The Mparntwe Declaration was released at the end of last year. I do not use the official full title of the document on purpose. I do this as a final hurrah to 2019, the Year of Indigenous Languages and I do this because, as was pointed out, this was the first time a national education declaration has included Indigenous language in its title. I do this to emphasise that we are on Aboriginal lands first and foremost.
You would be forgiven for not knowing much about the Mparntwe Declaration as it was revealed with little fanfare in mid-December last year, just as 2019 end of year festivities began, the White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted and an awareness of the horrors of Australia’s bushfires was growing.
But I don’t want the declaration to slip away from public scrutiny before we have had a good look at it and note what is happening. The Mparntwe Declaration is our new national declaration on education in Australia. It sets the national vision and goals for education for all Australians, agreed on by all of the education ministers in Australia. It replaces the Melbourne Declaration which supposedly did the same thing back in 2008.
You have probably already forgotten the turmoil involved, also at the end of 2019, when the latest PISA results were published, just a week before the Mparntwe Declaration was announced. At the time Australian Education Minister, Dan Tehan, told us that “alarm bells should be ringing” over poor student test results and states and territories needed to “get back to basics”.
It is ironic to me just a week later we were provided with a national education policy which simply rephrases and reinstates the old Melbourne Declaration. How can anything change if we are just given a rehash of the same things? Let me explain.
As with the Melbourne Declaration, the Mparntwe Declaration has two goals. Here are the two sets of goals. To me, they are the same goals simply rephrased.
Melbourne Declaration 2008
Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence
Goal 2: All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens
Goal 1: The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity
Goal 2: All young Australians become conﬁdent and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community
The ‘elaborations’ which follow each goal are also mostly a rehash. But there are some differences and I found them interesting.
Comparisons of the elaborations of Goal 1
The first elaboration of the first goal in the Melbourne Declaration was to “provide all students with access to high quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, culture, ethnicity, religion, health or disability, socioeconomic background or geographic location”. It has been extended in the Mparntwe Declaration with an additional bullet point stating another parameter is to “recognize the individual needs of all young Australians, identify barriers that can be addressed, and empower learners to overcome barriers”.
So the social justice agenda found within the Melbourne Declaration is elaborated in the Mparntwe Declaration with additional bullet points on the needs of all young Australians who face disadvantage when engaging and/or accessing education.
If ordering is an indication of priority, we can note that the dot point “ensure that learning is built on and includes local, regional and national cultural knowledge and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and work in partnership with local communities” has been moved from the second bullet point in the Melbourne Declaration to seventh bullet point in the Mparntwe Declaration.
Also the emphasis placed in the Melbourne Declaration to “promote high expectations for the learning outcomes of Indigenous students” has been removed from the Mparntwe Declaration and is encompassed within the new bullet point whereby “young Australians of all backgrounds are supported to achieve their full educational potential”.
While the silence of the specific references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students may be in effect to address deficit discourses of the previous Melbourne Declaration, the stronghold of colonial norms of deficit remains.
That is, the Education Council’s website (the website of all education ministers) may well state that “through the Declaration, Australian Governments also renewed their commitment to celebrating and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge and histories and ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are supported to imagine, discover and unlock their potential”, (note the commitment to celebrating and learning from) however newspaper articles across Australia continue to espouse colonial rhetoric by highlighting “the OECD pointed out that, in maths and reading, Indigenous students are lagging behind their non-Indigenous counterparts by two-and-a-half years and two-and-a-third-years, respectively.”
Comparisons of the elaborations of Goal 2
Goal 2 has remained essentially the same, although the order in which the previous parameters were stated have changed, as well as an elaboration, and there is a refinement of the key points.
Within the area of Confident and creative individuals, all of the nine dot points from the Melbourne Declaration have been maintained with the notable addition of ‘imagination’ to the Mparntwe Declaration – “have the imagination, knowledge, skills, understanding and values to establish and maintain healthy, satisfying lives”(my emphasis added).
Is the inclusion of ‘imagination” here a nod to the Imagination Declaration released in 2019? The Imagination Declaration is a group declaration by young Indigenous people who had gathered in East Arnhem Land in 2019 for a Youth Forum. It was a message to the Prime Minister and education ministers asking them to “imagine what’s possible” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. Famously, the declaration said, “We are not the problem, we are the solution”.
I ‘d like to know the purpose of using this term here in the Mparntwe Declaration. The Oxford dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses” or “the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful” – pray then why would people need to form new ideas or be creative when it comes to simply living?
The doom and gloom and neoliberalist ideologies of self-empowerment do not end there, as in addition to the previous Melbourne Declaration bullet points, the Mparntwe Declaration includes the need to be “resilient and develop the skills and strategy […] need[ed] to tackle current and future challenges” as well as to be “able to recognize, adapt to, and manage change” all while “understand[ing our] responsibilities as global citizens and know how to affect positive change [and still] have a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning that enable[s students] to thrive in their learning environment[s]”.
Interestingly enough, there seems to be a shift from engaging with our “Asian neighbours” in the Melbourne Declaration, to engaging with our to “Indo-Pacific neighbours” in the Mparntwe Declaration The change in term of reference from Asia to Indo-Pacific aligns with the joint statement from ASEAN earlier this year. The Mparntwe Declaration seems to be neatening up the edges of policy and ensuring that it is aligned to the changing attitudes of colonial Australia.
This becomes explicit when we consider that hidden within the rhetoric is also the push for the recognition of colonial Australia and a nod to conservatives by encouraging students to “have an understanding of Australia’s system of government, its histories, religions and culture”. Not only is the fear of the fall of Western civilization addressed with this simple parameter but also, ensures an easy ride in for the religious discrimination bill currently in its second draft.
The Mparntwe Declaration’s Commitment to Action section has also remained virtually the same as the Melbourne Declaration but with some distinct exceptions. Most notably in my field, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education has been singled out from other marginalized groups as a central focus area needing its own commitment. I have written about the tensions of Indigenous education policy previously in this blog in Words matter: how the latest school funding report (Gonski 2.0) gets it so wrong, and in The Conversation in There’s little reason for optimism about Closing the Gap, despite changes to education targets.
And though I acknowledge the need for a specific target, my fear is it places Indigeneity in a silo rather than recognising the complexity of humans.
The elaboration of the Commitment to Action in the Mparntwe Declaration on supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners to reach their potential has drawn from a variety of already existing policies hodge-podged together. For example, the Vision from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy is present verbatim. Statements directly from the Melbourne Declaration in the previous Commitment to Action that looked to improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous youth and disadvantaged young Australians have been borrowed. Other components of this section are the reformation and re-imagining of statements made within the 2019 Closing the Gap: Prime Minister’s Report.
More notably, what is the ‘education community’ so consistently referenced in the Mparntwe Declaration? There is no definition of who makes up the ‘community’? Is this the new term of reference for the stakeholders? An attempt to remove the perceived commodification and marketisation of education to the notion of a community suggesting a relationship?
Very little to nothing is new or visionary in the Mparntwe Declaration. Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘back to basics’? Rehash what has been said already with some minor changes to address political agendas and then wonder why our educational outcomes are not changing.
Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne. Prior to entering academia Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education. Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice. Her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy” was recently awarded the Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education.