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Monday, 26 May 1997
Page: 3942

Mr LATHAM(1.33 p.m.) —I note the comments the member for Riverina (Mr Hicks) made in the House in moving his motion on 24 March. I believe that he made some quite valid observations about the damage anti-social behaviour can do to the school learning environment. I also noted, but with less agreement, his remedy, which is more authority and tougher penalties in the school environment. This seems to replicate a mood that is in the public arena.

It seems to me that we need to go beyond questions of short-term knee-jerk remedies in this area and look at some of the social causes of these anti-social behaviours and the loss of trust and order in our society. It is certainly true that it is a feature of a low trust society, a society that has been drained of social capital and connectedness, that if there is a problem of this nature the call is always for more authority, for tougher penalties. That seems to be the case, ranging from the law and order debate in most parts of the country to the motion that was moved by the member for Riverina. I think that we need to examine the whole question of social trust and connectedness, and that we need to try to build new avenues for social capital, because it is certainly a feature of high trust societies that they do not have these problems in the first instance. I believe that that is an important point to make. There is no doubt that the best school learning environment comes from a close relationship, a high trust relationship, between parents, teachers and students.

I also note that the member for Riverina has called for government support for teachers. I welcome that call. It is certainly a message that should be conveyed to the absurd and sinister Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training, Dr Kemp, who is always trying to scapegoat teachers rather than give them the support they need in the difficult school learning environment. I will provide some instances to the House. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Tony A, is scoffing on the opposite side, but he needs to look no further than an AAP news report from 11 March this year:

. . . Dr Kemp took a swipe at teachers, saying they had lost focus on what was important in education.

A further AAP news report states:

Schools Minister David Kemp today laid the blame for falling literacy levels on teachers.

We have as the minister for school education in this place someone who is always criticising teachers, running down their status, running down their confidence. I certainly hope that the motion that has been moved by the member for Riverina is conveyed to the minister and that the minister starts to change his rhetoric and his policies.

The House should appreciate that because this is a government which fails to value education, it is also a government which fails to value the important and honoured role of educators in our society. It seems to me to be an absurd set of priorities for a government, in two budgets now, to be quarantining defence expenditure in Australia but making education spending its main target for fiscal consolidation. It is a sad day for Australia when we have a Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Senator Vanstone, who seems the wear the size of education funding cuts as a badge of honour. She is someone who presents herself much more as the minister against education than for education and the important role of educators. So the government really does need to take stock and support some of the aspects of the motion before the House by the member for Riverina.

It is critical for Australia, across federal and state government levels, to upgrade the status, rewards and professional development available to teachers. We must try to build a high trust relationship in the school learning environment, to bring teachers and parents closer together, to use new forms of information technology so that they are in regular contact and communication on a daily basis, to ensure that students recognise the honoured role of education in our society. I believe that in 10 to 20 years from now, Australia will look back and see the lasting damage of Vanstonism in education—running down the opportunities for young Australians, running down the place of education in our society and running down the place of educators, abetted in that sad task by the member for Goldstein, Dr Kemp.

Right around the world countries are saying, whether it is in West Europe or North America, that the three main priorities for government are—and they literally say this—education, education and education. This is a government that has a peculiar set of priorities in quarantining defence spending while trying to run down the quality of our education system at this critical time in the nation's development. It should be doing much more to support teachers as educators in our society and much more to support our education system.

I urge the member for Riverina to continue his call to that effect within the government, but most importantly to re-examine his remorseless call for more authority as the only answer to these questions of anti-social behaviour in the school learning environment. Perhaps we need to look at some of the longer term trends in our society and make a much greater effort to rebuild social capital and trust. (Time expired)