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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8894

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:37): In August this year I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful event in Adelaide, at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre. I arrived at the entertainment centre and I was whisked backstage to find nearly 1,000 excited schoolkids talking excitedly with each other, lining up to get their face make-up done and nervously anticipating what they were going to be doing, because they were going to be participating in a festival which I had heard about for quite some time but had not actually witnessed before. The children of friends of mine had attended this festival, which is called the Wakakirri festival. I finally had the opportunity to witness it, and it was wonderful. It was a night of performances that went from seven to nearly 11 without a break; there was not an interval. Right to the end those kids, who had been waiting backstage until it was their turn to perform, behaved and performed impeccably, and it was a wonderful night.

I learnt more about the Wakakirri festival through participating in that event, and I found out that it is a national festival which has been designed to encourage creativity and thinking skills in children. It is based on the concept of story. The oldest form of learning and teaching, in many ways, is the use of storytelling. The festival uses storytelling, with the children telling the stories that they have created themselves as the focus for what has now become a national performing and creative arts festival available for every school in Australia.

The festival has something called the Wakakirri challenge, and that is a challenge to the schools and the children that are participating to develop a meaningful story among themselves. They will usually do it from a unit of learning they might be doing in their curriculum, or it might be a community issue that they have become aware of. So often the issues are very meaningful and thoughtful. They might be issues like bullying, homelessness, reconciliation or natural disasters and coping with those. What I saw that night, which was the primary school Wakakirri challenge, was each school providing a performance from three to seven minutes—but every single one went for the full seven minutes—onstage to an audience of several thousand parents and friends in the auditorium. The students have the ability to use a combination of dance and drama or singing and drama to tell their story. They develop the stories and then they decide how they are going to act them out and perform them.

The performances were absolutely wonderful, without exception. The themes were moving, they were funny, they were thought-provoking and they were always interestingly ethical, posing questions of right and wrong. For instance, the night that I was there, there were schools that performed a story about the role of the Women's Land Army in World War II, which they had been studying in class and decided to explore in more detail. There was one story that was about bullying. Another one was about conserving water and the importance of that, which in arid South Australia is a very important issue. There was one about the importance of being an individual and thinking for yourself. Another school did a Korean folktale with an interesting moral, and another story was a lovely one about a young boy sitting at the feet of his grandfather and being taken on a journey back into history through the tales of his grandfather. These were performed with between 20 and 120 children, and they were amazing. They were obviously hugely well rehearsed and interesting, and they ran without any hiccups at all the whole night.

An additional motif of this important festival is the motif of sustainability, and they have a philosophy of using, re-using and recycling all the props and costumes and always considering whether their activities in generating the stories and performing them are sustainable. There are two reasons this is good. One is obviously that it enhances environmental awareness among the students, but as well as that it means that they share that environmental awareness with their parents and their friends. At the end of the performance there are two spokespersons for the schools who get up on stage and practice their public speaking skills before a venue filled with thousands of parents. They explain not only how they came across the story and developed it but also how they applied the sustainability philosophy to the props and costumes. The other reason it is very good is that in the early days of the festival, which started in about 1992, it quickly became a bit competitive and too expensive for some schools to participate, and one of the really important philosophies about the Wakakirri festival is that it is open to every single child and school in Australia, so there is no cost to enter. There is no financial impediment to any child. Of course, requiring participants to be resourceful and to develop their props and their costumes in a sustainable way has evolved into a whole philosophy for the festival, which is good for the environment, for creativity and for resourcefulness and creates a hands-on approach where you create art from scratch. You need to think about the consequences of what you are using to build and what you do with materials at the end of the process, so the children are being encouraged to take responsibility for their actions.

Three members of the team are interviewed after the performance on the story. They talk about why they chose it and how they developed it, they talk about the sustainability aspect, and finally they also talk about who helped them create it. They refer to their parents and teachers. Often the teachers were highly lauded, and there was lots of parental assistance as well. So they were being taught acknowledgement and gratitude. As I said, these were amazing young students from primary school standing up on a stage at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre and speaking to an audience of thousands.

Which schools were involved? In Adelaide the performance spanned schools from the Adelaide Hills and the north of Adelaide, with some of the more disadvantaged suburbs in Adelaide, to the south, again with some of the more disadvantaged suburbs. There were government and non-government schools, and certainly the majority of the schools were not particularly affluent. It is free to enter, which means there is no financial impediment to those students and schools who would like to enter, and it has now become a vital part of the curriculum for many schools, particularly for government public schools and lower-socioeconomic-status schools across Australia. Now 20,000 kids from all over Australia, in every state and territory, participate in the Wakakirri festival every year. There is also a Wakakirri for high schools and a Wakakirri outback program. The outback program is fascinating. It gives an opportunity for schools in remote and regional areas to produce a day-long festival celebrating their stories, their community and their culture. They provide workshops in scriptwriting, storyboard writing, filmmaking and production, and the schools create and share stories with their community for the festival day. It becomes a total celebration—a very special day for communities, jam-packed with activities—and it showcases the talents of the entire local community. There are film screenings of students' films in front of the whole community. There are live performances from not only the students but also community members as well. There is culture, sports, music, art, dance, health and career workshops, and there are lots of stalls featuring the work of local artists. And there is a free community barbecue with all hands on deck to cater for what turns out to be a massive sausage sizzle. In 2012 there were communities surrounding the Halls Creek area in Western Australia, there was an outback program festival into Ceduna in South Australia and in Barunga in the Northern Territory. At the Barunga festival 250 students attended from seven area schools.

As I said, Wakakirri started in 1992 from an excellent idea from the person who is still the current festival director, a man called Adam Loxley. It went national in about 1996 or 1997 and now, as I have been outlining, is a huge and vitally important festival for many, many children. Unfortunately, the future of the festival is under a cloud because of that perennial challenge that many good initiatives face, that of ongoing funding. Over the years they have received some federal government funding, starting with Brendan Nelson in 2005. The federal department of education was always very supportive, giving some funding from the student wellbeing section. However the department last allocated a figure of $200,000 to cover two years and advised the festival that that would be the end of it as, under the national education agreement, the federal funding had been diverted to the states.

Unfortunately, despite queuing up with many other organisations, there has not been sufficient state funding forthcoming to the festival to ensure they will be able to survive. They have sought alternative funding and they have pared back and cut staff, but they still need some basic, ongoing, reliable, definite funding every year for things that are fixed costs like the venue hire. That is why, in Adelaide, there was a performance from 7 pm to 11 pm without an interval because, that way, they could have 16 schools each night and they could avoid having a third night. It was a long night for the kids, but it was a way of trying to keep the festival going.

There are many, many benefits. There is thinking and reflection, there is creativity and resourcefulness, there is environmental awareness and responsibility, there is teamwork and sharing, but most important, of course, there is that sense of pride of belonging and accomplishment that was so evident to me in every smile on every face of every student in that performance that night. There were no fewer smiles at the end of the night than there were at the start. It seems to me that $100,000, which is the amount that would be needed to ensure the continuity of the festival—a festival that is open to all children irrespective of their ability to pay for it and that does such wonderful, good things—is a small price to pay for such a valuable, inclusive event.