In a major speech on reconciliation today, Mr Howard said improving education standards for young Aboriginal people was crucial to giving them a better path in life.
But high profile Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson, who also addressed the lunch in Melbourne, called on the prime minister to acknowledge that his shared responsibility approach to indigenous Australia was not working.
Mr Howard drew on 2004 figures that showed the full-time employment rate for indigenous graduates was 80.1 per cent, higher than the rate for non-indigenous graduates of 78.6 per cent.
He said average starting salaries for indigenous bachelor (degree) level graduates were also higher than for other graduates.
However, he acknowledged that the numbers of young Aborigines getting to this stage of education was still lower than the non-indigenous population, with forty per cent of indigenous students studying until Year 12 level in 2004 – half the rate in the non-indigenous population.
Shared responsibility ‘not delivering’
Professor Dodson said the government’s policy of mutual obligation in indigenous affairs was struggling under the weight of a centralised bureaucracy and a lack of funds, and the promise of involving Aboriginal people in finding local solutions to their problems was fading.
“You and I, prime minister, must be honest with each other and acknowledge that this promising approach is struggling to deliver,” Professor Dodson said.
“We are seeing serious problems in the bureaucracy’s capacity to make it work.
“There are serious questions about whether the shared responsibility framework is being played out on the ground in a way that gives indigenous people a real chance to make decisions that affect our lives.”
In the past, Professor Dodson has raised concerns about the government’s shared responsibility agreements with indigenous communities – where funding and services are linked to behavioural change like school attendance and hygiene.
Mr Howard said the proportion of indigenous adults with a vocational or higher education qualification had never been higher – but more work was needed to improve retention and completion rates.
But improving indigenous access to education required government, communities, families and individuals to work together, he said.
“It means governments delivering functional class rooms and good teachers. It means enforcing truancy laws and upholding education standards,” Mr Howard said.
“It means parents and carers making sure that children attend school every day, well fed and ready to learn.”
The government is promising to spend $2.1 billion on indigenous specific assistance to preschools, primary and secondary schools and tertiary providers between 2005 and 2008.
‘Practical’ reconciliation preferred
Mr Howard indicated improving educational opportunities for Aboriginal people as the kind of practical reconciliation he preferred.
But he warned that ensuring Aboriginal people had the same opportunities as non-indigenous Australians would be “the work of generations”.
However Professor Dodson said no partnership between the Aboriginal community and the government could be successful without addressing some of the issues Mr Howard has always put to the side, such as the stolen generations and a treaty.
He also said indigenous Australia needed real and ongoing funding to improve education and health standards, as well as housing.
However Professor Dodson, who has been fiercely critical of the government over its decision to abolish ATSIC and its 10-point Wik plan that eroded native title rights on farm land, said he was prepared to put aside differences to see reconciliation advance.