Thank you to the Centre for Independent Studies for inviting me to speak at today’s Leadership Luncheon on Remote Education, Family and Culture.
When I talk to people across Australia, particularly in business and politics, I often encounter pessimism about the future for remote Indigenous Australia. Many people believe – whether they say so publicly or not - that most of these remote communities aren’t viable.
I don’t share this view. I believe Australians are free to live where they choose. Indigenous people and their ancestors have lived in these remote areas for tens of thousands of years and they’re entitled to keep living there. It’s their land.
The belief remote Indigenous communities don’t have viable futures often stems from misconceptions about why these communities have high unemployment and the flip side of this - welfare dependence.
There are two principal barriers to employment in remote Indigenous communities.
The first barrier is that the civic structure established in these areas works against commerce and private land ownership. I’ve called this “state sponsored socialism”. The Centre for Independent Studies has contributed substantially to research and understanding of the land ownership issues in these areas, in particular.
The second barrier relates to social stability. By this I mean safe and functioning communities where laws are respected, children go to school, there’s adequate and habitable housing, adults are job-ready, literate and numerate and so on.
Social stability is one of the conditions necessary for commerce and investment. Many remote and regional Indigenous communities don’t meet some or all of these criteria.
The lack of social stability in Indigenous communities is a relatively recent problem (by which I mean the last few decades). It stems both from the wrongdoings committed against Indigenous people by European conquest and from the failed “do-gooding” to redress those wrongdoings.
I don’t accept that remoteness itself is a barrier to the future of remote Indigenous communities.
You often hear people say there are no jobs in remote Indigenous communities. That’s a myth. There is work to be done in remote communities like everywhere else. There are also jobs in remote regions in industries such as mining and agriculture, which are currently filled by Fly-In-Fly-Out or Drive-In-Drive-Out workers or even foreign backpackers.
We see high Indigenous unemployment and welfare dependence in all parts of Australia, not just in remote areas. Low participation in the workforce is a social problem, not a geographical one.
It’s true there aren’t enough jobs in remote areas. But it wouldn’t matter even if there were - because the jobs that do exist are mostly done by people from outside the community or not at all. And that’s the problem.
Over the past few years I’ve spoken and written extensively about these issues and I’d invite you to look up my speeches and articles which are all available online on my website.
Today I’d like start by focussing on another misconception about remote communities - that traditional Indigenous culture is a barrier to education and, in turn, employment.
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A wise Aboriginal woman once said to me - there's whitefella law, there's blackfella law and there's bullshit law.
We hear a lot of talk about this or that being cultural. We hear culture is a barrier to school attendance because kids miss school while their parents travel far and wide for weeks on end for funerals. We hear culture is a barrier to work because adults have to attend ceremony at crucial times or because culture condones humbugging or bludging off others.
This is a nonsense – perpetuated by people on both the Right and the Left for their own rhetorical purposes. Indigenous people have lived on this continent for over 40,000 years. The problems of social dysfunction and chronic welfare dependence are mostly problems of the last 40 years. And these problems have primarily been caused by well-intentioned - but ultimately failed - government policies.
Traditional Indigenous communities revolved around two things – family and work. Family was the centre of traditional communities, which were structured around kinship systems. Family relationships defined who you were, whom you could marry, where you lived and your responsibilities to the community and the environment. And it was the kinship system that operated as a built-in welfare system for those who were orphaned, widowed or dependent. There was no distinction between the private and the public, between civil life and family life. They were one and the same system.
In traditional communities everybody worked for most of their waking hours. They hunted and gathered food; they cared for children and elders; they constructed weapons, implements, instruments, traps, shelter, boats; they educated their children through ceremony, songlines and stories; they managed the land around them. Being idle was simply not a part of these communities.
In traditional communities people didn't drop everything for weeks on end to attend funerals. There was no refrigeration and they couldn't communicate or travel quickly over large distances. People couldn't just stop working during the mourning period either. They had to eat. Children had to be cared for. Physical work had to be done. It simply wasn't practical or necessary for funeral ceremonies to be delayed or extended over long periods.
Likewise, traditional ceremony did not stop communities from working. Ceremony was an integral part of those societies and it co-existed with work. All human societies integrate their religious and ceremonial practices with their work obligations because without work people can’t survive. And in all human societies those practices have adapted as the nature of work has changed. I know Aboriginal communities who have moved the timing of ceremony to accommodate business ventures the community has established.
This work ethic remained part of Indigenous communities after British invasion. Aboriginal people worked - both in their traditional ways and for the whiteman. They worked on cattle stations and farms, in mines, as domestics, as trackers and serving their country in war. In many jobs they worked for a pittance or were "paid" with tea and damper. Or they worked in return for being able to live on the land that was theirs to begin with.
My parents and my grandparents all had real jobs. My grandfather taught himself to read and write and took a job as a farm labourer. It was hard, dirty work, but he had independence and he earned money to support his own family. My father learnt to drive heavy machinery and got a job that was a bit better paid than his father’s. He was able to buy a small house. My uncles worked in the mines. My mother worked as a domestic. That was my family’s culture and the culture of their ancestors before them.
Today some people attach the label “cultural” to things that are the opposite of traditional community values, thing like incarceration and welfare, which are barriers to work and destroyers of family.
There are culturally specific programs and facilities in prisons. There are Koori & Murri courts for Indigenous offenders. These may be good initiatives. But they aren’t cultural. Traditional Indigenous punishment was swift and brutal. Failing to perform obligations or disobeying law was dealt with by a spearing or a beating or expulsion or death. You were punished and, if you lived, were expected to get back to work.
Cultural programs in prison are examples of progressive Western attitudes to prisoner rehabilitation. A diversionary program that put offenders into work would be more closely aligned with traditional cultural values.
Today we have welfare models that incorporate culture, that get elders to play a role in welfare distribution and compliance. Yet traditional Indigenous societies couldn't afford to have people sitting around doing nothing. Inter-generational welfare dependence enabled by government isn’t traditional Indigenous culture – it’s a modern-day Western phenomenon. We see it in Britain, in Europe and in Australia’s cities too.
There are people who claim humbugging is cultural. Humbugging is when family or community members beg, borrow, steal or extort money from others. Humbugging is not cultural. The practice of sharing resources in traditional Indigenous communities worked because everyone had something to share; people were obliged to give because everyone had something to contribute. These aspects of culture weren’t about taking from others. They were about taking responsibility for others. Bludgers weren’t welcome in traditional communities.
If you’re stealing, or selling drugs or assaulting or damaging property you aren’t practicing culture – you’re failing your culture and your people. If you’re being idle, if you aren’t working or contributing to your community or keeping yourself busy, then you’re losing touch with traditional culture and values. If you’re humbugging, extorting money from people, if you’re nagging or pressuring or beating your wife or aunty or grandmother for money, you aren’t practicing culture.
Don’t kid yourself. You’re destroying your culture and your community. Culture requires you to take care of your wife and your aunty and your grandmother. You should be providing for them.
These were the values in which I was raised and the values of my family and community.
When I go out into community, the elders and senior community members speak to me being raised with the same values and expectations. But these values have been being slowly weeded out of Indigenous communities over past decades.
This is both as a result of the social dysfunction that has developed from chronic welfare dependence and as a result of some programs and initiatives intended to fix it. There are also people who wrongly use traditional culture as a cause of or excuse for bad behaviour.
When people in remote communities really apply traditional cultural values the results can be transformative. We’ve seen elders shape their schools to incorporate culture, language as well as Western standards of education.
The Yolŋu have long been champions of what they call two-way or “both-ways” learning. Dr Yunupingu developed the metaphor of the mixing of salt and fresh water to describe this. Fresh water from the rivers is Yolŋu knowledge and salt water rushing in from the sea is western knowledge. He brought both-ways learning to Yirrkala school. He also had a vision for the Yolŋu “assistant teachers” to become fully qualified teachers and leaders in education.
The Centre for Independent Studies has assisted another Yolŋu clan leader, Djambawa Marawilli, to provide a real school at his homeland in Baniyala, with two full time teachers who live in the community. The community built the school building and the teachers’ residence themselves with assistance from private groups like CIS. In that community children know school is what is expected of them by their parents, their community and their clan elders. They see school as part of their culture and their cultural obligations. And earlier this year the elders of the Yolŋu Nations Assembly declared that parents’ cultural responsibilities extend to sending their children to school.
Traditional culture is aligned with going to school, getting a job, taking responsibility for your family, community, environment and for yourself.
Culture is - and should be seen as - an enabler for education and employment in remote Indigenous communities.
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Culture and remoteness don’t cause unemployment and welfare dependence. But a lack of education does.
Ensuring that Indigenous children are educated is therefore the most important priority in Indigenous affairs. And remote and regional communities are where the greatest challenges to Indigenous education are.
I believe these challenges can be overcome and I’d like to spend some time now outlining how.
Let’s start with school attendance. To me it is very simple. Every child must attend school every day. No negotiation. No excuses.
Australia has had compulsory education since the late 1800s. It’s the law that children attend school between 5 and 17 years of age. Yet there are still communities where schooling resembles the education system of centuries ago – voluntary, piecemeal and ineffective – and where a substantial portion of the community can’t read or write.
It’s not just Indigenous communities where we see this problem in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that half of all Tasmanians aged between 15 and 74 are functionally illiterate and more than half are functionally innumerate. Earlier this year, I spent some time with friends in rural Tasmania. What they described of the local primary school – with high truancy and children unable to read or write – sounded very similar to the problems I’ve seen in remote Indigenous communities.
I expect if you look closely at other urban and regional communities in Australia that have high levels of inter-generational welfare dependence and poor socio-economic status you would see some similarly disturbing statistics.
Children must attend school and parents must send them. If parents don’t then governments must ensure children attend.
Now, governments can do this any way the law allows; with a carrot or a stick. They can make schools so appealing children are banging on the doors to get in or go house to house taking kids to school one by one. They can engage with parents and communities or punish breaches of law. They can pay parents to send children to school or fine them for not attending.
Governments can design the “how” any way they like and people can debate it. But whether children attend isn’t up for debate. It’s been the law for nearly 150 years.
I support the government’s school attendance program, which employs School Attendance Officers from Indigenous communities. SAOs work with children and families, collect children who don’t arrive in the morning and monitor attendance during the day.
Of course, laws aren’t magically enforced. A punitive framework is also required for compulsory education and always has been. I strongly believe that Commonwealth punitive action should first be directed at state and territory governments.
If schools aren’t attended or not resourced to teach effectively, relevant state and territory governments should be fined via a reduction in Commonwealth funding. This is radical but overdue. States and territories are responsible for education and receive substantial Commonwealth funding for it. They are supposed to enforce the law. Yet generations of Indigenous children fail to attend school. States and territories have large departments full of educational experts. What are those experts doing to get Indigenous children to school?
The next step is enforcement action towards parents and students. This should firstly be remedial, such as compulsory holiday schooling. If you don’t go to school during term you have to spend your holidays catching up. In communities where children miss school due to ceremony or funerals, school should be run on extended hours, with time allocated to catching up school missed.
Penalising parents should be a last resort. Welfare quarantining is a blunt instrument that relies on people on the ground. Teachers are trained to teach not enforce benefits. Teachers face enormous pressure if marking an absence causes a family to lose income.
But if governments do make the threat they need to follow through.
Indigenous Australians think white people tell lies. The whitefella says they’ll be evicted from their public housing if they don’t pay rent – but they never get evicted. The whitefella says they’ll lose the dole if they don’t do community work – but they keep getting paid even if they don’t turn up.
Welfare conditions are set by governments but administered by people at the coalface who exercise discretion. In reality they give people multiple chances, whether from pity or concern for children or worry about the public reaction or whatever.
The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) program in the Northern Territory is a case in point. SEAM had substantial impact when first introduced because the threat to withhold welfare was credible. Aboriginal people really believed they would lose their benefits. But after it was implemented, benefit payments were rarely withheld and school participation rates fell again.
It was another example of the whitefella telling lies.
Whatever the approach on welfare quarantining, it must be across the board. If it’s suitable for Indigenous families it’s suitable for non-Indigenous families too. It’s blatant racial discrimination to apply this to Indigenous families but not to other families.
Truancy isn’t a stubborn problem because we don’t know how to address it. Governments figured that out long ago. Compulsory education wasn’t immediately embraced. It took effort before it became the norm.
Truancy is a stubborn problem when governments lack courage and determination. Courage to do what is necessary in the face of criticism and political opportunism. Determination to stay the course as long as it takes.
I cop a lot of flak for my supposedly simplistic attitudes to school attendance. To me it’s a no brainer. All Australian children must go to school every day. And if we can’t get that right we may as well give up on everything else.
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The next priority is what happens when the children get to school.
Firstly, for primary aged students it is imperative is that every Indigenous child have access to a fully resourced primary school in their district with full time teachers who live in the community where the school is located.
There are primary aged children living in remote Australia today who do not have access to a fully staffed primary school. Some communities have Homeland Learning Centres – where unqualified “teaching assistants” are employed from the community to operate the school day to day and qualified teachers visit periodically.
Any facility that does not have full time teachers is ineffective and a waste of money. These so called “Homeland Learning Centres” and similar facilities create an illusion that children are being educated when they are not. It would be better to have no education facility at all. That would at least force education departments to confront the challenge of how to genuinely educate those children.
In remote areas I’ve proposed that one primary school should service several neighbouring communities in a district with one primary school designated to service all communities within, say, an hour’s drive. School transport should be provided to collect the children each morning and return them at the end of each day. Distance travel is an accepted part of life in remote Australia. Members of my own family travelled up to 2 hours a day from Baryulgil to Grafton to attend school on a bus on an unsealed road.
There are some areas where there is a fully staffed primary school in one community and homeland learning centres in a community sometimes less than an hour’s drive away. Each of those homeland learning centres costs money to build, maintain and operate, costs that could be redirected to transporting children to a district primary school servicing several communities.
A district primary school approach has the additional benefit of creating jobs driving school transport. People in the community can be hired in those jobs.
Secondly, schools should also be appealing and effective for Indigenous children. This includes teaching traditional languages as well as English in communities where traditional languages are still spoken; and giving students the opportunity to study a traditional Indigenous language as an optional subject in communities where they aren’t.
Thirdly, schools need to be fit for purpose. Many schools servicing Indigenous communities are not capable of delivering an effective education to children even if all of them attended school.
Some schools are not equipped to teach all the children in the community. For example, I have visited schools that are resourced for the small number of children who come to school but not for all the children in the community who should be. The schools don’t have enough chairs, desks and equipment for every child in the community.
We need comprehensive audits of Indigenous schools – of infrastructure, equipment, finances and records and staffing, resources and capabilities. I believe we will find that most schools in remote Indigenous communities are not fit for purpose. We will find a lot of wasted money and many failed programs. So what? We can’t keep ignoring the problem that everyone knows is there. Let’s identify it, draw a line in the sand, and move on.
State and territory government departments should develop plans for resourcing schools in these communities to teach all children in that community effectively. In communities with a long history of truancy and poor schooling, schools will struggle to provide quality education outcomes to students most of whom will be well behind the level they should be and all at different levels.
Focussed remedial intervention needs to be provided in remote primary schools with poor NAPLAN test results or poor attendance records. Departmental plans therefore also need to include a plan for remedial education and working with children to enable them to catch up.
Finally, the standard expected of teachers in schools in remote Indigenous communities should be higher than for regular schools. Disadvantaged communities need the best teachers. Children in these communities are behind in their learning and may have never received any real education to speak of. Illiteracy and innumeracy rates are high. And most children come from homes where the adults have not been educated either. These circumstances require teachers who are highly skilled.
All teachers who teach in schools where a significant proportion of students speak an Aboriginal language at home, should also complete appropriate training in teaching English as a second language.
As an incentive to attract the best teachers, governments could offer scholarships waiving or reducing University fees for tertiary students who commit to completing, say, a 4 year placement in an Indigenous school and who achieve a Distinction average in their course studies. Any such placement should not happen immediately after graduation. It is better that the teachers get experience teaching before teaching in a remote community.
It should also be a clear expectation for all remote Indigenous teaching posts that teachers be willing to become part of the community, get to know the locals, participate in community events and activities, make friends, go fishing, coach the kids at sport on weekends and so on. Teachers who are disengaged from community or complain if the children turn up because it increases their workload should be transferred out. Teachers who don’t have the right attitude should not be employed to educate Indigenous children.
I was highly critical of the decision of Northern Territory teachers to go on strike at the beginning of this school year after I heard that one of the justifications for striking was the increased attendance at school arising from the Australian Government’s truancy push.
This is the wrong attitude.
When it comes to secondary education I believe a different approach is required. Effective secondary education requires a depth of teaching expertise across a range of subjects. It cannot be delivered on-site in small communities.
The best approach is for all secondary students to attend a regional secondary school that offers weekly boarding facilities. In remote areas, one secondary boarding school could service communities within, say, a 2 to 3 hour drive. School transport should be provided to transport students home for the weekends.
Again, jobs will be created driving school transport and also for “house parents” in boarding facilities. People from the communities should be hired in those jobs. This creates jobs for community members and appropriate support for the students while living away from home.
While some secondary students have the opportunity and desire to attend boarding schools in major cities or regional centres, this is not available or suitable for everyone. Enabling students to board on a weekly basis in or near their own communities will give more students access to secondary education.
Focussed remedial intervention also needs to be provided for secondary students who have not had an effective primary education. For some secondary students it may be better to address illiteracy and innumeracy in the same way as adult illiteracy and innumeracy and focus on job readiness and job training, rather than remedial schooling. However, secondary students should not be written off and should have the opportunity to complete their schooling with remedial intervention opportunities.
I also strongly support fostering a partnership approach where remote schools – primary and secondary – partner with high performing schools or universities in major Australia cities, like Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.
This presents a range of possibilities. Teacher exchanges is one example. Another possibility is to have classrooms in remote schools “Skype in” to participate in lessons being held in partner schools. The only limit is imagination. For city schools and universities, partnerships provide obvious benefits to students and teachers having an opportunity for deep engagement with remote Indigenous communities.
This brings me to another observation. Internet connectivity is perhaps the most effective infrastructure that can be delivered in remote communities. It opens up opportunities for supplementing and enriching education and experiences of children in remote areas.
And it’s not hard to deliver. I have been in communities where something as basic a mobile phone tower has opened the community up to the whole world.
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I believe that the approach I have just outlined is the most effective blueprint for educating Indigenous children in remote communities.
It’s not just governments that can make a difference here. The private sector also has a part to play.
Any company who is looking to invest in projects or developments in remote and regional Australia should be considering now what steps they can take to ensure they have access to a local educated workforce in the future.
I’ll give you an example. BHP Billiton is the principal investor and operator of an aluminium smelter in Mozal in Mozambique. This project provides 55% of Mozambique’s exports. Some years ago BHP Billiton identified that the problem of malaria infection in Mozal was costing its business through reduced productivity, company medical costs, replacement recruitment and other things. So it invested in developing highly successful anti-malaria programs in Mozal. These reduced adult malaria infection from 90% of the adult population to below 10%.
It also invested heavily in primary school programs in Mozal. The project lifecycle of BHP Billiton’s aluminium smelter was in the order of 50 years. Investing in primary school education would provide BHP Billiton with a better-educated second generation workforce.
Many mining companies in Australia make substantial contributions towards economic and community development in remote Indigenous communities where they do business.But this is not just about corporate social responsibility, doing the right thing or even providing something in return for access to land. It’s also a business imperative. What I say to companies who are involved in or planning major projects in remote Australia is this. What are you doing about ensuring you have an educated local talent pool in 10, 15 or 20 years? If the local schools are not producing people you can hire, what are you doing to address this problem?
Have you engaged with community leaders and parents about how you can help the community establish schools or remedial schooling to educate the population? You need to be thinking decades ahead and looking at the needs of a project through its lifecycle. Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce. And many children in the areas you are going to be doing business in are not getting educated in the way you will need your future workforce to be.
Governments hold the key here because governments provide the welfare and governments run and fund the schools. But the private sector can make a difference too and it’s in their business interests to do so. They don’t need government’s permission.
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On coming to office the Coalition Government brought in a new policy for Indigenous affairs known as the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. This is built on 3 pillars – education, employment and community safety (which I call social stability).
The Indigenous Advancement Strategy is very simple, most unlike any Indigenous policy that has gone before it. This simplicity is very confronting for some people, particularly those from what I call the misery industry - those who live off the ongoing existence of people who need help. To these groups everything is complex and this government’s proposed solutions are unfair and/or destined to fail. These types ridicule the new government’s focus on outcomes over activities.
Perhaps I’m just a simple bloke. But to my mind you shouldn’t be paid if you aren’t delivering real and measurable outcomes. I wouldn’t pay a builder not to build me a house. I wouldn’t pay a mechanic not to fix my car.
In education, real and measurable outcomes means children going to school, learning to read and write, finishing school at or above the standard of their peers and being ready for a job or further education.
Remote Indigenous education can be turned around. And this can happen quickly and without any extra funding.
It’s not a complex or insurmountable problem. We have been successfully educating children for 150 years in this very remote country of ours. There’s no reason for Indigenous children to miss out – wherever they live.