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Launch of Our Children Our Future report

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Launch of Our Children Our Future report

Speech by Tom Calma
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

AMP Building, Sydney
May 28 2008


Good morning.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would like to thank Louise Doyle and Regina Hill from Effective Philanthropy for inviting me to launch the Our Children Our Future report today.

I am the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and National Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission or HRECO.

HREOC is a national, independent, statutory body established under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986.   

As the Social Justice Commissioner my functions are to monitor the enjoyment and exercise of human rights for Indigenous Australians. 

Under the HREOC Act and the Native Title Act, I am required to produce annual social justice and native title reports.  These reports are tabled in the federal parliament each year.

The most recent Social Justice Report tabled in Parliament on 20 March 2008 focuses on issues relating to family violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities, as well as the human rights implications of the Northern Territory intervention.   

In that report, I did two things – first, I analysed the consistency of the NT intervention with human rights principles and proposed changes to the intervention to fully comply with Australia’s human rights obligations.

And second, I contrasted this analysis with some good news stories of initiatives at the community level to deal with violence and extrapolated from them lessons for policy makers, for the private and philanthropic sectors and for Indigenous communities.

And that brings me to the report that I am launching today.

I gladly accepted the invitation from Louise and Regina to write the foreword for this report because of the fundamental importance I attach to addressing issues relating to education in Indigenous communities.

The disparities between outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in relation to all areas of the education system are documented and well known.

And the statistics are not improving anywhere near the rate that they should be.

Indigenous Australia has a population of over half a million people.

We are the fastest growing population group in the country and have a significantly skewed age structure – with a majority of Indigenous Australians being young.

Indigenous youth remain the most educationally disadvantaged group in Australia. As a direct consequence of this disadvantage many are not reaching the basic educational milestones.

Education prepares us to make decent and proper choices.

It is fundamental to the development of human potential and to full participation in a democratic society. It is also fundamental to the full enjoyment of most other human rights: most clearly the right to work but also the right to health.

Many Indigenous children are fundamentally disengaged from education.

In remote Australia, there has been chronic under-investment in educational infrastructure on the assumption that many children simply do not go to school.

While the responsibility of the provision of education lies with government, there is a role for business and individuals to contribute to the betterment of Indigenous and Australian society.

At the beginning of the report you will find a quote from the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey. It captures one of the biggest problems that we face in Indigenous affairs.

It reads:

“There has been tacit acceptance of the non-achievement of educational standards by Aboriginal children and young people.

The resultant acceptance of this lack of education success has a cumulative effect. It is based on the belief that Aboriginal children… will never reach their potential and if they fall behind society will protect them.

Their low level of educational success is accepted as a normative expectation. This has to change.”

I agree fully with this statement.

It reflects the fundamental shifts in mindsets that are necessary if we are to achieve some form of equality in educational outcomes for Indigenous people, and consequently, for us to lay the groundwork for a bright future for our children.

I have previously stated that the continual stories of failure and despair have left a deep scar across Indigenous communities.

They breed hopelessness and despair.

And among the broader Australian society they also breed intolerance and anger, usually directed towards Indigenous peoples.

Back when Mick Dodson was Social Justice Commissioner in the early 1990s he referred to what he called the ‘industrial deafness’ of the Australian community.

By this he meant the phenomena whereby the Australian community had become so accustomed to stories of Indigenous disadvantage that they had become immune to it, and came to expect it.

Over the past decade, the community and government have come to believe that this situation is intractable, too difficult to shift and for some people, the fault of Indigenous peoples themselves.

And at some point, as a nation we stopped believing that equality of opportunity for Indigenous peoples was a realistic goal. And so we stopped trying to achieve it.

While I firmly believe that these stories of disadvantage and dysfunction should be told, I also believe that they should not be told just for the sake of it.

They should be told to hold governments accountable for their actions; to build support and determination among the broader community to create positive change; and to challenge Indigenous people and communities to face the demons in our own backyards.

Now some of you may know that I have led a coalition of organisations in developing solutions to the Indigenous health crisis. We have come to be known as the Close the Gap coalition.

Through that process we have challenged government and all Australians to stop being disappointed at our lack of achievement on Indigenous health and dare to dream about a positive future for all Australians.

And we have made this challenge with the knowledge that overcoming Indigenous inequality in health status is achievable.

So we have sought to champion hope and to focus on solutions.

And that is why I am delighted to be here today. Because this is exactly what this publication does.

It focuses on eight types of programs within the school and student context to improve the delivery of education and outcomes for Indigenous children.

These are not the total solution for Indigenous education, but they are extensive nonetheless.

Importantly, the report then identifies the key success factors from different types of programs, based on consideration of case studies.

These success factors can be used to chart progress for particular programs and can provide confidence to philanthropists that they are investing their money, expertise and other inputs in ways that are likely to yield the best results for Indigenous communities.

The report also identifies lessons for the philanthropy sector regarding Indigenous education. These lessons are practical and ground the report’s findings in a way that I think is very valuable for philanthropists.

This is beneficial in two ways.

First, it will assist in ensuring that philanthropists are not so daunted by the complexity and challenges facing Indigenous communities that they are deterred or discouraged from seeking to fund initiatives.

And second, it will give a reality check to the types of issues that need to be faced and on the timeframes over which results can be expected to show.

I want to congratulate the AMP Foundation, Effective Philanthropy and Social Ventures Australia for commissioning this report.

I hope that the report will be widely used and it will become a clarion call for the philanthropic sector.

I hope that it will contribute to a better understanding of the interaction of various factors in our communities that can impact on educational outcomes and of how you can make a difference.

And ultimately, I hope that it will contribute to supporting belief that with focus and effort – hard effort – change can be achieved and that a better future for our Indigenous kids is a possibility.

Thank you