Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Matters of Public Interest
Much has been said in recent times about the state of Indigenous communities within this country. There is clear evidence of social discord and substance abuse, including alcoholism and petrol sniffing. There have been numerous accounts of horrendous sexual and physical abuse of Indigenous children, and some have spoken of the spiralling levels of domestic violence towards women and the culture of unacceptable behaviour.
All Australians have been horrified by the accounts of systematic sexual abuse across generations of children—boys, girls and even babies. As in the wider community, much of this abuse is perpetrated by seemingly respectable men. These are the grandfathers, the fathers, the uncles and trusted family friends. For too long the shocking incidence of violence has been simply ignored in a culture of silence that has been complicit in allowing these sickening crimes to continue.
Partisan political point-scoring will not help these vulnerable children. Governments of all persuasions have struggled with this issue, and full praise must be directed towards the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Hon. Mal Brough MP, who has recognised the depth of the problem. He has had the courage to publicly enunciate the problem and he has had the strength to confront the real issues in an attempt to bring about lasting change. But lasting change will only be achieved with a bipartisan commitment to stamp out this violence. It is simply too important to play partisan politics with people’s lives.
Of course, we are all aware that abuse occurs in many communities; however, Indigenous communities face particular challenges. They face high levels of unemployment, a high rate of illiteracy and they often lack educational opportunities. There is often an absence of good role models for children in these communities. All too often the very worst example is set by those closest to these children. There is a tremendous need for positive role models for Indigenous children in this country. Where a void exists in this regard children desperately look for role models elsewhere, often identifying with Indigenous sports men and women, international basketball stars, NRL and AFL football players, sporting champions and, in many cases, musicians.
As Indigenous children idolise their heroes, as do children all over the world, this provides an opportunity to break the culture of violence and abuse by providing them with the opportunity to engage in music and to participate in sport. Today I want to talk about the potential for sport to positively change the lives of vulnerable Indigenous children. Sport can show them that there is another side to life. It can empower them and teach them about respect, teamwork and responsibility, not to mention its ability to provide many health benefits as well.
Indigenous children need an outlet, something worthwhile through which they can contribute, learn and participate in a positive way. Sport provides this opportunity. Just let me clarify for the record that I am not just some city senator who has suddenly decided to speak out on this issue. Through my work as a board member of the Australian Sports Commission I have seen firsthand the positive role that sport can play in enriching the lives of Indigenous children. Sporting programs have been implemented in many Aboriginal communities and have led to a direct improvement in school attendance, participation, productivity and to a reduction in substance abuse.
I recall a couple of years ago that the Australian Football League produced a report entitled The AFL and Indigenous Australia. While it related specifically to Australian Rules football, the report detailed case studies that showed amazing advances in the quality of life of Indigenous children who played football. The positive results range from an increase in self-esteem and a sense of purpose to improvements in academic achievement levels. In addition, there was a corresponding reduction in many of the antisocial behaviours that are endemic in many Aboriginal communities. It sounds simplistic but participating in sport can enrich Indigenous children’s lives in immeasurable ways.
Often, and especially in the case of remote communities, much of the success of sporting programs is due to the dedication and commitment of certain individuals who see these programs through and who contribute so much of their own time in helping young Indigenous people regain a sense of hope. One place where this has occurred is in the remote Queensland town of Doomadgee. Situated inland, below the Gulf of Carpentaria, Doomadgee has a total of 1,100 inhabitants. There are two shops and there is one school. I was there recently with an Indigenous army unit, as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Exchange Program.
In Doomadgee, the beacon of light has been lit by a local businesswoman, Brenda, and her son Phil. Brenda is the owner of the Doomadgee Bakery, and I was fortunate to hear her story about an Indigenous youth swimming club that she, together with her son Phil, started. About four years ago, Brenda recognised the need for local children to have something to look forward to. There is not a lot to do in this town. There is no local cinema; there is no bike track. When the parents were not available to the children, these kids would often get up to mischief and get themselves into trouble.
The local school had a 25-metre pool that was closed outside of school hours to anyone except the local nurses and policemen. If the children wanted to swim out of school hours, they had to go to the local river. Brenda saw an opportunity here to make a difference in the lives of these children. She lobbied to have the pool opened after school so that her son Phil could begin training these kids to swim to a competitive standard. It took about two years but, finally, the school principal allowed the children to use the swimming pool after school; however, he did it on one condition, which has been enforced successfully. The condition was: no school, no pool. This led to the establishment of their swimming club, the Doomadgee Dynamites, and the children have embraced the opportunity with zeal.
The response has simply been amazing. In a recent regional competition, eight of the Doomadgee Dynamites won a total of 32 medals. By all reports, the behaviour of these Indigenous children has also improved markedly. The effect of regular, disciplined training has led to these kids being more disciplined in other areas of their lives, particularly in their behaviour towards others. The strict ‘no school, no pool’ rule was strongly enforced by Phil and has led to higher attendance rates at school. In the rare event that the kids actually strayed from this, they would often ask to do a ‘make-up job’, like cleaning the entire pool, in order to be let back on the swimming team.
As in Doomadgee, the ‘no school, no pool’ policy has been utilised in Halls Creek, Western Australia, where the young children must adhere to this policy in order to be allowed to use the brand new swimming pool that was completed there earlier this year. Halls Creek, as senators may know, was one of the Indigenous communities whose serious social problems came to light recently. Among numerous chronic issues, it is hoped that the ‘no school, no pool’ policy will help address the level of school truancy in Halls Creek. Interestingly, health authorities have also stated that many of the eye, skin and ear problems that are suffered by Indigenous children can be helped by regular swimming in chlorinated water.
But let me return to Doomadgee. By his devoting time and by sharing his expertise and knowledge with Indigenous children, coach Phil has built up a level of respect that has seen 228 Indigenous kids join the swimming club to receive lessons. Importantly, that also means 228 children have been attending school regularly. Even the local football team joined the Doomadgee Dynamites in order to broaden their training methods.
People like Phil and Brenda have selflessly donated their time and resources. Their steadfast commitment to be a cause of positive change in the lives of children in Doomadgee needs to be recognised. For the record, the swimming season in Doomadgee begins this week, and the Doomadgee Dynamites will be getting back into their training regime. I know that Phil and Brenda will once again help children recognise their own level of self-worth and just what they can achieve.
This is but one example of how participation in sport can enrich the lives of children and give them a sense of accomplishment, responsibility and pride. But, sadly, not all rural and regional towns have positive mentors like Brenda and Phil. Indeed, Brenda lamented to me the lack of a dedicated sporting coach for other sports that Indigenous children could participate in. It is clear to me that Indigenous children need other sporting outlets to help them improve themselves.
We should not confine ourselves to thinking only of the traditional sporting games. The next generation of adult Australians idolise their AFL and NRL heroes, just as we did. But they are also aware of the opportunity provided by the so-called ‘extreme’ sports—BMX biking, rock climbing, skateboarding and the like. This presents a wonderful opportunity to engage remote communities in affordable and flexible sporting pursuits. Every family can afford to buy a skateboard. In terms of sporting infrastructure, the provision of a skate park is a cost-effective sporting decision. Once it is built, it needs little or no maintenance. It requires little or no supervision of the children for them to enjoy themselves in a healthy, challenging and popular sport.
I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to providing support for sport in Indigenous communities. Under the stewardship of the Minister for the Arts and Sport, Senator Rod Kemp, we have backed up our commitment with an $11.7 million funding program for services across Australia in 2005-06, with the aim of increasing Indigenous participation in sport and physical recreation and improving access to facilities and equipment. This funding includes $9½ million for community based projects—projects that give further hope to communities just like Doomadgee.
The Australian government has also committed nearly $20 million over four years to create sporting academies, based on the Clontarf Football Academy approach in Western Australia, for young Indigenous people. This measure would create up to 20 sporting academies across the country. It is designed to build on Indigenous people’s interest in sport to improve their educational outcomes. The Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, is trialling a number of projects that involve high-profile sporting organisations, such as the National Rugby League and the Australian Football League, to work with Indigenous communities in remote areas of Australia and to use the players as mentors and role models for the children in these areas.
It can be very tempting when we are faced with difficult decisions and policy initiatives to try to score political points—either our opponents try to score them against us or we try to score them against our opponents—but this government is committed to severing the link between Indigenous communities and physical, emotional and substance abuse. It is simply too important for the future of our Indigenous communities to try to score political points in situations like this. This is about giving hope and opportunity to the next generation of Indigenous leaders. I believe that sport can play a key role in defining their future direction and the future success of Indigenous communities in this country.