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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30556

Mr SNOWDON (5:29 PM) —I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001 and to support the amendment moved by the shadow minister for education, the member for Dobell. That amendment proposes that the bill be withdrawn and redrafted to provide for an additional $30 million in capital work grants to government schools to match the extra funding being provided for establishment grants to non-government schools.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to take you on a little journey this evening—and I hope it will be worth while—to demonstrate the failure of a government, the CLP government in the Northern Territory, to recognise the needs of students in public education and how, by ignoring the needs of students in public education, that government allowed a vacuum to occur, which has been filled well, I might say, by people in the private sector. That is a matter of concern, but not because the independent schools that have been developed have not done a worthwhile and very good job; they have. The bottom line, though, is that all Australian citizens should have the fundamental right to access government education. But the fact is that there are very large numbers of people in my electorate who have no access to public education services and who are then, because of a reluctance by the previous Northern Territory government to provide people with access to those services, forced to go to independent providers.

The Prime Minister has defended his decision to expend 68 per cent of Commonwealth funding on private education, arguing that public education is a state responsibility. State and territory governments have carried the burden of providing public education, and many in this House will remember what a burden that was when they went to school. I must say that we are a dying breed, but those of us who were at school in the 1950s and 1960s—indeed, perhaps even in the 1970s—during the time prior to federal funding to the states, saw a deficiency in the infrastructure that was being provided, particularly in the area of independent schools. I recall when the school that I attended, which was a Christian Brothers college, received its first bout of Commonwealth government funding and the difference it made to the way in which that school operated.

The community has broadly supported that there be an element of choice—that people should have the opportunity to choose, where it is possible, between education services provided by the public sector and education services provided by independent providers. We know that people do make that choice. But for many Australians there is no choice. I know, for my own part, my parents made a choice. They made sacrifices when they made that choice, just as many parents do to send their children to independent schools. My family has also made a choice about the way in which our children are to be educated. We accept the responsibility, and we are fortunate enough to be in a financial position where we are able to accept that responsibility, that, if we choose to send one or all of our children—we have a number— to independent schools, we are prepared to pay for it; we recognise that responsibility. But we also recognise that we have a right as parents, as taxpayers, as members of the community, to send our children to a state school.

My concern goes to an issue that the breast-beaters on the other side of the parliament talk about from time to time but, in fact, do nothing about, and that is the question of Aboriginal education. The fact of the matter is that there are literally thousands of students in the Northern Territory who have no access to school services. It is worth while to recall some participation rate figures. Perhaps I should start by giving some figures on the percentage of students in the Northern Territory achieving the reading benchmark in 1998. These are Australia-wide tests. The figures for all students in years 3 and 5 across the Northern Territory who achieved the reading benchmark in 1998 were 78 per cent in year 3 and 71 per cent in year 5. For indigenous students, that figure across the Northern Territory was 54 per cent and 36 per cent, for urban schools only. For the combination of schools—that is urban and non-urban—it was 68 per cent for all students in year 3 and 62 per cent for all students in year 5; and for indigenous students in years 3 and 5, it was 31 per cent and 20 per cent. They are appalling statistics.

I do put a caveat on those stats because I think that the validity of those tests, the testing methodology for many of those students, is quite questionable. But let us just look at these figures. Thirty-one per cent and 20 per cent is bad enough. But for non-urban schools only, the percentage of all students who achieved the reading benchmark in the Northern Territory was only six per cent in year 3 and four per cent in year 5.

I have been around a bit in the area of education as a teacher and—I guess to the chagrin of the minister—a teacher unionist. I have also written on the question of Aboriginal education and I have worked in the area of public policy for some years. But, even given the caveats that I have explained with respect to the testing methodology in relation to this data, I ask myself how it is that in 2001—well, in this case 1998, but the figures will not have changed substantially since then—that situation prevails. Generally speaking, from my experience, the education provided by the public sector in the Northern Territory in urban communities and the education provided by the independent sector in the Northern Territory is the same—that is, the education is of a good quality. If you attend an urban school in Northern Territory, whether it is a government school or a non-government school, you can expect a reasonable outcome as a result of the professionalism of the teaching staff, et cetera. But, if you live in the bush, whilst you will get a highly dedicated staff, they are very underresourced—and we know that, until recently, there was absolutely no interest by the then Northern Territory government to do anything reasonable about Aboriginal education and participation rates.

I do not have the data to support this assertion, but I can tell you that it is true that there are literally thousands of students in the Northern Territory who have no access to any school facility. The demographic I am talking about is the 13- to 18-year-old age group, male and female, who have no access to mainstream educational services, and I ask: why is that the case? I acknowledge, as I said, the importance of independent schools, and I will refer to a particular school which I know the minister is aware of—that is, the Ngaanyatjarra school which operates out of Yulara and works in three communities around the Central Desert. It has received an operational grant and has been assisted by the government. I am supportive of the government providing that money, but it has been done because a void, a vacuum, had developed in those communities because of the failure of the then Northern Territory government to do its job and to provide the resources necessary to get an appropriate education structure in place.

It seems to me that we have a challenge. I greet with a great deal of joy the fact that a week ago last Saturday, the Northern Territory community gave the CLP government the flick. The minister is probably in his heart of hearts quite glad about that as well because, as he knows, there has been an inability to deal and negotiate with the Northern Territory government over IESIP funding and they have traditionally been very difficult. When I was in a position of responsibility in the previous Keating government, there were occasions when departmental officials would go to the Northern Territory to negotiate similar arrangements and were abused by Northern Territory bureaucrats. On one occasion that I am aware of, we instructed the Commonwealth bureaucrats not to participate in those discussions because of the attitude adopted by the then Northern Territory government.

It is important that we accept that there is a responsibility on all of us to ensure that Australians, wherever they might live, have access to reasonable education services. The fact is that, in the Northern Territory, as I have pointed out, many Northern Territory citizens—they happen to be Aboriginal people, by and large—who live in remote communities miss out and get no access to those services. It is worth while noting the data from Learning lessons—the review which was led by a former Senate colleague, Bob Collins—which is sometimes known as the Collins report, in the area of student progression from year 8 to year 12 in the Northern Territory. The data exemplifies the lack of the service provision for indigenous students, particularly those who live in remote communities, and highlights yet again the paucity of education services for indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. The report says:

Across the Northern Territory in 1998, only 14 per cent of indigenous students progressed from years 8 to 12, compared with 80 per cent of non-indigenous students.

I think that highlights in a most dramatic way the failure of the education system in the Northern Territory to meet the needs of indigenous students.

Minister, you have funded an independent school—the Ngaanyatjarra school operating out of Yulara—to help fill the void created by the then Northern Territory government's unwillingness to provide adequate education services, but there are other communities in the Northern Territory in the same situation. You may not know, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker—but I am sure the minister knows—that there are communities across the Northern Territory with 2,000 to 2½ thousand people. I can name at least five: Maningrida, Port Keats, Wadeye, Galiwinku, Yuendumu. These small towns have such large populations, yet they do not have high school facilities. That is not a situation which would be allowed to prevail anywhere else in Australia.

I say to the minister, while we can argue about the willingness and intent of the government or, indeed, us as the opposition in relation to these matters, it is very clear that additional resources need to be made available. We can argue, as we have done in this place, about the merits or otherwise of providing the funding in the way that you are proposing to independent schools. What is fundamentally clear, however—it should be clear to all of us—is that there is a dramatic need for additional resources for schools in the public sector. The minister will say, as will others, that public education is a state or territory responsibility. Maybe that is true in the way that we have interpreted our constitutional responsibilities and the residual powers of the state and territory governments, but it is also true that we as a nation have a responsibility to all Australians. We have a particular responsibility for indigenous Australians. Certainly in the Northern Territory and I know in the north-west of the electorate of Grey, and I suspect also in the electorates of Kalgoorlie, Leichhardt and Kennedy, not sufficient is being done to ensure that indigenous Australians have equal opportunity when it comes to education.

There is no point us just lamenting the fact that the CLP were so tragically poor and deficient in their understanding and willingness to provide for all their citizens. I am sure that the new Northern Territory Treasurer, who is the current Chief Minister, Clare Martin, will to her chagrin find in the next few days, if she has not found it already, a huge black hole in the Northern Territory government's budget. That did not stop the Northern Territory CLP promising to build high schools at Maningrida, Wadeye and Borroloola prior to the election a week ago last Saturday. When they had their proposals for funding costed, it was clear that they intended to put no additional moneys into those schools. They were proposing that these high school services would be provided out of existing infrastructure. That was, of course, a con perpetrated upon the Northern Territory community for cynical electoral purposes by the former Northern Territory government.

I say to the minister that, although we should ensure that governments around Australia accept their responsibilities, we also need to understand that there are insufficient funds available currently to provide the sorts of services that will satisfy the needs of the constituents who live in my electorate. They will not come from the Northern Territory government. That is clear, because I do not believe they have the resources, primarily because of the profligacy of the previous CLP government. Additional funds are required for public education in Australia and in this case, most particularly, in the Northern Territory, and that is why I am supporting the member for Dobell's amendment to this piece of legislation.