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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 916

Senator GIBSON (5.24 p.m.) —I rise to speak on the Aboriginal Education (Supplementary Assistance) Amendment Bill 1994. The purpose of the bill is to amend the Aboriginal Education (Supplementary Assistance) Act 1989, which enables grants of financial assistance to be made to state and territory governments, non-government school systems, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education institutions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait education consultative bodies for the purpose of advancing the education of Aboriginals.

  The current act provides funding for the period from January 1993 to June 1996. This bill amends the funding level for the period from January 1995 to June 1996 and provides for the appropriation of a specified amount for the period from January 1996 to June 1997. The bill provides for an increase in the funds appropriated under the Aboriginal Education (Supplementary Assistance) Act to support tertiary education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The funds will be made available under the Commonwealth's Aboriginal education strategic initiatives program. This program was introduced in 1990 and underpins the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policy.

  The coalition fully supports this bill and the funding of education for Aboriginal Australians. Education is fundamental to relieving social disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the areas of housing, health and employment, as well as improving social justice and bringing about reconciliation. In other words, funding of education is a crucial element in a much broader debate.

  If one looks at the many social indicators in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, one sees that it is clear that the Labor policies of the past decade have not worked. Despite the government's focus on such issues as land rights, treaties and the policy of funding communities rather than individuals, there is still clear evidence of social disadvantage within these communities.

  Approximately $160 million has been allocated for the Aboriginal education strategic initiative program—AESIP—between January 1993 and June 1995. This bill will allocate another $85 million for the period from January 1995 to June 1996. Whilst the funding from January 1996 to June 1997 has not yet been appropriated, it can be estimated that about $330 million will have been allocated in the period from 1993 to 1997. In addition to this initiative, the government will also spend a further $350 million a year in special allocations for Aboriginal education in higher education institutions, and $150 million will go directly to students and their families through Abstudy, tutorial assistance and vocational and educational assistance.

  It is now four years since the Aboriginal education program was established. A review of AESIP this year has revealed that despite the enormous amount of money allocated for these strategies, there is reason to be concerned that greater progress has not been made. For example, there are still significant gaps in the preschool participation rates between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and other Australian four-year-olds; fewer than 80 per cent of five-year-old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in small communities are enrolled in a school; whilst 16 per cent of other Australian children have significantly lower levels of achievement in literacy and numeracy, this figure is as high as 45 per cent for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; and an estimated 25 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who start secondary school leave before the end of year 10. There are also a number of other similar examples that have been highlighted by my colleague Mr Miles in the House of Representatives.

  The concern of the coalition is that over the past few years the government has set itself a number of important and far reaching goals with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education. Whilst the coalition acknowledges that some progress has been made, it also recognises that the government has failed in the whole area of adopting appropriate benchmarks to measure the extent of progress made in these areas.

  The establishment of suitable benchmarks in each of these specific areas of Aboriginal education is an urgently needed element of these specific government programs. The coalition supports the funding initiatives of this bill, but emphasises the need for ensuring that the money spent is achieving the outcomes that the government and all Australians expect of such programs.