Indigenous reality check for Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the tip of Cape York

Prime Minister Tony Abbott joins the Remote School Attendance Strategy bus to collect schoolchildren in Bamaga during his Cape York visit. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Got it nailed: Mr Abbott, with nail in his mouth, helps build a cubby house at Bamaga Senior School. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
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Mr Abbott at work on the cubby house. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

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Bamaga, Cape York: Tony Abbott has given Indigenous people some prospect of more control over how the money is spent in their communities after receiving a heartfelt plea from a regional leader on the tip of Cape York.

The Prime Minister was given a blunt reality check after arriving at communities where primary school attendance is improving but the gap in other areas between mainstream and Indigenous Australians is widening.

The mayor of the Northern Peninsula Area, Bernard Charlie, delivered his impassioned plea after Mr Abbott arrived at Bamaga, about 40 kilometres from the cape’s northern tip. He detailed his concerns during a meeting with the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon.

“I cannot continue to witness another generation of our families be exposed to an outdated system of governance and ancient thinking of paternalism and integration that continues to haunt and fail our community miserably,” Mr Charlie said in his speech welcoming Mr Abbott to the area.

“We continue to experience high levels of poor health outcomes, whereby our Indigenous people’s life expectancy is greatly reducing to around 45 years.

“Our people are considered ‘lucky’ to reach 50 years of age and continue to experience a high level of unemployment, low-skilled jobs and low standard of educational outcomes across all critical years of learning.”

Other concerns included the high cost of living and the trend towards government services being provided by outside providers “when we have the capacity and capability to deliver locally”.

The 40-year-old mayor is one of six children who grew up in a broken home. He told Fairfax Media how he was belted by the local sergeant for walking the streets after a 9pm curfew because his parents were drinking and fighting at home.

“The system failed me. Government decisions were made for us elsewhere and I couldn’t stand living that life. It made me become a politician.”

Mr Abbott replied that he could understand the feeling of powerlessness, but maintained there was “less and less reason for that today”.

He suggested that the government was looking at a trade-off whereby communities would be given more autonomy in return “for a serious effort to get the kids to school, the adults to work and the community safe”.

“Certainly we are prepared to consider allowing communities much more control over the discretionary government funding that goes into them,” Mr Abbott said.

The government received a blueprint for change called Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples in March, crafted by several Indigenous leaders and aimed at driving change and ending wasteful spending. Mr Abbott on Wednesday promised a response by the end of the year.

He arrived with half-a-dozen ministerial colleagues and department heads in what he described as the “biggest official delegation ever to this part of the world”.

After two days highlighted by moving ceremony in the Torres Strait, the focus was on education and Mr Abbott began the day observing the “remote school attendance strategy” in action before sitting in on lessons in the classroom.

“I think everyone should be encouraged by what’s happening here at Bamaga and in many other parts of remote Australia right now. Certainly I’m encouraged,” he said.

Robbie Tamwoy, who manages the program, said the strategy focuses on home visits to families whose children are not going to school and has achieved remarkable results in the two local primary schools. At Bamaga Junior School about 50 of the 300 students had attendance rates of 90 per cent or better.

But Mr Tamwoy said the challenge was much greater at the local high school where attendance was about 50 per cent and “60 per cent on a good day”. One driver of low attendance was the area’s high unemployment level.

Mr Charlie said he was pleased Mr Abbott and so many ministers and officials were in the area “to experience what we have been saying all along”.

“In order to change, it has to go from inside out. They have to see how we want to change, rather than do what some uni student from down south thinks is best for us.”

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