Dr Sue Gordon’s speech at Rio Tinto and Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation Partnership event

Rio Tinto and PFF Partnership Event (image 01)

‘Don’t let life change your goals, because achieving your goals can change your life.’

This quote is from a young Aboriginal man from the inland Pilbara community of Wakathuni, who graduated Year 12 at Tom Price Senior High School in 2013 and went on to study at the University of Western Australia.

His dreams are to become a lawyer or a politician.

He attributes part of his success to the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation’s Follow the Dream/Partnerships for Success program which he participated in for his five years at high school.

He is one of 156 Aboriginal students from around Australia who participated in the Follow the Dream/Partnerships for Success program and graduated from Year 12 in 2013: one of 642 who have graduated from Year 12 since the inception of the program.

All have similar stories of potential and hope. All are Australia’s emergent Indigenous leaders.

Let’s rewind the clock for a moment to the mid-1990s: Australia had a crisis on its hands, reflected succinctly in the then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s famous 1992 Redfern speech. He said:

“…in truth, we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia…”


Some 20 or so years later, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in his ‘Statement to the House of Representatives – Closing the Gap’ in February stated:

“While I could quibble with aspects of that speech (Paul Keating’s Redfern speech), I couldn’t disagree with its central point: that our failures towards Australia’s first people are a stain on our soul. That was a watershed moment for me, as for others.”

It was a few years after Prime Minister Keating’s speech, that The Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation was formed, based on research and most importantly done in collaboration right from the start with the Aboriginal people, Government and the private sector.

Launched in 1997, the first program in Karratha and Roebourne, in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, known as Gumula Mirnuwarni, had shared input, representation and responsibility between the local Aboriginal Traditional Owners, Rio Tinto and Woodside, and the WA Department of Education.

This ‘team’ was held together by the newly established Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation whose job it was to manage, co-ordinate and guide.

The Foundation’s programs are now in 31 communities across Australia with more than 1000 Indigenous students aged from Kindergarten to Year 12 participating.

I’m proud to say it was the first Aboriginal education program of its kind and to this day remains one of the most effective and successful.

Education of all our country’s children is one of the most important tasks we must undertake as a society. It is expensive and complex. Education of our country’s Indigenous children is even more expensive and complex: a problem plagued by fragmentation and social complexity.

We know that Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people alike want this problem fixed, but the complexities surrounding it can seem overwhelming.

This is where collaboration is essential.

The Foundation itself consists of only a small group of people at its head office who manage the programs and co-ordinators who are based at each of the schools. Using Western Australia as an example, the State Government through the Education Department funds half the co-ordinators (teachers) salaries, most of the tutor salaries, and provides access to the students.


Private sector organisations such as Rio Tinto, Foundations and Aboriginal Corporations fund the remaining half of a coordinators’ salary and all other contingencies, therefore providing between 50 to 65 per cent of all funds, as well as providing in-kind support for the learning centres and out of school programs.

These organisations sit on steering committees which manage, review and ensure the programs meet key targets and performance indicators. All these separate parties come together, along with the students’ parents and families, at the beginning of the program to sign an agreement to work together to ensure the success of the child.

This collaborative approach works. All parties put aside their different agendas and work towards the common goal of nurturing and supporting a highly disadvantaged group of children through the difficult journey we call schooling.

Originally we have focused on high school students, but thanks to support from companies like Rio Tinto we now support Aboriginal primary aged children to achieve excellence in the areas of maths and science. Giving children the proper foundation in these two subjects directly impacts on their ability to successfully complete the necessary high school subjects to allow them to go on to complete degrees in science, engineering and commerce.

These will be our next leaders in the mining industry, our future CEOs of global businesses and hopefully, our first aboriginal Prime Minister.

Our Learning Clubs in Tom Price and the newly opened one in Roebourne, help all Aboriginal students aged from Kindergarten to Grade six get the literacy and numeracy support they need to make school a place they want to go to, a place of pride not shame.

It may not be easy, and funding is always the biggest challenge, but for the past 17 years, thanks to companies like Rio Tinto and the support from the State Government, the Foundation has succeeded in making the famous footballer and my friend Graham (Polly) Farmer’s vision come true. As Graham told Board member Dr Ron Edwards, back when the Foundation was established:

“Well it is like this: When I lined up on the MCG to kick a goal, they didn’t pull the goal posts apart to make it easier to kick a goal; so if you want to see an Aboriginal person get to the MCG or to get a degree at university, the standards have to be the same for everyone – black and white.”

In this complex world all things are not equal; however, together with our partners like Rio Tinto and the State Government, the Foundation has given, and continues to give, Aboriginal students around Australia the boost they need to ‘kick their goals’ on the playing field we call life.

Speech Dr Sue Gordon AM, Patron and President

11 November 2014

Click here to read the media release.