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Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Page: 645

Senator PATTERSON (11:54 AM) —I was not going to speak on the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008, but having listened to the contributions from various senators I felt moved to make a few comments. I know that Senator Crossin has extensive experience and knowledge of the issues facing the Northern Territory, but I was very concerned when, as the Minister for Family and Community Services, I had responsibility for the COAG trial in Wadeye. When I inherited responsibility for that area, they had been granted funding for a school pool. Part of the rule was that, if you did not attend school, you could not use the pool. The pool was opened and children turned up to school. Of course, there were not enough classrooms, teachers or seats. In downtown Abbotsford, Lilyfield or Mosman Park in Western Australia, there would have been an outcry if hundreds of kids had turned up to school and there were not enough classrooms or seats for them. That is what happened. We talk about stopping the blame game, but it was evident that the Northern Territory government had not focused sufficiently on Wadeye or on providing sufficient school facilities. That is just one example.

I then went to the Northern Territory housing minister and said, ‘We’re trying to encourage people to build their own houses,’ and the then housing minister said to me, ‘Oh, are we still doing the COAG trial?’ The light had not dawned on him—or the lights had gone out. So I had a situation where the education minister had failed to provide the schools and the housing minister did not know we were still doing the COAG trial.

I had the wonderful experience—and Senator Sterle talked about this—of going out and sitting cross-legged on the ground. There are highlights in this job, and one of the highlights I had was when the women of Wadeye took me out to a very remote beach in their homeland and went out and caught mud crabs, longbums and other shellfish. They cooked them over the fire, as they would have done 40,000 years before, and we ate them. I had a little trepidation, I must say, with the longbums, which had green iridescent stuff on them. I was told by one of the women not to have too much of that because it could go through you! But I sat there with them for a day and they talked to me about some of the problems in that area. I hope that the new Indigenous advisory group will do the same thing. One of the things the women said to me was, ‘The school year doesn’t fit us very well, because during the wet, when you can’t get out of Wadeye for five to six months, that’s when the guys can’t get the grog. That’s when there’s a bit more peace and harmony in the community. That’s when our kids should be at school. When the dry comes, we want to take our kids out into homelands and teach them about our traditional ways. That’s when the guys can go out and get grog. If we could just change the school year for our people here, we reckon our kids would go to school more often.’ It is not very hard—no extra money involved; just a bit of creativity.

I did actually mention that to the relevant Territory minister. I said, ‘Could you talk to the women of Wadeye. They’re the ones who know. Listen to them. Listen to what they want in their education system.’ What we think works in Darwin, in Broome or at Cape York in Far North Queensland might not necessarily work in a remote Indigenous community. So I hope that in this new spirit of bipartisanship people will listen carefully to all of us in here who, with passion, have visited these communities. It is not just on the other side that people have been to Indigenous communities; I spent a lot of time, both as health minister and as Minister for Family and Community Services, out in those communities. Also, former Senator Grant Tambling had taken me up there early on when I was a backbencher. He said, ‘You’ve got to understand what happens in the north. You can’t just represent Victoria; you’re a senator for the whole of Australia.’ I thank Grant for that because he took me to some very remote communities.

Out on one of the stations there, I saw a teacher who was working on her own in a ‘spaceship’. Those buildings have a special name but I have forgotten it. They are a spaceship type facility, where you have two spaceship-looking classrooms with a platform between them and a roof over it. This teacher hardly had any contact with people. The two Indigenous people who came and helped wash the kids’ clothes and get the kids’ lunches went back to where they lived, the kids went back on the school bus, and she was left there from when they left until when they came back the next day. She might have driven the four hours down to Tennant Creek at the weekend. I thought: why haven’t they got some rotating teachers who could go out and share some of the teaching with her so she does not go stir crazy or get cabin fever? I used to ring her from time to time just to talk to her, because I could not believe that she could be stuck out there for weeks on end with nobody knowing whether she was alive or dead from when school finished until when she got up in the morning. It seems to me we need to focus a lot more on the social and emotional needs of teachers in very remote communities. That is why they do not stay.

One of the teachers wanted to be rotated closer to Tennant Creek because she was pregnant, but the department said no. If you do not have that sort of understanding of the needs of these people working in very remote communities, they are not going to stay, and the message gets out. So we need to focus on and listen to those people, particularly to the women in those communities, when they ask for something that might be a bit different, something that does not necessarily fit with what we think is the way to go—for example, changing the school year—and we need to listen to teachers working out in those remote areas.

The other thing I hope that we can do in the spirit of bipartisanship—and I suppose it is because I am getting closer to retirement that I am thinking about this—is harness the resources of grey nomads. Have a look at how many of them are former teachers or have worked with children and could be very, very useful if they were to stop and work with a teacher, to give them time, give them some ideas about lesson planning or actually take some children for a month or two and give them some special attention. We had the Aboriginal volunteer program that was never used by the Northern Territory. We have people volunteering to go to projects overseas—senior volunteers—and it seems to me we should be harnessing the attributes and experience of that army of volunteers. We have got the baby boomers about to retire, and we could be harnessing those people, who have got experience and wisdom and understanding and patience, and working with them.

I sat with two young girls in Alice Springs who were starting nursing and I thought: if only somebody who had done a course in medical records could sit and talk to them about terms—for example, when you put an ‘a’ in front of something, it means ‘without’, so ‘anoxia’ means you do not have oxygen. ‘Dys’ means ‘a difficulty with’, such as in ‘dyslexia’, and then ‘alexia’ means without the ability to read. A couple of weeks with those kids before they started the medical course could make a huge difference to how they are going to perform. There are people around who have got those skills, who could take those young people and give them a kind of bridging course before they start off. I felt desperate about these two young girls’ basic skills. Having taught health science students for 11 years before I came here, I felt that they were destined to fail and I felt badly about that. With some creativity—using some people with some background skills to go around before students start their courses and run some bridging courses, in English or in medical terminology or just in basic biology—how much of a better start would those young people have?

I hope that this bill is the beginning and not the end. I hope we see some really creative, thoughtful ways of harnessing all the resources and goodwill on both sides of this house and out there in the community to actually improve the lot of those people, particularly in remote communities, who deserve our assistance and will respond in spades to our assistance. I support this bill but I hope it is the beginning, not the end.