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Tuesday, 19 June 2001
Page: 27916

Ms GILLARD (8:19 PM) —It is timely indeed that the House this evening debates the Innovation and Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2001. It is timely because in the last few days in this parliament and in the media generally there has been a debate about whether Australia is meeting the grade as a knowledge nation or is slipping woefully behind. Unfortunately this debate has been held in a highly stylised way, pitting the findings of the Monash Centre for Research in International Education in its report The comparative performance of Australia as a knowledge nation against the findings of the OECD in its Education at a glance index. The debate has been largely an unedifying comparison of apples with oranges. The Monash Centre for Research in International Education is reporting on the knowledge nation, including Australia's performance in ICT and investment in research and development. The OECD index is only dealing with one element of the knowledge nation, and that is education. So we have witnessed in question time over the last two days from the Prime Minister, and from the contribution from the member for Curtin immediately before me, this rather silly comparison of apples with oranges. We know that the member for Curtin is not a great expert in numbers, and she has demonstrated that once again to the House. If we move away from this comparison of apples with oranges, we actually find some startlingly bad things in the OECD index.

Can I take the House firstly to something that I think ought to concern every member of the House in analysing this index, and that is the way in which the Prime Minister has approached it. I think this was laid bare in response to a question yesterday in question time. The Prime Minister, talking about the OECD index and referring to Australia's performance in relation to that index, and of course berating the opposition leader as he went, said:

It is above the OECD average, but this man opposite would represent to the Australian people that we are slipping below the OECD average, yet the OECD's own report—a day before he makes the speech—showed that we are in fact above the OECD average. The OECD average was 3.71 per cent. Ours was 3.80 per cent.

Looking at the way in which the Prime Minister clutched at the OECD report—as if it debunks all of Labor's position on the Knowledge Nation—is deeply disturbing. What the Prime Minister is saying in that statement is that he is content for Australia to aim at mediocrity. In the Prime Minister's view, any figure above the average is a good figure, but what we know through ordinary life experience and what we certainly know in terms of the economic performance of nations is that the world does not stand still while you aim for mediocrity. So, if you aim for mediocrity, if you aim to be in the middle of the pack, inevitably what will happen is that members of the pack who are striving to develop and grow will get in front of you and, as the pack gets ahead of you, the point at which you aimed is no longer in the middle; the point at which you aimed is somewhere near the bottom. What we can say for sure is that, whilst the Prime Minister might be content to aim for mediocrity, what that is doing is actually casting for Australia a complete recipe for failure. If you aim for mediocrity from the outset, you will fail. There is nothing surer than that. I can see that the members opposite are confused. Perhaps they do not listen closely enough to the Prime Minister at question time. I can understand that they probably get a little bit bored in question time listening to the same self-serving speeches given in endless repetition. The Prime Minister is content to say—he is skiting about the fact—that, when the OECD average was 3.71 per cent, we came in at 3.80 per cent—not double it, not three times it, not four times it, but less than 0.1 per cent in front of it. If you can be content with that, then clearly you are aiming for mediocrity.

The other thing that I found strange about the performance in the past two days in clutching to this OECD report is that, when we go through it in some detail, we find not only that our performance is mediocre but also that there are statistics in that OECD report about which Australia should be outright ashamed. We have had members on the other side trying to duck and weave behind this OECD report but, if they picked it up and read it cover to cover, they should be horrified at some of statistics in it. To take the House to some of those statistics—the member for Curtin who spoke before me clearly missed this part of the report—the OECD index includes an analysis of the change in public expenditure on tertiary institutions from 1995 to 1998. When we look at the table that gives us that data, we find Australia languishing second last, with a cut in public expenditure of five per cent over the period—that is, a negative five per cent. This performance contrasts strongly with the performance of places like Poland, which upped its public educational expenditure over the period by 56 per cent, Turkey, which did so by 41 per cent, or Ireland, which did so by 40 per cent.

Mr Entsch —From a very low base.

Ms GILLARD —I hear chants of, `From a very low base.' Once again, the members opposite are showing that their facility with numbers is not everything that the minister's numeracy strategy would have them believe it ought to be. They might need some of the remedial classes that Dr Kemp offers. It is not just a question of being off a low base; it is a question of how that investment in education correlates with GDP performance. I say to members opposite: I do not think there is any magic in the fact that these nations, which are investing heavily in education, are reaping rewards in terms of GDP growth, with Poland's GDP growing over the period at a rate of 6.2 per cent, Turkey's GDP also growing over the period by 6.2 per cent or Ireland's GDP growing over the period by a staggering 9.2 per cent. Each of these results is better than Australia's performance over the period. I accept that these nations might have been coming off an educational infrastructure base which was less than Australia's, but what you need to realise is that current investment in education—just by these figures alone—helps us understand where GDP growth comes from. Current investment in education equals GDP growth.

You could be content about the state of Australia's educational infrastructure only if you had managed to convince yourself that everybody else was going to invest in education at the same rate as us so that we would never lose our position in the queue—we would always be in the same place in the pack as we are now. These statistics undermine that complacent and ultimately fallacious belief. These statistics tell you that other people are investing in education more heavily than us, other people are getting the GDP growth that comes off that investment more quickly than us and, if we fast forward the clock off this current set of numbers and the numbers repeat themselves for the next three or five years, what that means is that we will have gone backwards in comparative terms—we will be further down the pack. That is the simple rationale of it, and members opposite ought to be able to follow that.

The report also records that 43 per cent of Australians have progressed no further than lower secondary education, compared to an OECD average of 36 per cent and a figure of 13 per cent in the United States. This is a particularly important statistic. It is talking about the educational attainment of the Australian population as it currently stands. It is an important figure because we know from a study done by Carles Boix, Political Parties, Growth and Equality, that Boix produces a regression analysis of the impact of educational attainment within the population and unemployment. He has looked at how those two variables deal with each other through a regression analysis process. He concludes for OECD nations for the period 1982 to 1990 that unemployment decreases a whole percentage point for each six to seven percentage points of population that have studied beyond lower secondary education. So there is a correlation between your unemployment rate and the educational attainment of your population.

Stripped of the language of statisticians, that just makes intuitive sense, doesn't it— that a more skilled population is going to be a more flexible population, a population that will more easily find employment in a whole series of varying economic circumstances, whether there be a period of growth, recession, major technological change or major change in patterns in the work force. Obviously, the more skilled and the more flexible your population, the less likely they will sustain long and difficult periods of unemployment. Whilst Boix was dealing, in terms of the regression analysis, with an earlier set of data, I do not think intuitively there is any reason to believe that the nexus between educational attainment in the population and the likelihood of persistent unemployment problems has been broken. Indeed, I would venture my arm and suggest that, as we move forward in a more technological age, that nexus is probably getting stronger over time, not weaker.

Once again, in terms of getting a vision about the future, not aiming for mediocrity, what we have to say in Australia is not that we are content with an educational profile which has some 43 per cent of Australians having progressed no further than lower secondary education; what we have to say is that we need a major investment to enable us to upskill our population so that that percentage of people who present to the labour force with no more than lower secondary education declines over time. Once again, that is a concept that the Prime Minister cannot seem to get and that members opposite in this debate do not seem to have caught on to either—that, in order to maintain your competitive position in a world where others are investing, you must invest too. To maintain our competitive position, we need to upskill our population so that we are not losing out in the educational race.

I also want to say—and I know that this will be of interest to the member for Macquarie opposite—that the OECD index actually records an appallingly low level of expenditure in Australia on preschool education, with Australia spending 0.1 per cent of GDP, putting Australia on the bottom, with Korea, of the 21 countries surveyed. I know the member for Macquarie is concerned about these questions. I think this finding about preschool education is of particular concern in light of the growing body of evidence in relation to the importance of preschool education to literacy formation and later educational development. I believe the member for Macquarie was sitting with the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Workplace Relations on 7 December when the committee had the pleasure of listening to Professor Peter Hill of the University of Melbourne give evidence about these questions. In that evidence, Professor Hill stated:

The problem with this is that in terms of getting students literate, schools have a narrow window of opportunity. What we know is that there is no known intervention program that can catch kids up to their peers after the second year of schooling. You can improve outcomes for low achieving kids but you cannot catch them up.

... ... ...

If you can get in before school starts, that would be even better because schools are starting too late in many cases. I only wish we could integrate the preschool system into the school system and get them about a year earlier. A large number of kids do not need this but, for our low achieving kids ... it is their only hope. If we do not get in there soon, it is asking too much of schools to turn it around in those 18 months to two years.

I do not think that you could get a clearer and more expertly informed view of the importance of preschool education to overcoming educational disadvantage in later life. Indeed, it is Professor Hill's contention that the more disadvantaged circumstances someone comes from, the greater the impact preschool education can have. That makes intuitive sense too: if people do not live at home in a literate and educationally enriched environment, that needs to be substituted for, and preschool is a good way to do that. If we are not investing heavily in preschool, we are not going to get to a stage where we are able to overcome that basic problem of educational disadvantage. We are not going to get good literacy formation. We are going to end up with groups of people who then struggle with later schooling because they have not had a strong foundation of literacy development. In those circumstances, they become disengaged, at least from school and, in the worst-case scenario, from mainstream society more generally. Of course, we get problems of truancy, vandalism, juvenile crime and, in the worst cases, suicide as a result of that kind of disengagement. Consequently, I do not really think that anybody could point with any degree of pride or pleasure to an OECD index that has us languishing in that kind of company and down the bottom of the index in relation to preschool investment.

I turn now from dealing with what I characterised at the start as a rather sterile debate about Australia's educational attainments and its path as a knowledge nation. This has been a rather sterile debate that we have had over the last few days in the media and in this place, gleefully comparing apples with oranges and coming out with all sorts of ridiculous conclusions as a result. I want to deal with some of the specifics of the Innovation and Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2001. I would particularly like to direct my following comments to that part of the bill which deals with innovation. This bill is the legislative foundation for what was supposed to be the launch pad for the Howard government's electoral fight-back of 2001. We know that, after a fairly troubled period, with backbench dissent about petrol and a whole series of other questions, the Howard government hoped to march into 2001 bravely on the front foot and full of ideas. Consequently, the Prime Minister wandered out on 29 January and launched the somewhat curiously titled innovation statement Backing Australia's Ability.

This much vaunted statement told us that the Howard government was going to deliver to the Australian community a very glossy $2.9 billion innovation package. As we all know, the media spin was on. The problem really was the details of the package. Fortunately, in dealing with this legislation, we are seeing the details of the package laid bare. I know that members in this place have had other opportunities to raise the details of the package. Certainly, our shadow minister for innovation, Dr Lawrence, has done so. But, when you actually look at this $2.9 billion spend over five years, you find that, in the first financial year—that is, the financial year we are about to enter—the spend is a very modest $159.4 million. So it is $2.9 billion, almost all of which is out there on the never-never. In the first 12 months of the package—the 12 months which has not even started yet, the 12 months that starts on 1 July—we will see $159.4 million delivered.

People might say that $159.4 million, almost $160 million, is a bit of money; but it is not a bit of money when the claim you have made is that you are spending $2.9 billion, and it is not a bit of money when you compare it with what has been ripped out of the higher education system—Australia's universities—and out of research and development by this government over the preceding five years. When you do those numbers, you find that over the preceding five years this government has ripped some $5 billion from our universities and from support for research and development. Against that, the taking away of $5 billion, we have this grand plan involving $2.9 billion, and in the first year of the grand plan, a golden age we have not even reached yet—we will supposedly get there on 1 July—we will see $160 million delivered. Against that backdrop let me say that it is perhaps not at all surprising that Australia was largely underwhelmed by the innovation package and Backing Australia's Ability as a statement. I do not recall there being a joyous outbreak about it in my electorate, and I am not surprised. I am not surprised in circumstances where people knew that the package was delivering a patch of what had been taken away and, to the extent that any of that patch was going to be delivered, it was going to be delivered on the longer haul rather than the shorter haul.

Of even more concern to me than the money in relation to this package—though the money is of very deep concern—is the fact that, when you talk to players in the innovation industry, you find that there is a deep degree of scepticism about the ability of this government to get the institutional framework right to enable the moneys in this package that are dedicated to assisting the commercialisation of research and development in Australia to be put into the system in a way which will make a difference. When you speak to any innovation player, anybody in the venture capital industry, anybody who works as a consultant to innovators, anybody who understands the deep problems that there are in our research and development sector in commercialising innovation and who understands the deep problems that there have been in getting a culture of innovation and enterprise and in getting our research community together, you find a great deal of scepticism about the ability of this government to get the institutional framework right in a way which would mean these dollars were well spent. (Time expired)