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Community claims NT Govt discrimination -

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Community claims NT Govt discrimination

Reporter: Murray McLaughlin

KERRY O'BRIEN: Still on education, with a population nearing 2,500, Wadeye is the biggest
Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. Though it's only 250 kilometres south west of
Darwin, it's isolated by road for several months during the wet season. The Northern Territory
Government is responsible for funding the local school. But conditions there are woefully
inadequate. The people of Wadeye blame the territory Government, which they claim has been
underfunding the school for 30 years. Now they're taking their case to the Human Rights and Equal
Opportunities Commission, arguing they're victims of racial discrimination. Murray McLaughlin
reports from Darwin.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The wet season lingers for several months over the Top End. At Wadeye, during
the rains, staff and pupils are forced to navigate the school grounds via uncovered and unpaved
pathways. The architecture of the school is just as desolate. Buildings are badly maintained,
facilities are primitive. Even the Northern Territory's Education Minister was taken aback when he
made his first visit to the school a month ago.

PAUL HENDERSON, NT EDUCATION MINISTER: Oh, look, I have to say I was surprised at how tired and run
down that school is. It certainly needs attention. It certainly shows that there has been a lack of
investment in that school, in terms of infrastructure and maintenance.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The school at Wadeye is one of five so called mission schools run by the
Catholic Church at remote Aboriginal communities. When the Northern Territory won self government
in the late 1970s, the Commonwealth Government passed responsibility to the Territory for support
of the mission schools. Under an agreement in 1979, that support was to be the same as for
government schools. But Wadeye has long argued that its school has been sold short by the Northern
Territory Government.

PETER SEIDEL, LAWYER, ARNOLD BLOCH LEIBLER: So we're looking at nearly 30 years of administration
of education funding for the school at Wadeye through the 1979 agreement. So we're looking at
significant underfunding for generations of children and their families at the school.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The Melbourne based law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler and the Castan Centre for
Human Rights Law at Monash University have had lawyers working pro bono for the past two years on a
complaint that governments have discriminated against the school at Wadeye. The exercise has
involved a massive trawl through documents obtained under freedom of information laws and will
culminate this week with a formal complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
Essentially, the complaint says the formula which the Northern Territory Government has used to
fund the Wadeye school has been racially discriminatory.

PAUL HENDERSON: I'd deny that the formula is discriminatory. There's a long history to this and I
acknowledge that. We certainly need to put that history behind us. The three parties the Territory
Government, the Catholic Education Office and the Commonwealth Government need to expedite the
closure of a new funding agreement, so that the school at Wadeye can move forward.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Under the current agreement, the Northern Territory gets money from the
Commonwealth based on enrolment but funds the school at Wadeye under a complex formula which gauges
attendance. Around 600 students were enrolled at the start of the school year but, as in past
years, there were too few resources to handle them.

TOBIAS NGAMBE, CO-PRINCIPAL, WADEYE SCHOOL: I mean, if we have all of our children at Wadeye come
to this school, there'd be no room, not enough teachers, no classrooms. It's very hard.

SEAN BOWDEN, THAMARRURR COUNCIL LAWYER: What it means in practice is that the children, of course,
do drop off because the classrooms aren't there, the teachers aren't there, the resources aren't
there. This then inevitably leads to a lower number on attendance. The school, rather than being
able to catch up, tends to fall behind as parents lose heart, children lose heart, the community
loses heart.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The attendance rate at Wadeye school is now around 460 but because of the
attendance formula which the Northern Territory applies, the school is being funded for only 220
students.

ANN REBGETZ, CO-PRINCIPAL, WADEYE SCHOOL: The kids here have suffered greatly from the aspect of
not coming to school but in the sense that if they had been at school, they weren't being catered
to in having the right resources for them.

PAUL HENDERSON: The commitment from this Government is that if those students do attend, then we
will fund and put in the additional resources in regards to teachers and facilities. And at Wadeye,
there's a lot of catch up to do.

TEACHER: These tourists are coming to the community and they've got money in their pocket, and they
want to buy some art.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Secondary education at Wadeye has taken a long time to catch up. Secondary
classes have had to be accommodated within the primary school and it wasn't until 2005 that the
first Year 12 students graduated. The town now does have a new dedicated secondary school building
but it will open this week without landscaped grounds and without a budget for running costs,
estimated at more than $500,000 a year.

ANN REBGETZ: Our new secondary school probably should have been built at least 10 years ago. So I
guess there's been a population explosion here over the last 10 years and the authorities really
haven't been able to cater for the needs of the students.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: For its complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Wadeye
is hoping to get an apology for the way the school's been funded under the Mission Schools
Agreement and it's seeking compensation. Lawyers who've drawn up the complaint estimate a shortfall
on funding for the Wadeye school between $2 million and $3 million just for last year.

PETER SEIDEL: The community is looking for restitution to put them in the place they ought to be,
but for the 79 agreement, but for this disgraceful policy. This agreement has been in place for 30
years. We are potentially looking at tens of millions of dollars for the community at Wadeye alone.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The school's Indigenous co principal, who grew up at Wadeye and began working at
the school as a teacher's aide more than 30 years ago, hopes that resolution of the complaint of
discrimination will fulfil a personal vision.

TOBIAS NGAMBE: My vision for these kids is to be like any kids in Australia when they grow up. I
want these kids to become pilots, become doctors, become lawyers, become AFL footballers. It will
only be a dream if people don't do something about it today - today, do it today, not tomorrow.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Murray McLaughlin with that report.