House debates

Thursday, 6 December 2018


Indigenous Affairs

12:24 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

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

Borroloola didn't.

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They will welcome me back a second time now that the housing is in the process of being fixed.

However long my public life lasts, in government or out of it, in the parliament or out of it, I intend to persevere in this cause. Some missions, once accepted, can never really cease. Of course, the future for Aboriginal people lies much more in their own hands than in mine; but getting more of them to school and making their schooling more useful is a duty that government must not shirk. An ex-PM has just one unique trait and that's a very big megaphone that I will continue to use to see this done. This is my first statement to the parliament on remote school attendance and performance, but it certainly won't be my last word on this vital subject.

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.

12:58 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I table a document from the Department of Education, 'Improving education outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children'.