High expectations

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  • Published 20160802
  • ISBN: 978-1-925355-53-6
  • Extent: 264pp
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AS AN NRL commissioner, one of my duties was to be at the 2015 Telstra Premiership grand final. It was an epic match – easily one of the best grand finals ever. The Broncos defended their line fiercely and admirably for seventy-nine minutes and forty-five seconds. Then, just as even the most loyal of Cowboys fans – like me – had all but given up, Johnathon Thurston refused the siren and found his magical halves partner, Michael Morgan. Morgan took the ball with seconds remaining and conjured a play to put Kyle Feldt away in the corner, levelling the scores – the conversion to come all that was needed to win the game.

As if the football gods hadn’t messed with our heads enough, Thurston’s kick hit the post and the game went into extra time. The rest is history: the Cowboys capitalised on a Broncos error in front of the posts, and Thurston kicked the winning field goal. Cowboys fans started to cry, because we had waited for this moment for twenty years.

There are so many things that are special about this day and this game. After the lead-up game, an Indigenous captain held the NRL State Championship trophy aloft; after the premiership game, two Indigenous captains – Justin Hodges and Johnathon Thurston – led their teams in an epic grand final. This is the great thing about rugby league: the playing field is level. Indigenous players bring their strength and excellence, which is acknowledged and celebrated. Thurston and Hodges embrace after a game that was as fair as it was superb. Hodges is consoled by his dad and his wife, Thurston sits on the ground with his daughter, who holds her favourite black baby doll and gives her tired looking dad a hug and a kiss. Excellence and humanity at their best.

Earlier in the day, I had approached Malcolm Turnbull to congratulate him on his ascendency to the prime ministership, and his clever appointment of Senator Arthur Sinodinos to the role of Cabinet Secretary. I ventured that we might now have something that resembles a functional Cabinet, as opposed to the crippling centralised way of governing that many of us had become so frustrated with.

‘This whole Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs thing,’ I told him, ‘has done more harm than good, and seems to be more about gimmicks, personalities and polls, rather than proper policy process.’ The Minister for Indigenous Affairs must be trustworthy and able to get on with their role, without distractions and confusion over who is responsible for what.

Mr Turnbull then asked, ‘Chris, what are three things we can do in the Indigenous policy space to make a difference?’

‘I do have an answer for you,’ I said, ‘but I’ll have to get back to you with those three things at some stage soon.’ It’s too important and too complex a question to answer at an NRL grand final, and I did have to focus on the game.

So here I would like to offer just three things that we can do in the Indigenous policy space to make a difference. It occurred to me that the answer to Prime Minister Turnbull’s question was being played out right before us, on that epic NRL grand final night. On a level playing field we saw the humanity of Indigenous Australians authentically acknowledged, embraced with enthusiasm and celebrated with passion. We saw young Indigenous Australians nurtured by hope, which cultivated their strengths and excellence and encouraged them to chase down their dreams, no matter how lofty they seemed. We saw Indigenous leadership working together with non-Indigenous leadership in an honorable, high-expectations relationship.

This is the perfect analogy for the Australian society we can develop. There are three things we can do: acknowledge, embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians; bring us policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair; do things with us, not to us!


IT’S ALWAYS A complex challenge to reflect on our shared history in order to learn from the awful tragedies, without letting them define us in a way that might stifle our quest for shared emancipation into an honourable future. The truth is that there have been, and continue to be, many clear and graphic examples of where the humanity of Aboriginal Australians has either not been embraced and acknowledged, or has simply been undermined. It is also true that in some Aboriginal communities we observe what might be described as ‘subhuman’ behaviour. At the risk of rendering inculpable the despicable actions of some grossly misbehaved individuals, though, I would argue quite strongly that when we treat people as if they are subhuman then subhuman behaviour is likely to emerge.

I have never backed down from calling out such injustices on both sides of this relationship. But on this occasion, as I made clear at the outset, my point is simple and positive: our humanity exists! Our humanity exists and it must be acknowledged. It is worth embracing and celebrating. Our humanity has existed for millennia on this land we now share, and it continues to exist proudly, despite the efforts of postcolonial governments to smash us and smash us and smash us. Such efforts are futile – our humanity cannot ever be assimilated or destroyed. Nor should anyone want it to be, because we share ancient land – and so too do we share humanity.

When you embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians you embrace and celebrate your own humanity, because it is humanity that we share at our core. To explain this on a deeper level, let me reflect on some of my earlier work inspired by the late and very great modern-day philosopher, my dear friend Roy Bhaskar.

Bhaskar discussed the concept of the concrete universal, which has four dimensions. At its base is the notion of a core universal human nature – we are all part of the human race, and this should ensure unquestionable grounds for human rights. At a higher level, this basic core is acted upon or mediated through a variety of differentiae such as gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity and culture. The core and its mediations result in a concretely singularised individual. Added to this is the fourth dimension of processuality, or the rhythms of time in action.

The key to understanding the concept of the concrete universal is that it is part of a stratified ontology, or a layered idea of being human. In addition, the notion of processuality allows us to recognise that at differing times in the life of the individual, the mediations or the individuality acting on the core humanity can be of greater or less salience. If we can accept the terms of Bhaskar’s insights, then we have hope of being liberated from those toxic dynamics that are quintessential to the binary of mainstream and other, whereby mainstream is somehow ‘superior’.

Put simply, all of us are set free from the pressures of being one or the other. It becomes the case that we can be content with who we actually are, knowing that we can sometimes have strong resonance with a sense of being mainstream and, at other times in other contexts, we can have equally as strong resonance with a sense of being apart from it.

When I stand on the land of my father’s people, my people, at the village of Miglianico, in the province of Abbruzzo, Italy, my sense of being Italian resonates strongly for me. When I stand before the graves of my father’s parents, speaking Italian with my half-brother, Gulio, my sense of being Italian continues to resonate strongly and he embraces me as such. At my core I am human, and the resonance of my Italian ethnic differentiae is dramatically enhanced by processuality, which sees me on my father’s country at that moment in time. Significantly, my sense of being Aboriginal or Australian is not relinquished here; it simply does not resonate so strongly.

When I am at home, fishing in the Burnett River in Bundaberg and knowing my people have done this for many thousands of years, my sense of being Aboriginal is very strong. In this place at this point in time, I often look across the river to Paddy’s Island, a place where many of my ancestors were massacred, and wonder what life must have been like for them before, during and after this tragedy. At my core I am still human, but my sense of being Aboriginal resonates very strongly – enhanced by the sense of time and place that locates me. I have not relinquished my sense of being Italian or my sense of being Australian.

As I reflect on times when my sense of being Australian resonates more strongly I think of rugby league, of barbeques, of the beach. In a deeper sense, I think of when my mum’s house in Bundaberg was completely flooded by the devastating January 2013 floods and a ‘mud army’ of volunteers, people I didn’t even know, turned up to help my family clean and rebuild. We shared in both our core humanity and a sense of being Australian – in times of tragedy, sticking together and helping out is what Australians do. In this circumstance, I have surrendered neither my sense of being Aboriginal nor my sense of being Italian.

Accepting the notion of a stratified ontology not only liberates Aboriginal people from the toxic dynamics of being forced to be mainstream, it’s an intellectual concept that is emancipatory for white Australians too. Many white Australians have experienced this, perhaps unknowingly – when visiting the graves of their ancestors in England or Scotland or Ireland, for instance. At their core they remain human, while the differentiae of their ancestral ethnicity, enhanced by the processuality of their time and place, affect a spirituality that ‘fills a hole inside them’, as they sometimes describe. Importantly, they have not surrendered their sense of being Australian, but their sense of humanity is enhanced.

Acknowledging, embracing and celebrating our humanity means refusing to let our communities be continually neglected at the end of the vine, or characterising our sustained existence in remote parts of Australia as some form of flippant ‘lifestyle choice’.

Acknowledging, embracing and celebrating our humanity means refusing to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, especially in a way that allows policy approaches to be uniquely inflicted upon Indigenous Australians. It means recognising us as the original custodians in our nation’s Constitution.

Acknowledging, embracing and celebrating our humanity means finding the courage to contemplate some form of a treaty – a document upon which we can all agree, no matter how long or complex the task.


WATCHING THE 2015 NRL grand final was to witness Indigenous excellence manifest, born from seeds of hope sown many years earlier. It’s one of the things I love about being an NRL commissioner: I get to see very solid young men and women playing rugby league for their country at the elite level, knowing that at some stage, many years earlier, they dreamed of being a kangaroo or a jillaroo. These dreams can only manifest when they are nurtured by hope and optimism.

In Australian society at large, however, my own research has unveiled a world of ambient racism and unhelpful-yet-persistent negative stereotyping of Aboriginal people. It is persistent to the extent that non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Australians alike have subscribed to it as if it were some kind of truth. Too many of us don’t realise it isn’t, and so unwittingly collude with this toxic mindset, making it appear more real than it actually is.

Sometimes, non-Aboriginal people do this because it readily fits with the narrative of Aboriginal people as a despised ‘other’; sometimes they do it because they think they’re being ‘culturally sensitive’, when in fact they are reinforcing a negative stereotype. In a similar way, Aboriginal people sometimes collude with this stereotype, thinking they are reinforcing their ‘cultural’ identity when in fact they are contributing to the stereotype or clinging to a victim status that no longer serves us in modern society.

And sometimes, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people collude with and nurture this toxic negative stereotype because, frankly, there is lots of money and power in keeping this ‘industry’ alive – entrenching the despair of Aboriginal people while pretending to do otherwise.

These dynamics of stereotyping and collusion are what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls ‘fast thinking’, which consists of slurs, insults, names, sayings, jokes, opinions, metaphors, metonyms and slogans. There is no need for me to rehearse the world of fast thinking about Indigenous Australia. The problem is that fast thinking is almost immune to logic and the rationality of what Kahneman calls ‘slow thinking’. People still believe that Aboriginal Australians have lots of privileges despite all rational and statistical evidence to the contrary. The language of fast thinking – the policy rhetoric, if you like – determines our opinions and how we act.

In fast thinking on Indigenous affairs we often hear things like ‘we’ve tried everything and nothing has worked’, when actually we haven’t tried everything, and we certainly haven’t seriously tried a high-expectations relationship policy approach. It’s said that ‘we’ve spent billions on Aboriginal communities’, when most of the dollars are more likely to have gone to bureaucracies and consultants rather than communities. We have the catchy mantra ‘closing the gap’, which suggests that us blackfellas have some catching up to do if we are to be as good as the average Australian. In fact, the truth is better reflected in the less catchy notion of ‘shifting the bell curve to the right’, a reminder that many Aboriginal people are as exceptional as our fellow Australians.


IN MY MEMOIR, Good Morning, Mr Sarra (UQP, 2012), I recall an encounter with a proud, yet almost deflated Aboriginal man in Alice Springs at the time of the Northern Territory Intervention. In our encounter, the young man said to me with a deep sense of hurt in his voice, ‘Chris, you don’t know just how hard it is to be an Aboriginal man in this town! You walk down the street here and these people just look at you like you’re some kind of paedophile or like you’re just comin’ from bashing your woman at home’.

It is impossible to argue that an approach such as the intervention, which saw signs erected to disparagingly brand Aboriginal communities and the army sent in to ‘fix’ them, could instil a sense of hope and optimism. I am not denying for a moment that toxic and subhuman behaviour exists in some Aboriginal communities and must be flushed out – on this we can all agree. The challenge is to consider why such behaviour exists at all, to realise that when you treat people as though they are subhuman, then subhuman behaviour emerges.

I find it grossly offensive when this behaviour is homed in on, and conflated with the experience of all Aboriginal people. Roy Bhaskar would call this an epistemic fallacy – the reduction of being or reality to just our knowledge of it. Another way of explaining this is that makers of Indigenous policy, including government-anointed, so-called ‘leaders’, do not understand the fundamental importance of stratified, strength-based approaches to community and individual transformation. Even those who enjoy choreographed visits to Aboriginal communities cannot fully comprehend the complexity involved in being useful, especially if they listen and observe simply to confirm their own way of thinking, rather than to really understand.

When I became principal at Cherbourg State School in 1998, 38 per cent of students were not attending school. To address this, we didn’t immediately resort to suggestions to the government about cutting family welfare payments, as if all children were disengaged. We recognised that 62 per cent actually were engaged, and if we celebrated and reinforced this with extrinsic rewards and constantly reminding them of the intrinsic value of getting stronger and smarter, then it would likely have a positive influence on most, though not all, of those who appeared not to be. By acknowledging and celebrating the strengths on display, attendance rose to 94 per cent.

It was an approach that was simple to understand, yet took a lot of work to execute. But it was effective, and cost less than 1 per cent of the taxpayer money spent in some schools today on deficit approaches that assume all students are chronically disengaged.


I WAS RECENTLY in Warburton, in remote Western Australia. The week before I was in Wiluna, and the week before that in Ampilatawatja, Northern Territory. The conversations I had in these place reminded me of the frustration and despair that persists with policy and programs that operate on single-barreled understandings of Aboriginal people and communities, and offer ineffective, unsophisticated, nonsensical blanket approaches. Not only do they not make sense; they are fostering an even greater despair with and disengagement from Australian society.

This is an aspect of the stratified ontology of Aboriginal people that makers of Indigenous policy simply do not understand. Policies and programs can be forced on us blackfellas – bash us and bash us and bash us, but we will not change! We will not become the people others want us to be. We will simply disengage or readjust, passively, because we are so accustomed to having our lives and communities smashed.

Many Australians have been tricked into believing that such passivity is the result of welfare, when in fact it is the result of chronic disengagement from a local and vibrant economy. Welfare and a basic social security structure don’t cause chronic disengagement from the economy; a lack of desire to pay equal wages to Aboriginal people in the late 1960s caused chronic disengagement from the economy. An ongoing lack of desire to invest substantially into innovative, vibrant and sophisticated local economies only entrenches this.

But there has never been a serious challenge put forward to understand the deep complexities here. In order to seduce political figures, it’s better to pretend they’re not culpable in any way for the challenges we face. If I can make it seem like Aboriginal people are entirely to blame here, I’ll be called a hero and have money thrown at me, without anyone seriously questioning the efficacy of my approaches, even if they take us back to the last century. There’s never been a challenge because, frankly, there is great power and money to be garnered from the entrenched despair of Aboriginal people. Personally, I think this reluctance to challenge underestimates the intelligence and humanity of Australia’s politicians, and leaves us all floundering with limited hope of transcending the challenges we face together.

So I would like to challenge the Prime Minister.

Not to pick a fight with him, but because I respect his interest in a positive future for us all. I respect his intellectual and emotional capacity to embrace and be honest about the extent to which he is culpable in a high-expectations relationship with Aboriginal Australia.

The Prime Minister and his policy-makers have a choice. They can choose the more expensive and ineffective option of continuing to devise policy approaches that demonise us and entrench despair. They can bring on policy approaches to bash us and bash us and bash us… Or they can design and implement policy approaches that offer hope and pride, and a feeling that we can trust and walk with them into what I would call a stronger smarter, more honourable future, where their emancipation is bound up with mine.


WHEN COWBOYS COACH Paul Green was figuring out a way to win the 2015 NRL grand final, he collaborated seriously with his Indigenous captain, Johnathon Thurston. He did this because Thurston had wisdom and sophisticated insights to offer. He did this because he had an authentic belief in the strengths and knowledge that were obvious, and sometimes not so obvious, in his team’s captain.

As we contemplate the challenges we face together, it is fundamental to understand that we are in a relationship – both sides must ensure that it is healthy and a source of mutual benefit. My greatest intellectual insight of the last two years, I think, is understanding the profound difference between high expectations of Aboriginal people and high expectations with Aboriginal people: high-expectations rhetoric versus a high expectations relationship. The rhetoric often espouses lofty ideals with good intentions, but these are imposed from the outside rather than negotiated with the individuals to be affected; the relationship is a key pillar of the stronger smarter approach.

I can comfortably say that Aboriginal people want to negotiate such a journey, such a relationship. However, this journey can’t be one that forces us into a way of being, but rather respects who it is we want to be. And let me assure you, none of us aspire to be downtrodden, uneducated, disempowered and dysfunctional.

As with any journey, if non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians begin with our compasses aligned, we have a good chance of reaching any destination. But if there is any inconsistency – disillusionment, low expectations, pity, mistrust – we embark a few degrees out from each other and are destined to become parted in the long run. In some ways, this explains why we spend billions on Aboriginal affairs and achieve no appreciable gains.

If, however, we start the relationship by acknowledging and embracing each other’s strengths and humanity, and are convinced of an authentic sense of hope for all, then our hearts beat closer together and our compasses can be calibrated for a sometimes bumpy yet exciting and honourable journey into the future. In a practical sense, this means identifying and embracing local community leadership that is proven, rather than anointing Aboriginal leadership that will only say what it knows others want to hear.

On the Aboriginal education front, this means acknowledging that Aboriginal parents do want the best for their children, and guaranteeing those parents who work with schools to boost attendance to 85 per cent of the school year that their children will achieve the national minimum standard on the Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 benchmarks. Beyond Year 9, if we are bold enough, it means offering a guaranteed service outcome in the form of a job, a place in training or a place in a university to all Indigenous students who complete Year 12 with greater than 85 per cent school attendance. It also means doing whatever it takes to inject exceptional school leadership into remote Aboriginal community schools.

This is honouring and embracing humanity. This is offering hope. This is doing things with people, not to them.


IN ESSENCE, THE three factors I have articulated for making a difference in the Indigenous policy space can be seen as the triple bottom line for Indigenous policy analyses. Critics may well want to accuse me of being overly philosophical, but after seventeen years as a very successful educator on the Indigenous landscape, I have nothing to prove.

As an educator I wanted to change expectations of Aboriginal children, and expectations have changed. Today, there is no place to hide for any teacher with low expectations in any classroom in any school in Australia. Of course they are still out there, but it is only a matter of time before they are exposed and challenged.

While these three points might seem philosophical to some, the truth is that they are the very foundations that enabled me to work with staff, students and community at Cherbourg State School to deliver transformational change. The formula was so simple that we have proven it can be extrapolated by those who are prepared to work extremely hard and apply the stronger smarter, high-expectations relationships approach. Beyond Cherbourg, over the last ten years the Stronger Smarter Institute has worked with more than five hundred schools and communities and more than two hundred educators and community leaders – an exponential reach of more than thirty-eight thousand Indigenous Australian students. The results have been phenomenal.

In North Queensland at Yarrabah State School:

  • 83 per cent of Year 3 students have attained national minimum standards for reading;
  • Fifty-six Indigenous youth (a tenth of the student population) re-engaged with school;
  • The number of parents who think the school is providing a good education for their children increased from 60 per cent in 2009 to 96 per cent in 2014.

Aitkenvale State School in Townsville reduced student suspensions by 70 per cent within one term.

At Pormpuraaw State School in Cape York:

  • In 2013–14, Year 5 students had the highest reading results within their group of similar schools, and this continues to improve and outperform nearby Cape York Schools receiving millions of dollars of investment;
  • For the same cohort from 2009–13, there was a 44 per cent increase in students ‘at or above national minimum standards’ on NAPLAN spelling results.

In the Kimberley Region Wyndham District High School:

  • School attendance improved by 16 per cent over a three-year period;
  • Year 3 reading improved by 25 per cent within one year, to be above the national benchmark.

Broome Senior High School saw 100 per cent retention of Aboriginal students through Years 8 to 12.

At Fitzroy District High School, suspensions for poor behavior were reduced by 74 per cent in two years.

Dawul Remote Community School often sees up to 100 per cent attendance at parent engagement activities.

At Kalumburu, there was a 700 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal people actively employed at the school within three years.

Mount Margaret Remote Aboriginal School had 94 per cent attendance and a 37.5 per cent improvement in reading levels over a two-year period.

In northern Victoria, Swan Hill Primary School has introduced a local Indigenous language program for Year 1. They have also seen a 10 per cent increase in Koorie student attendance since 2010.

Mildura Primary School has closed the gap on NAPLAN results, and 84 per cent of Year 5 students are achieving national minimum standards – the highest within the region.

In New South Wales, Glenroi Heights Public School:

  • Saw attendance jump to 90 per cent, up from 77 per cent just four years earlier;
  • Had a dramatic reduction in Aboriginal student suspensions, from 274 learning days lost in 2007 down to just 13 days lost in 2011.

Above and beyond these significant returns for Aboriginal children, I am more than delighted to say that the stronger smarter approach also delivers much-needed positive change for poorer white children, who, in many ways, are just as infected by the toxic stench of low expectations.


JOHNATHON THURSTON AND Justin Hodges, two of the great sons of Australian rugby league, rose to the challenge on a level playing field in last year’s grand final – a field where others worked with them to nurture a sense of hope, where their excellence was acknowledged, embraced and celebrated. But it is the great Oodgeroo Noonuccal who, in a message to her son, offers us all as a nation an even greater challenge.

‘Son of Mine (To Denis)’
My son, your troubled eyes search mine,
Puzzled and hurt by colour line.
Your black skin soft as velvet shine;
What can I tell you, son of mine?
I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind,
I could tell you of crimes that shame mankind,
Of brutal wrong and deeds malign,
Of rape and murder, son of mine;
But I’ll tell you instead of brave and fine
When lives of black and white entwine,
And men in brotherhood combine –
This would I tell you, son of mine.

I suspect Prime Minister Turnbull is right when he says there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian, and that this is a time for hope. Let us share in that sense of hope in three profoundly simple ways. Acknowledge, embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians. Bring us policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair. Do things with us, not to us.

This is an edited version of ‘High-expectations realities through high-expectations relationships: Delivering beyond the Indigenous policy rhetoric’, delivered on 13 November 2015 as part of the Australian Senate Occasional Lecture Series.


Further reading

Sarra, C. (2011) Strong and Smart – Towards a Pedagogy for Emancipation. Education for first peoples. Routledge: New Studies in Critical Realism and Education. London.

Sarra, C. (2012) Good Morning Mr Sarra: My life working for a stronger, smarter future for our children. UQP, Brisbane.


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