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Tuesday, 27 February 2007
Page: 1

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (2:04 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Would the Prime Minister update the House on how the government is assisting parents with the education of their children?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I thank the member for Blair and, in answering that question, can I say that the federal government is assisting the parents of Australia to educate their children in a number of ways based on a number of principles. The first and most important principle is freedom of parental choice. I make it plain that the cornerstone of our education policy is that parents have an unfettered right to choose the type of education they regard as suitable for their children. I make that observation in the wake of the release of some ABS school statistics, which show a continued drift of children from government schools to non-government schools. We now have 1.1 million, or one-third, of all students attending non-government schools in Australia. That is not something that I necessarily welcome, because I believe very strongly not only in freedom of choice but that the basis of a good education system in this country is a vibrant, strong, well-based, well-resourced public education system. If parents are to have genuine freedom of choice, then the offerings of a strong public system have to constitute a very important part of that choice.

But I have to say that, in the wake of the release of these statistics, we have had, regrettably, the usual responses from state education ministers and leaders of the teacher unions. The Victorian education minister, John Lenders, said that the figures reflected the Howard government’s funding priorities—implying that in some way our funding had short-changed parents who send their kids to government schools and favoured those who send their children to non-government schools. He neglects to acknowledge that, in the almost 11 years that we have been in power, direct federal government funding for government schools has risen by 118 per cent while the enrolments in government schools over that same period have increased by only 1.2 per cent.

If you make allowance for that share of general revenue payments by the Commonwealth to the states that is used by the states to fund public education—which you must do if there is to be any fair statistical comparison—you find that government schools, which now enrol 67 per cent of students, receive 75 per cent of all government funding while non-government schools, which enrol 33 per cent of students, receive 25 per cent of funding. They are unarguable statistics. They are contributed to by the Commonwealth’s direct payments, which have gone up 118 per cent, and also by payments through the GST. Figures today reveal that, in the current financial year, the states are $2 billion better off than they would have been under the old financial sharing arrangements. This is echoed again by Mary Bluett, of the Australian Education Union’s Victorian branch, who goes on to attack the federal government for allegedly—and it is a false accusation—short-changing government schools. The reality is that, under the Schools Assistance Act, the more the states increase their payments to schools, the more the Commonwealth payments go up, because the two are linked to a formula written into the act.

There are those who are concerned that too many parents are taking their children out of government schools—and I understand those concerns because I do not want to see, and the government does not want to see, the government system weakened. Can I say to state education ministers and to the leaders of the teacher unions: instead of falsely blaming the federal government, why don’t you ask the parents why they have made a different choice? If you ask parents, they do not say that it is because the federal government does not give enough money. Parents talk about standards. They talk about discipline. They talk about values. They talk about a whole range of things. I think the parents are the people who should be listened to because, in the end, we exist as governments to serve the choices of parents. We do not exist as governments to serve particular ideologies and we do not exist to serve a preference for the private over the state or the state over the private.

One of the great pieces of genius of the Australian achievement is that we have always achieved a sense of balance between public and private provision. What I want in education is an Australia where parents have that unfettered choice. I think people who worry about the drift between government and private schools should talk to the parents, instead of falsely blaming the federal government, to find out why they have exercised their choice in a particular direction.