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Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Page: 631


Senator MASON (10:52 AM) —The opposition supports the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008. The intent behind the bill is sincere and indeed commendable. It reflects great concern for the vital issue of educating young Indigenous Australians. While the opposition does support the bill, it is important to reflect more broadly on what might need to be done in the future to further the good policy intention of the bill. So I read with interest Minister Gillard’s second reading speech and, in particular, her statement about the importance of:

... practical measures to overcome the extreme disadvantage faced by too many Indigenous Australians.

The minister is right. Practical measures do sound a bit like practical reconciliation. It is a good thing that, at long last across all parts of this chamber, we now talk about practical reconciliation. I think no longer can we talk about the politics of identity by itself, neither do we talk about self-determination by itself and we certainly do not talk about separate development by itself. Right across the parties we now have all leaders talking more about practical measures such as improving health and education, and creating favourable economic conditions and opportunities for Indigenous people. That now is where the debate is and that is where it always should have been. No longer can we have that derailed by ideology or the politics of identity.

The welfare drip, sit-down money—whatever you want to call it—perhaps fed the body but it certainly starved the soul and it did not serve Indigenous people in the long term. They themselves recognise that and certainly people like Noel Pearson have spoken about this for a long time now. The government is quite right: education quite clearly is a key and that is why the opposition supports this initiative. It is a start but there is a long, long way to go. My colleague in the House of Representatives the member for Murray, Dr Stone, spoke of these challenges in her second reading contribution. I will not repeat those challenges here but I congratulate her on her generous and thoughtful comments.

Two very prominent thinkers in the area of Aboriginal policy have recently come up with their own proposals to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous Australians. These are two very eminent Australians: Noel Pearson, the director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, and Professor Helen Hughes, an eminent economist, indeed one of Australia’s most eminent. Noel Pearson’s plan is to attract more teachers to remote Aboriginal communities. That targets two groups of people. First, he says, the existing cadre of experienced teachers who have an exceptional track record of delivering results should be encouraged. Second, there is the huge number of outstanding university graduates or professionals who do not currently have an education degree. They too, he argues, should be encouraged. The first group of experienced teachers will be attracted partly by the prestige of the program and partly, he says, by the establishment of a $50,000 annual fellowship paid to selected teachers to top up their normal wages. As for the outstanding university graduates from non-teaching degrees, Noel Pearson says:

Our plan involves targeting the best and brightest individuals who are at present not in the teaching profession, providing them with two months’ intensive training and then placing them alongside a fellow in remote schools for mentoring. A $20,000 stipend would be provided (conditional on performance) in addition to the usual salary package of a first-year teacher.

These are incentives to get good teachers where they are needed in remote Australia. The necessity for good teachers is also the theme of recent research by Professor Helen Hughes. In an opinion piece in the Australian of Thursday, 6 March this year, she writes:

Because of past policies, more than 5000 of the nearly 8000 indigenous teenagers in the NT cannot pass the national literacy benchmarks.

That is 5,000 out of 8,000. The article continues:

Nor could another 5000 men and women in their 20s. The accumulated backlog of insufficiently literate indigenous young people is 10,000. They represent the future of indigenous communities.

No part of the present education system can accommodate teenagers with Year One literacy.

How right she is. She continues:

They cannot sit side by side with six-year-olds or in a class of teenagers from the mainstream education system. To bring these indigenous teenagers to the stage where they could access mainstream jobs and further education would require one or two years of sheltered accommodation in an English-speaking environment, intensive tutoring and part-time employment. The minimum cost—

she argues—

would be $50,000 a year for each student. The real cost of remedying past failed policies would therefore be $500 million to $1 billion.

There is clearly a lack of any remedial action on this scale. Even partial solutions will require more funds have been committed.

Professor Hughes articulates what I think we all know—that is, that the job before us is immense. While the government is to be commended for this bill for at least starting the process, we have a long, long way to go.

More recently in the March edition of that great Australian magazine Quadrant, Professor Hughes writes in an article entitled ‘Strangers in their own country: a diary of hope’:

The Northern Territory Education Department website advertises “a fantastic lifestyle” for teachers, but does not demand the skills essential to teaching English as a second language and mathematics. Many of its Seagulls lack even modest teaching qualifications. The more than fifty “Learning Centres” in small settlements like Wangupeni are not listed as schools by the department. Some do not have enough desks for all the children in a community, many lack facilities such as the ablution blocks, and most do not have the teaching aids used in normal Australian primary schools. “Learning Centre” children have not been included in benchmark testing. Another fifteen “Community Education Centres” are in larger Aboriginal settlements. They also lack school places, have sub-standard facilities and lack the teaching equipment of normal Australian schools.

But the major deficiencies of “Learning Centres” and “Community Education Centres” are curriculums and teaching practices that do not teach effective literacy, numeracy and the other subjects of a primary curriculum.

It gets back to the basics.

Not surprisingly, where possible, Aboriginal parents are driving and bussing their children to non-Indigenous primary schools.

That says it all. Professor Hughes writes:

The Northern Territory Department of Education is aware of these outcomes. Year after year it reports that only 20 per cent of remote Indigenous students pass its Year 3, 5 and 7 benchmark tests. Some of the “Community Education Centres” claim to go to Year 10 and even Year 12, but most of their pupils do not reach Year 6 standards. Charlotte and Margaret—

they are the teenage Indigenous girls who are working alongside Professor Hughes—

are the victims of an apartheid education system.

So we do have a long, long way to go. The good thing about the proposals by Professor Hughes and Noel Pearson is that not only are they interesting and very worthwhile but they also come from people who are passionate about improving the life and education of our Aboriginal people. They have been at the coalface.

The proposals have one thing in common: they show that if the federal government is to increasingly assume responsibility for the education of young Indigenous Australians, the cost will be much higher than we are currently committing. In a sense, this will be a test of the government’s seriousness in tackling these problems. Words are cheap. Mr Rudd is enjoying a honeymoon at the moment and the politics of symbolism that he is playing on is all very well, but, in the end, policy outcomes are what will matter. My recent engagement in estimates and in debate in the community generally shows that the education revolution, for example, is a prime example of symbolism over results. We know that all of the unsexy infrastructure costs about the education revolution—power, wiring, air conditioning, software upgrades, security, maintenance, repair and replacement—will not be borne by the government; they will be borne by schools or parents. So while the photo opportunities are terrific and they play great politics, in the end, in the final analysis, these policies will be judged by their outcomes and not by the political grab on the 6 pm news. A bright shiny toy is only good for a while.

I conclude on some remarks about the intervention. This is not the time to backslide on the intervention in the Northern Territory. It is all very well to talk about improving the outcomes, the educational opportunities for young Indigenous people, but you cannot do that if kids are scared of being raped, if they are not well fed, if they are not looked after and if they do not feel secure. The idea of the intervention—supported by the then opposition—is to make sure that at least kids have those opportunities. Without that security and without that sense of belonging they can never be educated. This bill is commendable in that it is at least starting the ball rolling in spending more money on the education of young Indigenous kids, but any backsliding on the intervention in the Northern Territory will undermine this commendable policy. You cannot have one without the other; you cannot have education without security. Where there is alcohol, drugs, abuse and neglect, not only does that destroy the health of the community, but it also corrodes its soul and educational opportunities.

Major challenges remain. They are logistical, of course, and cultural. I think all of us acknowledge that. Teachers will have to be properly supported, schools properly equipped and students motivated and made secure—not just to attend but to embrace the spirit of learning, advancement and excellence. All Australians deserve that opportunity. I commend the government for what they have done with this bill. The opposition supports it and is pleased to do so, but I think we all recognise that this bill is only a start.