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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2251

Senator MICHAEL BAUME(8.00) —We are debating tonight the report by Joseph Lo Bianco, `National Policy on Languages'. We have had some interesting speeches so far which have outlined the basic problems that we are having in coping with the special relationship that Australians and the Australian education system should have with foreign languages. I wish to deal with a particular element of this report, that section relating to trade. It is evident from this report by Mr Lo Bianco that this is an area of considerable concern. In the report he notes that the languages of key trading partners are under represented in the teaching programs of Australian schools and that very few subjects are offered in the languages of our South Pacific neighbours. Despite the growing numbers of Japanese tourists coming to Australia, for example, few employees in the tourist industry have any familiarity with Japanese. Of course, Australia's economic future will significantly depend on the extent to which, conscious of the cultural differences between our nations, we can communicate with other people in their own languages.

This report deals with this specifically in some detail. I shall quote some extracts from the report and then refer to the extent to which there has been a monumental failure to address those problems. The report points out on page 48 that it is the conviction of other major English speaking nations, such as the United States of America, that they have forgone demonstrable economic opportunities in external trade due to inadequate and inappropriate language teaching policies domestically. I stress that the lack of adequate and appropriate language teaching policies domestically has had a disadvantageous economic impact on the United States. That has been acknowledged and one presumes that the United States, having recognised that disadvantage, has done something about it. I wonder to what extent this Government intends to seek to influence the education systems of the States-let us face it, the Government has a cash involvement with the States-to remedy this situation which appears to be approaching disaster level. I go back to the report. It says:

In general terms, all Australians conducting business in non-English-speaking countries or who are involved in formal and informal arrangements between Australia and such countries will be greatly advantaged by having language skills and cultural knowledge appropriate to their task. There are many instances where this is indispensable.

We have a clear statement in the report dramatising the significance and the importance of foreign languages, particularly in trading in our region. The report goes on:

There is substantial evidence that Australian economic activities, particularly in competitive situations requiring market penetration, would benefit from the skilled use of the host country's languages and active knowledge and appreciation of cultural values and behaviours. This can be a determining factor in gaining a competitive advantage in trade. In situations of intense competition for markets and considering the particularly trade-dependent nature of Australia's economy, it is important to harmonise national economic strategies with the goals of languages policy. Australia's total trade with non-English-speaking countries greatly exceeds its trading volumes with English-speaking countries.

The report continues:

This shift which has occurred over the last two decades has coincided with a general reduction in second-language learning and teaching in Australia. In addition the languages of the key trading partners are particularly poorly represented in Australia's schooling system.

This is a major indictment of the language policies of the education system throughout Australia. I am unaware of any effort by this Government to improve this disastrous situation. On the contrary, not only has there been nothing done to improve this disastrous situation but also the figures underline the fact that since the magic date of 1983, when this Government was elected, the situation has massively deteriorated. Page 28 of the report reveals that the number of students presenting Chinese, for example, at matriculation level has collapsed from the 1,043 of 1983 to only 794 in 1986. Under this Government, with its failure to address this issue, there has been a massive fall in the number of people prepared to take this course of study for the leaving certificate, matriculation or the equivalent educational standard in each State. Yet we are told consistently by this Government that there is a special need for us to address the question of the Chinese market and that we must be aware of the great opportunities that exist there. However, nothing is being done to encourage the learning of this language; on the contrary, the numbers are significantly deteriorating. We have the same situation with the study of Indonesian. The peak year in that case was also 1983, when 1,542 students around Australia undertook matriculation Indonesian. This figure has almost halved to 819 students. What is going wrong?

Senator Kilgariff —Good question.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —I thank Senator Kilgariff. I think it is a question that this Government should answer. It is about time it did. It took something like six months for this Government to respond to this report. In the response of the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) there is no adequate or coherent answer to these matters of major moment. Let us look at the study of Malaysian. Three years ago there were 587 students doing matriculation level Malaysian. This figure is now down to 149 students, less than one-third of the number of three years ago. I repeat my question: What is going wrong? What is the Government doing about it? I guess the Government would suggest that at least in the area of Japanese studies there has been an increase. That is true. The only area where there is an increase in the number of students taking the language of one of our trading neighbours and political associates in our region is--

Senator Teague —A very important neighbour and relationship in our area.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —As Senator Teague said, Indonesia has been significant and Japan now is of increasing trade significance to us but Japanese provides the only example of any increase in students learning the languages of our region. The number has gone up in recent years from, I think, 600 at the end of the Fraser Government to 881 in 1986. The 881 students studying Japanese compare with 3,180 students studying German and 5,682 studying French for matriculation. I just wonder what our priorities are. I wonder what the Government is about and where our interests are in terms of the sort of education we should be encouraging our students to follow. Basically, had it not been for the extraordinary development in Queensland, those figures for Japanese would not have shown anything like that sort of rise. For example, in the past eight years the number of students studying Japanese in Queensland has risen from 86 to 256, representing the great bulk of the increase throughout Australia, whereas in Victoria only 141 students last year took Japanese to matriculation.

I recognise-and of course these figures demonstrate-that the States adopt different approaches. That is self-evident from the situation with Japanese with the numbers being only 141 in Victoria, 233 in New South Wales and 256 in Queensland. It is clear that each of those education departments takes a different view. But I cannot help wondering to what extent it would be appropriate for the Federal Government, which has a concern and an involvement in this area, to provide at least some encouragement, some incentive for this kind of absolutely essential activity. I go back to the report which states:

Invariably Australia's trading efforts depend either on the provision of interpreters, usually not Australians, or on the use of English by Australia's trading partners. Dependence on interpreters, though often inevitable and necessary, can be cumbersome and restrictive. When the interpreters are provided by foreign companies or government agencies in situations of intense competition for markets and contracts, Australia's representatives are placed at significant perceived, and at times real, disadvantage. Among the armoury which can be essential to winning contracts is the ability to communicate in the foreign country's language and to possess significant cultural knowledge which may be indispensable in the conduct of affairs.

One is always reminded of descriptions of the ugly Americans or the ugly Australians who appear to be unable to conduct themselves in a way appropriate to the standards of behaviour in other countries, particularly Asian. The report continues:

In addition, predictions about the nature, level of demand, range, and manner of promoting particular products will be greatly improved if cultural and linguistic knowledge of the societies with whom Australia wishes to trade or wishes to improve existing terms of trade are better understood.

These economic considerations create a demand and a significant unmet need for language learning of a particular type in Australia. A number of specific vocational opportunities flow from these considerations. They include the training of interpreters and translators in demand languages, and greatly increased teaching of the languages of Australia's key trading partners and the languages of the non-English-speaking countries which it is possible to predict Australia's economic relations will require in the future. There is, concomitantly, a need for the development of courses specifically designed for the purposes of economic affairs focusing on the development of communicative skills in relative business and trade-related contexts. However, general language skills and cultural knowledge need also to be incorporated.

This report clearly states what is needed and exactly the opposite is taking place under the education policies and programs administered by this Government and by the State governments with which it is associated in the provision of education. It is all very well for the Government to say: `We simply provide the money'. There is within that general duty a responsibility to encourage the States-it is a responsibility outlined in this report-to take a position which is certainly different from this disastrous trend outlined of a significant reduction in the number of students now undertaking study of these vital languages. As I said earlier, I concede that some States do better than others. But it is nonetheless a disturbing pattern and one which is of major disadvantage to us. In many instances Australians are now well regarded in Asia as having made some effort. But overall I have to say that we are seen as arrogant and insensitive in expecting the people with whom we trade to speak English. A German trade Minister is quoted in the report as saying:

If you wish to buy from us, there is no need to speak German. But if you wish to sell to us . . .

Of course, that is the important issue. We are endeavouring to sell to our region. We are facing economic disaster because of our inability to sell overseas adequately and because of our enthusiastic importing far in excess of our ability to sell. I want to encourage the Government to take far greater note of this report in this area than I expect it will do, and far greater note of it than previous speakers have forecast that the Government will do.

As Senator Teague has said, there is no doubt that the Opposition welcomes this report. It is an important contribution to the cause of further developing language skills in Australia. But this strategy-I have just demonstrated how important the strategy is in economic terms-rests entirely on the Government's willingness to make available the money for this program, not necessarily by increasing in large volumes the amount of money available but by reorganising its expenditure priorities. This Government appears to have no coherent expenditure priorities in this area. We have seen what has happened with the massive reduction in the number of students undertaking the sorts of studies that are essential for our trading activities. The drastic cuts this year to the English as a second language programs, to ethnic schools and to multicultural education programs all seem to indicate an insensitivity to the language needs of many in our community. There is clearly an insensitivity on the Government's part to the language needs of those who will be dealing with and trading with people overseas.

The reduced funding to the professional development program and the cessation of funding for many education centres will make it even more difficult to promote improved teaching capacity in languages no matter how essential that is to our economic future and no matter how much a cost-benefit analysis demonstrates the total advantage to us. It is essential that all Australians have access to language training so that they may not only develop high levels of proficiency in English but also have the opportunity to develop talents in community and foreign languages.

There are many reasons to doubt the Government's commitment to its language policy. It has taken the Minister almost three years to respond to the comprehensive recommendations presented by the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts in its report `A National Language Policy' which was tabled in October 1984. Senator Teague was a major contributor to that report and he played a significant role in it. This Government is so concerned with the figures that I have just demonstrated, indicating a massive fall-off in education in those languages of such economic concern to us, that it has taken it three years to respond to that report. As I mentioned earlier, Mr Lo Bianco's report has been in the hands of the Minister since 28 November last year. It has taken six months for the Government to get around to considering its findings.

Let me add that the Budget decisions last year significantly reduced the language effort in Australia and have thrown administration and planning of language programs into great confusion. The Opposition is concerned that the report makes no specific financial recommendations for the English as a second language program and seems to sanction the phasing out of the ESL general support element. But there is no doubt that the report has correctly identified the importance of language skills in Australia's trade relations and, of course, in the tourism industry. All that I can say is that if the Government has not yet realised that there is an economic cost benefit in that area, it is about time that it did. It is also about time that the Government responded to the report in a far more coherent way than the Minister's motherhood-type statement. The Government has taken three years to do anything about a Senate report, while our economic future is being jeopardised by our inability to make the most of our trade opportunities in Asia. Therefore, the Government must be condemned for its ineptness, indolence, lack of concern and lack of action about a national policy on languages.

If this report encourages the sort of debate that we have had in this chamber today, it at least provides a basis on which the Government can be properly attacked, prodded and encouraged to do something positive about a matter of great significance to all Australians.

Question resolved in the affirmative.