Topics: Arnhem Land visit, constitutional recognition, school attendance, Forrest Review
LAURA JAYES: It is a week on since the Prime Minister went to Arnhem Land as promised at the election. Do you think, Alan Tudge, there were problems the Prime Minister recognised in trying to keep that promise every year and running the country from Arnhem Land. Do you think he'll be able to do it in the future?
ALAN TUDGE: I think he will. That's certainly his commitment. It worked pretty well up there, where we were able to do the deep engagement with the local people on the ground but from time to time the Prime Minister did have to duck out and we had full secure communications so he was able to operate from up there as well.
LAURA JAYES: What was so productive about the visit? What did the Prime Minister actually get out of it?
ALAN TUDGE: I think it was really about engagement. We had deep engagement – not just the Prime Minister – but eight minister who were up there, along with their secretaries of the department for several days. We saw the good and the bad as you so often see in remote communities.
There's the great stuff about the depth of the culture that still exists up there, the productive businesses which they're trying to get going with their royalties money. But at the same time we saw the depth of the school attendance problems, the employment problems, the alcohol and drug problems despite it being a dry area.
LAURA JAYES: One of the biggest areas is Indigenous recognition in the constitution. Shayne Neumann, of course there needs to be a timeline, the public needs to be with this for any change to be complete. Is the goal at the moment bipartisan, do you think, or is that specific question still to be worked out?
SHAYNE NEUMANN: Well it must be bipartisan to get it through. 1967 saw more than 90 per cent of Australians vote for giving the Commonwealth power to deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples. But it's crucial that we have a bipartisan approach. Labor's position is that it mustn't be just symbolic, it has to be substantive as well. I think that's the hopes and dreams and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.
They've had dislocation, dispossession and discrimination for more than two centuries. They really want that protection in the constitution and they want there to be recognition of their prior occupation of this continent.
LAURA JAYES: Just on that question Alan Tudge, where do we start when trying to formulate this question? Labor's saying they don't want this to just be symbolic, but then are there inherent problems in going that step further? Is there a tipping point where you think the public might be lost? Where's the government's starting point?
ALAN TUDGE: We have to work through this, Laura. Our starting point is we've got a Joint Select Committee headed up by Ken Wyatt and Nova Peris, and they've been consulting broadly, providing some advice. We've had a separate committee which is headed up by John Anderson that's just tabled his report, to give us a flavour of where the Australian people are at right now. We need to work through with Aboriginal people, with the Opposition, to try to come up with a form of words which we can all agree on.
Shayne is absolutely right – unless we have not just bipartisan support, but a unanimous consensus across the community, then this referendum question won't get up. I think that would be a disaster for Australia. We want this to be a unifying moment in our history, not potentially putting up a question which could go down.
LAURA JAYES: Discriminate according to race. Where does the government sit on that one?
ALAN TUDGE: I don't think we will support that. There are many people who wouldn't support that. Should we put that question up, frankly I think that would be the end of the referendum. What such a question would do –A, it goes beyond the recognition question, and B, I think there's a lot of constitutional conservatives who would be concerned it would put power in the hands of the courts and away from the parliament by putting such a provision in the constitution.
LAURA JAYES: Shayne Neumann, what's your response to that?
SHAYNE NEUMANN: We've had the expert panel recommend a new Section 116A. There are a number of ways you can do this. You can have a new Section 51A that has a provision in there that talks about the Commonwealth has the power to pass laws but not so as to adversely discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.
The problem at the moment with Section 51(xxvi) is there is some High Court comment in relation to the Hindmarsh Island decision that the federal government can pass laws that discriminate adversely against Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people. So there is a problem there. We also have a provision in the constitution, Section 25, that gives tacit endorsements to the states to exclude people from voting. Most Australians would be horrified about that provision remaining in the 21st century in our constitution.
We've got to find what John Anderson and Tanya Hosch, in their report that Alan's referring to, described as the 'sweet spot' that gets a lot of people, constitutional progressives as well as conservatives across the line. Really there needs to be some form of substantive change. It can't just be symbolic, otherwise Australians will not want to spend $100 million on this process. It needs to be real and substantive change.
LAURA JAYES: Are there failures of the past here by both sides of government that haven't really got the Australian public to where we need to be in this debate? Hindsight is a beautiful thing of course, Alan Tudge. What went wrong in the past couple of years?
We have had some significant steps – the apology to the stolen generation being one of those significant steps – but there's not enough recognition or public consensus or even acknowledgement that this needs to happen. Is it going to take two years? Is it going to take three years? Or can it be done sooner?
ALAN TUDGE: We haven't set on a date yet, but the Prime Minister will be announcing shortly a timetable that we'll be sticking to. The key thing is that we want to put a referendum question up which will succeed. That will govern our timetable. The Anderson Report which just came down, showed that only about 60 per cent of the Australian public were even aware of the fact that we were discussing constitutional recognition.
Of that, only about 16 per cent of all Australians have a deep understanding of the issues at stake. There's still a long way to go in terms of bringing the Australian people along in terms of understanding what the constitution is presently and what such a change might entail.
LAURA JAYES: Shayne Neumann?
SHAYNE NEUMANN: I think that Australians will focus on this issue once a question is devised. It needs to be devised between Labor in opposition and the government, as well as bringing in other parties. Once we get that question I think Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people and the public will focus on it. I agree with Alan that we can't have it fail.
67' was a defining moment. We've had a number of moments in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia – 67' referendum, Mabo, native title, the Redfern speech by Prime Minister Keating, the apology to the stolen generation – this could build on that. That's a history opportunity. I think there is a window of opportunity.
There's only been eight out of 44 succeed and if Labor and the Liberals get together and the other parties, we can achieve this but it needs to be bipartisan. The public needs to be aware of it recognise needs to be supported. That's what John Anderson and Tanya Hosch said. Their campaign needs to continue and be properly funded.
LAURA JAYES: Let's look at some more recent success; school attendance in Indigenous communities. There is some success in this. I think there's some anecdotal evidence a couple of weeks ago that there had been an influx of children attending school. It was a victim of its own success, this program in many ways.
The Prime Minister, Alan Tudge, did last week hint that yes, if it's necessary and there's more children going to school, there will be more funding. When will that happen and what benchmarks do you use to actually gauge success across the board, not just in some areas?
ALAN TUDGE: This is our number one priority in Indigenous affairs, because if kids aren't at school they are not going to learn and they will end up on the welfare queue. At the moment, in a place like the Northern Territory, fewer than one in four kids are attending sufficiently enough to learn properly. That is a catastrophe.
What we've already done is fund school attendance officers. What this means is literally local people who will go around in the morning knocking on doors and dragging the kids to school. We've had some success from this already, about 17 per cent more children in the Northern Territory are attending school this year, compared to the same time last year. That's a great result, but as we discovered even last week in North East Arnhem Land when we visited Yakkala Primary School, despite having the school attendance officers in place, the school attendance rate is still only 55 per cent which is just not good enough.
So we're looking at other measures we can put in place as well, and we're asking for community groups and Indigenous leaders to come forward with proposals themselves, and we've got a funding program to support them, to boost that school attendance rate up.
LAURA JAYES: It's a good practical solution, would you agree?
SHAYNE NEUMANN: Well I've got a proposal they should do if they're looking for other measures. Fund the 38 children and family centres that get kids ready for school which they didn't proceed with. We had a national partnership arrangement with the states and territories to fund these kids and these centres to get them ready for school. It was important not just in terms of school, but sexual health and childcare and other types of activities.
LAURA JAYES: This program is showing results though…
SHAYNE NEUMANN: It's patchy. That's what Senate estimates shows. There are some areas of success and there are areas that haven't been successful. They've taken away $46.5 million in remote jobs funding to achieve what they've done. That's really a sad and sorry situation and they think they can cut their way to closing the gap. You can't cut over $500 million from Indigenous program funding and think you're going to close the gap. You can't do that by achieving what they want to achieve in terms of school attendance.
LAURA JAYES: Your response just quickly?
ALAN TUDGE: If money was the answer we would've closed the gap years ago. We've had an 80 per cent real increase in funding over the last ten years. The average expenditure per Indigenous person in the country today is $44,000 and it's probably double that in the remote areas.
What we need to do is focus on the basics – getting kids to school, adults into work and communities safe, because when those three things happen other things tend to take care of themselves.
SHAYNE NEUMANN: That's not happening in the funding cuts. They've cut legal aid, they've cut Indigenous health, and they've cut a whole range of areas.
LAURA JAYES: Just finally I want to move on to the Forrest Review. There's things raised in that review like the welfare card, a different tax rate for Indigenous business. Is the government going to accept most of these recommendations and when can we see an iron- clad answer?
ALAN TUDGE: We've just finished a consultation process which came to a close over the weekend. In that consultation process I think that everybody was aware of the depth of the problems and appreciated such a broad scope in the report from early childhood through to training and work. We're now digesting the feedback that we've got. We're working through that and we'll be able to make some announcements sooner rather than later.
LAURA JAYES: By the end of the year?
ALAN TUDGE: Sooner rather than later. Bear in mind that this is not a two week program. This is a generational program. Some measures will take years to implement fully, while others are easy to implement in the short term.
LAURA JAYES: Shayne Neumann, just quickly Labor's response to this, largely supportive of the Forrest Review?
SHAYNE NEUMANN: We've had some discussions with Andrew Forrest and I'll continue to do that along with our spokesperson Brendan O'Connor. There are some interesting ideas in there. Some of the ideas I think are worth merit. Some of the ideas I'm sure the government won't proceed with and the opposition wouldn't agree with as well.
I like the emphasis on early childhood education. I like the emphasis on transparency and accountability. The website's an interesting concept as well. We'll have further discussions and see what the government comes up with.
LAURA JAYES: That's a low hanging fruit, I might say, there's other things like the welfare card, a different tax bracket. Is Labor supportive of those?
SHAYNE NEUMANN: Can I just say this. Implied dignity in giving people cash to spend on their own… [interruption]
LAURA JAYES: Sorry, we'll have to interrupt you. We're going to take you now to the floor of the House of Representatives where the Prime Minister is on his feet updating the Parliament on national security.