PM’S ANNUAL CAPE CRUSADE
We ought to be able to get most indigenous schools achieving 90 per cent-plus attendance
AS THE sun set on the ochre earth and yellow sand of the Injinoo foreshore where Torres Strait Island and Aboriginal cultures intermingle, dancers from the two communities delivered a stunning welcome to Tony Abbott and several ministers.
But an even more poignant message was offered to the Prime Minister during the ceremony when he arrived in the Northern Cape York community.
Addressing the honoured guests, Northern Area Peninsula Mayor Bernard Charlie said social and economic conditions in the Northern Peninsula region were “appalling and unacceptable” for a developed country.
“Our people are considered lucky to reach 50 years of age and continue to experience high levels of unemployment, low-skills jobs and low standards of education outcomes in the critical years of learning,” he said.
It was a stark reminder of the challenges facing remote indigenous communities, even those in the Torres Strait and Northern Cape that Abbott has pointed out have fewer of the problems that ravage other isolated townships.
It’s a challenge the Prime Minister has vowed to take on, insisting he can deliver real improvements to the lives of indigenous people.
Abbott tells Insight he believes he will be able to demonstrate concrete improvements in school attendance in remote areas by the time of the next election and will do more if he secures another term in office.
“I think that within a year we will have a significant percentage of remote schools achieving 90 per cent-plus attendance,” Abbott says from his temporary home on an army base in the remote township of Bamaga.
“Within five years we ought to be able to get most indigenous schools achieving 90 per cent-plus attendance.”
It’s an ambitious aim that would result in students in remote areas attending school with the same frequency as those in Australia’s capital cities.
Many remote schools currently record attendance rates of 50 or 60 per cent, with some in the Northern Territory even lower.
T he school attendance targets were introduced by Abbott to the national “Closing the Gap” strategy last year, in a sign he wants schooling to be part of his legacy in indigenous affairs. Despite the Prime Minister’s confidence, his own department reports there has been little improvement across Australia in recent years.
Abbott says schools can meet these targets through the use of local truancy officers and controversial direct instruction teaching methods, championed by Cape York leader Noel Pearson, that break down concepts to simple components.
He says there has been an “obvious palpable improvement in the schools” in the region.
“I have been coming to schools in this part of the world now for well over a decade and I have never seen classrooms that are so well organised, so energetic and so focused,” he says.
One of the schools he visited this week, Bamaga Junior, has improved its results and now has more than a quarter of its students exceeding 90 per cent attendance. But a nearby high school struggles with attendance rates of 60 per cent “on a good day”, according to the co-ordinator of the local truancy program Robbie Tamwoy.
A bbott has spent the past five days in the Torres Strait and the northern tip of Cape York as part of his pledge to run the country from an indigenous community for a week a year.
Abbott brought several ministers and senior public servants with him and part of his days were devoted to receiving briefings on other issues ranging from global economic turmoil to our looming involvement with air strikesstrik on Syria.
The massive logistical effort to shift the centre of government to such a remote location came with a political risk for the PM.
He has been far removed from a major economic reform summit, the controversy over royal commissioner Dyson Heydon and Joe Hockey’s new push for a Republic that threatened to overshadow his focus on indigenous Australia. Meanwhile, 3600km away in Perth, the countdown is on for the September 19 by-election in the once-safe Liberal seat of Canning where a large swing could damage Abbott’s credibility as leader.
H is journey across Australia’s far north has been heavy on symbolism. He became the first prime minister to visit the resting place of land rights campaigner Eddie “Koiki” Mabo on the far-flung Mer island – a pilgrimage that was is in itself a form of reconciliation two decades after Abbott warned native title was “dividing this nation”.
There were no major funding announcements as Abbott and senior ministers toured the region meeting community leaders and visiting schools, childcare centres, training programs.
But Abbott bristles at the suggestion it was merely a series of photo opportunities.
He says he has agreed to practical improvements, including a wharf upgrade on Prince of Wales Island and new upgrades to the Peninsula Development Road.
In response to locals’ complaints about the high price of fresh food, Abbott backed community gardens “which are of commercial scale but which don’t charge a full commercial rate” run by a work for the dole program.
Just by visiting the region, Abbott has been able to bring a national focus to communities that are often overlooked.
But he has his work cut out for him even to deliver on some of his more symbolic aims for indigenous people.
Abbott faces dissent withinw his own party as well as indigenous communities over the wording of a planned change to the Constitution to recognise the First Australians, which he wants put to a referendum in 2017. He will also have to convince the rest of the country of the merits of the change.