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Tuesday, 1 February 1994
Page: 32

Mr ANDREWS (4.20 p.m.) —I will confine my remarks to the amendments which have been returned from the Senate. As the Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training (Mr Free) indicated, there was more substantial debate on these issues when the matter was debated here on Saturday, 18 December. As the minister indicates, there are three areas of amendments which are the subject of the debate before the chamber and I wish to say something about each of them.

  It is interesting in the context of the minister's statement that he was surprised that the independent schools were supporting some of these amendments. My advice from the various independent schools organisations has been that they were not consulted during the process of the formulation of these amendments and in fact were surprised to see some of the amendments when they were sent to them after the bill had first been introduced into this place.

  Far from supporting some of these amendments, the amendments to the new schools policy and those relating to the provision of equity funding by independent schools have been sought by the independent schools themselves. So it is not simply a case of the independent schools supporting certain amendments to the legislation but they are amendments which the independent schools themselves had sought.

  I note, as I did on the previous occasion, the minister's acceptance that the changes that had been proposed to the new schools policy could involve the removal of some discretion in relation to amalgamations. I simply say again that, if the minister is minded to bring legislation forth in this place which will retain that discretion, subject to some scrutiny of the actual wording of the legislation itself, it is likely to have the support of the coalition.

  Some concern has been expressed by the independent schools themselves over the provision of equity programs by the schools. This provision sought to establish a nominated authority in each of the states which would make the recommendations for an allocation of equity funding to the various equity programs. The concerns of the independent schools about that were threefold: first, that it was in effect forcing independent schools to act as a system quite contrary to their history and their wishes; secondly, that it absolved the minister from making a decision about the allocation of funds by handing over that decision to a nominated body; and, thirdly, that the responsibility for equity funding allocation would then fall to a voluntary body or bodies representing independent schools in each state.

  I note that the minister repeated what he had said on the previous occasion that he would find it extremely difficult to manage this process equitably and fairly. He suggested once again that perhaps the only way in which this could be done would be to establish some national independent equity authority to make recommendations about the allocation of equity funds. I say to the minister that there is a time-honoured way in which one can make such allocations and that is to simply rely on the advice of his department. Given that the Department of Employment, Education and Training is one of the larger departments of the Commonwealth Public Service, and it does not seem to be diminishing in size over the years, I would have thought that it would not be beyond the ability of a certain part of the department—officers of the department would have the experience and the expertise—to make recommendations to the minister on this on which the minister could rely.

  My final comments relate to the decision, which the minister referred to, of the Senate on the second occasion not to proceed with the amendments which we had sought in this place relating to the country areas program and those which provided that funds allocated to the country areas program pool could be taken and used for the disadvantaged schools program. As was indicated in this place on 18 December, considerable concern has been expressed by members particularly from regional Australia that this will lead over time to a diminution in funding for the country areas program. We regret that when the matter came before the Senate on the second occasion the Greens, having taken a position in support of our amendments to preclude this move of funds from one pool to another, backed down from the decision they had taken and in effect supported the government's amendments.

  I do not intend on this occasion to revisit the debate in any more detail than that. On the last occasion, we voted against those particular amendments, but the vote has been taken, there having been a division on that occasion. The legislation has been to both houses twice, and I do not intend to go through that exercise again, but I place on record once again the concern of the coalition about the country areas program, our interest in the program and the fact that this program on independent evaluation has been shown to be one of the most, if not the most, successful of the equity programs run under the auspices of the federal department.

  We will be watching, with some degree of scrutiny over time, what happens to the country areas programs in the various states and territories to ensure that that funding in effect to children in regional areas of Australia remains there to overcome some of the obvious disadvantages that they have in their schooling, not the least of which is the factor of distance from major cities and, therefore, the resources that those cities can otherwise provide.

  As I said, we regret that the Greens, having decided to take one course on one occasion, a few days later decided to take another course. I suppose that is not to be unexpected from the Greens in relation to this matter, but there is a degree of derision, I suppose, about their position—that is not a matter for the minister to worry about—in regional Australia that they would give an undertaking to take one position on one day and then reverse that a few days later.

  One other matter to which we had sought amendments to the legislation was on the attendance of children at school on a daily basis. I know that the minister said at the previous time the legislation was before this place that he was looking at the matter. I have not yet had any indication as to whether that particular problem can be overcome.

  It seemed to me, on a clear reading of the amendments to the legislation as it was being introduced, that every time a child was not going to be in attendance at the actual school grounds where the school is ordinarily conducted there would have to be some application to the minister for an exercise of discretion for that child to be away from that place. I imagine the minister would not wish to have a flood of applications every day from schools all over the country simply asking whether John Smith at Warragul high school or Leongatha primary school or wherever would be regarded as being in attendance on a particular day.

  It may be a technical matter, but it is a matter of some concern to schools as to whether they meet the provisions of the legislation. I would be grateful whether at some stage the minister could indicate the legal situation so that schools, and in particular school principals, can be clear about their obligations under the legislation.