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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6386

Senator CARR (3:33 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

Today the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, tabled a statement based on the National Report to the Parliament on Indigenous Education and Training 2001. In his statement he says he does so with `mixed emotions'. That is the term he uses. When I read this report I can assure you that the term `mixed emotions' is one that somewhat understates one's response. When we talk about inequalities in education it is important to reflect upon the extent of social inequalities in this country. If ever there was an instrument to highlight that, then this report is such an instrument.

Along with Dr Nelson, and presumably all thinking Australians, the opposition would celebrate the achievements of many Indigenous people who are doing well and obtaining very fine results in our education and training systems. However, having said that, it is important to point out that there is not a great deal to celebrate. When it comes to the issue of the failure of our education systems to ensure equality of opportunity, I think reports such as this draw that starkly to our attention. I note that particularly with regard to the failure of our education systems in this country to meet the needs of young Indigenous Australians, particularly in education and training but also in health, housing and human rights.

It is important for us to acknowledge progress and also to acknowledge the complexity of the policy issues that are involved in Indigenous education. But it is important also to appreciate just how small the progress has been. If you look in this report, for instance, at just one minor statistic—the numbers of Indigenous students in higher education by gender, a table to be found on page 95—you will see that in 1993 there were 1,241 male Indigenous students who commenced higher education. In 2001, the number had grown by six to 1,247. I am sure there are many other statistics there that highlight that sort of trend and there are many others that will show greater achievements in other areas. But that stands in sharp contrast to what we would expect throughout the general community.

I say that in a context of bipartisanship in this country. One of the highest levels of bipartisanship in education is on the issue of Indigenous education. There is a real understanding across the political spectrum, from most thinking politicians, about just how serious these questions are. I think it is important to appreciate just how serious or how complex and how daunting the task also is.

This report draws attention to the fact that Indigenous students' completion rates in all areas of education are much lower than the national average. Something like a third of Australians at large have post-school qualifications, whereas in Indigenous communities it is 14 per cent. If you think about the numbers of students in a broader context, you get an even more profound set of statistics. The infant mortality rate amongst Aboriginal babies is twice the national average. Life expectancy is 15 to 20 years less than the average. The average life expectancy for Aboriginal men in this country, according to this report, now stands at 56. That is the same level as for the general male community 100 years ago. If you look at the death rates amongst Indigenous people in the age group 35 to 54, you will see that they are six to eight times higher than for the general population. While 71 per cent of Australian families live in dwellings that they own or are purchasing, only 31 per cent of Indigenous households own or are buying their house. Seven per cent of Indigenous people live in dwellings with 10 or more people. That is 50 times the rate that other Australians live in such dwellings. If you examine the broader issues of family breakdown, domestic violence, diet and alcoholism, then you see that the problems are compounded.

What this points to in my mind is that you cannot look at education in isolation. There are a whole range of issues that need to be examined and, to me, the impact of poverty stands central in that discussion. When we look at the impact of education on life chances and also on health, then I think the correlations are even more daunting. The prevalence of hearing loss and vision impairment—the results of poor living conditions and the lack of access to reliable water supplies—and the fact that kids cannot even get to school suggest to me that there is a huge amount that this parliament has yet to do. Overcrowding and substandard dwellings are not appropriate conditions in which learning can take place. It is no wonder that the sorts of figures reflected in this report and the sorts of concerns reflected in the minister's statement are there.

Senator Crossin will no doubt want to say something on this. Her direct experience working on these issues is much greater than mine. In the work I have done in this parliament, these issues have come up again and again, and the progress reports have remained as meagre as this one. It strikes me that we have to find ways of improving our capacity to provide assistance. We have to understand the social and economic conditions in which people actually live, as distinct from the conditions in which we would like to believe that they live. When we are looking at issues of costs, I think the cost of not providing a decent education to all Australians has to be borne in mind. The Commonwealth has to fulfil its obligations in that regard and make sure that the states fulfil theirs. If they do not, then I am afraid there is a heavy burden for us as a parliament to bear, but it is an obligation that we will have to carry forward. I argue that the cost of not providing assistance is huge and is perhaps not adequately reflected in an official report of this nature, nor can it be.

It is important to also highlight that there have been a number of policy failures by government. The government's position on Abstudy, for instance, has highlighted just how the failure of government to appreciate its responsibilities can accelerate the decline in participation rates. We can look, for instance, at the enrolment numbers and the infrastructure support that is provided in vocational education and in higher education. That is not adequately reflected in this report. These issues were addressed in the Universities in crisis report by the Senate. The government's response to that in recent times has been so grossly inadequate as to defy description.

This is a report that we should welcome. We should welcome the way in which the minister has presented it to the parliament, the fact that he let us know it was coming and the fact that this government shares with, I think, all the parties in this parliament very deep concern about the situation. We have to appreciate that the sorts of objectives we have for this country rest upon our capacity to ensure that equality of opportunity actually means something. It is quite apparent that we have a long way to go. The vicious cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity is going to constantly reinforce what is a great black mark against this country.