Prime Minister laps up welcome but breaks funding promise

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 13 June 2013

Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured the Kimberley last July and stopped in Wyndham where she visited the Wyndham Early Learning Centre (WELA). The Prime Minister opened a new purpose-built building for WELA and committed her support and funding to the centre. But to the shock of families dependent on the centre the majority of the funding, less than one year later, will cease on June 30 - WELA will be reduced to very little, operating only for limited hours.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was greeted warmly when in Wyndham, many turned out for her at the WELA launch. It was the first visit by a Prime Minister to the predominately Aboriginal town, in the far north of Western Australia.

WELA's general manager, Jane Parker said she is still reeling from the disbelief that the majority of the funding agreement will cease, especially after the Prime Minister's visit to WELA during her tour de force throughout the Kimberley.

The Kimberley has one of the nation's highest homelessness rates - officially seven per cent of its population, and 90 per cent of that homelessness is Aboriginal, of which Wyndham bares a sizeable brunt. The majority of Aboriginal peoples throughout the Kimberley, and particularly around Wyndham, are impoverished.

Ms Parker said the programmes run by WELA give families - parents, grandparents and carers - the skills they need to help their children be ready to cope with school. Ms Parker said that pre-primary teachers say they can tell which kids have been to WELA. Many can count and know their alphabet prior to pre-primary, and they are also taught various manners and behaviours and various coping mechanisms. Ms Parker said that the parents of WELA kids are confident and hence are able to visit the school with that confidence in tow to talk to the teachers about their children's progress.

"So we do not understand why the funding will be reduced to a paltry amount."

"We do not understand why this has happened in light of the Prime Minister's very visit to our centre, her launching of a new building and all the publicity around it."

Prime Minister Gillard was followed by a huge media contingent throughout the Kimberley and the WELA launch was centrepiece to her tour and the news media fanfare.

"In our town many families are disadvantaged, and WELA makes a real difference in helping families to function better and get their kids ready for school," said the Centre's former Chairperson Estelle Hunter.

"In fact, as people from Oombulgurri community now live here too, we need more funding not less, so we can provide outreach to families who are not yet ready to come into the centre."

Oombulgurri has become near desolate with people having relocated to nearby towns to be within services despite many of them finishing up homeless. Both the State and Federal Governments have let down Oombulgurri and its peoples leaving the nearby towns standalone in providing what support they can.

Ms Parker shakes her head in despair and disbelief.

"In the Prime Minister's Report on Closing the Gap 2013, the first sentence on early learning says, 'A child's health and wellbeing from before they are born through to their preschool years helps to set them up for life.' If that is the case, we do not understand how the Government can stop funding a service that has won awards, been positively evaluated, and is so obviously delivering what is needed."

WELA's programmes were named the winners, two years in a row, 2011 and 2012 of awards in the Department of Communities' Outstanding Family Service Provider to Children.

"They say programmes are being reviewed. We say that interim funding should be provided until the new scenario is clear," said Ms Parker.

WELA have sought the support of their new Kimberley member of Parliament, Aboriginal woman Josie Farrer, and of the Western Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert. Both are asking the questions at their State and Federal levels. The Stringer has emailed questions to the Office of the Prime Minister. There has been no response.

Ms Parker said that staff are trying to hang on despite the cut in funding because they know how important the programmes are to families, many of which are single parent families. But already one worker has left. She herself has seven children to take care of and could no longer hang on due to the Government's funding backflip.

"More will have to go by the end of the month. All are Aboriginal women with lots of skills that they want to use helping Wyndham families provide a nurturing environment which, as the Prime Minister states 'can help to instil positive behaviours and values and steer children along a path to success at school and adulthood.'" This is not the first such story out of the Kimberley where management executives of Aboriginal organisations be they in Wyndham, Warmun, Halls Creek, Derby or Broome have complained of funding cuts or their inability to secure promised funding to address the myriad social issues that their peoples face on a daily basis.