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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6387

Senator RIDGEWAY (3:43 PM) —I would like to briefly respond to the ministerial statement and the National Report to Parliament on Indigenous Education and Training that has been tabled today. The Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, tabled his report with mixed emotions, presumably because on the one hand he welcomes the first baseline study of exactly where we are in relation to Indigenous education and training and on the other hand he is overwhelmed by what he euphemistically refers to as the `significant challenges' that lie ahead. I too have mixed emotions about the report and the ministerial statement—not for the same reasons as the minister but because of the amount of time that it has taken for this report to be produced. It is a long overdue report. It beggars belief that this is the first time the Commonwealth government has ever commissioned a baseline study to collate data about preschool, school and vocational education and training for Indigenous Australians.

To give that some context, the Senate needs to be reminded that the Commonwealth has had responsibility in this area since 1967, when 90 per cent of Australians vested authority in this regard with the national government. How is it that no Commonwealth government of any political persuasion even established the scale of disadvantage that existed and that the needs of Indigenous people, particularly in the area of education, were neglected for some 35 years? It is an indictment of the parliament that it has taken so long to even establish some baseline figures. Surely we are all in agreement that education and vocational training is perhaps one of the most important issues to confront Indigenous people and Indigenous communities, particularly in terms of being able to access and take advantage of opportunities but most of all in terms of being able to break the cycle of welfare dependency and endemic poverty that exists in many communities.

The significant thing about this report is that it is telling us that only a minority of Indigenous students are able to ever achieve levels that are comparable to their non-Indigenous classmates, that for the vast majority the situation is deplorable and there are no quick fixes to their circumstance. It has now been estimated, following on from this report, that it will take another 40 years before Indigenous participation in secondary education is equal to that of non-Indigenous students. That is a long time, and I think we have got to act quickly to make sure that another generation is not lost. I do not believe that we can afford to sacrifice these people to the unemployment queues or what sometimes seems like a permanent pathway to juvenile justice detention centres across the country and, in adulthood, jails. I think that if this report tells us anything it is that we have to start investing by putting forward the resources now.

This fact becomes more and more pressing when we look at the demographics of Australia's Indigenous people because, unlike the rest of the national population, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are under the age of 25. In fact, of the 410,000 Indigenous people in this country, there are about 240,000 under the age of 25, and most of them are under the age of 18. Whilst I acknowledge that there are marginal improvements on some fronts, the comparative disadvantage of Indigenous people is now beyond dispute. We have to ensure that we are providing the opportunities and the support mechanisms that are required to turn this situation around.

I do not intend to restate the raft of depressing statistics that are compiled in the report. They are all before us in black and white. They begin at preschool and extend across the board right through to tertiary study and vocational training. What I think is worth noting today is the dropout rate of Indigenous students, particularly from high school and tertiary education, which is something that I raised earlier this year when the ABS released the five-year figures in relation to Indigenous demographics in this country. As the minister has acknowledged in his statement today, the retention rate to year 12 for Indigenous students was at 30.6 per cent in 1995 and since then has improved to 35.7 per cent in 2001. But we have to keep that in context, because those figures really tell us that that rate is less than half the rate for non-Indigenous students in 2001, which stands at 76.2 per cent.

I have spoken to a number of professionals in the education field, and it is so often the case in their experience that most Indigenous people do not complete their education because of financial difficulties. It might be seen as a simple increase in the bus fare to the university or a rise in rent, or problems in being able to access Abstudy; it might be a matter of only a few dollars difference to their weekly income that decides whether or not a student can finish a degree or even get their Higher School Certificate.

Similarly, in the broader sense, there is also often a link between health issues and poor retention rates. Dropping out of school might be preferable if the student has been suffering from an undiagnosed hearing impairment or vision impairment that has held them back in terms of literacy or numeracy skills being acquired. It seems to me that if there was a greater integration of health and education services we might be able to provide some answers and some reasons for the poor retention rates being there in the first place, because we could detect and deal with them at a much earlier stage.

I want, on this occasion, to encourage the minister, his department and all of those responsible for the whole-of-life approach to look more closely at the reasons behind the retention rates being so poor for Indigenous students and to gather data on this front as well. One thing that I can think of that perhaps may be a suggestion is to make it a compulsory requirement of funding for education providers to also look at compiling exit reports so that we can at least gather some data and some information to start to understand the range of reasons that people do not get the education they are entitled to.

Another important thing that perhaps needs to be identified as a critical issue is the central place that Indigenous cultures must have in the education process. I am sure I am not the first person to raise this with the government; I am aware that the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages did so at the time that the parliament was dealing with the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Bill 2000. Their concern back then—and it continues now—is that often it is very difficult to fit cultural outcomes into the straitjackets of performance indicators and targets, as the act requires.

But I think the incorporation of culture into the education process for their children is perhaps one of the most important outcomes, particularly for Indigenous parents, regardless of whether they are in Broome, Cape York or even Redfern. The education process is where cultural transmission and reinforcement of family values can and should be occurring. It may be as simple a thing as recognising the role of elders, their cultural knowledge and the need for that to play a more central role in our institutions of learning.

If police forces around the country have managed to employ and value Indigenous trackers for hundreds of years, why is there is still resistance and reluctance on the part of the education system to do exactly the same with Indigenous knowledge holders in other areas, such as horticultural knowledge, linguistic expertise or artistic skill? Why can't we be more willing to recognise and accredit cultural skills in other areas that are just as critical to the survival of Indigenous identity and our social wellbeing?

I have to ask the question: why is it that Australia's Indigenous languages remain outside the official language status of the country and, as a consequence, receive little financial resources when compared with the so-called international economic languages like French, Japanese or German? Australia's Indigenous languages are not even recognised as national languages, and this is despite the fact that there has been an increased willingness to support and promote languages which are seen as an economic benefit to Australia.

The education system has embraced with fervour Asian languages, especially Indonesian and Mandarin, yet Indigenous languages continue to remain a complete mystery, a relic of traditional communities in only the remotest parts of the country, to the majority of non-Indigenous Australians. Senator Crossin will no doubt raise this issue, but we have to ask why there has been a deafening silence on the part of the Commonwealth government about the Northern Territory government's decision to progressively phase out— (Time expired)