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Thursday, 1 March 2012
Page: 2598

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (12:41): I am very keen to resume my discussion in the adjournment debate on a speech I delivered regarding the government's response to the Gonski report. Earlier this week I spoke in the chamber about some concerns I have with respect to what the government is not saying about the Gonski report. I want to continue by talking about the fact that the government has given very little indication as to how it is going to approach these very important educational issues, particularly with respect to funding. It is very likely that we will see a Henry tax review style of response, which means that the government will cherry-pick those aspects of the report that it wants and otherwise leave the rest of it gathering dust.

In considering this issue further I thought it very timely to reread the Prime Minister's maiden speech. After all, it was she who as education minister initiated the review and it will be she as Prime Minister who will have the final say in cabinet when they continue the future federal funding of education. The Prime Minister exclusively referred to her own personal story and the opportunities provided by Australia that 'would have been beyond my parents' understanding when they stepped off the boat in Adelaide in 1966'. The Prime Minister also said:

It would have been inconceivable to them that their child, and a daughter at that, could be offered the opportunity to obtain two degrees from a university and to serve in the nation's parliament.

Yet, in her next paragraph the Prime Minister refers to 'the inequality in our education system' and 'raising educational standards for all, not just the lucky few'. Indeed her maiden speech contains a great deal of what one would call good old-fashioned class rhetoric. She says that the people of Lalor, her electorate, 'have always had to try harder.' She also said that in Lalor 'there is a sense of community and a fighting spirit often missing from the sleeker suburbs'.

Whilst the Prime Minister did not specifically mention these so-called sleeker suburbs by name, she does mention my electorate of Higgins in a later paragraph. I would say to the Prime Minister that I invite her to come and meet the 108,000 people that make their homes within Higgins. I would invite her to meet with my constituents in suburbs such as Carnegie, Ashburton, Glen Iris, Malvern or Windsor. You will not find people who work harder or care for their community more than the people within the electorate of Higgins. Yet we see here that she is motivated instead by the idea that the government knows best. We saw that when the Prime Minister as shadow education minister drew up with Mark Latham a hit list on schools when it came to education funding.

I do agree with the Prime Minister, though, that education of our children is vital to the future of this country. However, in the absence of any clear response by the government to the Gonski review, I have many concerns. I am concerned that this government will focus on equality of outcomes, which inevitably means lowering of standards rather than equality of opportunity and raising of standards. I am concerned that this government will focus disproportionately on who operates the schools rather than on school outcomes. I am concerned that the lack of clarity over funding beyond the next year will have real implications for schools within Higgins as well as for schools right around the nation. Like business enterprises, social enterprises need certainty to plan and invest for the future. I am concerned that this government does not understand, let alone recognise, the invaluable contribution that parents and communities make to their schools, both government and non-government, by giving generously of their time, expertise and money. Further to this, I am concerned that by discouraging community investment in education the government will create a void that future governments could not hope to quantify, let alone fill. I am concerned that this government is focused on the method and process of funding, to the detriment of other vital educational issues such as teacher quality, parental engagement and school autonomy—all of which, of course, the recent report from the Grattan Institute said was absolutely vital in producing strong student outcomes.

Finally, I am ultimately concerned that this government is more focused on reducing numbers of children in non-government schools than on improving student outcomes in all schools. Currently government funding favours government schools, as it should. In fact, recent productivity figures indicate that non-government school students attract half the government subsidy of those children in government schools. If the federal government's response to the GFC had not been so ham-fisted and wasteful, current and future Australian governments would be in a far better position to increase funding to public education in a manner designed to improve outcomes. However, as we all know, this government has a solid and justifiable reputation for mismanagement, overpromising and underdelivering, to the detriment of all Australians.