The Forrest review: creating parity

1 Aug 2014

This review chaired by Andrew Forrest, Chairman of Fortescue Metals Group and the Minderoo Foundation, presents recommendations intended to help end the disparity between first Australians and other Australians.

Executive summary

My report is a call to all Australians. It is time to end the disparity between our first Australians and other Australians. Jobs give individuals the opportunity to choose circumstances, to take control of their lives and to provide for their own and their children’s future. This preserves Indigenous culture and ensures its relevance for future generations.

Nothing destroys family and traditional culture quicker than despondency, dependency and poor lifestyles. My childhood was populated by Indigenous leaders who proudly wore the mantel of their own culture and upheld and ensured the preservation of their laws and traditions. Aboriginal ceremonies like corroborees were often held in short distance from our homestead so everyone could take part. There was never any discussion that their ability to lead in the workforce and enjoy a modern standard of living would conflict with the love of their culture. They competently conversed in both English and Indigenous languages. Since then, the ability of Indigenous people to be employed is not assured. Indeed, the disparity resulting from the large proportion of Indigenous Australians who are disengaged from the workforce has reached crisis levels—hence this report.

Ending the disparity has defeated successive well-intentioned governments of every political persuasion at the Commonwealth, state and territory levels for decades. Progress has been made in some areas, but most concerning is the growing gap in employment outcomes. Education and employment have the capacity to end the disparity, but a massive 30 point gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians exists despite the tens of billions of dollars spent by governments to address Indigenous disadvantage.

The great belief that this disparity is with us forever is put to the sword when you learn that there is no disparity in employment between first Australians with a decent education and other Australians. A decent education means leaving school with Year 12 or equivalent qualifications and the ability to go on to further education and training. There is employment parity now for first Australians with Certificate III or IV level training that most apprentices undergo, diploma or university qualifications.

We need to be clear about education as the right of every child. Parents who send their children to school every day accord this fundamental human right to their children. Children who are not sent to school regularly are denied this right, the right to a normal standard of education and the skills to become capable citizens. Without these, they will be unable to enjoy the standard of living of other Australians. Unless a child has enough sleep and nutrition, and arrives clean and properly clothed at school, he or she cannot learn. Illiteracy and innumeracy are disabilities in our society. While teaching standards and schools must be reformed to ensure that Indigenous children are educated, their parents must also play their part and send their children to school at least nine out of 10 school days. Only wholesale change of community attitude has sufficient potency to create the change which will see every Australian child given a fair go in life. Marcia Langton has described the failure of parents to send their children to school as ‘child abuse’. I agree. I urge a radical change in community attitudes to parity in school attendance and education standards for Indigenous children. If the community, our leaders, and especially parents, demand the right of children to be educated, so too will our school systems change to provide every opportunity for Indigenous children to reach their full potential.

In a nutshell, it’s time to end the paternalism, to expect able first Australians to stand on their own feet and become independent, and for governments and government-funded non-government organisations (NGOs) to remove the impediments so that they can.

Almost half of our first Australians have already stepped up and are not disadvantaged. They enjoystrong family lives and are living proof that the disparity can end. They lead successful lives andhave successful careers. They receive a good education, are employed, pay taxes and support theirfamilies. They are succeeding, like us, because of education and employment.

  • At the highest levels of education there is no gap between the employment rate of firstAustralians and other Australians. In fact, first Australian women with a degree have higheremployment rates than their counterparts.
  • The number of Indigenous students in higher education has increased steadily. Between 2003and 2012 the total number of Indigenous students enrolled in higher education increased bymore than 40%.
  • Indigenous women account for almost two-thirds of the total number of Indigenous higher education students.
  • The Indigenous Home Ownership Programme has generated $1.9 billion in wealth to first Australians who now own their own homes.

Whichever way you look at this, only employment will end the disparity, and employment is only possible if we remove all impediments to parity in education.

Given the undeniable fact that there is no employment gap, or disparity, for first Australians who are educated at the same level as other Australians, the full force of our community leaders and governments must pack behind the achievement of parity in educational outcomes as the national priority. This starts with individual responsibility during pregnancy, intensive early childhood preparation and decent schooling. It doesn’t mean more money—it does mean we empower our education and training institutions with expectations and the tools to remove the disparity in results between first Australians and other Australians.

An additional 188,000 Indigenous Australians will have to find work in the next five years if we are toachieve parity. This will require a doubling of the current number of working first Australians.

No existing federal, state or territory government policy has any hope of meeting this challenge if the current policies continue.

We have failed so far because there is:

  • a reliance by governments on more public servants and service providers to make thenecessary changes rather than empowering first Australians themselves
  • a lack of coordination and collaboration in Commonwealth and state and territory policies andprogrammes and how they are implemented
  • an almost exclusive focus by governments on treating the symptoms of entrencheddisadvantage, rather than preventing it, so success is limited and very expensive
  • drawn-out approaches, such as targets to only halve employment disparity, thereforeextending the trajectory of cost, lost opportunity and misery to individuals and to the country
  • a lack of accountability for results, with service delivery and welfare systems that entrenchpassive income lifestyles for providers and recipients.

We have no interest in merely halving the employment gap. These piecemeal efforts simply justify a thousand different, small, yet highly expensive measures that may or may not work. They also cost the taxpayer a fortune. Projects that exist on government funding but do not measure themselves against highly capable and transparent outcomes should be discarded. We already have massive levers we have not yet used to end the disparity—the power of the market, enforcing truancy laws and changing our attitudes to expect and demand more for first Australians.

One of the elements we need to address quickly is the lack of cooperation between the states and territories and the Commonwealth. It is vital that the jurisdictions cooperate fully in the implementation of these measures.

The cooperation ‘gap’ must not continue. The politician or public servant to resist this process must, by their behaviour, be deemed as having little priority for creating parity with their fellow Australians.

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