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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 917

Senator BELL (5.29 p.m.) —The Aboriginal Education (Supplementary Assistance) Amendment Bill 1994 amends the Aboriginal Education (Supplementary Assistance) Act 1989 and allocates funds designed to assist the education of Aboriginal people. That represents the continuation of the Commonwealth's Aboriginal education strategic initiatives program which was introduced in 1990 and is part of the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policy.

  The long-term goals identified in the 1989 national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policy include increasing the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in decision making in relation to education, ensuring equality of access to educational services, ensuring equity of educational participation and enabling equitable and appropriate educational outcomes.

  These are positive goals but they are far from being met. Participation in all forms of education by Aboriginal and Islander people is the lowest experienced by any group in Australia, although Aboriginal enrolments have increased in higher education—between 1982 and 1992 enrolments rose from 0.3 per cent of total enrolments to 1 per cent; from 854 students to 5,105 students. The completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have almost doubled in the four years from 1988 to 1991 inclusive. However, this is not reflected amongst the total number of higher education completions.

  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students continue to face problems that include a high level of attrition on average, a longer course completion time for their degrees, and a lack of services for Aboriginal students on campuses. We must not simply define involvement in educational participation by Aboriginal groups by looking at numerical increases; we must also look at the type and quality of education offered to Aboriginal students.

  I might say in passing that some of the measures of which the Democrats have been particularly critical in changes to Austudy regulations have, by their very nature, impinged very greatly on Aboriginal students. The Minister for Family Services (Senator Crowley), who is at the table, would readily acknowledge that, if in the Aboriginal community there is on average a longer course completion time, the penalising of those students by increasing HECS repayments would logically have a greater impact on Aboriginal students than on others. That was a major reason for the Democrats' objection and opposition to such a proposition.

  During the last session of this parliament my office met with representatives of Shalom College. It is perhaps the most positive reflection of our multicultural society that Shalom is a Christian college, has a Jewish name and is for Aboriginal and Islander students. But Shalom is about a community; it is about providing lifelong education—a philosophy to which my party is particularly committed—as well as striving for academic excellence. It is also about furthering multicultural awareness and contributing towards community development.

  Since it commenced operation in 1992 with 50 students, Shalom College has grown to just under 200 students and it anticipates that its enrolments will reach 600 by 1997. However, Shalom has experienced its own difficulties in getting up and running. Its students have problems with their travel and accommodation costs and there is a need for further financial assistance to overcome those problems.

  What Shalom is offering all its students—not just the Aboriginal students, who form the majority—is a unique opportunity and a wonderful working environment. It is like no other educational institution in Australia. It celebrates a range of different beliefs and cultures. I call on the government to review its commitment to new schools such as this and to work out how it can best assist them.

  The debate about education for Aboriginal and Islander people ties in to the wider debate about reconciliation and respect. It is apparent to any observer of this whole process that education plays a fundamental role in self-determination; that means education for Aboriginal people about their rights in a democratic society, and educating the wider community about Aboriginal culture and heritage. In fact, one of the recommendations in the report into Aboriginal deaths in custody is `to provide all Australian students with an understanding of and respect for Aboriginal history, culture and identity'.

  I think it is self-evident that such a recommendation is, firstly, directed towards resolving the problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody and, secondly, has the extended effect of increasing the opportunities for self-determination. The Democrats support this principle and we urge both the government and the opposition to support such a recommendation and support the communities that have tried to implement such proposals.

  For all the talk over the past few weeks about the coalition's commitment to health, housing and education for Aboriginal and Islander people, we remember the particularly regressive education proposals in the coalition's Fightback package. The opposition proposed cutting access to and levels of Abstudy. Unlike the opposition and the government, we recognise that student financial assistance is a key part of getting disadvantaged groups to enter and participate in higher education. It is more than just a matter of money. We also support provisions in this bill which allow for an increase—a small one—to the Aboriginal education strategic initiative program and to support tertiary education provision in remote areas.

  Recently I was fortunate to participate in an inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training into the provision of open learning in Australia. We made a visit to the Yuendumu community near the Tanami Desert. We saw the advantages of a proper commitment to a technological solution to the problems of isolation and communications. The community was taking advantage of satellite communication to communicate with other communities, both in Australia and internationally. Part of the process of self-determination was being fostered by the capacity of that community to communicate with, for example, communities in Alaska. The Alaskan communities have the capacity to relate experiences with their governments and other communities and thereby save the people of the Tanami network the problem of having to confront these problems themselves in an initial sense.

  I was able to experience a demonstration of what technology could do to overcome the problems of a longstanding difficulty in communication. I suggest that we should see these things not in isolation but as part of a process of reconciliation and self-determination.

  The Australian Democrats support the thrust of the government's Aboriginal education policy, which includes responding to the relevant recommendations of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, the national Aboriginal languages and literacy strategy, and the national reconciliation and schooling strategy which promotes the reconciliation process between Australia's indigenous and non-indigenous people. While some progress has been made in improving education for indigenous people, they still have the lowest level of representation in the education sector—in a comparative sense, not in an absolute sense.

  Before I conclude my consideration of this bill, I would like to pay tribute to a young man who worked hard to further the rights of Aboriginal people in the education sector. I speak of Lindsay Croft. Lindsay was an active member of our party, a former junior Canberran of the year and a committed campaigner for improved education for Aboriginal people. Tragically, Lindsay was killed in a car accident in Texas last month while studying in America. He was the first Aboriginal student to receive the coveted Harkness Fellowship. Lindsay was an inspiration to all of us and will be greatly missed by his academic and political colleagues and by his many friends.

  Despite the hard work of people such as Lindsay, indigenous Australians are less likely to finish school than other Australians. They have fewer school and post-school qualifications and continue to face problems such as racial discrimination and a lack of facilities and services, as well as very basic problems with travel and accommodation assistance at schools such as Shalom College. That college is paving the way to providing a unique educational experience for Australians.

  One possible development in the area of education initiatives for Aboriginal students is today's announcement by the Law Council of Australia and the government of the creation of the John Koowarta Reconciliation Law Scholarship. This scholarship honours the memory of John Koowarta, who was involved in one of Australia's most notable Aboriginal legal battles. It will fund several indigenous people to begin law studies each year and will support recipients through to the completion of their degrees. It is hoped that this scholarship will assist in redressing the under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the legal system. Of course, it will not be able to do that on its own. It is symbolic and significant but it is certainly not the total answer and I am not suggesting that it could be.

  I look forward to reading the report from the national reference group on the review of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders which is due for release this month. I hope that this government will consider carefully the recommendations arising out of this report in an attempt to seriously redress the discrimination and problems facing Aboriginal and islander people in the area of education.