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Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Page: 641

Senator STERLE (11:39 AM) —I commend Senator Crossin on her fine words. I know, coming from the Northern Territory, her commitment is second to none. I rise to speak on the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 and to appropriate additional funding to facilitate the provision of 200 additional teachers over four years. These teachers are desperately needed to assist in the education of up to some 2,000 students in 73 Northern Territory communities affected by the Northern Territory emergency response.

It is important to note that these kids are currently not enrolled in school and are not receiving any education. Put simply, they are not catered for in existing staffing formulas for Northern Territory schools. It is estimated that a further 2,500 enrolled students do not attend school for long enough to get anything out of their education. In total, therefore, up to 4,500 school age students living in Northern Territory remote communities require immediate and ongoing intensive support to remain at school and achieve meaningful learning outcomes. The bill makes appropriations for the 2007-08 and 2008-09 financial years to cover the provision of additional teachers for the 2008 calendar year. Further funding support for this measure will be dealt with in the context of the upcoming 2008-09 budget.

This bill amends the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 by appropriating additional funding of $7.162 million over the 2008 school year for the recruitment of 50 of these additional 200 teachers. Additional funding of $56.8 million will also be provided through subsequent acts for the remaining 150 teachers over the years 2009 to 2011. Funding will be provided to the Northern Territory education providers to recruit and employ the additional teachers. Northern Territory education providers will be responsible for deploying and housing the teachers employed through this initiative.

In February the Minister for Education announced funding for a number of complementary measures for Indigenous students in the Northern Territory, including a qualified teaching and accelerated literacy package. The Rudd Labor government has also committed to building three new boarding colleges for Indigenous secondary students in the Northern Territory and to expanding intensive literacy and numeracy programs. This bill contains the first of many practical measures this government will bring forward in a renewed spirit of reconciliation and partnership with Indigenous Australia to begin closing the gap in educational outcomes.

Education is recognised as the foundation upon which productive and rewarding lives are built. However, Australia’s system of school age education is clearly failing large numbers of Indigenous kids living in many communities in the Northern Territory. Regrettably, this is not a problem confined to the Northern Territory. Low levels of educational attainment amongst Indigenous kids is widespread throughout Australia. Indeed, evidence indicates that things are not improving. In some remote communities in the Northern Territory it appears that the situation may even be deteriorating. This issue rightly deserves the close interest and attention of the Australian government, regardless of the fact that school education systems are primarily the responsibility of state and territory governments.

The achievement of high levels of educational attainment amongst young Indigenous people is fundamental to the sustainability of Indigenous communities. The long-term achievement of higher levels of educational attainment is also fundamental to closing other gaps. If we look at the difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we see the divide is, shamefully, almost 20 years. For this reason alone, there are overwhelming arguments to support this bill. The Rudd Labor government has made a commitment to establish a new national objective of halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in reading, writing and numeracy levels within a decade. The government showed its commitment to this goal by including it in its historic apology to Australia’s Indigenous people delivered by the Prime Minister and the Australian parliament on 13 February 2008.

In Australia, only two-thirds of year 7 Indigenous students have been able to achieve the national reading benchmark. Sadly, this is well below the performance of all Australian year 7 students, 90 per cent of whom achieved the national year 7 benchmark for reading. There has been no improvement in the performance of Indigenous year 7 students against the national reading benchmark in recent years. Regarding the year 7 national benchmark for numeracy, not even half of Indigenous students in Australia were able to achieve the national benchmark. Compare this to 80 per cent of the total number of year 7 students in Australia who did reach the national benchmark. Again, the performance of Indigenous students with respect to numeracy attainment has not changed in recent years. Australia’s education system has repeatedly failed generations of Australia’s Indigenous children.

The number of students attending schools in remote and very remote regions of Australia is not insignificant. In the Northern Territory, over 17,000 students attend schools in communities classified as remote or very remote. In my state of Western Australia, the figure is around 25,000. Across Australia, over 80,000 children attend schools in regions classified as remote or very remote. It goes without saying that Indigenous students make up a significant proportion of these students.

In the Northern Territory, statistics seem to indicate approximately 60 per cent of Indigenous school-aged children live in 73 communities affected by the Northern Territory emergency response. Further, it is estimated that, of the 10,000 children who live in these communities, some 20 per cent are not enrolled in school. It is likely that these children are at risk of spending their school-aged lives without receiving any or very little formal education. On top of the high rate of non-enrolment in school, it is estimated that over 30 per cent of these children are not achieving any meaningful educational outcomes. This is a terrible fate for the lives of the thousands of Indigenous children living in remote parts of the Northern Territory. What is perhaps even more startling is that, if the unenrolled students turned up tomorrow at their local schools, there would not be enough teachers to teach them. Statistics in Western Australia indicate similar shortfalls in educational attainment of Indigenous school-aged children.

The challenge for our government is to closely examine the performance of school-aged Indigenous children throughout the country. We must find a way forward that improves the lives of these Australians. Many Aboriginal communities, through no fundamental fault of their own, have become trapped in what you might call an economic and social malaise. They are trapped between a culture and historical heritage which has a rich and successful history dating back over tens of thousands of years and a modern world that, while depriving Indigenous people of much of their heritage, has offered very little in return.

We need to ask the question: why is it that Indigenous people of this country have had to give up so much of themselves and yet have not been offered a fair and equitable place in Australian society? The modern Australian nation has to be willing to take responsibility for having created a situation where our traditional owners of country have been effectively locked out of Australia’s prosperity. After well over 200 years as a nation, we have only now acknowledged the damage that has been visited upon Indigenous people since the first white settlement. Fortunately for all Australians, the demise of the Howard government removed the last bastion of conservative intolerance that stood in the way of reconciliation.

I also want to remark on recent comments made by members of the opposition about the government’s commitment to overcoming Indigenous disadvantage. Approximately three weeks ago, the Prime Minister invited the Leader of the Opposition to co-lead a joint policy commission to begin the work of closing the gap between the quality of life and standard of living between Australia’s Indigenous people and other Australians. The first job is to develop and implement an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years. It is very much to his credit that the Leader of the Opposition accepted this invitation in the spirit in which it was offered.

It is well known that there is a chronic shortage of adequate housing in many remote Indigenous communities. How do I know this? I have spent time in remote Indigenous communities. I have sat cross-legged under the mango tree talking to the elders in these communities. That is where I got my education on the problems that are facing Indigenous communities. Whether I am in Mowanjum, Imintji, Dodnun, Kupungarri, Oombulgurri, Ngallangunda, and the list goes on and on, the message is the same. Indigenous people are a proud people. The Indigenous connection to country relies on respect for storytelling, history and education. It is very easy, unfortunately, for senators opposite to throw out off-the-cuff remarks about these communities and the sources of the problems they face. I say to those senators: there are worse things you could do than travel the Gibb River Road between Derby and Wyndham in the far north of Western Australia.

Sadly, it is very easy to sit in the pointy end of a Qantas jet heading for Broome and talk about Indigenous issues. It is very easy to sit around slurping an almond daiquiri while you watch the sun go down over Cable Beach. I must say, it is a beautiful part of the world, but that does not address the issues in Indigenous communities. You do not know anything until you actually get out there amongst the dust and the diesel.

Statistics published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that 34 per cent of Indigenous households in the Northern Territory live in overcrowded conditions. This alone is no doubt a significant contributing factor leading to poor performance at school. We know that severe residential overcrowding is not conducive to an orderly home life and presents significant obstacles to children taking advantage of their educational opportunities.

However, having said that, I would like to bring to the attention of senators what the member for Tangney, Dr Dennis Jensen, had to say about the Prime Minister’s commitment to closing the gap in Indigenous housing. On 18 February 2008, the member of the Tangney, in the other place, said:

I am very concerned with what appears to be this government’s first policy move on this front—more houses. More houses in the wrong areas, particularly in remote communities, will achieve nothing. You will simply end up with abandoned or destroyed homes.

I also bring to the attention of the Senate remarks made by Senator Cormann in this place on 13 February 2008:

In short, in my view, the government’s handling of this difficult issue has been arrogant, it has been divisive and it has been insincere.

Here are two classic examples of Western Australian Liberals who need to take my earlier advice: saddle the horses, put Geeves on notice, cancel all leave and head north, young men. It would not do you any harm.

When we have unfortunate comments by the member for Tangney and Senator Cormann in the Australian parliament, it is very relevant that the Prime Minister had this to say as part of the apology:

Today’s apology, however inadequate, is aimed at righting past wrongs. It is also aimed at building a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—a bridge based on a real respect rather than a thinly veiled contempt.

Unfortunately, as has been displayed in recent times by members of the Western Australian Liberal Party, it is not difficult to discern a thinly veiled contempt in respect of the apology to Australia’s Indigenous people. I would point out, however, that the Australian people have not been fooled by the mad ravings of Western Australian Liberals. In a Newspoll conducted on 19 February 2008, results indicated that no fewer than 69 per cent of Australians supported the national apology to the stolen generations. It is also interesting to note that roughly three-quarters of Australians aged between 18 and 24 supported the apology. We are riding the wave of change and young Australians have embraced the Prime Minister’s vision. They want a fair and equal Australia. On that note, I commend the bill to the Senate.