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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 23014

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (6:18 PM) —The amendments proposed by the opposition to the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2003 will not be supported by the government. The capital grants program operates at arms length from the government and the main effect of the amendments is essentially to remove this arms-length approach to the allocation of capital grants to non-government schools, an approach that has operated effectively for both government and non-government school capital funding since 1988 and is supported by education authorities. Under the current arrangements, expert block grant authorities, or BGAs, that are made up of representatives of the respective education sectors assess all applications for capital funding from non-government schools against the detailed ministerially approved guidelines and provide recommendations to the government on projects and schools that are to be funded. In making their recommendations, the block grant authorities are already required to take into account both the financial needs of individual schools and the relative educational disadvantage of the student population of each school, with the more disadvantaged being given priority over the less disadvantaged.

In assessing financial need, the block grant authorities are required to use a methodology that is primarily quantitative, which enables them to justify their recommendations to an independent appeal body or a departmental audit. For educational disadvantage, the authorities must use an assessment methodology, a combination of generally applied indices and applicant-specific information, which is applied in a consistent way and which is supported by evidence. A similar method for the allocation of capital grants to government schools applies. Again, bodies at arms length from the minister—in this case, the state and territory education departments—assess and make funding recommendations to the minister.

The opposition's amendments would remove this arms-length approach to program management for non-government schools. Moreover, they would put considerably more discretionary power in the hands of the federal minister. By definition, they would require the government at a national level—and, I would suggest, at some significant expense—to assess and prioritise individual projects to enable the minister to make a determination specifying educational and financial need. The costs of the change could effectively divert funds away from actually building classrooms. The proposals by the opposition appear to add very little to achieving the aims of the program, but they are likely to add significantly to the complexity of administering it. There are no similar requirements for other school programs that are legislated under the act.

As the member for Jagajaga pointed out, today I tabled in the parliament the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 2000: report on financial assistance granted to each state in respect of 2002. This will be an ongoing process. As to the kind of information it contains, one only needs to open the booklet to find, for example, that the Dubbo Christian School has received $100,000 for the construction of three general learning areas, student amenity stores, special education withdrawal facilities, a physical education store, furniture and equipment. On the report goes, across some 46 pages, detailing precisely the sums of money, the schools to which they went and the purpose for which the money was allocated. I am pleased by and thankful for the support of the opposition for the government in having taken that initiative, as I said I would.

The amendments do not propose a similar requirement for the allocation of capital grants in the government school sector. In fact, it was in 1988 that the then Hawke Labor government, to its great credit, specifically introduced the system whereby assessments would be made at arms length from the government to avoid any real need or perceived political interference. It was previously done centrally by the Australian government department. When the then minister for education, Senator Susan Ryan, announced the arrangements, she said in part in her media release on 4 February 1987:

This will really ease the administrative burden on the Australian government. The Australian government will continue to set priorities for the use of its funds, and distribution proposals will require my approval. Funds will continue to be directed to the most disadvantaged schools and the most needy groups.

Labor Senator Margaret Reynolds said in her second reading speech on the bills which established the BGA arrangements in 1987:

Block grant arrangements, by providing greater involvement by school authorities in the delivery of the Capital Grants Program, offer an enhanced capacity for the achievement of Commonwealth objectives.

I could not have put it better myself. (Extension of time granted)

The Australian government is firmly committed to open and transparent processes for the allocation of capital grants. The non-government school authorities are equally committed to this. I have already announced that the annual report to parliament, to which I have just referred, would be produced and tabled, which it has been. There are already substantial mechanisms in place to ensure proper accountability. For example, block grant authorities are required to provide financial accountability details of expenditure by project on an annual basis, and this is similar to that provided by state governments for government schools. In addition, the authorities are regularly audited by the government on their operation and management of the capital grants program. The reporting requirement proposed by the opposition amendment only applies, as I said, to the non-government sector, which would suggest there may be some other motives for it. This amendment is not about correcting any perceived problems in the capital grants program; instead, it reflects an ideological problem that the Australian Labor Party has with public resources supporting Catholic and independent non-government schools.

Further, the non-government school sector have indicated to me that they are against the amendment. Mr Bill Daniels, the Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, has written to me, and I understand to the member for Jagajaga, in relation to this. Mr Alan Dooley, the acting chairperson of the National Catholic Education Commission, has indicated to me:

The National Catholic Education Commission believes that there should be clear guidelines of accountability without imposing further restrictions on the minister or block grant authorities.

Also Mr Bill Daniels, the Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, addressed a letter to the member for Jagajaga and circulated it to me. That letter said in part:

Your proposed amendments appear to be directed at changing the balance of the relationship between the block grant authorities and the minister. We were certainly unaware prior to this that the Labor Party considers that there are deficiencies in the current process. The block grant authorities were established in 1988 under the Hawke government and were designed to streamline the consideration of capital grant applications and to distance the minister of the day from the claims that many school authorities make for capital assistance.

I am further advised that Mr Daniels maintains this position and his opposition to these amendments as late as today.

The bill before the House seeks to continue capital funding, as I said earlier, of $10 million per annum to non-government schools, which has been in place since 1996. It is a small part of a total funding program of some $92 million per annum that provides significant benefits and meets significant unmet needs in non-government schools, both Catholic and independent. The Labor Party foreshadowed the introduction of these amendments along these lines before. I think adequate consultation had been undertaken with the non-government sector. As far as I am concerned, this is more an ideological objection to non-government schools. These amendments, in many ways, will seek to put some sort of straitjacket on those schools and, as such, the government will reject the amendments.