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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 31032

Mr McMULLAN (6:10 PM) — The Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001 is not unusual in terms of the bills that come before this parliament. It is one that ultimately everybody will vote for but about which some of us feel disappointment. Its purposes are to provide more funding for indigenous education. Who can complain about that? But it is so sadly inadequate and part of a structure of measures that are failing. You feel like crying out and saying, `Can't you see that more needs to be done.' But, on the eve of the election, all we are really able to do is say, `Here are some resources that are needed; they ought to be provided so let us not stand in the way. Let us simply say that what is being done is not enough and advocate the case for more, subsequent.'

The money that is being provided pursuant to this bill arising to offset the impact of the fringe benefits tax is entirely non-controversial in its intention. It is not possible to assess whether it is adequate in its amount. The opposition broadly supported the changes to the fringe benefits tax, because they were about cleaning up the taxation system far beyond the indigenous organisations that were caught up in the crossfire of those amendments. The government was very tardy in its consideration of how the affected indigenous organisations might be compensated but, ultimately, it put in the budget an amount of money that is flowing out to indigenous organisations. I have been speaking to them around the country and there is no doubt that it is assisting them in meeting the crisis in staffing that was caused by the changes, but whether it can be considered as adequate only time will tell.

But that is not the controversial part of the legislation; everybody accepts that there needs to be that compensation. The amount has been objectively estimated and we hope it proves to be adequate. The significance of the bill is in its direct educational expenditure. I want to respond very briefly to the remarks by the member for Calwell, not by way of criticism, because one cannot but admire his passionate commitment. I think the proposition he put forward last year was far too prescriptive. It assumed that the solution that is appropriate for some parts of Australia was nationally appropriate, and it assumed that we can set a targeted amount of money and that that will be broadly applicable. I think that is heroic in its assumptions but not particularly helpful. But the underlying intent of what he was setting out to achieve is valid and worthy of recognition. The concern about indigenous culture and indigenous language, its recognition and support and its enhancement by the educational process rather than by that educational process being in conflict with the process of protection, enhancement, reinforcement and continuity in indigenous culture is a valid concept and is worthy of recognition and respect.

The additional funding provided by this bill is designed to assist secondary school students to go on to year 12 and beyond or to undertake vocational education and training. Over the last decade or so, and in some ways you could say over the last three decades, there has been a substantial increase in Commonwealth funding for indigenous education. That is welcome and necessary. Recently the government has added a more specific outcome objective related to its national literacy and numeracy strategy. It is not possible to argue that literacy and numeracy are other than worthwhile objectives; the risk is that the minister's focus on it might narrow the focus of educational funding as a whole and indigenous education in particular. I think this issue needs some further analysis. There has been a lot of very useful debate about this more broadly in the education community, but I do not want to divert onto it today. I simply say that it is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an adequate indigenous education strategy, and I hope we can get a broader focus.

It is that broader focus that I want to talk about. We need to get beyond the issue of so-called practical reconciliation—and that is consistent with the points that the member for Calwell was making. We need to look beyond those things which the government seems to think, for some reason, are special benefits given to indigenous people: housing, health, employment and education—as if those things were not a fundamental government obligation for all Australians. It is not a unique obligation for indigenous people. Along with that, there should be a recognition that there needs to be adequate support in those basic areas of housing, health, employment and education, that these are rights for all citizens, not special entitlements for indigenous people, and that we are not doing them a favour by providing necessary and appropriate support. This goes to the great fallacy that treating everybody the same constitutes equality. There is no way, in health policy, that we would ever say that we should spend as much money on healthy people as we do on sick people. Health funding should be proportionate to need. Rationally, one would have thought that we would do the same in education funding, but we too often hear the fallacy that somehow equality is the same as uniformity and we should treat everybody the same even if their needs are different. That is the first thing we have to dispel. The second thing is that we have to recognise that rights and issues of culture, social questions and questions of justice are worthwhile goals in themselves as well as playing into whether we can achieve our objectives of practical reconciliation.

One would have to say that the practical reconciliation agenda is failing. I spent quite a lot of last week visiting indigenous education institutions, particularly tertiary institutions, and looking at the statistics. I have a particular concern about the decline in indigenous participation in tertiary education. Progress in secondary education seems to have stalled, but even the government's own department has released figures that show that, in tertiary education, commencements and enrolments of indigenous Australians have fallen dramatically in the last year. Commencements have fallen by 15.2 per cent and enrolments have fallen by 8.1 per cent, to below or just above the 1996 statistics. After years of steady increase in the proportion of indigenous higher education students, that figure has started to decline again in 2000. Participation of indigenous Australians in vocational education and training also fell in 2000.

In 2000, there were fewer indigenous students enrolled in higher education than there were in 1999, and the number of commencing students was 630 fewer than in 1999. It had fallen from over 4,000 to approximately 3,500. These are the statistics of failure, and this is why we cannot oppose this legislation. Inadequate as we might think it is, if we are confronted with those circumstances and someone comes forward with resources that might be of value, we have to say, `Too little, too late; but better than nothing. Let's support this and let these resources flow as quickly as possible.' But nobody can be comfortable with the circumstances where enrolments and participation—absolutely and as a proportion of tertiary education participation—are falling. Any incoming government will have to face this issue after the election, and I certainly give a fundamental commitment that an incoming Labor government will address it.