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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 130

Senator CARR (10:15 PM) —I wish to say a few words on the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2004. This bill establishes a framework for the funding of measures in the education portfolio targeted at Indigenous students and provides funding for the next four years. The bill also establishes two small new programs first announced during the recent election campaign. I start my remarks by drawing the attention of the chamber to the recent performance of the Department of Education, Science and Training with regard to Indigenous education. I recall reading just recently documents from within the government that went to the review undertaken by the government on the effects of mainstreaming of Indigenous programs within government. I was struck by the reference to the fact that the department of education was the only department within the government that had failed even to respond to the review and to undertake a review of its own programs. This was before the recent changes the government announced. I want to take up this matter more directly with the department in due course and I am sure we will be able to hear from them why that occurred.

The legislation we have before us tonight, however, continues a pattern we have seen in recent times where the government says a great deal about its commitment to Indigenous education but when we look empirically at the impact, at what is actually occurring, then I am afraid the story is less than satisfactory. The legislation has to be seen in the broader context of the government's recent changes. Firstly, it has abolished ATSIC and it is not sought to replace it with a representative body but with a government appointed committee. Secondly, it has sought to mainstream Indigenous programs across all other government departments. Thirdly, it has adopted a more authoritarian and paternalistic approach to the provision of government services to Indigenous people, as revealed in the recently leaked cabinet documents referred to by the National Indigenous Times. In my judgment, the government's approach has taken us back a generation in Indigenous public policy. I happily concede that not everything is bad in the government's treatment of Indigenous affairs. In fact, some very positive advances have been made during the period of the Howard government. Nonetheless, progress is far too slow.

Last week we saw the opportunities that have opened up as a result of Michael Long's so-called `Long Walk'. What he has undertaken is a truly remarkable feat. It began as a spontaneous gesture by him and a small group of supporters and it led to the situation where the Prime Minister has reopened a dialogue with a number of Indigenous leaders—a dialogue which had been closed for five years. I think Michael Long's action provided a real ray of light for Indigenous people in this country. He did this, of course, out of despair and anger, but he has re-ignited the national debate about reconciliation and the dire need for action for social justice for Indigenous people in this country. The involvement of Aboriginal leaders such as Pat and Mick Dodson has been a very positive development. The fact that the Prime Minister has now said that he will continue the dialogue with Michael Long and Pat and Mick Dodson is equally positive. I hope much good comes from those discussions. We will have to wait and see whether or not that hope is realised.

The problem is that I have not seen any evidence that the government has actually resiled from any aspect of its own position. I am concerned that the government has not actually changed its mind about the need for a truly representative body to speak for Indigenous people and that it still believes such action is unnecessary. I am concerned that the government has yet to change its position on the so-called `shared responsibility agreements'—the conditions that, in my judgment, may well force Indigenous people to give up their natural and proper social rights because of the demand by the government for behavioural changes. I am equally concerned that the government has at no point acknowledged its responsibilities with regard to reconciliation and has failed to understand why reconciliation remains a very important matter for this country.

The government talks about its so-called practical reconciliation measures, ignoring the real meaning of the process for Indigenous Australians themselves. When we look at the speech by the Governor-General to this parliament we can see that even the so-called watered-down version, the `practical reconciliation' that the government used to speak of, seems to have fallen off the agenda as well. Apparently the government just cannot see that a formal, explicit process of reconciliation between Indigenous and other Australians is an absolute precondition for moving forward on a broad range of issues, just as an apology to the stolen generation is an important part of the process of healing. Some people have said that you do not really need to worry about the question of apologies and acknowledgement of prior custodial ownership of the land because the real questions go to the fundamentals about the provision of services. I say that is a misconceived view. You would not say to Australians celebrating Anzac Day or to Australians down at Ballarat last weekend celebrating Eureka, `You can have one or the other: either you can have a water supply, an electricity supply, a decent school or a hospital or you can have some acknowledgement of some ceremony.' You would not put that view, and nor should you.

But with regard to Indigenous people there is a view somewhere in this country that says these two issues should be seen as separate and that there is a dichotomy between acknowledgement of past injustices and necessary improvements in social justice today. Equally, there is a view put that you can have a distinction between social rights and social responsibilities. No-one else accepts that distinction. That sort of dichotomy does not occur in any other aspect of Australian society when we talk about people's rights to a decent school, hospital, water supply, electricity supply or house. None of those rights are challenged; they are taken for granted as fundamental rights for any citizen in this country. But it seems that, when this government raises these questions, the processes have to be seen as separate. I say that is a false dichotomy, and of course it is an insulting attempt to institutionalise paternalism and authoritarianism to take the position that appears to be being taken in so many aspects of the government's policies today. So, when the government talks about setting conditions under which it will support service provision to Indigenous people, I think we are entitled to ask: would those conditions apply to anyone else in this country or do they only apply to Indigenous people?

We say the government is proposing a new agenda. As far as I can see, the education agenda has not been immune from this approach. I think we are entitled to ask: if education is one of the keys to the future for Indigenous people, what action is the government taking to actually unlock the doors of inequality in this country? From what I have seen so far, the profound historical disadvantage faced by Indigenous peoples is not being addressed by these measures. Of course that is not to say that we oppose the measures for a substantial injection of new money into Indigenous education. This bill provides $29 million over four years and funds 250 scholarships and mentoring for Indigenous students from remote areas as well as 600 additional places in training and apprenticeships. Of course you do not oppose those things. What I say is that you put those things in context. You put them into the context of what is actually occurring in this country, and then you can see how limited these measures are.

Programs such as the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program and the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program are all about picking winners. The government now sees its role as selecting high achievers and sending them to TAFE or universities in the city. The scholarships provided under the leadership program will also send school age students to what the government terms `the best Australian schools'. I can only presume, having listened to the rhetoric of the government in other areas, that what it means by that is the elite private system. I say this policy may well be very divisive. It may well produce a situation where many students will not be provided with assistance. I am concerned to make sure that, if we are to select students who are the best and the brightest from remote Aboriginal communities, we do understand the role that their communities have in their education and understand that we cannot separate that role from the ongoing cultural education that is involved with a young person in Aboriginal society.

I refer to the proposal to spend $25,000 a year on each student's fees at one of these schools. That could probably be much better spent on providing places at government secondary schools for three or four students, so I do think there needs to be balance here. There needs to be an understanding that the provision of basic educational services to Indigenous peoples should not be confined to just the best and the brightest who can be shipped off interstate, leaving behind desolation because of the government's failure to provide services for the many. The parliament has been asked by the government, in considering this bill, to put in place a program of which we have no detail. We can only guess at what is being proposed here. We have seen no guidelines. No provisions are actually made for how this proposal would work.

If we look at the changes to the Indigenous Education Direct Assistance program, we see that the government does not explicitly refer to the major changes to IEDA that in fact have been put in place over recent years. In fact, with this bill the government is ushering in major reforms to three schemes under the program itself. It will bring together two new programs into a new whole of school intervention strategy. This move abolishes the Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness scheme, or ASSPA, a scheme that provided funding for liaison and consultation between Indigenous families and the schools for their children to attend. I would have thought that would be exactly the sort of program that the government now talks about in terms of its shared responsibility arrangements. You would have thought that was exactly the sort of thing to encourage communication between the agencies of a state and the local communities. The move replaces this scheme with one based on a submission model, funded only on the basis of proposals prepared according to a set of guidelines. Indigenous leaders have criticised this very heavily on the basis that a number of groups lack the very practical resources and know-how to prepare the submission based processes that have been envisaged by this measure.

This point is well illustrated by the IEDA review itself. That government process provided no real rationale for the new program. In fact, only 10 submissions were actually received in the review process. So it is little wonder that there is very little understanding of how these programs might actually work. You would have thought that measures as important as these might have attracted more submissions if there had been a greater understanding of what the government was proposing to do. So what we have here is a functioning system of consultation and parent involvement in schooling, although with different levels of success in different regions—a scheme now being sent into oblivion—while at the same time the government says that it has renewed emphasis on consultations.

Given the hour, Mr President, to assist the work of the chamber I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard the remainder of my remarks, which are of similar moderate tone and obviously provide assistance and forthright advice to the government on how it might lift its game.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Government is also making major modifications to what was known until now as the ATAS scheme—Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme. This scheme is getting a name change, but a lot more as well by way of change.

The scheme provides additional tutorial assistance to Indigenous students who need it right across all sectors of education—school, TAFE and university.

Until now, at school level, the scheme provided broadly-based assistance to kids at every year level.

Now, the Government wants to “target” the help that Indigenous children receive. The program is capped, and so the funds will be largely eaten by the Government's own priorities. It appears to be limiting assistance in the first instance to children who have fallen behind at the Year 3, 5 and 7 literacy and numeracy benchmark tests.

It has also shifted emphasis away from individual tuition and into the classroom setting, which stretches the dollars further. The IEDA review emphasised that, while classroom tutorial help was useful, it needed to be supplemented by individual assistance.

So help available to Indigenous kids under this program will be narrower in focus and Indigenous students might miss out on individual assistance that they need. It is also unclear whether children at year levels other than 3, 5 and 7 will receive help.

Furthermore, in schools in the cities that have fewer than 20 Indigenous students, those kids will miss out altogether on tutorial assistance.

These changes fly in the face of the Government's insistence on so-called “mutual obligation”. Here, we see the Government blatantly failing to keep its side of the bargain with Indigenous school students: it is abandoning large numbers of them, by withdrawing the tutorial assistance in literacy and numeracy that they so clearly need.

As with the other changes brought in by this bill, there is a complete absence of detail about guidelines or implementation. Once again, the Senate is being asked to vote in the dark.

Where to now?

So where is the Government headed, in general terms, in Indigenous policy?

Does it have a direction? Is the direction the right one?

The answer is that it does indeed have a direction, but it's one that, despite the Prime Minister shaking hands with Indigenous leaders last week—despite that—the policy direction is one that should cause a high level of concern in the minds of all decent Australians.

This Government has taken us backwards in terms of Indigenous policy. More seriously, it has taken Indigenous people backwards—back in time. It has actually reversed direction.

In the early nineties, under the previous Labor Government, there was real forward movement. Australians were marching towards formal and real reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens. It was a time of hope for Indigenous people.

But the Howard Government, when it explicitly refused to say sorry and rejected reconciliation, stopped that forward movement in its tracks.

This is not to say that there hasn't been anything to celebrate for Indigenous Australians in the last eight years. There has—but the achievements of individuals, groups and communities have occurred despite, and not because of, the Howard Government.

Now the new welfare agenda—the “shared responsibility” policy being foisted on Indigenous people without their full involvement and free agreement—will turn the clock back still further.

There's nothing wrong with the concept of mutual obligation—provided that it is truly mutual and freely entered into. And it should apply to everybody—not just to the most starkly disadvantaged section of Australian society, Indigenous people.

What's wrong is forcing Indigenous people to sign up to do things they realistically can't do, because of their degree of disadvantage.

Australia collectively needs urgently to address this disadvantage.

Labor wants to see genuine reciprocity in welfare policy and service provision.

As a first step, a precondition, we need formal and real reconciliation. Labor is committed to this process. We call upon the Prime Minister and his Government to join us, and to join with Indigenous Australians and to take that crucial first step in the long road to a better life for Indigenous people in this country.

Debate interrupted.