House debates

Thursday, 6 December 2018


Indigenous Affairs

12:45 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Preventing Family Violence) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I rise to make a statement on remote Indigenous education in response to the member for Warringah's statement. I acknowledge the member for Warringah's statement, the special envoy for First Nations people. I come to this statement with a wealth of experience in this area. I was a schoolteacher and one of the very early Aboriginal schoolteachers in New South Wales. I began teaching in 1979. I have spent a long time as an education bureaucrat and was responsible for bringing in, along with my colleagues, the first national Aboriginal education policy. My educational background gave me appointment to the reconciliation council. I have been an advocate in Aboriginal education. I have also been the director general of the Aboriginal affairs department in New South Wales. I know what I'm talking about.

We know that, without a proper education, First Nations people will have poorer life outcomes, poorer health outcomes and poorer employment outcomes, and that applies to everyone across the community. We also know, which the member for Warringah didn't address, that the cycle of poverty is what grips so many Aboriginal communities. We know that, without decent housing, it is very difficult to have decent health. Without decent health it is very difficult to have a good educational experience. Without a good educational experience it is very difficult to have employment. And we know that many of the communities that the special envoy has referred to are communities that are gripped with poverty and very few entrepreneurial opportunities, and that's a very important aspect to understand.

Education is critical to improving the lives of our First Nations people. We know from the latest Closing the gap report that that gap is still significant. Attendance rates for Indigenous students have been stable, at about 83 per cent, between 2014 and 2017. Things are not getting worse but they are also not getting better. The target of closing the school attendance gap between First Nations children and other students by 2018 will simply not be met, and that is on this government's watch.

I listened carefully to the member for Warringah. He talked about the community but he did not talk about the system. There are many reasons why children are not going to school. Partly it is to do with the fact that the system does not cater for their needs and does not seem relevant. There is no point having a punitive approach to Aboriginal education and the participation rates of Aboriginal students. It is about what's going on, of course, in the community, and there needs to be a responsibility there, but there is also responsibility for what the system is offering or not offering in many cases. In 2017 the overall attendance rates for Indigenous students nationally was 83.2 per cent compared with 93 per cent for the non-Indigenous students.

What I disappointingly didn't hear from the member for Warringah was anything to do with early childhood education. We know that if a child gets a good start to a schooling experience where they enjoy it, where they develop a love of learning and where there is opportunity for early childhood education then that makes an enormous difference in terms of that child's journey through the education system. We didn't hear anything about the first thousand days of a child's life, the plasticity of a child's brain at that time and the importance of being born at a healthy birth weight. We didn't hear any of those other factors that need to be considered when we talk about children's participation in school.

Indigenous attendance is lower in remote areas than non-remote areas, and the attendance gap remains larger in remote areas. I, with enormous grace, acknowledge the member for Warringah's work in this area, and I don't doubt his passion and his commitment for one second. I really and truly don't. But of course on this issue, as on many issues, the two of us do not see eye to eye, and we do not agree with all that he asserts in his statement, and it remains unclear what role the special envoy for Indigenous affairs actually entails. Top-down does not work. When are we going to learn? Ask the question: what about the system? Punitive approaches of docking welfare payments are not going to transfer automatically into children going to school.

I'm not saying that some of the ideas the member for Warringah has put forward don't deserve consideration; they do. I particularly think the first two recommendations have some significance, and that was, of course, to do with working with states and territories to make it more attractive for people to teach in remote communities—but, more importantly, not just to teach but to actually stay in those remote communities for some time to have an effect. Some of the suggestions do have potential for further exploration, as I've said, including the retention of teachers. I also think there is something to be said about the HECS debt for teachers being waived.

I do believe that special literacy and numeracy training as well as cultural training is important, but I don't think that we should conflate education with debit cards. I don't think we should conflate education with some of the direct instruction methods that the member has spoken about. Curriculum development, pedagogy, what's delivered and how it's delivered to First Nations children in remote communities are not a one-size cookie-cutter model. It needs to be designed with the community, it needs to be designed for the community and it needs to be very much an individual thing.

Understanding what the historical context is in each community for the participation of people in the education system, we know that in the past the education system was complicit with the removal of children. We know that the experiences of many Aboriginal adults in the education system have been very poor. Those historical things are extremely important when it comes to the outcomes for First Nations children. But we must base this on culture. We must base this on experience. We must base what happens in schools on the needs of those students, not punitive measures, and these programs must have proper evaluation.

Can I just say, in the few closing moments that I have: the member for Warringah points out some real issues that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government should recognise as being their responsibility. It was on their watch. We cannot rewrite history, but culpability does have to be understood. The government cut $500 million from Indigenous affairs, it closed remote communities and it has cut funding to remote housing. If a child does not have a decent home, there is no way they can have a decent future and a good educational outcome. Most particularly, though, the government has cut education funding to the states and territories, and this is important, having a direct impact on the delivery of education services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and the very subjects of the envoy's statement.

This government's rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the proposal for a voice and constitutional reform looms large in the debate. The record of this government on Indigenous Affairs is appalling—simply appalling. The record of this government on education is also equally appalling. Before the 2013 election, the member for Warringah promised that there would be no cuts to education under his government. At the 2013 election, the Liberal Party put up corflutes on polling booths saying, 'Liberals will match Labor's school funding dollar for dollar.' That was a lie. In the infamous 2014 budget, the member for Warringah cut school funding by $30 billion. The worst affected schools were public schools, the schools which the vast majority of Indigenous children attend. This includes NT Catholic and independent schools, which will lose $35.9 million. Northern Territory government schools will lose $71 million of federal government funding over the next two years—2018 and 2019. But we hope this statement points to a new attitude towards this critical national project. It would be helpful if this government could respond to the interim reports to do with Indigenous education—The power of education: from surviving to thrivingproduced in May and December 2017. That would be useful. As I said, we hope this statement does point to a new attitude. We look forward to hearing what the government is actually proposing to do in this area.

If we are afforded government at the May election, or the next federal election, it is our strong hope that, in the very near future, a new Labor government will be in a position to make a difference in this area. If we are afforded government, we will commit record funding to our nation's public schools, delivering more resources to every school—in particular, remote schools. We will roll out preschool for three- and four-year-olds around the country—revolutionary. Every child will have universal access. We will build our TAFE campuses and waive up-front fees for 100,000 students. We will uncap university places and we will invest in programs like Stars, which supports Aboriginal girls to stay at school. We support young First Nations girls staying at school, and boys as well. We will value indigeneity, and the funding in relation to domestic violence will not be reduced in these areas.

This is a taste of what they Labor will do. Of course, there is much more to do, and we understand that. We will work in partnership with First Nations people. That is why our commitment to establishing a voice to parliament for First Nations people is so important. Only when we sit and listen to First Nations people can we truly find solutions to these very complex issues. We need a real sense of engaged collaborative partnerships with communities, of engaged parent and community groups being empowered to work with school communities to bridge the gap between home and school and between non-Aboriginal and Indigenous cultural norms and practices. It is First Nations people who will make the difference when we listen to First Nations people, where there is an equal sharing of power and authority, particularly in respect of education services in remote Australia.

In closing, I thank the member for Warringah for his comments and for his considerations. But I can say with absolute certainty that I have never met a First Nations parent, or parents of First Nations children, who don't want a good educational outcome for their children, and they will do anything to attain it.


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