KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Tudge thanks very much for your time. I know that you’ve been travelling with the Prime Minister. You’re heading back to one of the more remote islands in the Torres Strait later today. Can you give us a sense of the state of the Indigenous culture on the Torres Strait islands and the living conditions? Give us a sense of what you’ve seen over the last few days.
ALAN TUDGE: Good morning Kieran. We’ve been over in the Torres Strait for the past couple of days and I’m heading back there today to one of the very small islands called Masig, just a population of 200 or 300 people.
The Torres Strait is a very interesting part of Australia because it’s got a very strong Melanesian culture if you like, mixed in with some Asian culture and also some Aboriginal culture coming up from the south. It’s quite distinct from other Aboriginal communities across Australia.
One of the fascinating parts of it which I’ve been learning the last couple of days is the World War II history of the area. Many people don’t know Kieran that Horn Island, one of the islands in the Torres Strait, was a very significant military site and was the second most bombed place in Australia during World War II, second only to Darwin, with something like 500 bombs landing there.
KIERAN GILBERT: If you look at the World War II history, every able-bodied man signed up in that area didn’t they?
ALAN TUDGE: That’s the extraordinary thing. There was a very significant presence on Horn Island and almost every single local Indigenous Torres Strait islander (man) signed up for World War II service.
Bearing in mind this was at a time where they weren’t counted in the census, they were receiving discriminatory wages and yet were willing to don the uniform in defence of their islands and in defence of Australia.
It’s one of those things which is not recognised, I think, from the broader mainstream Australia and yesterday we had a beautiful service on Thursday Island which the Prime Minister and the Chief of Defence Force led to commemorate all of those people who served in World War II including there were three old diggers there and they got a very special mention and it was lovely to have them there too.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to ask you about some of the contemporary problems. Obviously in a number of remote communities there are health issues, substance abuse problems, truancy is a big issue of getting kids to school.
Can you give us a snapshot of where the Torres Strait is at when it comes to those issues and wrapping up with the school attendance issue which I know is a big focus of the Prime Minister.
ALAN TUDGE: It’s interesting; on the Torres Strait a lot of those communities still have a strong educational ethic and so despite not much economic base and a lot of welfarism, the school attendance is still very high in nearly every community in the Torres Strait and the educational outcomes are still very strong.
That’s quite different to some of the Aboriginal communities on mainland Australia. Where we’re standing right now is in Bamaga at the northern point of Australia on mainland Australia, a typical Aboriginal community although it has some islander influence here.
Here the school attendance rate is in the 70s, it’s still too low and the Prime Minister will be focusing on that today. He’ll be going out with the local school attendance officers who are there to help get the kids to school. They are having an impact, but we really have to get that school attendance rate up into the 90s for kids to have a chance of getting a very decent education. Once you’ve got a decent education of course, the world is your oyster.
KIERAN GILBERT: And just finally on the issue of health, substance abuse, that sort of thing, obviously a very difficult thing to manage in a lot of remote communities. But what is the state of play like in the Torres Strait when it comes to those sorts of matters?
ALAN TUDGE: In the Torres Strait again they don’t appear to have the same level of substance abuse as you might find in some of the Indigenous communities on the mainland. Indeed on Thursday Island which is the main administrative centre in the Torres Strait, there are three or four pubs but it’s still largely a very stable, calm community where some of the locals might go in for one or two beers just like anybody else would and then go back home and have a decent night’s sleep.
That is of course a contrast to at least some of the mainland Indigenous communities where alcohol is just such a poison which just causes so much destruction in those communities.
From the health perspective, yes there are some health issues on the Torres Strait and Minister Ley, the Health Minister, is going to be travelling up to Saibai which is the northern most point and discussing tuberculosis up there.
Saibai is only a couple of kilometres from the Papua New Guinea border and sometimes we get some diseases come down through the islands from there and she’s going to be discussing with locals some of those issues and how we can more effectively address some of those concerns.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister I appreciate your time this morning and really a positive effort by the Abbott government to pay attention and give some focus to this important part of Australia. Thanks so much for that. We’ll chat to you soon.
ALAN TUDGE: Thanks so much Kieran.