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 had been here for tens of thousands of years.
That’s the Australian paradox. Vast numbers of people from 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 our glittering successes as a nation, this is the one question that’s haunted us, almost since the very first Australia Day; and it always will, until it’s fixed.
You can appreciate my reservations, then, when the Prime Minister asked me to be his “special envoy” on indigenous affairs. How could a backbench MP make a-difference-in-six-months to a problem that had been intractable for two hundred 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 PM, 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 stands out. Indigenous people who finish school and who 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 promote better remote school attendance and performance because this is our biggest challenge.
Around the country, school attendance is about 93 per cent. That’s 93 per cent of all 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 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 as a government, as a parliament, as a nation, is to-do-more-to-ensure that kids in remote schools are getting the 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’d been at Galiwinku School since the 1970s, to sigh that she’d been asked the same question for 40 years…. And pretty obviously, that’s because after-all-that-time the answer still eludes us.
And yes, if there were more local jobs and a stronger local economy; if housing wasn’t as overcrowded; if family trauma weren’t as prevalent, and sorry business so frequent; if the sly grogging and all night parties stopped; if there were more indigenous teachers and other successful role models; if pupils didn’t have hearing problems or foetal 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 addressed, 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’s really nothing that can justify (as opposed, sometimes, to explain) the chronic non-attendance of so many remote indigenous children.
After this latest round of visits and discussions, I can readily understand the despondency people in this field sometimes wrestle with; but there are more grounds for optimism and less reason 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 embedded 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’ve been plenty of policy flip-flops over-the-years as new governments and new ministers try to reinvent the wheel; but in most states and territories there are now ten-year strategies in place with a stress on staff continuity, on closely monitoring each 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 that have outlived changes of government and minister.
In other words, there’s 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 bi-lingual, at least in the early years – while teachers still strive to enable proud indigenous people to flourish in the wider world, not just the community they’re born into.
Many fret that progress is stalled or even in reverse – because the world only changes for the better, person-by-person, school-by-school, and community-by-community; and, at this level, there can often be two steps back for every step forward. But while little ever improves as fast as we’d like, it was gratifying to see that the Opal fuel, I introduced as health minister, has all-but-eliminated petrol sniffing in remote Australia. And 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’d 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’s 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 recent swing through remote schools, all classrooms – every one of them – were free of the defeated teachers, the structure-less 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’s now the Clontarf “no-class-no-footy” programme for the boys and, increasingly, a comparable Girls Academy too. Who would have thought that Kununurra, Coen and Hope Vale schools would have concert bands that any school could be proud of! In Coober Pedy, I helped to wrap books as gifts for the children who regularly attended school; and in Aurukun, handed out satchels to the students going on excursion to the Gold Coast as a reward being at school all the time.
I’m 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 hard to overcome, I suspect, is communities’ propensity to find excuses for kids’ absences; and school systems’ reluctance to tailor-make 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 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. And because it can take 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’s 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 opportunity or better amenities. If local communities have a project, and 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. And I well and truly got their point, once I’d seen the near-shanties that people were living in; and new houses, I’m pleased to say, are now on their way. On future visits, no one should have poor housing as an on-going 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 states’ and territories’ responsibility for managing schools; and 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, do-able means of moving towards it.
As envoy, my job is to make recommendations rather than decisions: recommendations with a good chance of success because they’re consistent with the government’s values and its 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.
Second, and this is just a federal responsibility, the government should waive the HECS debt of teachers who, after two years’ experience in other schools, teach in a very remote school and stay for four years.
Third, communities ready to consider the 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 – a form of mutual obligation, if you like, between government and communities.
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 engagement with local housing authorities and police, where needed.
Fifth, the Good-to-Great-Schools programme, that’s reintroduced phonics and disciplined learning to quite a few remote schools, should be funded for another 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 on-going 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 making processes and 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 age 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 – 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 gaol 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’s given me. I thank the Ministers for Indigenous Affairs and for Education (who’ve magnanimously put up with an intruder on their patch); and the Prime Minister and Cabinet staff I’ve been working with (in Canberra and in 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. And 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.
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 parliament on remote school attendance and performance…but it certainly won’t be my last word on this absolutely vital subject.