Cutting Centrelink cash won't stop indigenous truancy
Article in The Age newspaper
November 25, 2011
The federal Labor government has decided that the last resort for getting Northern Territory Aboriginal children to attend school is to cut their parents' Centrelink payments.
The poorest people, those Australians who are totally reliant on Centrelink, will be subject to suspended legal income support. How will the children be fed if there is no money in the home?
Legislation to put this into effect was introduced into Parliament yesterday. As a former, long-serving senior public servant, I see this as the last straw in Aboriginal affairs policy. I am absolutely opposed to it. This is bad public policy, it is morally objectionable, and it will not work.
It's time for all ALP politicians to oppose this proposed legislation. How can any true Labor member support such an illogical policy? Surely such punitive measures are not supported in Labor heartland. I cannot believe that Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating or even Kevin Rudd, especially after his national apology to us, would have allowed such ill-founded policy to even get out of Jenny Macklin's and Peter Garrett's offices, let alone be endorsed by cabinet.
The independents and the Greens also need to stand up against this proposed legislation.
Where is the evidence-based policy to support this legislation? This legislation is based on a pilot scheme being run in schools at Ntaria (also known as Hermannsburg), Wadeye, Tiwi Islands, Katherine and its town camps, and Wallace Rockhole. The pilot scheme has all but failed. School attendance has not changed markedly. There are no indisputable positive results. Evidence-based policy has disappeared into thin air. One rarely hears any MP citing it when talking about Aboriginal affairs these days. And that's because there isn't any. Evidence-based policy is what we as Aboriginal people were promised emphatically by the ALP government. As ever, we are still waiting.
In my long experience, exceeding 40 years working in Aboriginal affairs at the local, regional and national levels, I have never known Aboriginal children to have access to fully resourced and fully staffed schools in the remote communities in the Northern Territory.
It would be much more effective to spend the multiple millions of dollars on fully staffing remote schools with experienced teachers who have already worked with Aboriginal people, rather than employing fly-in, fly-out truancy officers. It should be compulsory for teachers assigned to work in a remote Aboriginal community to undertake a thorough background briefing on the history of the community and its present composition and profile. Every teacher should receive accredited cross-cultural training before even moving to the community. The government has long recognised the need to provide better incentives for doctors to work in regional and remote areas, so why not for teachers too?
A concerted effort is needed to train local Aboriginal people to be fully qualified teachers in their own right. This is the only way to stabilise the teaching workforce in remote areas, making school attractive for the children. The government is clearly focused on employment/workforce participation for all Australians. Jobs for qualified Aboriginal people resident in remote communities should be a high priority. Where are the intensive training programs for our own people to become fully qualified teachers? In our remote Aboriginal communities our cultures are resilient and our languages are still in everyday use.
The abolition of bilingual education has been a shame. It should be a choice available to communities. Service delivery in remote areas is costly. So, too, has been the loss of our languages and culture, so entwined with our land. Surely Aboriginal people have lost so much already that a decent education for all our children is not too much to ask.
This legislation must be withdrawn. Ministers Macklin and Garrett should go back to the drawing board to find evidence-based policy to show you what will work. Let's not waste any more taxpayers' money on using yet another stick to penalise the poorest people in our own land.
Pat Turner, an Arrernte/Gudanji woman living in Alice Springs, is former deputy secretary of the Commonwealth Departments of Aboriginal Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet. She is also a former CEO of ATSIC and former deputy CEO of Centrelink.