PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to speak just very briefly on the report entitled Our land, our languages, which has been tabled. I would firstly like to commend the committee members of this report for taking the time in having hearings in many different places and putting together a very thorough and good report. I want to make a couple of points.
The first point is that I think the maintenance of Indigenous languages is important—it is important because Indigenous languages are unlike all other languages in our nation. They are the first languages of our nation and therefore a key part of our heritage as Australians. They are of course important to Indigenous people themselves but more than that they should be important to all of us because they are such an important part of Australia’s heritage. So I think it is a good thing that we stop and consider how we can maintain Indigenous languages, how we can record them and how we can ensure their longevity going forward. That is the first point that I would like to make. Indeed, I have made public comments to the same effect in the past.
The only other point that I would make in relation to this issue is: how do we go about preserving the Indigenous languages and, in particular, what should we do in relation to schooling? The main issue which is coming up in the media today is whether or not there should be bilingual schooling, should Indigenous languages be taught instead of English, should they be taught alongside or in parallel with English or whatever? My firm view is that English must be taught thoroughly and taught well to all Australians no matter who they are or where they are from. No person in Australia is going to be able to thrive in our modern society unless they have a good understanding of the English language in its written and its verbal form. That is absolutely critical and absolutely fundamental. At the moment, particularly in remote Indigenous Australia, we have a crisis in this regard.
I have spent many years in remote Indigenous Australia, particularly when I was the Deputy Director of the Cape York Institute. One of the issues that we looked at was how we could improve the literacy and numeracy of remote Aboriginal people and their overall educational outcomes. The educational outcomes for Indigenous people in many places across remote Australia are appalling. If you are talking about a crisis in education today, that is the crisis and a significant part of it is the English literacy crisis where people are not learning at the rate that they should be learning. So this has to be our predominant focus in terms of ensuring that Aboriginal people can learn English, can read it properly, can write it well and can communicate in it so that they can participate like every other Australian in our modern society.
Having said that, I think we also need to ensure that Indigenous children can learn their traditional tongue if the local communities see that as important to them. The way that I think this needs to be done is in parallel with the teaching of English, rather than necessarily being done alongside it, bilingually. And the way I have seen this being implemented well is on Cape York Peninsula, an area which I know well. What they have done through their Cape York academies is to have their traditional schooling as the dominant part of the day, from early in the morning until about two o’clock, where direct instruction is being implemented in English and the children are learning their English, maths and other subjects. But then there is a separate part of the day which is for culture, and it is in that part of the day that parents and elders come in to communicate and to transmit the Indigenous culture to the Aboriginal children as well. In these schools they are just starting to introduce the local Indigenous languages into that cultural space to transmit those languages in a more thorough way to the Indigenous children. From my perspective, that is the better way to transmit Indigenous languages to Indigenous children. I would be hesitant to see us or the state governments and other school authorities roll out Indigenous languages to be the predominant languages taught in the schools. I think we must ensure that the children learn English, and learn it well, but then there should be time as well, in part of the day, for cultural maintenance if the local communities want to participate in that. I again commend the report. I think there is some very good information in there for us to consider and I think this is an important topic.