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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Page: 132

Mr ROBB (6:57 PM) —In her speech on the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2005 the member for Jagajaga made another contribution of the kind which we have come to expect from her—one of endless rhetoric and abuse. She has given us a 30-minute recital of statistics, cliches and shallow assessments but no solutions other than throwing money at endless programs. That is the only thing that the Labor Party have on their plate. It is the only answer they have. It is a further example of the policy laziness of the opposition. The Labor Party have a policy vacuum in this area and in many other areas. They have made no attempt, in this very critical area of our community, to ascertain why the Indigenous community is bedevilled with chronic societal problems which militate against successful education outcomes. We need to get beyond just throwing money at the problem. The Labor Party had 13 years of trying to find solutions, which involved throwing money at the problem. But that approach failed. This government are seeking to take a much wider view of the problems bedevilling Indigenous communities to see if we can come up with durable and effective solutions.

Education is the foundation of freedom and personal development for Indigenous Australians, as it is for the broader Australian community. Without education the options open to people throughout life are invariably narrow and very limited. Without education, ignorance and lack of opportunity predominate. The lack of education becomes a breeding ground for low self-esteem and low self-discipline, prejudice, self-justification, antisocial behaviour, the growth of a victim mentality and the non-realisation of the potential that exists within each and every one of us. For this reason, quality primary and secondary education is fundamental to tackling the chronic disadvantage and aimless circumstance confronting so many in our Indigenous communities.

To begin with, the simple discipline of attending school five days a week for six to seven hours a day, taking some lunch, doing some homework, participating constructively in the classroom, playing some sport and participating in other non-academic activities for 10 to 12 years, slowly but surely instils in individuals the life skills, routines, self-confidence and reading and writing skills to go on to further study, or to take on a trade or generally enter the work force.

Sadly, many in our Indigenous communities have for a long time been denied the chance to develop these necessary life skills. While adequate resources are a necessary and very important part of dealing with this—and the coalition government over 9½ years has massively increased the money going to our Aboriginal communities—in many instances, other factors are operating to prevent young Aboriginal people from getting a strong educational grounding and experience. Serious disruption in the home and community, substance and physical abuse, a mendicant welfare mentality which fosters an environment where self-responsibility and self-discipline is leached out of a community, very few good role models and many bad ones, and a corresponding disregard for one another are not uncommon. This environment makes it extremely tough for Aboriginal students not only to persist in education but also to reach a standard at primary school that gives them a chance to fit in and keep up at secondary school. The seeds of failure are sown early in the lives of so many young Aboriginal people, long before they have any real say in it.

There are no easy answers. One initiative worth watching is a trial project at the Coen State School in the middle of Cape York. The Computer Culture trial is being run by an Indigenous organisation, Noel Pearson’s Cape York Partnerships, with the support of a range of government and commercial interests, including very strong support from Westpac. This program is directed at primary-age school children, using multimedia digital technology to capture stories and traditional cultures, and is a core component of the curriculum. This approach has resulted in the active and regular involvement of parents and grandparents in the classroom and has prompted excitement and engagement, which is extremely powerful and constructive.

In the process of capturing the rich inheritance of Aboriginal history and culture in a very interactive, creative and repeatable way, this program is giving primary school students at Coen a strong sense of history and identity while educating them in literacy, numeracy and technical skills; engaging and educating their extended families; encouraging them to complete major projects and homework; and exposing them and their families to the joys and very personal achievements of learning. This can set kids up to achieve their full potential and it enables them to have a good knowledge of the history, customs and languages of their own community, while giving them the educational basis and life skills to cope within the broader Australian community and, in doing so, have the best of both worlds.

Programs such as these are powerful and hold great potential, but they are not enough. Money alone is not the answer. In many cases, we are throwing good money after bad, because the causes of the social and cultural disintegration of many remote Indigenous communities are not being addressed and have failed to be addressed over decades. Restoring self-esteem and personal responsibility is the key. Participation in primary education is one of the basic means of building life skills and restoring a sense of personal responsibility and obligation. For starters, regular attendance at school is a must. Parents must take responsibility for ensuring the regular participation of their children at school. Many do not, because long-term welfare dependency has fostered a state of mind which is an anathema to personal responsibility and obligation. If they do not shoulder these fundamental parental responsibilities there need to be consequences through either denial of or restrictions on financial or other entitlements. The incentives must change if these parents are to shoulder these critical obligations to their children.

These are the sorts of deep societal problems that have driven the focus of this government’s approach to Aboriginal affairs. The problems are much too broad just to throw money at them. We have to engage with the Aboriginal community and try to deal with these underlying problems, the passive dependency that has grown out of many decades of welfare without obligation. The coalition government has embarked on a wide range of reforms, including the shared responsibility agreements, in close operation with the Aboriginal community to seek to deal with the chronic attitudinal problems induced by passive welfare over three decades.

The bill before the House is focused on the Indigenous children from remote communities who have had parental support and the opportunity to get through primary school and have reached a standard where they can hope to fit in at year 8 in a secondary boarding school. There are many primary kids who are still struggling to reach that standard. This bill is focused on those who have had the support and opportunity to get through primary school to reach a year 8 standard and who are well equipped to go on to secondary boarding school. At the moment, only 38 per cent of Indigenous students who commence secondary school continue to year 12, compared to 76 per cent of non-Indigenous students. That percentage could be expected to be much lower for Indigenous students from remote communities.

In the past, boarding schools have played a prominent role in the successful secondary education of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from remote areas of Australia. This has been the case because the financial and practical reality is that quality secondary education is extremely difficult—in nearly all cases, it is not possible—in remote communities. As the primary school issue is progressively addressed by both state and Commonwealth governments with the communities themselves and the leadership of the Aboriginal community—who are very clearly coming to understand the importance of addressing the passive welfare problem, the gross dependence and the impact that this has on the lives, attitudes, motivations, self-confidence and self-esteem of individuals within these communities—policy will focus more and more on providing scholarships for Indigenous students from remote areas to attend quality secondary schooling in non-remote areas. In this way, students will have the teachers, the facilities and the exposure to the broader Australian community which will give them the chance to meet their full potential and to make the most of their lives by equipping them with the skills and education to move more freely and comfortably between their own communities and the broader Australian community and contribute effectively to both.

This bill seeks to assist this policy direction by funding tutorial support for an estimated 2,400 Indigenous students in their first year of boarding school. The aim is to help these students cope with their studies and ensure they reach a standard where they can fit in comfortably with others in the class who may have had a better basis of education in their primary school years.

It is an important piece of legislation to complement the raft of other initiatives that this government is taking and the efforts that are being made in close cooperation with the Aboriginal community. We are not just throwing money at problems. This has been the narrow focus and the way in which governments in the past have sought to shift responsibility back to others, to unload responsibility and not take responsibility for solving these problems. There are no easy answers in this area. This government has sought to do the hard things and work with the community to find the fundamental problems and causes of the real difficulties we have with ensuring our Aboriginal children have the same educational opportunities and make the most of education in the same way as the rest of the community. I commend the bill to the House.