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Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Page: 14003

Mr ABBOTT (Warringah) (17:32): It is good to follow the member for Barton. It is also good to see that there are a number of strong Indigenous voices in this parliament. It is a sign of how far we have come, as a country, that that is the case. Obviously, we have got further to go, but we have come a long way.

Modern Australia has an Indigenous heritage, a British foundation and an immigrant character. Indigeneity is one of the three pillars that constitute modern Australia. I was delighted to be asked by the Prime Minister to be his special envoy, with special responsibility for improving remote school attendance and performance, because if Aboriginal people are to fully participate in this country then obviously they have got to have jobs and they have got to have a decent education, because without a job it is hard to live decently and without an education it is hard to work effectively in modern Australia.

I made a statement to the parliament late last year with a number of recommendations, and I was really pleased that the Prime Minister took up three of those recommendations in his Closing the Gap statement last week. First, the government is proposing to waive the HECS debts of teaching graduates who, after a couple of years of experience and appropriate training, go into remote areas and stay for four years. The government is going to considerably expand funding for the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. We are proposing to work with more communities that wish to take more responsibility for self-improvement by embracing measures such as the debit card or something akin to the Family Responsibilities Commission. I thank the Prime Minister for adopting those recommendations.

It is absolutely critical that every Australian child go to school every day unless there is some absolutely compelling reason for their absence. It is also important that, when kids go to school, they are going to be well taught. We all know that schools with a high turnover of teachers and principals are not going to give the same quality of education as schools that have teachers and principals who are there for the long haul. We all know that there are difficulties associated with life in remote Australia; some people love it, but many people find it difficult; even those who love it find it difficult. That's why the more incentives we can provide to people who do have a real commitment to teaching in remote Australia the better.

I am a huge admirer of the work of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. I know that it is not easy for kids from remote Australia, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, to suddenly bowl up to some of the best schools in the country; but, thanks to the mentoring which the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation provides, the vast majority of those kids have made a success of the schooling that they've got. I don't want to sound elitist but, frankly, why shouldn't Aboriginal kids be able to aspire to the very best of schools, why shouldn't Aboriginal kids be able to hope for the same kinds of networks that so many of us in this parliament enjoy, why shouldn't the government do what it can to ensure that this particular gap is well and truly closed?

One of the things that impresses me about the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation is that, thus far, at least 50 per cent of the money they have spent has been privately raised. I hope that they continue to raise a very substantial sum from private sources. I think there are many Australians, individually and corporately, that want to support this cause. But if we are going to expect private philanthropy to continue to fund the education of so many promising Indigenous kids, I think it is only reasonable that the federal government provides at least 50 per cent of the funding on an ongoing basis—and I'm pleased that that is now happening.

I know that Indigenous politics can be just as difficult as politics everywhere, but I want to say that there are few people in this country who are more deserving of our admiration than Noel Pearson. I don't say Noel is always right, but he is always courageous. And he has been incredibly brave in trying to insist that his own people don't just lament the manifest injustices that have been done to them over the years but are also prepared to take responsibility for their future—'our right to take responsibility'. It thrills me that Indigenous leaders at a number of communities right around Australia, such as Ian Trust in the East Kimberley, have said to government, 'We are prepared to accept the debit card,' whereby 80 per cent of a person's welfare payments are, of necessity, spent on the things that are needed for life. I think any community that wants to embrace the debit card should find that the government is prepared to make that happen.

As is reasonably well known, I've spent quite a lot of time in remote Australia. I've tried to make it my business to spend at least a week a year in remote Australia—even as opposition leader, and even as Prime Minister, I tried to do so. Over the years, visiting remote schools has been a pretty dispiriting experience—but much less so now, I've got to say.

I am very impressed with the progress that has been made and the efforts that governments of states and territories of both persuasions have been making to ensure that remote schools are getting better. Every remote school that I visited had a data board in the common room where every enrolled child's progress and attendance was being tracked. All of the remote schools that I visited were insisting upon a rigorous back-to-basics curriculum, and all of the state and territory education departments were doing what they could to try to ensure that they got much more continuity with teachers and principals.

So, while we have not closed so many of these important gaps, progress is being made. We should be encouraged, even while we urge ourselves on to more efforts in the future. Yes, I am certainly open to seeing new targets added. I would like to see crime reduced. I would like to see family dysfunction reduced, because then we would certainly reduce incarceration. Then we would certainly reduce child removal. But, in the end, in every community—remote, regional and urban—regardless of its ethnic composition, we want the kids to go to school, we want the adults to go to work and we want communities to be safe, because that is what happens in a decent community. We owe it to Aboriginal people to ensure that they, the First Australians, are also first-class citizens in the very best of countries. I think that the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap statement is a significant step towards that wonderful goal.