20/06/2012

Ms HARTLAND (Western Metropolitan) -- I move:

That this house takes note of the petition tabled on 6 June 2012 bearing 791 signatures from certain citizens of Victoria requesting the Legislative Council take action to save the full-time diploma of Auslan course at Kangan Institute, thereby ensuring the continuation of comprehensive high-level Auslan training.

(THE PETITION) "This diploma course is the only one of its kind in Victoria providing comprehensive, high-level Auslan training. With the closure of this course, students will no longer have the opportunity to attain the high-level language fluency necessary to progress to postgraduate interpreting courses or effectively work within other integral areas of the deaf community.

The result will place increased strain on an already understaffed Auslan interpreting pool and be a devastating setback to the rights of deaf people and other disability groups which rely on Auslan as a means of communication. The petitioners therefore requested that the Legislative Council of Victoria take action to save the full-time diploma of Auslan course at Kangan Institute of TAFE, thereby ensuring the continuation of comprehensive, high-level Auslan training.

(Colleen's speech): 

Today is the winter solstice: the darkest day of the year, with the longest night. It has been a heavy winter for the Deaf community, with the loss of the diploma of Auslan and with it the potential loss of some of their human rights. But I also hope this winter solstice marks the beginning of a season where the days will become brighter. To me, having an Auslan interpreter on the floor of the Parliament is like a beam of winter sunshine.

Auslan -- Australian Sign Language -- is the voice of the Deaf community. It is uniquely Australian because it evolved here as a natural language, influenced by other languages but uniquely belonging to us. Now for the first time it is being spoken officially in this Parliament, and I am very grateful for the enthusiasm and warmth the party leaders and the President showed towards this idea.

Even before we started this debate, we all equally agreed that we wanted to include the Deaf community in this place and that a professional, accredited Auslan interpreter was the way to do it. That is a good foundation for this debate. I also note that the Minister for Higher Education and Skills has recently made a public statement on Auslan education that showed an understanding of the issues and which has been warmly received by the community.

I will not use this debate to bring up past issues or divide this Parliament. I will ask the government for specific measures to keep Auslan education alive in the short term and longer term. I ask that the minister speaks to these questions in his response. My statements, questions and requests will not be my own; I asked the Auslan-speaking community and the professional sector to tell me what they wanted me to say, so I am speaking with their voice.

First, I will outline the issues using the joint position statement of Deaf Victoria, Vicdeaf and the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association as my guide. The minister has a copy of the joint position statement, and I would welcome the minister's answer to any of the questions posed in it.

The Auslan diploma at the Kangan Institute is central to Deaf Victorians' access within the wider community and central to the provision of human rights to the community. There is already a critical shortage of skilled interpreters. Interpreters are trained at RMIT through diploma and advanced diploma of interpreting courses, but you have to be bilingual and multicultural to gain entry. The Kangan Institute Auslan diploma provides the only professional education pathway to those courses.

If we are honest in our commitment to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, we must provide access to education, health, justice and work opportunities to people who are Deaf. We can only do that if we train enough interpreters. We are fast approaching a situation where service providers are vulnerable to legal action because they cannot meet their legal requirement to provide equal access because there are not enough interpreters.

Auslan is not only for people who are Deaf. It is also something you can study if your children are Deaf, if you lose your hearing, if your friends areDeaf, if you want to train for a meaningful job or if you just think Auslan is beautiful. In the last few weeks I have learnt how beautiful it is.

The students at Kangan mostly have hearing, so Auslan is not their first language. In order to become fluent they need a full-time, immersion-style class. It is not enough to have a few contact hours and practice at home.

This is not Auslan for tourists to a foreign land of Deaf people where you need enough to get by and then you go home; Auslan is an Australian language for people who live here and speak it every day -- at home, in business meetings, in university lectures, at weddings, at funerals, in doctors appointments, at cricket matches, at barbecues and at the beach.

Last night I received an email from Darren Miller, who said:

I am an indigenous man that is doing my diploma in Auslan. I started at the start of this year in group 40. I travel from Numurkah to Melbourne leaving my wife and three young children every Sunday to stay in Melbourne the week to do the course and return back home on the weekend to see my family. I hope that the government see sense and continues this course. My brother is profoundly deaf and I have seen the problems he has with getting interpreters.
He wished us luck today, but he will not be here, as he has gone home to be with his family.

The peak industry bodies, including Deaf Victoria, Vicdeaf and the two Auslan interpreting bodies, are willing to be flexible in finding a solution, but they are united in their belief that there must be a full-time diploma of Auslan. My first question to the minister is: is he committed to retaining a full-time, two-year, face-to-face diploma of Auslan as part of the future of Auslan education? Will he ensure that Auslan courses are funded at an appropriate level to allow a registered training organisation or a TAFE to run viable and sustainable high-level Auslan training? I am interested in hearing about all the latest multimodal methods of delivering education programs using online gadgets and whatever else, and everyone keeps talking about being flexible, but I would like to establish the full-time, two-year, face-to-face diploma as the common factor.

Once that is established, my next question is obvious: can the minister put in place measures that will ensure the continuation of the Auslan diploma course at Kangan Institute until the new measures are in place? Students are part-way through their courses, while two teachers have already been made redundant. There is literally nowhere else on the eastern seaboard of Australia for the students to continue their studies. It is the most terribly sad situation. I quoted Darren Miller earlier. He said he is in group 40. This means he is not due to complete his course until December 2013. He will be left stranded.

Another student, Brenda McKinty, has been in touch with my office.

When the course closes this incredibly bright and capable mother of two will be left stranded with no diploma and not enough fluency to apply for an interpreter course. Fast-tracking her course is not an option; it is hard enough for single parents to study full time, let alone do extra hours. She says:

There is something you need to understand about the unique nature of this course. Each teacher has a particular speciality -- to remove one and ask another teacher to take their subjects is like making the geography teacher redundant, then asking the maths teacher to teach geography as well.
She went on to describe the unique special skills of teachers in the Kangan course. As I said, two have already been made redundant, one of whom is Anne Bremner. Those teachers give an insight into linguistics, interpreting Deaf culture and community issues. Brenda's email typifies the thirst for learning of Auslan students.

They value the unique knowledge and perspective their teachers can provide, especially teachers from the Deaf community, like Ms Bremner.

Can the minister tell the house that he will take action that is within his power to keep the diploma of Auslan going in the short term? The peak bodies have made two suggestions as to how the minister might help them in the short term. They are recommendations 4 and 5 of the joint position statement: firstly, to reclassify the diploma of Auslan and its embedded courses into a foundation level, thereby removing the eligibility criteria which have led to low enrolments, and secondly, to create greater flexibility in the eligibility criteria so people with existing qualifications can study the full-time diploma. This would also help provide Victoria with more interpreters who, with the help of their higher qualifications, can interpret in high-level settings such as higher education, legal proceedings and the Parliament of Victoria.

My final request to the minister in relation to this issue is that he outline what research and long-term measures his government is committed to making, or at least what avenues his government is presently exploring, with a view to creating a long-term, stable atmosphere for Auslan education.

I will finish by thanking the Deaf community for their participation in such a positive, creative and well-organised campaign. I particularly thank my friend, whom I will not name, who delights my office by turning up on his bicycle when we least expect it to tell us about the latest in the campaign for cinema access or very loud rock concerts and who first alerted me to the threat to the Auslan diploma. It is for him and other members of the Deaf community, their friends, their families and the staff at Kangan TAFE that I brought on this debate today.

Ms MIKAKOS (Northern Metropolitan) -- I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue of Auslan courses in Victoria on behalf of the Labor opposition.

I point out that we did not need to have this debate to enable the minister to fix this problem; he has had the ability since this issue was first identified to step in and provide the necessary funding to ensure that the Kangan Institute is able to continue the Auslan course. I want to put on the record that a number of my colleagues have been very strong advocates on this issue, in particular the shadow minister for higher education, Steve Herbert, the member for Eltham in the Assembly, and also Mr Leane, a member of this house, who has also been very closely associated with this issue, as have many other Labor members of Parliament.

Auslan is the Australian sign language and is the primary language for deaf people in our community. It is even the preferred language of many deaf people who do not have deaf parents but have learnt Auslan later in their lives.

We certainly heard from Ms Hartland in her contribution the very practical and necessary way in which people use Auslan in going about their daily business and how important and invaluable it is to them.

A diploma in Auslan is generally the precursor to starting work as an interpreter, and the value and importance of this is no more evident than today when we have an Auslan interpreter with us in the gallery. I believe this might be the first occasion that this has occurred in the Legislative Council, but I am not certain of that. It has occurred in the past in the Legislative Assembly. When I checked Hansard I found it was the member for Pascoe Vale in the Assembly, Christine Campbell, who was then Minister for Community Services in the early years of the Bracks government -- in 2000 -- who organised for Auslan interpreters to attend question time during International Week of Deaf Persons. I believe that it has occurred on several occasions during question time and other proceedings of the Legislative Assembly. It would be nice to have it occur on a more regular basis during that week in both houses of Parliament in future.

Whilst having an interpreter here is important and perhaps historic, it is unfortunate that it is occurring in such dreadful circumstances when the Auslan course is being defunded, rather than being done in a more celebratory, positive way on another occasion.

Having an interpreter here serves to remind us all of the importance of the Auslan language and making sure that all members of our community can observe and participate in the political process and the broader community.

In addressing the background to the way this issue has arisen, I remind members that last year the Baillieu government announced $50 million in cuts to Victorian certificate of applied learning programs and a further $40 million in cuts to the TAFE sector. In response to this, Gippsland TAFE announced that it would be unable to continue to offer Auslan courses post 2011. The member for Eltham in the other place, Steve Herbert, who is the shadow minister for higher education, raised this issue on 13 March. The response from the government had been that there was a solution for these students, which was to rely on the Kangan Institute for an alternative course.

In essence, the government's response in March was to say that deaf students in Gippsland -- that is, in Moe, Morwell, Sale or Traralgon -- would need to get on a train and get to Richmond in order to undertake an Auslan course.

Bad as that was, things have since gotten even worse. Following the Baillieu government's decision in this year's budget to remove a further $290 million in funding from Victoria's TAFE sector, Kangan Institute recently announced that its Auslan course has become unviable and will therefore no longer continue beyond this year. Kangan Institute is the only Victorian TAFE to offer the Auslan diploma since Gippsland TAFE withdrew its course last year. This issue was raised by Mr Herbert in the Legislative Assembly on 22 May.

The Minister for Higher Education and Skills has sought to deflect responsibility for this issue and has been blaming everyone but himself.

I put on record some comments made by Kangan Institute on 22 May in a statement headed 'Official statement -- Auslan course closures at Kangan Institute'. It is Kangan's explanation as to why the decision was made. In part it says:

Kangan Institute has today confirmed that Auslan courses have become unviable due to a combination of state government cuts to 'full service provider' funds which helped provide expensive student support services as a community service obligation, and subsidy price equalisation with private providers.
Graduates tend to move on to meaningful, but not highly paid, positions assisting the deaf community. Full fee-for-service options are demonstrably too expensive for students who are seeking these qualifications.
I will not quote the whole document because it is quite lengthy, but Kangan Institute itself has put on record that it believes this step is being taken as a result of what has happened in the state budget. It apologises to the deaf community for the distress it has caused by what it goes on to say are 'unplanned outcomes resulting from measures in the state budget'. Kangan Institute is certainly pointing the finger at the government in relation to this issue.

I know Minister Hall in his media release of 23 May stated that Kangan Institute had long wanted to withdraw the Auslan course. In fact this has proven not to be the case. The minister also stated in his release that the government:

... commenced discussions with Vicdeaf about the future delivery of Auslan in Victoria in October 2011.
It is now many months since the Baillieu government began its discussions. We are none the wiser about it, but we have had the whole issue thrown into question because the minister claimed that NSWDeaf, a New South Wales registered training organisation, was in negotiation with the government about providing a course in Victoria. The Deaf Society of New South Wales subsequently released a statement negating this fact, stating that it has no intention of facilitating a diploma of Auslan in Victoria now or in the future. It appears that on numerous occasions the minister has been trying to walk away from accepting responsibility for the loss of Auslan courses as a direct result of his government's savage budget cuts to the TAFE sector.

The latest information that I am aware of is that the minister released a statement last week, on 14 June, saying that the government was working with Kangan Institute regarding the delivery of its Auslan program. I certainly hope those discussions come to fruition.

I raised this issue with the minister in an adjournment debate during the last sitting week and asked him to give a guarantee about whether he would continue this course at Kangan. I look forward to receiving the minister's response soon.

I hope he agrees to do so today, but to date he has failed to give a guarantee that he will commit the necessary funding needed to keep this important diploma going in Victoria. During an adjournment debate in the last sitting week I read a quote from the chair of the Auslan Interpreting Industry Forum Victoria, Susan Emerson, who is quoted in the May edition of Deaf Australia's Outlook. I want to read that quote into the record again. It says:

... without access to interpreters, the experiences of deaf people are entirely commensurate with the wheelchair user who faces a flight of stairs and no ramp.
I think that says a lot in terms of the importance of this course and the importance of the Auslan language to the deaf community of Victoria.

 

I know we are not meant to refer to people in the public gallery, but I had an opportunity to meet some people earlier, and I learnt that the sign I am making with my hand is the sign for hope. I hope the minister will move to fix the issue of funding Auslan as soon as possible. I thank Ms Hartland for bringing this debate to the house today. We on this side of the chamber will continue to work and advocate on behalf of those members of our community who rely on Auslan, and I hope the minister will give us a favourable response today.

Hon. P. R. HALL (Minister for Higher Education and Skills) -- I welcome the opportunity to contribute to further debate on this issue. On a number of occasions I have had the opportunity to respond to members when this issue has been raised with me. From the very first of those responses I do not think anyone would doubt the commitment that I have continually demonstrated to resolve this issue and therefore meet the needs of the deaf community in Victoria.

I can recall my very first response to a question, which I think was raised by Ms Hartland. I said we would stand by the deaf community and ensure that we find a solution for the delivery of Auslan programs in Victoria. I remain committed to that, and I have emphasised that on every occasion that I have had a chance to response in this chamber and publicly as well. Both members who have spoken before me in this debate have mentioned the commitment and statement that now sits on Deaf Victoria's website, so I do not think anyone can challenge the commitment the government has in terms of finding a solution to this issue.

I am also not interested in playing politics with this issue. I thought it was a bit rich of the previous speaker to start talking about government members blaming anyone but themselves for this particular problem. I am not going to go through the history, except to say that concerns about the viability of the delivery of these programs were around long before this government took office.

I could put on the record documentation in which concerns have been expressed by various people and providers over a period of time well before the current government came to office. I could go back to that, but I do not think that is worthwhile, because what the people of Victoria and in particular the deaf community want to see is a solution, and that is what I am interested in finding.

When I last spoke in this chamber I said the government has a commitment to work with the deaf community and providers to find that solution, and that is what the government has been doing. Only last week I had the opportunity on two occasions to hold meetings with various members of the deaf community and providers for the deaf community. I was involved in personal meetings with these people. At one meeting, held in my electorate, I chatted to a representative from Deaf Access in the Gippsland region. We had a conversation in which I was able to get a handle on regional needs.

It is of interest that each Wednesday that person uses Skype to access an Auslan instructional program. He is using technology to improve his Auslan skills. Do not get me wrong; I am not talking about that as the solution, but using technology may well be part of it.

On another occasion I met with representatives of Deaf Victoria in my ministerial office. We had a very productive and constructive conversation about both the needs of the deaf community and the way in which those needs might be addressed. We had a very constructive dialogue that resulted in my request to the people from Deaf Victoria to document exactly what they feel is needed. That goes to the joint position statement, which was referred to by Ms Hartland in her contribution to the debate, in which a series of five recommendations are made. I think the basis of the questions that have been put to me during the course of this debate are embedded in those recommendations put forward by the deaf community, and I will respond to those in just a minute.

I want to mention the fact that my department has also been working with providers. There have been some lengthy conversations with Kangan Institute and Northern Metropolitan Institute of TAFE. Because of that fact there is a centre of excellence for the deaf and hearing impaired located within NMIT, departmental staff have been having those conversations about ongoing provision and the appropriateness of such provision. It is not as if we have been sitting and doing nothing on this issue. I continue to work with the deaf community to ensure that we find a solution to this issue.

As I said, the position statement put forward jointly by Deaf Victoria, Vicdeaf and the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association makes five recommendations. The first is for the sector to urge the government to commission research to explore new and flexible models of delivery of Auslan certificates II to IV and the diploma on a statewide basis using multimodal approaches. I am more than happy to give a commitment for that work to be undertaken, because there is no doubt an elaboration of that recommendation says face-to-face delivery is important.

I fully accept that, but at the same time there is an opportunity to extend delivery of some of these programs, particularly to the regions, and that is where I see technology being able to assist in terms of meeting regional needs.

As I said earlier a Deaf Access representative in one region uses Skype, which I would describe as a low-level video technology method, to keep in touch with studies that he is undertaking, but I think there is better technology that has the potential to do that in a more sophisticated manner or using better imagery.

Now that we are seeing successively fewer providers who have the scope to deliver Auslan programs exercising that ability to deliver -- GippsTAFE, which ceased delivery of some of those programs in October last year, has been referred to -- it is important that we look towards providing some regional delivery.

By using technology there is a chance that people in regional centres throughout the state may be able to hook into and participate in some of those training programs delivered elsewhere. Mind you, I do not exclude the possibility of a central point of delivery potentially being a regional area itself. For some it does not matter where you are delivering from if you are using technology to hook into a particular program that is being delivered. I have no problem in committing to those first recommendations and, having undertaken that research, looking at ways in which we could explore methods of delivery so that more people are able to participate in those programs.

That recommendation also suggests two bodies that are well positioned to undertake the research. One is the Centre of Excellence for Students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which is an agency auspiced by NMIT. It also mentioned the National Institute for Deaf Studies and Sign Language Research, which is located at La Trobe University.

I can assure members that those organisations will be included in our discussions to explore what contribution they can make to finding solutions.

The second recommendation talks about investment in curriculum and resources development to support multimodal delivery of Auslan training programs. Yes, it is acknowledged that there may be a cost in developing programs which can be delivered by multimodal means. Yes, there might be infrastructure costs required. Again, we are prepared to look at that. I think there will be an ongoing need for technology to enable the delivery of more training programs through digital means, and that is something that I am both cognisant of and committed to putting in place.

The third recommendation is for an investigation into the role that the newly established Victorian Deaf Education Institution could play in supporting the delivery of these programs.

It is interesting to recall the history of the premises in St Kilda Road from which VDEI will operate. A not dissimilar organisation, being Deaf Children Australia, worked from those premises and delivered the diploma of Auslan from that address. Again the suggestion is that VDEI be included in the discussions about finding a longer term solution to the problem, and again I have no problem in including that organisation in such discussions.

The fourth recommendation looks at identifying sustainable approaches and providing funding and suggests that one way of doing that may be a reclassification of the Auslan program as a foundation literacy program. I think there is merit in that. We are actively looking at that now.

The fifth recommendation says that perhaps we should be looking at the eligibility criteria. That is an option.

I am certainly prepared to give a commitment to examine each of the recommendations as a possible means of ensuring that we end up with a sustainable program that continues to deliver for the needs of deaf and hearing impaired people in Victoria. The five recommendations appear to form the basis of the questions posed to me by Ms Hartland during the course of the debate, the first one being, 'Is the minister committed to retaining a full-time, two-year, face-to-face diploma of Auslan as part of the future of Auslan education?'.

I have already said in my comments during the course of this debate that I am committed to finding a solution to the problem, and I see and acknowledge the fact that the face-to-face diploma is a necessary component of that solution. Yes, I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure the ongoing availability of that diploma program now and into the future. While we will explore whether the funding levels are appropriate or whether a means of making current ascribed funding levels affordable or funding sustainable might be increasing delivery through multimodal means, which we have spoken about during the course of this debate, one way or another I am committed to ensuring that we continue with that diploma.

The second question was, 'Can the minister put in place measures that will ensure the continuation of the current Auslan diploma course at Kangan Institute until the new measures are in place?'. Again, I am committed to finding a solution in a timely manner, and funding for this program continues right through to the end of this year, some six months hence. I acknowledge that 'in a timely manner' means well before that period of time has elapsed. I am determined to find a solution within that time period, in a timely manner, but that program will continue until such time as we find a solution.

I do not discount that the solution may be a continuation of that program. It may be the delivery of that program by somebody else; I do not know. But I am committed to finding a solution to that problem.

The third question was, 'Can the minister outline what research and long-term measures his government is committed to making?'. I think I have done that during the course of my answer where I said that in accepting the recommendations of the joint statement by the three bodies we are committed to using the suggestions put forward in that statement and the suggested organisations as appropriate research bodies to ensure that we undertake the necessary preparation so that the needs of the deaf community in Victoria continue to be met now and into the future. We will continue to work with the various organisations to ensure that that research is undertaken.

As I said, on each occasion I have had a chance to publicly comment on this issue I have re-expressed my commitment to working with the deaf community. I am happy for that work to be undertaken in a bipartisan way; I am not interested in playing politics on this issue, because every one of us in this chamber knows and respects the deaf community and people with a hearing impairment and recognises that they need services from government. We are committed to finding a solution. We will find it, and if we can do it collaboratively and in a bipartisan fashion, then I think it will reflect well on this Parliament.

Ms HARTLAND (Western Metropolitan) -- I thank Mr Hall and Ms Mikakos for their comments. Before I get into my reply, I wish to again thank everybody in the Parliament for helping to facilitate this debate. I especially want to thank Mr Leane, who enabled us to have a fixed time for this debate today. The effort he put into that is greatly appreciated.

I appreciate that Mr Hall is committed to this course and that he intends to resolve this matter in a timely manner, but we have to remember that two teachers from Kangan Institute of TAFE have already been made redundant. Is 'in a timely manner' going to be this year? Are the students who are already enrolled and halfway through their courses guaranteed that they will be able to finish their courses? As has been noted, we already have a vast shortage of interpreters, and we need to fix this problem.

I think one of the things that came out very strongly for me during this debate, and I acknowledge that the minister is someone who has a deep commitment to education in general, is that it feels as if the problems with this issue -- Kangan, not enough research and not enough good advice -- may have come from the minister's department, because all along there have been stumbling blocks about how to make it work. It seems as if the work that is needed to fix it did not happen at the start, so now we are trying to fix it as we go along.

This is an issue that can be dealt with in a bipartisan way because I think everybody in this chamber just wants it to be fixed. But I also say to the government that this is an issue that is not going away, and it is clear from the campaign being run by the Deaf community that it does not intend to give this up. For them this is an issue about basic human rights and their ability to be in the world and be able to communicate with everybody else.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT -- Order! Before I put the motion, I am sure all members of the house would like to join with me in thanking Mr Paul Heuston for his interpretation services today. He stood on his feet interpreting while four members spoke in this debate, or three members and the right of reply. A thankyou to him.

Motion agreed to.