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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 130


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) (5:49 PM) —I will address some responses. Senator Ridgeway, I notice that you again I think implied that, because I had remarked there had been an increase in funding—about a doubling of funding in real terms—somehow I was saying therefore things were okay in health. In fact, the Hansard will show that I made it very clear at the time that an increase in funding has not resulted in all the achievements we think ought to be made. With respect to your remarks on what I said on that, both specifically and generally, the Hansard will show what I said—and the Hansard will certainly show what you said in your earlier contribution. You can describe that now, not wanting to say what I believe it says. That is fair enough; others will judge that. It applies equally to Senator Carr. I do not believe that he can take out of the Hansard his assertion that this government is set and hell bent on the humiliation of Indigenous Australians. I do not believe Hansard will do that. I know they have taken things out for the Labor Party before, but I do not think they will take that one out.

I come back to the point about the achievements that have been made. I will say again, Senator, that I do not think we are anywhere near where we need to be. But let us not pretend that mainstreaming, in part, has not been successful in some areas. It is important to mention that we are not simply mainstreaming in the way I think the state and territory governments have mainstreamed and which are now seeing what we are doing and starting to change.

Yes, programs that were not already with mainstream departments have gone to them and they have been quarantined as Indigenous programs; they are not being just slipped into mainstream money. But that on its own is not good enough. I accept that; that is obvious. It has been tried before and it did not work. What is important is to have coordination across the departments. This time I will take to the Expenditure Review Committee, for the first time in Commonwealth history, an Indigenous affairs cabinet submission where all the relevant ministers have been consulted, where there is agreement across departments and where we have taken the time to try and do a better job—to get our priorities right and coordinate our spending—instead of individual departments doing their separate thing, ATSIC doing its separate thing and everybody sort of hoping that it all comes together.

We are doing a better job than that. We are determined to do a better job than that. We are going to make sure that all the departments speak to each other and that we speak to Indigenous communities directly, with one voice. So we will not have one department flying in one month, another department flying in the next month and a state government flying in the next. People in communities must be so sick of aeroplanes and people with clipboards. As I said, there is agreement across politics and between levels of government that we have to put the politics aside and just sit down and work together on the day-to-day issues to try to do a better job.

Let me turn to some of the improvements. As I mentioned earlier, death rates from respiratory illnesses from 1992 to 1994 were seven to eight times that of the non-Indigenous average. It was a disgrace. In 2002 that had shifted to being four times that of the non-Indigenous average, halving the previous rate. I regard that as a success. It is not good enough but it is heading in the right direction—from seven to eight times down to four times that of the non-Indigenous average. It was 15 to 18 times more likely that an Indigenous person would die from an infectious or parasitic disease than a non-Indigenous person; now it is down to five times. It is down to a third of what it was before. It is still not good enough, nowhere near good enough, that Indigenous Australians are five times more likely to die of an infectious or parasitic disease, but it is much better than being 15 times more likely.

Year 5 writing benchmarks from 1999 to 2001—quite a short period of time—went up by five per cent. It was similar with the reading benchmark. Secondary school attendance went from 66 per cent of the rate of non-Indigenous students in 1996 to 73 per cent in 2001. In other words, a higher percentage of Indigenous kids now go to secondary school; it is getting closer to the non-Indigenous percentage. It is the same for year 12 retention rates. In 1996 it was 40 per cent of the rate of non-Indigenous students; now it is 51 per cent. It is getting better. In 1996 the rate of Indigenous students studying at a TAFE college was 67 per cent of that of non-Indigenous students; now it is 51 per cent. That is an improvement in anyone’s language.

Yes, we have to do more. We have to keep finding a better way to make more improvements more rapidly. These are not the actions of a government that wants to humiliate Indigenous Australians, Senator Carr. From 1996 to 2003 the rate of Indigenous students doing bachelor or higher level degree courses increased by 36 per cent to almost 6,000. So Indigenous students doing bachelor and higher level degree courses between 1996 and 2003—the years of this government—increased by 36 per cent.


Senator Carr —What about the rest of the population?


Senator VANSTONE —Senator Carr, I am glad that you asked that question because non-Indigenous students increased by 11 per cent. So we had a real success there because in that time period Indigenous students increased by 36 per cent.

We are doing something right and we are making gains, but the gains are nowhere near good enough. Indigenous people aged from 15 to 24 attending any form of education was 58 per cent in 1996 and went up to 61 per cent—only a very small gain. Indigenous students in VET were 2.4 per cent of all students in 1996; now they are 3.4 per cent. We can do better, but we have been getting something right. The rate of Indigenous VET graduates in employment in 1999 was 78 per cent of the rate of non-Indigenous students, in 2001 it was up to 95 per cent.

Indigenous employment grew by 22 per cent between 1996 and 2001, and almost 70 per cent of that was in non-CDEP employment. Non-Indigenous employment grew by about nine per cent. So, Indigenous employment grew by 22 per cent; that is giving people a job and a chance to be independent. It is giving them that chance to spend their own money and to have the pride that comes from spending money that they have earned. It is giving them a real chance. They are the things that make a difference, not whether some limited number of people in Canberra, elected by a portion of your community, have a job and can speak on your behalf. The real way for you personally, as an individual, to have independence is to have a real chance for an education, a real chance to make choices about how you live your life and a real chance to have a say about what should happen in your community. That is what this government is determined to achieve.

Senator Ridgeway referred to a meeting that I apparently had with Western Australian ATSIC regional councillors. I am not aware of any such meeting. Senator Ridgeway, I simply do not know what you are talking about. There may have been some Western Australians at another meeting; I do not know. My advisers do not recall such a meeting either, so I am unaware of what you were raising in that context. But it is true to say that we want to work with the state and territory governments. My advice is that government—that is, the bureaucracy—are consulting with regional councils and a range of Indigenous organisations and communities about alternative regional representation arrangements. It may result in quite different arrangements from one state to another. We simply do not believe that extending the life of regional councils by six months does anything more than that. We gave another 12 months because we thought that was appropriate, and that time is now up. We do not think that, because the bill has been delayed, there is any reason for a further extension in that area.

Senator Ridgeway, you raised the issue in relation to the general directions to the IBA. As I made clear to you the other day, the government believe that, because at the moment we have a general directions power with ATSIC generally, it is not unreasonable to have a general directions power with IBA, given its expanded functions, and we have not changed our mind on that matter. That is one issue that you raised and that is why I raise it now. In relation to your suggestion that there be an appeal to the AAT where the IBA refuses business loans, my view has not changed and neither has that of my colleagues. These are commercial decisions. They are not in the nature of administrative decisions. It is very much a commercial issue, and we simply do not agree with that suggestion.

As I feel strongly about environmental issues, particularly because of the importance of land and the environment to Indigenous communities, I would like to specifically address that issue. When the environment minister has to decide whether a proposal is going to have a significant impact on the environment and therefore has an assessment done, the environment minister has to invite comment from relevant ministers and from the public. The environment minister has to invite that comment—from other relevant ministers and the public. That means that whoever is the Indigenous affairs minister would be consulted—has to be; there is not a choice about it—and it also means that the public would be consulted. That means that not just a couple of people whom you choose to nominate but also any Indigenous people or organisations who want to put a view would be welcome to do so.

As you know, it is the usual practice that, when the government or a minister is required to consult, advertisements be put in the paper or that particular groups are contacted. It has often been the case in my time in government that there has been questioning as to how people knew what was happening and who you consulted. Governments have to be answerable to living up to that commitment. So I believe that it is appropriate. There was, I think, a requirement in relation to ATSIC, which is a statutory authority, and I do not think replacing that with individual people or committees is quite the same. Where you have a statutory authority, that is one thing, but individual people and committees, way beyond those that you seek to ensure have a say, are entitled to have a say. That is why I do not agree with your amendment. It is not that I do not agree with the sentiment; I just do not think it is at all necessary. I hope I have answered your questions.


Senator Nettle —I was just wondering whether the minister might be able to address the question I asked about the number of shared responsibility agreements.


Senator VANSTONE —Yes, I am sorry—I can answer that question. We will make, in the shorter term, shared responsibility agreements with communities to attend to a matter, whatever it may be, where they have a specific need they want addressed and they want additional funding over and above the things that we are all entitled to. It will be different from community to community. We do not want to say, ‘You’ve asked for one thing and we have done that with you and we’re not coming back.’ If there are other things that need to be addressed we might, or in the short term will, need to make separate agreements.

But these are agreements quite unlike the ones I refer to in Lockhart. They are simple agreements for things to be done: ‘If you do this, we will do this and the Territory government or the state government’—whatever it might be—‘will do this,’ to address a particular issue. Everyone will sit down and work out what they are going to do, what each of their contributions is and what each is going to get out of it—if that is the way you look at it—to get that problem on the way to being fixed. The agreements I refer to in Lockhart have application processes and guidelines being set in Canberra by people who do not necessarily go to all these communities. They have a separate application process where, in addressing the application, you have to meet the guidelines. There is then a process for deciding who under grant funding gets the money for this or that and then there is an acquittal process. The agreements that we are talking about in the shorter term do not have that. We do intend to bring those sorts of agreements into a much simpler structure, but that does not rule out a community coming back and looking for a quicker and simpler agreement for something to be done in a particular area.

I had a meeting with a Western Australian community the other day. They say that the kids are bored. That is a common problem in remote communities. There is not enough for the kids to do. They want to talk to us about a basketball court. And I want to talk to the Western Australian government, because there is a basketball court there—it is in the school. They are not allowed to use it outside school hours and, if they were to be allowed to use it outside school hours, kids who do not go to school—that is, non-school users—cannot use it. The reason that I want to talk to the Western Australian government is that, if we were prepared to put a basketball court in this community, would it not be better if we could get the Western Australian government to find a way to put lights on the basketball court they already have so the kids can play at night—that is what they are looking for—and to allow people in the community, other than the school goers, to use the basketball court? I know why this does not work in a metropolitan area, but I cannot see why it will not work in a remote community. Then perhaps the money that we would have available for a court could be put into something else. Wouldn’t that be better for the community? That is an example of why federal and state governments need to sit down and work together, so that the money that we all have—from whatever appropriation systems we have—is spent in a sensible way for the communities. Is that not a better way to go? That is what we intend doing.