MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – Australian Constitution: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Education) (15:26): Australians voted no to the Voice, but they didn’t vote no to Closing the Gap. This MPI talks about division. The real division in this country isn’t between Australians who voted yes and Australians who voted no. It’s a division between the life and opportunities of black Australians and white Australians. The hard truth, if we’re willing to accept it, is that both sides of politics have failed here over decades. My friend the member for New England questions that. But if we’re honest with ourselves the gap targets prove that. I’m not blaming you. I’m not blaming our side of politics. I’m blaming all of us. The fact that if you are an Indigenous Australian you’re more likely to die at childbirth is evidence of that. If you’re more likely to suffer chronic disease, that is evidence of that. If you’re more likely to die earlier than other Australians, that is evidence of that as well.

The same is true in education. I believe in my heart about the power of education. I talk about it ad nauseam. I believe in it because I have seen it with my own eyes. I grew up in a community where education changed the lives of people who came here looking for a better life in the western suburbs of Sydney—people who were migrants and refugees. I believe in the power of education because I’ve lived it. I’m the first person in my family to go to university; but not just that: I’m the first person in my family to finish school. I’m the first person in my family to finish year 10. Education has changed my life. As in this job, with this responsibility, I think I see more clearly than ever before that that opportunity, powerful as it is, hasn’t reached into every corner of this country, into every home and into every life.

When you look at the education statistics for Indigenous Australians, they hit you in the face. If you’re a young indigenous person today, you’re less likely to go to preschool and other kids. We know how important early education is. Not just that, if you’re a young Indigenous person today you’re more likely to fall behind at primary school than other kids. The natural consequence of that is that if you’re a young Indigenous person today who falls behind at primary school, you’re less likely to finish high school than all the other kids. And that means that at the end of the day you’re less likely to go to university than other children. Colleagues here have heard me talk about this before: about 45 per cent of young adults today have a university degree, but only seven per cent of Indigenous young people do. Think about that gap. Of all the gaps, that’s the biggest: 45 per cent of young adults have a university degree, but only seven per cent of young Indigenous adults do. If you are a young bloke of an Indigenous background today you’re more likely to go to jail than to university. I’ve talked about what that means in terms of the cost that we all pay for that. We pay $11,000—

Mr Katter: You’re the government. What are you doing about it?

Mr Clare: I’ll talk about that in a minute. The member says ‘What are you doing about it?’ That’s an important question. Let me answer that in a moment. But let me talk about the costs, too. $11,000 a year we pay to send somebody to university. $148,000 is what we pay to send someone to prison. That’s the cost of this divide—the real division in this country, not the political division that we want to fabricate here or that we want to create for political benefit, the real divide-in-life opportunities that all of us in our hearts want to close.

Mr Katter: You’re the government; what are you doing about it?

Mr Clare: The member for Kennedy asked, ‘What are you doing about it?’ What we’re doing about it is the legislation that’s in the parliament that the member for Kennedy rightly—and I thank him for it—voted for a couple of weeks ago.

At the moment if you’re a young Indigenous person and you get the marks and you live in the member for Kennedy’s electorate, the demand-driven system means the university will be guaranteed to get the funding to get that young bloke or that young woman to university, but not if they live in Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne. It applies to Indigenous kids in the bush but not in the city. We’re fixing that. The legislation that this House has voted for, which is now before the Senate, is about extending that system to all Indigenous kids. We’re told, if it works, that it will double the number of young Indigenous people with a university degree in the next 10 years. That’s good. That’s pretty good. It doesn’t really close the gap, because remember what I said: 45 per cent of young people in their 20s and 30s have a uni degree today; seven per cent of Indigenous young people do at the moment. If this legislation works, in 10 years time that will be 12 per cent.

Mr Katter: No disrespect, Minister, but we’d prefer a job to a degree.

Mr Clare: Well, degrees create jobs too.

Mr Katter: No, they don’t.

Mr Clare: No, they do. If you want to be a doctor working in an Indigenous community, if you want to be a teacher teaching kids in Indigenous community, if you want to be a nurse helping people in Indigenous communities then things like uni are important. We need to make sure that more young Indigenous people—not just Indigenous people but more young people from electorates like Spence, where barely more than seven per cent have got a uni degree—get a crack at TAFE and uni, so fee-free TAFE places are important. The legislation in the parliament is important too.

But, if we’re really going to fix this, we’ve got to go back before university; we’ve got go back to school, because this is where the problem is at its most obvious. NAPLAN results tell us that one in 10 young people at the moment fall behind the minimum standard. But it’s not one in 10 Indigenous kids that fall behind the minimum standard; it’s one in three. The NAPLAN data also tells us that if you fall behind at primary school when you’re eight then you’re more likely than not to still be behind when you’re 15 at high school. Believe it or not, only one in five kids who are behind when they’re eight have caught up by the time they’re 15. I still believe in the power of education, but that number shocks me. Think about this, colleagues: only 20 per cent of kids who fall behind when they’re little have caught up by the time they’re 15—one in five—and it’s only one in 17 Indigenous kids. They’re basically locked out of the system. One in 17 Indigenous kids who fall behind when they’re little have caught up by the time they’re older at high school. That explains why so many kids aren’t finishing high school, that explains why we’re now seeing a drop in the number of kids finishing high school and that explains why there are so few Indigenous young people at university getting a university degree. What a waste. This is what we’ve got to fix. This is what all Australians want us to fix.

I’ve said many times that I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your mum and dad are or where you live or the colour of your skin. No Australian does. But if we are honest with ourselves they are today. Again, the hard facts show us that, and fixing that is what the Universities Accord is all about. It’s also what the next National School Reform Agreement will be all about—closing the funding gap for our schools but also this education gap, this gap in opportunity.

At the moment non-government schools are funded at about 100 per cent of the Gonski level of schooling resource standard. Some are above and some below. They’ll all be at 100 per cent by the end of the decade. No public schools are, except in the ACT. Over the course of the next decade they’ll top out, unless action is taken, at about 95 per cent. So what we do here working with the states and territories is important, but so is what that money is spent on, and nowhere is that more important than in places like the Northern Territory and in particular Central Australia. It is hard to find a place where there is greater disadvantage or a bigger education gap than there. That’s why we’re investing $40 million in 40 schools in Central Australia next year, allocated to get all of them to 100 per cent of the schooling resource standard. That means the most underfunded schools in Central Australia will get the most funding. At the moment, non-government schools in the Northern Territory receive on average about 97 per cent of that core funding level. Government schools, by contrast, are at 80 per cent. So if we talk about gaps, that is a massive gap. And, unless action is taken, that gap won’t close until 2050.

This investment in schools, both public and private schools in Central Australia, mean that those 46 schools will get to that full funding level next year—in other words, 26 years early. I think that’s a good thing, but it isn’t just that: it’s making sure that it’s tied to the sorts of things that are going to work. These are things like early intervention in literacy and numeracy support for the sorts of kids I’ve spoken about today, who fall behind. There are three big pieces of work happening in my portfolio: the Universities Accord; the O’Brien review into school education funding and what it’s tied to; and the early education work that we need to do before a child even starts at school. More work is needed there. The three of those will come together next year to form a blueprint for us about education for the next decade and beyond. This is for all of us to work together on to build a better and fairer education system for Australia—in particular, for Indigenous kids.