Thursday, 6 December 2018
by leave—Back when Prime Minister, I used to observe that to live in Australia is to have won the lottery of life—and that's true, unless you happen to be one of those whose ancestors have been here for tens of thousands of years.
That's the Australian paradox. Vast numbers of people from all around the world would literally risk death to be here, yet the First Australians often live in the conditions that people come to Australia to escape. We are the very best of countries, except for the people who were here first.
And this gnaws away, a standing reproach to idealists and patriots of all stripes. As long as many Aboriginal people have Third World lives and are on average poorer, sicker and worse housed by a vast margin than the rest of us, we can indeed be, as we boast, the most successful immigrant society on earth—except, ahem, for those who have been here the longest.
Why don't the objective outcomes for Aboriginal Australians match those of everyone else—and what can be done to close this gap? Amidst all the glittering successes of our nation, this is the one question that's haunted us, almost since the very first Australia Day; and always will, until it's fixed.
You can appreciate, Mr Speaker, my reservations, then, when the Prime Minister asked me to be his special envoy for Indigenous affairs. How could a backbench MP make a difference in six months to a problem that had been intractable for 200 years? Yet perhaps someone who's been wrestling with this for a quarter century and may have spent more time in remote Australia than any other MP, except the few who actually live there—but isn't dealing with every lobby and vested interest, as the Prime Minister, the minister and the relevant local member invariably are—can bring fresh eyes to an old problem and perhaps distinguish the wood from the trees.
Amidst all the generally depressing indicators on Indigenous Australia, this one does stand out: Indigenous people who do finish school and who do complete a degree have much the same employment outcomes and life expectancies as other comparable Australians. And it stands to reason that to have a decent life you've got to have a job; and to have a job you've got to have a reasonable education. As prime minister for Indigenous affairs, this, always, was my mantra: get the kids to school, get the adults to work, and make communities safe.
So the Prime Minister and I soon agreed that, as special envoy, my task was to foster better remote school attendance and performance because this is our biggest single challenge.
Around the country, school attendance is about 93 per cent. That's 93 per cent of enrolled students, on average, are there on any given day. But for Aboriginal kids, school attendance is just 83 per cent. In very remote schools—where the pupils are mostly Indigenous—attendance is only 75 per cent, and only 36 per cent of remote students are at school at least 90 per cent of the time, which is what educators think is needed for schooling to be effective. Not surprisingly, in remote schools, only 60 per cent of pupils are meeting even the national minimum standards for reading.
Now, it's not lack of money that's to blame. On average, spending on remote students is at least 50 per cent higher than in metropolitan schools. A key factor is the high turnover of teachers, who are often very inexperienced to start with. In the Northern Territory's remote schools, for instance, most teachers have less than five years experience, and the average length of stay in any one school is less than two years.
Of course, every teacher in every school is making a difference. Even a transient teacher in a poorly attended school is better than leaving Aboriginal people without the means of becoming successful citizens in their own country. And even attending a struggling school is better than missing out on an education. Our challenge, though, as a government, as a parliament and, indeed, as a nation, is to do more to ensure that kids in remote schools are getting the very best possible education, because it's only once we're doing our job that we can expect parents to do theirs and send their children to school.
Posing this simple question 'How do we get every child to go to school every day?' prompted one teacher, an elder, who had been at Galiwinku school since the 1970s, to sigh that she had been asked the same question for 40 years, and pretty obviously that's because after all that time the answer still eludes us. Yes, if there were more local jobs and a stronger local economy, if housing wasn't as overcrowded, if family trauma wasn't as prevalent and sorry business so frequent, if the sly grogging and the all-night parties stopped, if there were more Indigenous teachers and other successful role models, if pupils didn't have hearing problems or fetal alcohol syndrome and maybe if Indigenous recognition had taken place and land claims had been finalised, it might be easier. In their own way, these all feed into the issue; but, if we wait for everything to be fixed, little will ever be achieved. There are all sorts of reasons why a particular child might not be at school on any one day, but there is really nothing that can justify—as opposed, sometimes, to explain—the chronic nonattendance of so many remote Indigenous children.
After this latest round of visits and discussions, I can readily understand the despondency which people in this field sometimes wrestle with; but there are more grounds for optimism and fewer reasons to be resigned to failure than ever before. Yes, some of the federal government's remote school attendance teams are a glorified bus service, but others are deeply imbedded in the school and in the community and can explain almost every absence. Yes, too many remote schools still have very high staff and principal turnover, but there are also hundreds of dedicated remote teachers who have made their work a calling or a mission rather than just a job or even a career. Yes, there have been plenty of policy flip-flops over the years as new governments and new ministers try to re-invent the wheel, but in most states and territories there are now 10-year strategies in place, with the stress on staff continuity, on closely monitoring every single pupil's progress and movement, on back-to-basics teaching, on community involvement and on getting mothers and their new babies straight into the school environment—strategies, I'm pleased to say, that have outlived changes of government and minister. In other words, there is finally broad agreement on what needs to be done, at least for schools, and a collective official determination to see it through for the long term rather than be blown off course by each you-beaut new idea.
In all the remote schools that I've just visited, culture is respected—and, in many of them, teaching is bilingual, at least in the early years—while teachers still strive to enable proud Indigenous people to flourish in the wider world, not just in the community they are born into. Many fret that progress is stalled or is even in reverse, because the world only changes for the better, person by person, school by school and community by community. At this level, there can often be two steps back for every step forward. But, while little ever improves as fast as we would like, it was gratifying to see that the Opal fuel, which I introduced as health minister, has all but eliminated petrol-sniffing in remote Australia. The larger communities of the APY Lands, with just one exception, now have what they all lacked a decade ago—the permanent police presence that I tried to achieve as the relevant federal minister. The lands are still off limits without a permit to most Australians, but at least Pukatja now has a roadhouse. And at least some remote community leaders haven't shirked the 'tough love' conversation that is needed with their own people and have accepted restrictions on how welfare can be spent with the debit card in Kununurra, Ceduna and Kalgoorlie, and the Family Responsibilities Commission in many of the communities of Cape York.
On my most recent swing through remote schools, all classrooms, every one of them, were free of the defeated teachers, the structureless lessons and the distracted pupils that were all too prevalent some years back on my stints as a stand-in teacher's aide, even if actual attendance rates still left much to be desired.
In all the bigger schools there is now the Clontarf 'no class, no footy' program for the boys and, increasingly, comparable girls' academies too. Who would have thought that Kununurra, Coen and Hopevale schools would have concert bands that any school could be proud of? In Coober Pedy I helped wrap books as gifts for the quite a few children who regularly attended school. In Aurukun I handed out satchels to the quite a few students going on excursion to the Gold Coast as a reward for being at school all the time.
I am much more confident than I expected to be that, left to their own devices, the states and territories will manage steady, if patchy, progress towards better attendance and better performance, but what will be harder to overcome, I suspect, is communities' propensity to find excuses for kids' absences and school systems' reluctance to tailor credentials and incentives for remote teachers. This is where the federal government could come in to back strong, local Indigenous leadership ready to make more effort to get their kids to school and to back state and territory governments ready for further innovation to improve their remote schools.
While all states and territories provide incentives and special benefits for remote teachers, sometimes, I regret to say, these work against long-term retention. In one state, for instance, the incentives cease once a teacher has been in a particular school for five years. In others a remote teaching stint means preferential access to more-sought-after placements, so teachers invariably leave after doing the bare minimum to qualify.
There should be special literacy and numeracy training, as well as cultural training, before teachers go to remote schools where English is often a second or third language, and there should be substantially higher pay in recognition of these extra professional challenges. Because it takes so long to gain families' trust, there should be substantial retention bonuses to keep teachers in particular remote locations. We need to attract and retain better teachers to remote schools and we need to empower remote community leadership that is ready to take more responsibility for what happens there. The objective is not to dictate to the states their decisions about teacher pay and staffing but to work with them so that whatever they do is more effective. It's not to impose new rules on remote communities but to work in partnership with local leaders who want change for the better.
Where local leaders are prepared to accept measures that should create a better environment for school attendance, like the debit card or the Family Responsibilities Commission, the government should be ready to offer extra economic opportunities or better amenities. If local communities have a project, would like federal government support and are prepared to accept that with rights come responsibilities, they should make contact to explore what we might all do better.
For instance, at Borroloola, when I wanted to talk school attendance, locals only wanted to talk housing. I well and truly got their point, once I had seen the near-shanties that people were living in. But new houses, I'm pleased to say, are now on their way. On future visits, no-one should have poor housing as an ongoing reason for kids missing school, because if government wants communities to lift their game, we have to be ready to lift ours, too.
As the national government we should be prepared to make it easier for state and territory action to attract and retain better teachers and we should reinforce the self-evident maxim that every kid should go to school every day, not by taking away the responsibility of the states and territories for managing schools, not by imposing a punishment agenda, but by making good policy and strong local leadership more effective. After all, good government—certainly good, sensible, small-C conservative government—means a clear objective plus reasonable, doable means of moving towards it.
As envoy my job is to make recommendations rather than decisions, but recommendations with a good chance of success because they are consistent with the government's values and policy direction.
First, the government should work with the states and territories, whose responsibility it is to pay teachers, to increase substantially the salary supplements and the retention bonuses, if any, currently paid to teachers working in very remote areas. Obviously, that will cost money, and the government is working on that now.
Second, and this is just a federal responsibility, the government should waive the HECS debt of teachers who, after two years of experience in other schools, teach in a very remote school and stay for four years.
Third, communities ready to consider the cashless debit card or arrangements akin to it, in order to boost local pupils' capacity to attend school, should have fast-tracked Indigenous Advancement Strategy projects as a reciprocity measure. It would be a form of mutual obligation, if you like, between local communities and the national government.
Fourth, the Remote School Attendance Strategy should be funded for a further four years, but with some refinements to obtain more local school 'buy-in' and better community 'intelligence' and to encourage more engagement with local housing authorities and police where needed.
Fifth, the Good to Great Schools Program, which has reintroduced phonics and disciplined learning to quite a few remote schools, should be funded for a further year to enable further evaluation and emulation.
And sixth, the government should match the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation's private and philanthropic funding on an ongoing basis. Officialdom never likes selective schemes that send people to elite schools, but this one is undoubtedly working to lift people's horizons, to open people's hearts and to create an Indigenous middle class with the kinds of networks that people in this parliament, for instance, can invariably take for granted.
These recommendations will now be considered through the government's usual policy processes. I look forward to ministers' announcements in due course and, in some cases, before Christmas.
In every state and territory, it's compulsory for school-aged children to be enrolled and not to miss school without a good excuse. For a host of understandable reasons—such as schools' reluctance to be policemen, the disruption that unwilling students can create in class, the difficulty of holding parents responsible for teenagers' behaviour and the cost to family budgets—these truancy laws are rarely enforced, even though there should be direct consequences for bad behaviour and not just the long-term cost to society of people who can't readily prosper in the modern world.
Most jurisdictions are once more ready to impose fines on consistently delinquent parents and guardians, but fines are often ineffective when jail is the only mechanism for making people pay. Hence my final recommendation is that all debts to government, including on-the-spot fines—and not just those to the Commonwealth—should be deductible from welfare payments.
Finally, I thank the Prime Minister for the opportunity he has given me. I thank the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and I thank the Minister for Education and Training, both of whom have magnanimously put up with an intruder on their patch. I thank the Prime Minister and cabinet staff who I've been working with in Canberra and the regional networks for the past three months. I thank the Northern Territory, South Australian and Western Australian education ministers and their officials, and Queensland officials, for their discussions and for facilitating community visits. In particular, I thank the schools and communities of Warruwi, Galiwinku, Nhulunbuy, Yirrkala, Borroloola, Koonibba, Yalata, Coober Pedy, Pukatja, Broome, Kununurra, Coen, Aurukun, Hope Vale, Palm Island and Cherbourg for making me welcome.