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Opening address by the Hon Amanda Vanstone to the Bennelong Society's September 2004 Conference: Pathways and Policies for Indigenous Futures.



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Opening Address Senator the Hon. Amanda Vanstone Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs

I acknowledge the traditional owners.

The Bennelong Society takes its name in honour of a famous Indigenous Australian---one of the Wangal people---who had a close relationship with the early colonists.

Bennelong soon learned English and is known to have taught George Bass the local Indigenous language. He gave Governor Phillip an Aboriginal name to locate him in a kinship relationship to enable better communications between the two peoples. He travelled with the Govenor to England and was presented to King George III and returned to his country after three years away.

The Society's purpose is to promote informed debate and discussion about Indigenous affairs.

The canvas that is Indigenous Australia is a very complex picture.

First Australians are made up of many different clans with different languages and different cultures. Indigenous culture is very rich, very diverse and very strong.

Some of these clans and cultures have been dealing with non-Indigenous people for centuries. Some were trading with Macassans well before Europeans arrived on these shores. Others like some people of the Western Desert have had by comparison a much shorter engagement with the outside world.

Some have tremendous economic opportunities in tourism or mining or agriculture. Others are nowhere near as lucky. The communities vary in remoteness. Some are within an hour's drive of an airport; others are six or more hours away.

In fact, most first Australians do not live in remote areas of Australia but within the metropolitan areas of capital cities and regional towns.

It is indeed a very complex canvas.

This complexity presents very real problems in shaping policy responses.

Children in more remote communities will have a good grounding in their culture and language. They need teachers to help them with English, with technology and understanding life in the western world. Their parents teach them their language,

culture and traditions---they need our help to learn ours. And even more so, they need our help to walk in two worlds. A challenge that most of us never face.

There are also many children in metropolitan areas. Their families long ago left their traditional lands. Their parents often come from different parts of the country. Many Indigenous children have non-Aboriginal parents or grandparents. They may have

travelled far from their traditional culture. How do we help these children in such diverse situations develop and maintain an understanding and pride in their culture and traditions?

The very remoteness of some communities makes the provision of water, power and sewerage very problematic for state governments. Other critical services like health labour under the same difficulty.

Some say the solution is for remote communities to leave the traditional lands and shift near or into towns where there are better services and many more jobs. Large numbers of Aboriginal people have already made this move. Some with success but many were not equipped to cope. Such a transition cannot happen overnight. We can't

ignore the practical reality facing so many in very remote communities today. Little education, little if any work experience, little hope of comfortably walking in the white man's world.

As time marches on, young Indigenous children will want to move to the towns and capital cities. Remote communities will face a very difficult time as their young people choose to move away. This transition will be difficult. It is a difficulty communities will have to face and to manage and we must be there to help with that.

Successive governments at all levels and of all persuasions have tried to respond to this complexity.

Sometimes the best of intentions have only lead to results that are now profoundly regretted.

Our task is to look ahead, to create a brighter future for first Australians. First Australians, frankly, are very tired of coming last.

At all levels of government, significant resources have and are being allocated. Over the years, many many billions have been spent. And yet Indigenous Australians are still not getting the same opportunities the rest of us take for granted.

I'm proud to be part of a government that spends 39 per cent more in real terms that the previous government did on Indigenous programmes. I'm equally sure that the value first Australians get for each dollar doesn't increase because we spend more.

It's not so much that governments haven't got value for that money. The problem is first Australians haven't got value.

Surely we must understand that value comes not from how much we spend, but how we spend it.

Clearly we need to change the way we do business because what we are doing now isn't good enough. None of us can say that what we have been doing is the best we can do.

We recognise that the way we have been working is part of the problem. That is why we are revolutionising the way we work.

As for practical improvements in everyday lives, I'm very proud of the significant improvements we've been able to make in government. To name just a few:

• infant mortality, death rates from respiratory illness and infectious and parasitic diseases have all fallen

• more remote communities now have access to sewerage, electricity, and water

• more Indigenous people are working, the unemployment rate is down and employment participation rates are up

• the number of students since 1996 staying on to year 12 has doubled

• more are going to university and more than double over the last ten years have got tertiary qualifications

• both new apprenticeships and TAFE attendees have almost doubled since 1996

• housing overcrowding rates have declined since 1996

• by 2001-02, the number of houses included under the Community Housing and Infrastructure Programme had almost doubled since 1996. In 2004 there has been a doubling of money provided in loans through the Home Ownership Programme.

That's where we are now.

But, in this election climate, it is fair to ask me as Indigenous Affairs Minister what I believe is important for Indigenous Australians.

On the tangible side, I am sure we need to keep focussed on practical improvements to the lives of Indigenous Australians. Health, education and housing have been and remain our priorities.

But we need to change the way we work.

Listening to the locals

The one size fits all approach has to go.

Indigenous people live in vastly different circumstances. We need to be flexible so that our funding hits the mark and produces the results that are needed.

We can only do this by listening directly to local communities and families.

We cannot rely on the intermediaries to do the job for us. They should stick to their role as a service provider and focus on achieving the outcomes we require.

Nor can we rely on a small group of so-called representatives that only 20 percent of the Indigenous people bother to vote for.

We will do the listening ourselves.

Simplifying government services

Community advisers tell you that a large proportion of their time is spent chasing funds.

Government departments in the past did not work with communities in a coordinated way to find solutions.

They would tell the communities to lodge a submission. And then they would tell them, after the communities had put in the work, that the submission doesn't meet the guidelines.

Communities would have to shop around for funding for domestic violence initiatives---they might have to go to FACS, AGs, Office of the Status of Women, Health and Aging and then they would have to do the rounds of all the state government departments.

In future they will not have to do the shopping around.

We have built our model on the coordinated partnership approach of the Indigenous COAG trial sites where the state and territory governments are there beside us.

Government departments will work as one with the communities. The government department's job will be to make it simpler for the community and they will do the shopping around for them.

Partnerships

The relationship between governments and their Indigenous citizens must change.

Governments have responsibilities but they cannot do this alone.

If parents do not send their kids to school their future will be bleak and we will not be able to do much to help.

It is far more effective for people to change behaviours than for governments to invest in patching up problems.

It is a great disrespect to Indigenous Australians if we do not allow them the opportunity to change behaviours, take responsibility and to be real partners.

For too long we have left ideological positions like self-determination prevent governments from engaging with their Indigenous citizens.

It's about getting the relationship right, getting States and Territories involved and the private sector---and most importantly our Indigenous citizens must be equal partners allowed the opportunity to shape their own destinies.

Unconditional welfare will become a thing of the past.

• mutual obligation policy has been applied differently in remote areas---many working age adults are exempted from activity testing

• current arrangements that exempt residents of remote communities from the mutual obligation requirement will, as far as possible, be removed

• CDEP will be reformed to ensure that similar participation requirements apply---for example: no work, no pay.

Our agreements for funding will need to include incentives and in some cases sanctions targeted at changing behaviours.

The long-term view

We want a different approach where communities work out where they want to be in 20 years time and where government departments work together to solve problems identified along the way.

So for example, a community may have a goal that all their children within 20 years time will go on to year 12.

One of the first initiatives that we might tackle together is increasing the live birth weight of their children.

So we have a health intervention to achieve an education outcome.

Many of the remote communities have limited economic potential and people are trapped there because they have no education

We must stop pretending, and we must sit down with communities and tell it like it is.

The economy in many of these communities is a long way short of supporting the current population. With a rapidly growing population the prognosis is even worse.

How can they think about their future if we're too afraid to present the facts to them.

Education is the passport for people who want a better future.

Some Indigenous people from remote communities with a good education have shown that they can get jobs in the major cities and towns while still maintaining links to their traditional country and people.

We need more people in remote communities to have these sort of opportunities.

This is not assimilationist. This is about providing people with real choices and the opportunity to determine their own destiny.

And we will develop an economic strategy that shapes a new environment to facilitate Indigenous involvement in the economy of this country through jobs, and business opportunities and harnessing uniqueness in art, culture, sport and tourism.

None of this is easy, but it is better than rhetoric. Conspicuous compassion may make some people feel better, but it doesn't provide more health care, it doesn't provide education, in fact it doesn't do anything practical.

That said, tangible things, however, aren't everything. The greatest things about humanity are intangible. Courage and determination are just two examples.

On this side of the ledger, I believe Indigenous Australians deserve understanding and respect.

This would require all of us to learn more about the richness, diversity and strength of Indigenous cultures. With that knowledge, we would understand more about Indigenous culture. We would also understand how hard it is for many to walk in two

worlds. When we have that knowledge and that understanding, we will not fail to have deep respect for people who we expect to walk in two worlds.