HREOC has conducted
a range of national inquiries into systemic human rights problems. Public
inquiries offer HREOC an opportunity to promote an understanding and acceptance
of human rights in Australia and to promote public discussion. Principally
through media coverage and public forums they publicise both the Commission
and the subject of the inquiry, put the subject of the inquiry in a human
rights context and framework and engage the public in discussion and debate.
For the immediate stakeholders in the subject of an inquiry, the inquiry
provides a forum for public expression of views, experiences, opinions
In April 2001, HREOC
called for expressions of interest in a collaborative project to evaluate
its National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education. The National Inquiry
into Rural and Remote Education had the following objectives:
- To gather information,
from policy makers, education providers, education consumers, researchers
and members of the public, about the provision of education in rural
and remote Australia.
- To inform education
stakeholders about the child's human right to education and what education
provision it requires.
- To publicise
the failures in provision and access to education - and the human rights
violations involved - in rural and remote Australia.
- More broadly to
promote (i.e. publicise and provide information about) the rights of
children, the role of the Commission, the relevance of human rights
to the concerns of people in rural and remote areas and the availability
of the Commission to address and promote those concerns.
- To evaluate the
information received within a human rights framework; specifically to
evaluate the provision of education in rural and remote Australia against
the benchmark of the child's right to education as set out in the Convention
on the Rights of the Child and elaborated by the UN Committee on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights.
- To make practical
recommendations for reform and to communicate those effectively to policy
makers and legislators.
Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education, like other HREOC inquiries, sought
to have an impact on human rights through the inquiry process itself and
its delivery of recommendations rather than through direct action, the
aim of the present project was to evaluate the process of the Inquiry
into Rural and Remote Education.
Evaluation Research Method
The evaluation task
required a multi-disciplinary approach to comprehensively capture the
major and critical issues in access to education for remote and rural
Australians. However, more importantly, it required a multi-faceted approach
to data collection. A total of 76 people who had participated in the 1999
Inquiry were interviewed about the process of the inquiry in November
and December 2001. The site visits were chosen in order to: (a) collect
observations and responses from a range of geographic areas where input
to the inquiry had been received; (b) to reflect on specific issues that
appeared to be geographically specific (on the basis of submissions to
the inquiry); (c) Alice Springs and Boggabilla were chosen because they
represented two areas where submissions had been made and where there
were strong community organisational structures but had not been visited
by the inquiry team.
Step One: Collection
of background material - HREOC made all existing information available
for the evaluation study. The evaluation team also collected new and retrospective
opinions of stakeholders and other people involved in carrying out the
Step Two: The conceptual
component of the inquiry - retracing the conceptual development of the
inquiry: in retrospect, was the inquiry process appropriately designed?
Step Three: The input
component of the inquiry - review of the information inputs to the inquiry
through individuals, documentary evidence and stakeholder submissions.
Step Four: The analysis
component of the inquiry - evaluating the interpretation of findings.
Step Five: The output
component of the inquiry - evaluation of whether the output was disseminated
effectively and appropriately.
Key Issues that Emerged
(1) The Conceptual
- The objectives
of the inquiry were ambitious, given the complexity of the topic and
the limited time and resources available. It was necessary for some
difficult operational decisions about how to best utilise the limited
time and resources available.
- HREOC was faced
with the task of ensuring that the pervasive educational issues faced
by Aborigines were adequately presented in the broader human rights
context. On one hand there were pressures to focus the inquiry more
specifically on Aboriginal issues, but on the other there was pressure
to ensure that all target groups remained at the centre of focus. It
appears that the Commission's approach worked reasonably well though
some approaches in getting to the heart of Aboriginal concerns could
have been improved.
- It was clear that
HREOC made considerable effort to articulate the view that their inquiry
was an attempt to place educational issues in remote Australia in a
human rights perspective. However, this particular feature of the inquiry
was not widely appreciated throughout the communities visited by the
- The inquiry was
broad ranging in terms of the target groups identified and the issues
involved. However, there was a challenge for HREOC to convey the message
that they could not specifically act on behalf of the target groups
- although they could raise the profile of these issues. HREOC appears
to have been well aware of this challenge but should continue to make
every effort to clarify its role. Perhaps in the future, posters or
videos clips could be used to better convey the appropriate message.
- The inquiry was
generally welcomed and considered to be timely by all sectors. However,
there were mixed experiences in terms of expectations of follow-up.
- One group that
appears to have had limited input to the inquiry are migrants from non-English
speaking backgrounds. Disabled groups and parents made reasonable input
but in the end felt that the inquiry was too broad to serve the needs
of their children.
- Although the Commission
made considerable use of peak bodies (community and education) to disseminate
information and solicit responses, it is clear that this approach needed
to be complemented with a bottom-up grass-roots approach. It appears
that attempts to draw responses from migrant communities simply through
peak bodies and public advertisements was not very effective.
(2) The Input
- The promotion
of the inquiry was an important part of the process. While HREOC appears
to have put considerable effort into promoting word of mouth information
to encourage input from Aboriginal communities it appears that, in retrospect,
more effort is needed to overcome perceived limited access to information
among some Aboriginal communities.
- The Issues Paper
could perhaps have been more effective in stimulating input to the inquiry
if it had been presented in poster format. While the HREOC team made
a decision not to produce a glossy publication it does appear that the
more low key but 'texty' publication did not attract a great deal of
attention in the more remote Aboriginal communities.
had an exceptionally important and worthwhile role, which could be strengthened
in future inquiries. Representativeness of Co-Commissioners was applauded
by many respondents but questions were raised as to why there was no
full-time Aboriginal Co-Commissioner appointed.
- Some Co-Commissioners
clearly felt they did not have sufficient opportunity to contribute
in a fuller way to the process. Issues concerning their input included
whether an initial meeting should have been held to clarify expectations
of their role and whether they could have had more input into the analysis
- Holding community
meetings always brings up issues of who speaks, who is heard, whether
the venue is accessible, whether the news of a meeting reaches the right
people, if some people are invited, or not. This inquiry was no exception.
Prior consultation with communities helps to identify idiosyncrasies
of specific contexts. Where some communities see themselves as subaltern,
even more care needs to be taken to ensure their representation.
- Much of the evidence
collected through hearings and meetings was set in a context of community
politics and broader issues of social exclusion. Whatever the style
of meetings they will inevitably provide an appropriate forum for discussion
for some people, but a rather foreign forum for others. Inquiries need
to remain sensitive to such differences and recognise their potential
for reflecting community divisions rather than different perspectives
on common issues.
- HREOC anticipated
the need to include a range of approaches to complement the information
collected at hearings. However, the point to note is that participants
in one forum are likely to perceive their experience as the only input
and consequently feel generally concerned that it is not sufficient.
This suggests the need to continually reinforce the range of inputs
to the inquiry overall. No doubt the inquiry team endeavoured to do
that, but it appears there is a strong need to reinforce the point that
individuals and community groups have a range of options for providing
- Providing the
interests of all are adequately represented it is perhaps of less concern
who actually makes the representation. The task for the inquiry is to
ensure that all interests are represented. The obvious lesson is that
public meetings are limited in what they can be expected to achieve,
yet remain an important forum for raising and discussing issues - within
the broader process.
- The issues concerning
the input component of the inquiry reflect the difficulties of obtaining
representative views from heterogeneous communities. These are not unique
to this inquiry. More attention needs to be paid to the communication
difficulties in remote and rural communities, so that local networks
and informal communication mechanisms can be used to greater effect.
On the other hand, HREOC appears to have steered a reasonable pathway
in dealing sensitively with what was seen to be a complex set of issues.
- For future inquiries
it is important to avoid the perception that these exercises are simply
a matter of 'a white mob flying in and out' while everything remains
the same. It also appears to have been a mistake not to have held some
hearings or meetings in Central Australia. This is not to say that hearings
should be held everywhere but simply to recognise the significance of
Central Australia as an organisational base for many remote communities
whose experiences are rather different from those at the 'Top End'.
(3) The Analysis Component
- Some respondents
expressed concern that there was not more 'stake-holder' involvement
in the analytical process. However, this does not mean that conclusions
were perceived as being inappropriate. Rather it is a matter of perceived
expressed the view that they could have been more actively involved
in the drafting of recommendations.
(4) The Output
- There were many
positive responses to the inquiry reports referring to their usefulness
as tools for teaching. The idea of presenting a number of small booklets
rather than one large document appears to have been a good strategy.
However, there was concern about the level of distribution of the complementary
- Although respondents
were generally pleased with the scope of the inquiry and the way in
which the results were disseminated others maintained that highlighting
a few issues in each topic area by State may have been much more effective
as a means of influencing politicians.
to be Learned
While there was general
support for the process adopted by the inquiry there are a number of lessons
that HREOC might take into account in future inquiries.
First, some sort
of scouting exercise to discuss issues, select appropriate locations and
prepare communities, and identify where interpreters would be needed should
have preceded the inquiry.
Second, in order
to expand participation in the future there is a need to 'go out to' participants
and visit them at their working locations.
could have been used more effectively to mobilise their networks to promote
interest in the inquiry.
Fourth, many people
made the point that it is necessary to have 'partner workers' on the ground
to facilitate input and planning, before, during and as a follow-up to
the inquiry process.
Fifth, the inquiry
could have been better publicised. Various suggestions emerged for a more
strategic approach that would have helped offset the very limited advertising
updated 30 August 2002.