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Budget will test Labor's Indigenous commitment


Close the GapIt is heartening to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma is more hopeful about Indigenous affairs.

When he launched this year's Social Justice and Native Title reports, he cited the Government's decision to recognise the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, the establishment of a national healing body, and Kevin Rudd's apology as grounds to hope that the lives of Indigenous Australians will improve.

But Mr Calma also warned that the current dire economic climate could stall progress, especially in the unemployment of Indigenous people.

The Budget will show how determined the Government is to 'close the gap' between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population. Although there have been many leaks about Budget items and warnings that some previous commitments may have to be cut or abandoned, I have seen none referring to Indigenous affairs.

Any budget cuts must exclude items aimed at improving conditions for Indigenous Australians. They live in extreme inequality and with a legion of needs, all of great urgency. Among them health, education, and housing require attention of heroic proportions.

The first Rudd Government Budget included increased funding of $250 million, and a commitment to increases totalling more than $1 billion over five years. New measures aim to improve areas where 'the gap' is wide. (The Greens and others have questioned the disproportionate allocation of funds to continuing the Intervention.)

Education is a priority because it falls within at least three of the Rudd Government's major foci: the Government is committed to 'close the gap', to tackle the educational disadvantage of Indigenous Australians as a key goal of its Education Revolution, and to promote social inclusion.

Funding was needed to meet these goals in education. Among other measures it was given to increase the number of teachers, to develop programs to improve literacy and numeracy, and to build three new Indigenous boarding facilities in the Northern Territory.

Although it is too soon to assess the effects of these measures, the task is immense. Government ministers and many others have named goals, there is much good will, but to close the gap will require innovation and hard work on many fronts simultaneously.

Many prominent Indigenous spokespeople are shining examples of educational achievement. Perhaps careful study of the trajectories of these high achievers may provide useful models for educational success.

Professor Mick Dodson has issued a challenge, that 'every Australian child next Australia Day be geared up for the start of the 2010 school year'. To reach this goal for disadvantaged pockets of our society, and especially the majority of the Indigenous population, will be a great challenge.

Will next week's Budget include funds to pursue Mick Dodson's goal? Even if funding is allocated, are the personnel, materials and structures available and ready? What would it entail to have all Indigenous children across the country ready for the start of school next year?

Some programs appear to be making a difference. Some have seen boarding schools in Queensland, and the boarding option for individual students in several states, as an avenue to educational success. Several leaders, such as Dodson himself, his brother, Patrick, and Noel Pearson, attended boarding schools.

Many want to extend boarding opportunities to more Indigenous students. That is why the 2008–9 Budget included $28.9 million over four years to build three new Indigenous boarding facilities in the Northern Territory.

But this amount would need to be hugely increased if a significant number of Indigenous students could find a place in boarding schools. Is this a realistic and appropriate aim for the majority of Indigenous children?

Given the immensity of the challenge and the inevitable obstacles and setbacks, we must have the flexibility to try new approaches and to abandon programs that are not working. Both the needs, as well as the aspirations of Indigenous people vary considerably. So no single solution can be applied universally.

Among the people I know best, children will have lost many close family members by the time they are 16 years old. They will have attended umpteen funerals of people they know, witnessed many violent altercations, lived in several houses (almost always overcrowded and often in widely separated locations), attended school for a fraction of the time that most of their Australian peers have, have little or low literacy and been often hungry.

They may also have had one or more serious illnesses, been injured through accident or violence, and had one or more encounters with the police. They have had almost no models for educational success. School has had a low priority both for them and their parents. It is a major challenge to motivate such children and their parents.

It would be a mistake to assume that the kind of motivation found among educated, often affluent, Australians is inherent or that it can be switched on simply by telling people education is important. The desire for education is powerful among those who fully appreciate the difference it can make to their children's lives.

This appreciation comes after generations of observation and experience. Funding is only the start of a complex process. The Budget must provide funding to allow issues to be tackled with creativity, flexibility and vision.

Myrna TonkinsonDr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974. 

Topic tags: federal budget, education, indigenous, close the gap, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Tom Calma



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Existing comments

Sorry, Myrna, money is not the answer.
But amongst all of the above one sentence of yours really stands out - "Given the immensity of the challenge and the inevitable obstacles and setbacks, we must have the flexibility to try new approaches and to abandon programs that are not working."

Who now has the guts to abandon
"exceptionalism", the benighted policy that has blighted all indigenous programs for the past forty years - and will continue to frustrate all efforts in the future unless we are prepared to develop a new policy paradigm.

John R. Sabine | 11 May 2009  

Excellent article on the problem of more education for our indigenous people.Also the concept of studying the trajectories of the many well educated aborginies in our community an excellent goal to aim for the future.

Some boarding school in N.S.W also already accomodate indigenous studentd for example St. Ignatius College and St. Joseph' College and at least two Girls shools I am aware of which is encouraging So much still to do and it seems so slow to ahieve the goals but progress is happening

Pamela Byrnes | 12 May 2009  

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