frankston from the Anglican Church which desired to sell the premises. The question was whether the Government, either through the two Ministries or some other source, would be able to afford to buy the land. There are reasonable premises on this land. Originally it was a Church of England Boys Society holiday place. It is not lavish accommodation but it is quite good. It has school classrooms and room for more classrooms to be brought on to the premises. It has a somewhat rough playing field. The parents and the members of the school council, who are predominantly Aboriginal people, were making it into a very suitable school for those children who, very often had had a very poor education in the normal schools. Some of them were from the Shepparton district, some of them from other country areas and others from the city. The children were obviously very bright but they were not learning the English language and were having great difficulty. They were attending school year after year but, because of their language difficulties in particular, were not able to participate fully in their education. This school is offering these children an immensely valuable opportunity. As the first and only Aboriginal school in Victoria, I understand that it is also offering an opportunity to be a forerunner in the training and education of young Aboriginal boys and girls. Therefore, its closure is a desperately important thing to avoid.

Honourable senators will remember that, in the middle of this year, I circulated to them a request that they supply books to help the library of the school which was very inadequate and very small. I must say that the response was not overwhelming from honourable senators. I thank Senator Mason for the books which he and other charitable persons in Victoria gave to the school's library. I made representations earlier this year on the question of the purchase of the land. I knew that negotiations were going on both with the Department of Education and subsequently with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to see whether the money could be raised so the school could be preserved and continue to occupy its most suitable premises. Unfortunately those who contacted me this evening, who have to take part in the negotiations tomorrow, are not optimistic, from what they hear, that the Government has found the means of continuing to allow the school to occupy the premises.

I think it will be a tragedy and a disgrace to us, as senators in the Parliament of this country, if we find that a valuable initiative such as this disappears because we are not able to find the funds. With all the millions of dollars that we can find for other things, here is an initiative in Victoria- which I think is a start in providing proper education for children of Aboriginal parents-which needs funding. I take what may be the last opportunity of making a plea to the Government not to turn down this proposal and force the school to close. I do not criticise the Anglican Church in any way because no doubt it wants to dispose of the land in question. I understand it is prepared to sell it at a price below the market value although it is quite a valuable site. The site is eminently suited for the purpose it is now serving. It obviously has the potential to enable a greatly extended school to be sited there. The school has the devoted attention of a number of teachers, some of whom have gone on leave from the Department of Education to spend a year or two helping. It also has the assistance of Aboriginal parents who help in the control of the children and who give them a family life in the school.

I urge the Government not to abandon this strong plea for help to save the school. It ought to be carried on in the interests of maintaining the efforts which we should all be making to ensure that Aboriginal people have the same opportunities in life as others.