The overwhelming feeling from the Prime Minister’s visit to indigenous communities late last month was optimism. That the tide may be turning and conditions slowly but steadily improving. In the seemingly intractable area of remote indigenous disadvantage, have we turned the corner?
The week was spent in the Torres Strait Islands and northern tip of Cape York; it was the second time that Tony Abbott has moved the seat of government to a remote location, fulfilling his promise that this will occur every year. Nine ministers and their secretaries of departments joined him for at least part of the week.
This region is stunningly beautiful, has rich Melanesian and Aboriginal cultures and is deeply Christian. Like most remote communities, it struggles to develop a sufficiently large economic base to secure work for everyone. About half the population is dependent on welfare. Despite this, the communities appear strong and the outlook mainly positive.
Sometimes it is the little things that indicate the strength of a community. In approaching the small school on Masig Island, I noticed the school sign advertising a “gold coin donation day” at the end of the week. The people may be poor, but the sign indicated this was a place where people gave back to their communal institutions.
I walked into the school and was told that the attendance rate was close to 100 per cent and that the kids were performing in the top 20 per cent in the state. One of the elders told me that she had tears running down her face when she heard the kids’ results, such was her pride. Explicit instruction methods (which involve the direct teaching of material as opposed to student inquiry) were being used — the “only way that works” according to locals.
There was a similar story at the Bamaga Junior School. School attendance had jumped ten percentage points in the past year and explicit instruction was embedded as the teaching method. Kids attending that school would be literate, numerate and able to advance at the end of their schooling.
Our new fulltime work for the dole scheme (the Community Development Program) is gaining traction in the region. The aim of the program is to keep people active on useful community projects so that skills can be maintained and the poison of sit-down money avoided. There is a limitless number of useful projects that could be undertaken. We assisted some of the local participants in the refurbishment of one of the community halls.
When the kids are at schools, the adults are working (even for the dole), and there is law and order, then a community has the core elements for stability and enhanced choices. This is why we have made these our sharp priorities. It is impossible to have a functional society without kids learning from adults, adults working for sustenance and community order.
Across the nation, we are seeing similar progress to that witnessed last week. It is not yet uniform across all communities and there is a long way to go, but there are signs of real progress.
For example, in the Queensland government schools where we have funded local student attendance officers (who literally go house to house to assist in getting kids to school), the number of kids attending school has increased by 17 per cent between term 1, 2013, to term 1, 2015.
Schools across the country are finally re-adopting direct-teaching styles. Noel Pearson, among others, has led this charge and now is helping schools nationally (with federal assistance) to transform. The Northern Territory government has taken this up aggressively, along with other school reform, causing Pearson to label their agenda as “the best hope” he sees anywhere in the country.
Getting people into real jobs has been slower, but again there is optimism. A solid education and work ethic are the starting points. There is a greater openness to be mobile for work in some areas, perhaps stimulated by generous financial incentives to orbit for work.
I believe the greatest employment impact in the years ahead, however, will come from our new procurement policy which for the first time requires 3 per cent of our $39 billion of federal contracts to be given to indigenous businesses by 2020. In indigenous remote areas, any federal contracts must first be offered to an indigenous business if one is available and presents value for money.
Such a procurement target was introduced in the US in 1969 and Canada in 1996 and helped create a large minority middle class. The same can happen here.
Of all the encouraging signs, however, the most important is the quality of indigenous leadership that has emerged over the past five or so years. Across regions ranging from the Kimberly to Ceduna to the Central Coast of NSW, there is powerful, articulate leadership that is stepping up to take responsibility and work with governments to solve problems together. Governments in return are learning that change is near impossible without this co- operation.
The official statistics still paint a grim picture of our remote communities and some are still in a desperate situation. But I don’t think our optimism is unfounded. The tide is turning thanks to the work of successive governments, painful lessons learnt from the past, deeper corporate engagement, and most importantly, outstanding local leadership.