Now there’s a relevance in that to this gathering. It is the greatest country in the world. But in the area of indigenous opportunity and advantage we still do have a very long way to go if we’re to live up to the highest ideals and aspirations of that deeply held belief that we have. And today I want to particularly focus on the issue of education, and because I believe it lies at the heart of bridging that gulf between indigenous Australians and the rest of the community.
And although structures are important, and I acknowledge that, I don’t want us to spend undue amounts of time debating structures and process to the detriment of results and outcomes. We do need to focus on the practical application that delivers results on the ground. And at my speech last year I spoke of a number of things. I spoke of a combination of the symbolic and the practical; of the need to balance rights and responsibilities; of governments, communities, families and individuals all sharing responsibility; and as Mick rightly reminded me, a preparedness on the part of my Government to go more than half way in achieving progress.
It is important, as Mal Brough, my new Indigenous Affairs Minister has emphasized, we must remember that real economic and social progress in indigenous communities – as is the case in any community – can only be built on a foundation of law and order. And to pretend otherwise is to defy reality.
Mick has quite rightly called on us to invest more – I won’t directly respond to that – but I will gently put on record, ever so gently, that real spending on indigenous-specific programmes has gone-up by almost 50 per cent, that’s real terms after inflation over the last decade. And in the last Budget we committed another $500 million to indigenous-specific programmes and Mal has put another $130 million on the table in the fight against family violence and child abuse.
But we do have a duty to ensure that existing resources are well spent and that more resources will make a difference. I do particularly want to focus on how we do things more effectively in one particular area and that’s education. Not because I think education is some magic mono-causal solution for indigenous disadvantage. Educational advancement clearly demands advancement in other areas such as health and housing, employment and community safety. But because I do believe rather passionately that education offers the proven avenue of lasting hope for young indigenous Australians.
Because education, formal or informal, has been the passport to progress in every culture since the dawn of time. And in 21st Century Australia, it opens doors to economic independence, to health and happiness and for laying foundations for wise choices and larger horizons in later life. It’s not only a path to individual advancement, but it’s also a path to social equity. We all know that the major cause of poverty in Australia is joblessness and we also know that the major reason for weaker employment outcomes for indigenous Australians, compared with the rest of the community, is education. And of the countless statistics that dramatize our nations challenge to lift the life opportunity of indigenous Australians, two in particular stand out to me. The first is the one that Mick focused on, and that is the 17-year average life expectancy gap between indigenous and other Australians. I mean that is the statistic we should all be constantly reminded of and it’s a statistic that we should all strive towards removing.
But the other, to my mind, is the one that Jackie mentioned, and that is the share of Australia’s indigenous population that’s 14 years or younger. It’s almost 40 per cent, 39.3 to be precise, and it compares with 20.4 per cent of the non-indigenous population, that is 14 years or under. In other words, it’s virtually doubled. Now that says lots of things. And although that second statistic is not unrelated to the first, it’s a better measure of the enormous opportunity, as well as the enormous challenge we have in our midst. And it underlines yet again the importance of education. And we do need to foster a generation of indigenous Australians who recognise and reap the benefits of a good education and pass those values on to their children and grandchildren.
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