The budget’s approach to Indigenous education is just more of the same | Margaret Malezer for IndigenousX | Opinion


The Morrison government’s approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs has never inspired confidence. Unfortunately this week’s federal budget is just more of the same.

Nigel Scullion, the soon-to-retire minister for Indigenous affairs, claimed in his budget-night media release that:

… the 2019-20 Budget invests in new services that will help break the cycle of disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians by providing safe and stable communities, delivering better education for young Indigenous Australians and creating sustainable pathways for job seekers.”

This all sounds reasonable enough. But what does it actually mean?

Firstly, despite Scullion’s claims there is actually little investment in “new services” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the budget. A substantial part of the package had already been announced in February, as a part of the prime minister’s response to the “Closing the Gap” report to parliament.

That’s not all. The majority of the February initiatives announced in this budget were recommended in December in a statement to parliament by former prime minister Tony Abbott. This was after he was appointed as “special envoy” to Indigenous people.

Secondly, the budget has some particular things to say about the government’s broad priorities in Indigenous affairs, and education in particular:

The Budget reaffirms the Coalition Government’s commitment to supporting Indigenous students to attend school and get the education that creates the foundation for a better life.”

On face value, who can argue with this? Certainly not our people, who have been saying for years that education is the key to a foundation for a better life. But what does the Morrison government mean by “education”? A closer look at the Indigenous education statement in the budget gives us a clearer view.

Through an historical lens, the Morrison government’s priorities are clearOne of budget’s centrepieces on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education was the “Teacher boost for remote Australia” initiative, which aims to attract early-career teachers to remote-area schools. The proposal offers Help debt relief for 3,100 teachers who want to work, and stay working, in very remote areas. While the budget provided scant detail, this announcement comes on the back of the de-funding of the successful More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative (MATSITI) in 2014.

Through an historical lens, the Morrison government’s priorities are clear. In spite of its rhetoric about getting more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into university and jobs, this government prioritised the defunding of a successful collaborative industry-wide project – led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education experts and teachers – to address the shortage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in the workforce.

Another part of the budget which focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education is the “Youth Education Package”. This provides $200m “to give more Indigenous students the support and mentoring they need through their secondary studies”.

Again, on face value, the goal of getting more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children into senior secondary education and supporting them to graduate cannot be disputed. However, any approach to rural and remote education which advocates giving an additional $200m in government funding to the AIEF (or similar organisations) shows that the Morrison government has no sustained, long-term plan for improving access to the provision of secondary schooling for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in their home communities, particularly those living in remote areas. Furthermore, it illustrates that the government is yet to establish a comprehensive national policy response to its own Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, commissioned in 2017. Indeed, a search of the government’s own response to the review reveals no mention of the words “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal” anywhere in the document.

The “Getting Kids to School” program is a $5m boost to the Remote Schools Attendance Strategy (RSAS). This is all well and good, except the evidence about the impact of the program on school attendance is insufficient. Could this be because the RSAS interim progress report in 2015 showed that the program seems to have had a positive impact in only two of the five states and territories where it was implemented? It is also of concern that the report is the only publicly available report which assesses the impact of the strategy. Despite this, the government has boosted its funding.

As well as the initiatives spelled out in the budget, it is important to also note the gaps. There is no comprehensive plan for the roll-out of pre-school to all three and four-year-olds across the country, although research shows its benefits for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Further, 85% of our kids attend public schools, and yet the government maintains its antipathy towards properly funding public education.

Finally, we must consider the youth-suicide crisis in our communities. Suicide is the leading cause of death among our young people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts have been calling for a comprehensive program of research to determine causal factors and inform a comprehensive, culturally-specific response to this national tragedy. The government offered a paltry $1.25m a year over a four year period (or $5 million over four years) on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth-led suicide prevention initiatives.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be rightfully angry and concerned about this commitment when the federal government has promised to spend $50m to upgrade facilities at the site of Captain Cook’s landing (which incidentally is located in the PM’s seat of Cook) but can only find $5m for suicide prevention.

Governments fund their priorities, and the Morrison government is using this year’s budget to tell us that memorialising a white man who died 220 years ago is more important than educating and saving the lives of our young people.

The political rhetoric has got to stop. We need change. The continued failure to address poverty, the poor quality of health, and substandard education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia has become an industry in itself, benefiting services and businesses operated by non-Indigenous people. This can no longer be recognised, or condoned, as being for “our” benefit.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have been calling for a National Indigenous Body to be formed – a representative “voice” to parliament. This is the only solution to address and challenge past practices and policies by governments and agencies, which perpetuate continuing disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Margaret Malezer is a Gubbi Gubbi and Gamilaroi woman and former early childhood teacher. She currently works with Queensland Teachers’ Union as an Indigenous campaign coordinator and lectures at James Cook University in Cairns.

Guardian Australia is proud to partner with IndigenousX to showcase the diversity of Indigenous peoples and opinions from around the country.

Comments on this article have been pre-moderated to ensure the discussion is on the topics that have been written about in the article.

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