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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1302

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (20:41): It was very entertaining listening to that speech by the member for Chifley. He would make a very good fiction writer, because so much of what came out of his mouth this evening was just that—fiction. If you look at the facts and at the economic record of this government, you see that it is very damning. When you consider this legislation, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2011-2012 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2011-2012, the contrast between the Labor government's record—or, to state it more correctly, the Labor-Greens alliance government—and the coalition's record is stark. We were able to repay Labor's debt of $96 billion and to deliver a surplus of $20 billion. They have delivered a net debt of over $133 billion. They have delivered four deficits of an accumulated amount of $167 billion. They have needed to lift the gross debt ceiling from $75 billion to $250 billion. They have sought to increase taxes and to introduce 19 new taxes, and they have had significant cost blow-outs in the various programs, including the most famous program of all when you talk about bad economic management, where you do not even have a cost-benefit analysis of something as supposedly significant as the NBN project, which is starting at $27 billion but will go so much higher than that.

This government have increased spending; they have not decreased spending. For all their talk about decreasing spending, the government have increased spending by over $100 billion and that is now going to be part of the structural deficit built into this budget. Every man, woman and child in this country, because of the government's borrowings, is owing $6,000. If you ask Australians whether they are better off because of the economic management of the government, they will say a resounding no to that question.

Today I came into this chamber to talk about an issue that is concerning to the people of my electorate—that is, the review of school funding. As we are aware, the Gonski review has now been completed and we are all waiting to see how the government will respond to the review's recommendations. It is very important, because this review goes to the heart of how our schools operate. It goes to the heart of school funding. As such, its recommendations and how the government respond to those recommendations will shape not only the funding agreements for non-government schools post 2013 but the educational options and outcomes available to Australian families for many more school generations to come.

The government have spoken a great deal in this place about education and revolution: Building the Education Revolution or the Digital Educational Revolution. However, the Australian people should not be in any doubt that the Gillard government's response to the Gonski review will have at its heart the real revolution that this government wants to see in education.

While we are yet to see the review recommendations, as the member for Higgins I am already deeply concerned about the Gillard government's rhetoric and indeed their real agenda on the issue of school funding—and I am not alone. I received a letter only the other day from the principal of one of the schools in my electorate. It read:

The parents and families of the 500-plus students attending our school have begun a new school year with excitement.

Ms King: Name the school!

Ms O'DWYER: I am very happy to ask this question directly of the Prime Minister. The letter goes on:

But there is a dark cloud of uncertainty about future funding for our school. Parents are worried that the Gillard government will use the review of funding for schooling to disadvantage their children. Much of the public discussion regarding school funding is based on misunderstandings and misinformation, impairing sensible and productive discussion. In their even louder public campaign, opponents of the independent sector claim that non-government schools receive more government funding than government schools. This is wrong.

Governments in Australia spend significantly more on students at government schools than those attending non-government schools. In Victoria 31 per cent of schools are non-government, educating almost 37 per cent of Victorian students. But these schools receive only 22.5 per cent of government funding for Victorian students. Families making an educational investment in non-government schools save Victorian taxpayers more than $1.85 billion per annum.

The Prime Minister and the minister for schooling have both said that no school will lose a single dollar per student, but there is no guarantee that funding will be indexed to reflect cost increases. In effect, this would be a funding cut. Despite our best efforts to economise there would be considerable pressure on school fees. Some parents may have to consider placing their children in government schools, thus increasing the burden on the government system.

That is a letter from just one of the school principals in my electorate. He is very, very concerned.

In the real world, beyond this place, school funding has a real impact on real Australians. In my electorate of Higgins, there is only one government school, and it is a selective school: Melbourne High School. Every other secondary school in my electorate is from the independent sector. It is therefore of little surprise that school funding beyond 2013 is an area of very great interest to many families and indeed to all of the secondary schools within my electorate. As the shadow minister for education, apprenticeships and training has said:

… Labor appears reluctant to guarantee the future of funding to non-government schools in real terms.

What does this mean? Peter Garrett, the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, has said that non-government schools will not lose a single dollar per student as a result of the Gonski review. However, what he has failed to say on many occasions is the word 'real'—that no school will lose a single dollar in real terms. School funding is currently indexed so that the real value of the funding keeps abreast in monetary terms with the cost of living.

The government tries to make very light of this indexation question, but in my electorate of Higgins the impact of the loss of indexation would be enormous. Within my electorate alone there are 22 schools that will have a shortfall of more than $29 million if the indexation of school funding is discontinued. If this occurs it will be a very bad news day for the families of those students.

The schools in my electorate that will be affected by a failure by this government to provide future funding indexation are the Currajong School, Holy Eucharist School, Korowa Anglican Girls' School, Lauriston Girls' School, Loreto Mandeville Hall, Our Lady of Lourdes School, Presentation College, St Anthony's Primary School, St Catherine's School, St Cecilia's Parish School, St Joseph's Primary School, St Mary's School, St Roch's Catholic Parish Primary School, Geelong Grammar School Glamorgan, the King David School, Sacre Coeur, De La Salle College, St Kevin's College, St Michael's Primary School, Oakleigh Greek Orthodox College, Melbourne Girls Grammar and Caulfield Grammar School.

Any funding reduction to the non-government school sector will have a direct impact on choice for parents and choice for students. There are a number of school principals who have advised me that they would be forced to close their doors or to radically alter their fees—and therefore their student selection—if the current funding arrangements were to change significantly. I think it is important to put on the record clearly that non-government schools are not all the same. They are not simply, as this government would have you believe, a bunch of 'wealthy' schools. Since becoming the member for Higgins I have made it a priority to visit as many of the 39 schools in my electorate as I can. The schools within Higgins are all very significantly different—as, I expect, are the schools across the country. They charge different fees, have students from varied backgrounds and offer different scholarship programs. If anyone has any doubt about this, I suggest they visit one of the schools in my electorate, Presentation College, which is in Melbourne's inner south-eastern suburb of Windsor. Presentation College is the second oldest girls Catholic school in Victoria. It serves an area that has some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest members of our community. Throughout its proud history, Presentation has made it a stated priority to welcome families from diverse backgrounds and to ensure that its fees are accessible to middle and lower income families. In fact, in 2009 nearly 17 per cent of its students received the educational maintenance allowance.

What will happen if government funding to schools like Presentation college, and many others, is reduced? Across Australia, if just 10 per cent of existing non-government students switch to government education, 120,000 students will have to be immediately accommodated. This will have an impact on class sizes, staff and facilities in our existing government schools. This will prove to be a logistical and financial nightmare for our government schools and, if anything, will reduce the quality of education on offer.

In addition, as I have stated before, there is no years 7 to 12 non-selective government school in my electorate. If funding to schools is reduced, fees will invariably increase. Some families will decide that non-government education is no longer affordable for them—which leads me to question whether the Minister for School Education and Minister for Early Childhood and Youth will actually put a government school in the electorate of Higgins. What will he say to the parents who can no longer afford to send their children to an independent school? What are the government plans? Has a new site even been selected for a government school in my electorate?

This is a real issue for the people of Higgins and indeed all Australians. Across this country, one-third of all students attend non-government schools—nearly half of the secondary sector. I am very concerned that this government is more focused on undermining the non-government school sector—for dubious reasons and questionable benefits—than on improving our government schools. While I am concerned about the government's response to the Gonski review, I am of course left in no doubt of the position of the Greens. Their stated policy is that funding to non-government schools should be reduced to 2003-04 levels. The result of this would be that 90 schools in Victoria alone would struggle to remain open. The coalition remains the only political party that unequivocally supports choice in education. We have consistently argued that the amount of funds under any new model adopted as a result of the Gonski review must be maintained, including indexation. Furthermore, we believe that, since all parents pay taxes, they are entitled to assistance with their children's education, irrespective of whether they choose a government or a non-government school.

The quantum and method of government funding, federal and state, is where this debate gets complicated. As a result, the matter of school funding is often misrepresented by those who have an ideological agenda to push. Let us, though, be very clear: while the federal-state mix does vary, government schools receive the overwhelming majority of total recurrent government funding. Indeed, data provided by the Parliamentary Library states that, in 2007-08, per-student recurrent expenditure at government schools was $12,639, while at non-government schools it was $6,607—nearly half. So the students who attend non-government schools receive half the government subsidy that students attending a government school receive. This means that for every child who switches from a non-government school to a government school, taxpayers will have to find double the funds to educate the child. And of course this does not take into account the capital costs that will invariably arise out of the need for new buildings and new facilities.

And here we get to the heart of the issue: Labor—and to a greater extent the Greens—have an ideological opposition to Australian families investing their own money into their children's education, into their children's future. This ideological obsession of this government is one that has been with it since the Prime Minister was the shadow minister for education. Who can forget that she drew up the hit list of schools? We will most probably see that hit list revived.

We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to receive the very best education they can and that we retain choice in education. What is wrong with choice? What is wrong with investing in education? This is at the heart of the issue that is before us and the people of Higgins today. In my role as the member for Higgins I believe that every Australian child deserves a quality education that enables them to develop the skills necessary to fulfil their potential. As such, I want every child within my electorate to have a range of schools from which their family can choose. I will continue to defend choice and diversity in education. I will continue to fight the Labor-Greens agenda. I will continue to fight their hit list on schools. If the federal government fails to ensure that non-government school funding stays at real levels beyond 2013, the standard of educational outcomes will suffer in both the government and the non-government sectors not just in Higgins but across Australia. That will be the horrible legacy that this Labor-Greens government will leave us for generations to come.