July 10, 2008

A conference, language policy and Aboriginal languages in Federal Parliament

The other day, I was priveleged in attending a TESOL symposium about 'Keeping Language Diversity Alive'. One of the speakers, Joseph Lo Bianco was excellent and discussed Language Policy. He gave a handout at one of his sessions that I'm going to type out in full here, because it was a real eye-opener. It's from the Official Hansard of the Federal Parliament from a debate that happened on 10/12/98. Here's how it went:

Mr SNOWDON: My question is to the Prime Minister. Is the Prime Minister aware of the decision by the Northern Territory government to phase out bilingual education in Aboriginal schools? Is the Prime Minister also aware that his government funds bilingual education programs in Papua New Guinea and Vietnam? Prime Minister, given that article 26(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children, will you take a direct approach to the Northern Territory government, asking them to ensure that bilingual education continues to be available in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory?
Dr KEMP: I find it incredible that a question about literacy amongst indigenous Australian should be raised by the Labor Party.
Opposition membes interjecting -
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Fowler, the member for Kingsford-Smith and the member for the Northern Territory will exercise a great deal more restraint or I will be forced to warn them.
Mr SNOWDON: Mr Speaker, on a point of relevance: bilingual programs are about cultural maintenance as well as literacy. That is something this minister does not appreciate. He knows nothing about Aboriginal education or employment.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Northern Territory has been warned.
Mr Adams interjecting
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Lyons will exercise some restraint as well. The minister has been on his feet for 11 seconds. I will not tolerate this level of interjection and noise. Let that be understood by those on both sides of the House. The minister has the call.
Dr KEMP: As I said in my first 11 seconds, I find it incredible that the Labor Party would raise a question concerning literacy amongst indigenous young people. After their 13 years in office, we have now discovered that 70 per cent of indigenous students are below the national standard.
Mr LEE: Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. You have admonished members of the House not to use scorn and ridicule and that is the very thing which this minister is doing. When are you going to take some action about it?
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Dobell will resume his seat. I have also been admonished by the House for commenting, but allow me to say to the member for Dobell that if I were to run a scorn and derision meter on comments made by the members for Batman or Hotham, or members on the government front bench, it would be running neck and neck.
Mr MARTIN FERGUSON: Why don't you name them?
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Batman makes a quite inappropriate interjection. The minister has the call.
Dr KEMP: It is the coalition government which has been forced to address a problem which was totally ignored and neglected for 13 years. This question shows the blindness of the Labor Party when it comes to matters of educational equity.
Mr SNOWDON: Mr Speaker, on a point of relevance: this question related particularly to the issue of bilingual education. The minister has not even mentioned those words in his reply so far. It is also about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for the Northern Territory will resume his seat. The minister has the call. The minister has been perfectly relevant to the question asked and he has the call.
Dr KEMP: I was referring to the blindness of the Labor Party when it comes to fundamental issues of educational equity. The question asked about a Northern Territory bilingual program concerned with literacy education amongst young Northern Territorians. It has been up to this government to finally address the issue, not only amongst all young Australians, but amongst indigenous young Australians.
Dr THEOPHANOUS: Mr Speaker, on a point of relevance: there is a distinction between literacy and bilingual education, which has to do with education in Aboriginal languages. That is the issue. The issue is not the literacy issue; it has to do with-
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Calwell will resume his seat.
Dr THEOPHANOUS: Why don't you permit me-
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Calwell will resume his seat.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Barker will exercise some restraint. The minister has the call.
Dr KEMP: As the members of the Labor Party well know, one of the major reasons for these bilingual programs concerns the literacy skills of young people, and I am addressing that aspect of the question. Last week, I announced that the government would be putting in place a national literacy program for indigenous Australians. That program will be an effective program because, for the first time, we will have a program focused on outcomes, not rhetoric, not feel-good feelings in the stomach which we have had from the rhetoric-
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will resume his seat.
Dr KEMP: of the previous government for the last 13 years-
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will resume his seat. I will not tolerate ministers overriding the chair. I call the Leader of the Opposition.
Mr BEAZLEY: Mr Speaker, I take a point of order on relevance. It is the case that bilingual education is fundamental to the establishment of literacy. There is not a single commentator on literacy, as far as the Aboriginal community is concerned, that does not recognise that. Therefore, the question was directed not to the intentions of this government, but to the intentions of the government in relation to the action by the Northern Territory government, which is a direct attack on literacy in the Aboriginal community. What is he going to do about it?
Mr SPEAKER: The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat.
Dr KEMP: I didn't hear you, Mr Speaker, and I apologise for appearing to ignore you.
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will come to the question and deal with the question of bilingual education.
Dr KEMP: I announced last week that the government would be working with the states and territories, including the Northern Territory, to put in place for the first time a program for the education of indigenous young people, which will be focused on the actual outcomes of those programs. This government has already lifted spending on indigenous education. it is a government which is now putting more resources into outcomes focused programs.
Mr SNOWDON: Mr Speaker, I take a point of order on relevance. The question was whether the Prime Minister would approach the Northern Territory government about what they are going to do about bilingual education. The minster has not answered that question.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for the Northern Territory will resume his seat.
Mr Snowdon interjecting
Mr SPEAKER: I have no choice. The member for the Northern Territory is actually asking me to discharge him from the service of the House under standing order 304A - and I ask all members of the House to exercise, in this last question time, a little more restraint.
The honourable member for the Northern Territory thereupon withdrew from the chamber.
Mr MELHAM: I take a point of order, Mr Speaker. I draw your attention to standing order 99, 'Proceedings on question of order', which states: "Upon a question of order being raised, the Member called to order shall resume his or her seat, and after the question of order has been stated to the Speaker by the Member rising to the question of order, the Speaker shall give a ruling thereon." Mr Speaker, it is implicit in the standing orders that the member raising the point of order is entitled, as of right, to state their point of order before it is ruled on by you. Mr Speaker, I submit that you have overstated the position when you suspend him under the standing order for raising the point of order, when you have not given him his time to state the question.
Mr SPEAKER: I have a great deal of respect for the member for Banks.
Government members: Oh!
Mr SPEAKER: Order, members on my right! The member for Banks, given his logistical position in the chamber, may not have been aware of the fact that the member for the Northern Territory had stated his point of order and was, in fact, discharged from the service of the House for subsequent interjections.
Mr MELHAM: On a further point of order, Mr Speaker - in discharging him, you did not rule on his point of order in relation to relevance, and I ask you to do so.
Mr SPEAKER: I had, in fact, determined that the minister was being relevant, and it could scarcely be claimed, when he was dealing with education, particularly with literacy in the Northern Territory, that he was irrelevant to the question.
Dr KEMP: The government has also introduced, for the first time, intensive English as a second language courses for young indigenous students who do not have English as their first language. This is proving to be an exceptionally effective way of addressing the literacy needs of young people who are native speakers of a vernacular language. The government is very proud of the fact that it has faced up to these fundamental issues of educational equity in the Northern Territory and throughout Australia and we will continue to work with the Northern Territory government to achieve better outcomes.
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will resume his seat. I call the member for Denison on a point of order.
Government members: He has finished.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Denison is still entitled to his point of order.
Mr KERR: Thank you, Mr Speaker. My point of order is again on relevance, because the question was about whether education is to be conducted in a single language or in two languages, and the human rights that are entailed. He has avoided it.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Denison will resume his seat. The minster had, in fact, dealt with the relationship he was having with the Northern Territory government and was, in that sense, fully relevant.


Goodness me. To me, there is so much wrong with that. Firstly, the dismissal of Human Rights and then the lack of knowledge about bilingual education. During the session, Joseph Lo Bianco asked the audience, 'After reading that, how do you rate the chances of language diversity surviving in Australia: high, medium, low or no chance'. The reply was a resounding 'no chance'.

And the killer punchline. The above extract is actually the ONLY time Aboriginal languages have been discussed in the Federal Parliament in the last twenty years.

Goodness me. Time for some action and policy methinks!


Anonymous said...

I think your passion for and understanding of Aboriginal languages must make you a real asset in the world of linguistics and TESOL. I can see you becoming a high profile campaigner....your blog is always very interesting.

Catalin said...

Wow. Thanks for including that transcript which was interesting to me not just for content but for a glimpse at your parliament that I've never seen.

The focus on finger-pointing and discussing whether the initial question was being addressed far overshadowed any real discussion of the issues.

Is there any other types of bilingual education in Australia? (like Chinese-English, etc.)

bulanjdjan said...

Thanks for that Wamut. Wow, wow. How... depressing.

I think it takes a sustained, well-resourced and clever campaign to see the change you're after. Which probably means we need some good lobbyists.

FATSIL are supposed to be the national advocates for this, but I don't think they've made much headway.

The NILS report recommended a national language centre, and delegates at the Western Australian State Language Centres Conference discussed what role this language centre may play (i.e. representative of other language centres, or some kind of regulatory body).

I think the first step would be to lobby to get the recommendations of the NILS report implemented, then use a national language centre to maintain pressure on various issues, such as bilingual education etc.

bulanjdjan said...

A national language centre might also be a good co-ordinating 'operations' centre to direct research on topics which are important for lobbying - e.g. the need to use plain English, the ridiculousness of the 'learning language means students can't learn English' argument, etc.

Anonymous said...

should we write letters?

Wamut said...

Letters always help I reckon. Letters to local media. Letters to politicians. Comments on blogs and websites. Anything to keep reminding ppl that these languages are out there and need support. And if you know some Language, chuck that it in too! The more you use Language the stronger it gets!

NT has an election coming up. I wonder if we could get Aboriginal languages on the radar. Sounds impossible, but it's worth a shot!