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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 102

Senator CROSSIN (3:59 PM) —I present an interim report of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee on Indigenous education funding.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator CROSSIN —I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator CROSSIN —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

It is not a usual situation in this place for a Senate committee in the middle of an inquiry to deem a matter as needing such urgent attention as to warrant the tabling of an interim report. But following the receipt of submissions and after spending four days on the road hearing from up to 80 witnesses on the changes to Indigenous education funding it became quite apparent to the members of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee in dealing with this inquiry that this government’s new changes were such a monumental mess that something urgent needed to be said about the situation. The way we have chosen to do that is by tabling an interim report.

We had hoped that the government would have agreed to a majority report in this case. We had hoped that we would be able to convince the government that what they are undertaking is so monumentally destructive to the involvement of Indigenous parents in schools and the educational outcomes of Indigenous students that they ought to take stock and look at what is happening. They ought to say to themselves: ‘This is so important that the Senate committee has decided to table an interim report. Let’s have a serious look at the concerns they are raising.’

Our report does not criticise the policy; our report does not make comments about the level of funding and whether it is adequate or inadequate. We will do that as we get around the country and take further submissions. What our report says to the government is that what they are trying to achieve in schools in relation to Indigenous students is not working. It is a bureaucratic nightmare. It is failing to engage Indigenous parents. It is failing to deliver funds on the ground. What we think they ought to do is stop what they are doing here and now, put in place the funding arrangements that they had last year and take this year as a transitional year to get it right. It is not right and if the government and the bureaucrats in DEST were honest with themselves they would acknowledge that what is happening out there is a monumental mess. It is a bureaucratic nightmare.

Let us never forget that Aboriginal parent committees were established under the first goal of the National Aboriginal Education Policy 15 years ago. That goal was to try and encourage more Indigenous parents to get involved in their kids’ education. One of the sound concrete building blocks of a child’s education is to get them involved in the school. They should be encouraged to go to school. One of the weak links 15 years ago was that Indigenous parents needed to be more involved in schools and needed to be encouraged to be more involved in schools. What this government is implementing in 2005 absolutely and categorically destroys that.

I take offence at the government senators’ report where it talks about perspectives on this issue being based on the exaggerated claims of senators on the committee. They are not exaggerated claims. We had nearly four days of hearings in the Territory. Those claims are not exaggerated; they are the reality. Aboriginal parents are being disempowered and are disengaging from their kids’ education. This is because accessing funds that they were automatically given in previous years has become a bureaucratic nightmare. I take offence at suggestions that these funds are in some way an emotional entitlement of previous years. They say that what we are seeking to do is to hang onto programs that we have emotional attachment to. Those programs were successful.

We had a spurious consultation process. We have 3,800 Aboriginal parent committees operating in this country. Of that number, 400 were randomly selected. Ten of those replied to the consultation process, along with 62 other providers—I assume education providers or state and territory governments. People believed that the consultation processes they were involved in were about possible ideas. People do not believe that these changes have come about after a genuine consultation process. The government senators’ report seems to try to validate the consultation process and the changes.

What disappoints me about this is that this was a genuine effort by the committee to get this government to seriously look at the impact of the changes on Indigenous schools. We heard at Galiwinku that Aboriginal parents who want to access what was ASSPA funding for their kids now have to put in a concept plan. When that concept plan is approved, they can then apply for the funding. It is now a two-stage process; it is not an automatic payment. Some little committee in DEST—who are micromanaging this new process to the smallest possible degree—look at these concept plans and give them the tick or the flick. This is a couple of officers in DEST and someone attached to the state or territory government. I am assuming that not all of them have educational qualifications. The people on Elcho Island, who on the day we were there had had only two of their five concept plans accepted, said to us, ‘Who does this mob think they are, sitting over in an office somewhere in Gove, Darwin or’—what’s worse—‘Canberra, deciding what is best for our school and deciding what we ought to spend these funds on in relation to our school?’

I have not come across any instance where ASSPA funds were not used to benefit the educational outcomes of students, even if it were for registering a team to go on a sporting trip. There were question marks about that. I do not have any questions about that whatsoever. If you can encourage a kid to come to school because he is going to be in a basketball team which, at the end of the day, takes him to another town or city where he learns to socially interact with other kids, that is a fantastic educational outcome. Nor do I have any questions about the educational outcomes of things such as breakfast or lunch programs. You try teaching a kid who has an empty tummy and see how long they will sit still and concentrate. If that child is too poor to have money in their hand at school to buy their lunch, then they will not come to school because they will be ashamed and embarrassed about that. If you are going to provide funds to provide breakfast or nutrition programs to get kids coming to school, what is the problem with that? There is absolutely an educational outcome in that circumstance.

The bottom line of all of this is that we have seen some amazing statements in the government senators’ report. In my 25 years in Indigenous education I have never seen comments on Indigenous education from a Commonwealth government like these. I believe the government senators’ report today is a turning point in Indigenous education. The government is saying to us to that it is not bound to continue funding programs such as ASSPA if it considers that other initiatives are overdue and in need of more seed funding. The government is implying that it wants to back away from funding Indigenous education and ensure that the states pick it up. That is what it is saying. What it is really saying is that it wants to make sure that where the outcomes are successful those programs can be mainstreamed. This is what it says:

National priorities change: new needs emerge, and when achievement is apparent, success can be ‘mainstreamed’.

That is a monumental shift in the government’s attitude towards Indigenous education funding. What they are saying is: ‘Once Indigenous kids become successful and are just like non-Indigenous kids, we are going to ensure the funding is mainstreamed.’ Indigenous funding programs will disappear. Either the government will choose to not fund them or they will pass the buck to the state and territory governments. It is disappointing that the government have not listened to this committee. We have tried to say to the government: ‘Read the transcript. Take stock of what you are doing. There are times when governments get it wrong. The objective in the funding policy is not being achieved here. Aboriginal parents are walking away from schools. Funds are not getting to kids on the ground, and their education is suffering.’ But what the government have said in their dissenting report is monumental. This is a significant shift in the mindset of the government in funding Aboriginal education in this country. (Time expired)