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Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Page: 6102

Senator CROWLEY(11.51 a.m.) —I rise to oppose the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Bill. In particular, it is a very clear bill that has a very unclear policy shrouded underneath it, that is, the privatisation of education by stealth. It is a clear shift of dollars from the public sector to the private sector. The most important thing that the government has run by way of arguing against this is to say that those on this side who want to argue the way I want to argue are opposed to private schools. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The previous Labor government established the new schools policy to try to make sense of exactly the sorts of concerns that the government now claim are highest in their priority. The Labor government did not want to see new schools springing up all over the place that clearly did not have sufficient numbers to remain viable or sufficient numbers to provide the children attending those schools with an adequate and proper range of educational opportunities. It is precisely because of the Labor government's commitment to an adequate alternative provision of private schooling options for people that they established the new schools policy. There is absolutely no clear guidelines or policy from this Howard government for why it wants to abolish the new schools policy.

There is no clear evidence that the new schools policy has disadvantaged people. There is no well-documented evidence that the new schools policy has done serious harm to the private sector. There is no evidence that children attending those schools, as instituted under the new schools policy, were given anything other than a reasonable education.

In the years prior to that, there was a lot of evidence that private schools that started willy-nilly, or with very small numbers of students, certainly got into major trouble and became a significant call or drain on both the state and the Commonwealth for continued funding. The new schools policy was established to make sense and give assurance to the people choosing those options that they would continue to have the reasonable and viable education alternative for their children.

There is another important point here. If this government were able to proceed with abolishing the new schools policy—and I do not know that it is clear in this chamber that they will be able to, but let us say they do—when and by what criteria are they going to come back into this place and say, `We got it wrong'? They have actually made sure that it is not necessarily going to be the case because they have said, `We will be shifting funding from the public sector to the private sector.'

Senator Abetz came in here with one of those marvellously spurious arguments, `You're hopeless. You're wrong. We're giving more money to the private schools and we're giving more money to the public schools.' You can say what you like, Senator Abetz, but this whole bill is based on a shift. There may be more money to both sectors, but there is a direct shift of dollars from the public sector to the private sector, contingent on those enrolments increasing in the private area.

Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to cut money away from the public sector? Those of us who stand on this side in opposition to this bill should note, to our some time discomfort perhaps, that we are joined in our opposition to this bill by the premiers of the states of this nation, many of whom would not stand with me on just about any policy at all! They are furious about the consequences to them, of what will happen in their states as a result of this reduction in public funding.

Senator Troeth was claiming that, under the constitution, there is a right to choice in this country. Senator Carr said, `Show us where.' It would be hard to find it, but there is clear evidence, which I have sought and had provided, before a current inquiry of the Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee, which I chair, that in the constitution of every state in this country there is a bill and a promise for free secular education for our children—in other words, our public schooling system. That is enshrined in the laws and the guarantees of the states on behalf of the children of this country.

Those states are very concerned about how they will continue their commitment to free secular education. The inquiry we are actually conducting at the moment is about private funding for public schools. The public schools cannot continue on the current funding. Indeed, most states are now defining free education to refer to the salaries of teachers and some capital grants. But, if you are asking for the funding of chalk, textbooks, pigeon holes or lots of other bits and pieces that go necessarily with education, that is no longer being defined—usually by regulation or some kind of edict from the governments—as the core part of the promise of free education.

More and more parents are being required to pay fees for free education. They are called voluntary contributions. The word `voluntary' is often dropped from the advice to parents about their contribution. We hear stories and read about them daily in the newspapers of parents who are being pressured. In one of the major dailies—and I cannot quote the place, I do not have it with me here—there was a report about one child who said, `My parents were told they would not be able to attend my speech day break-up unless they came up with my voluntary contribution.' Schools subsequently rushed to deny it, but the evidence before our committee of inquiry has been that all over the country there is pressure on parents to make the payment of those voluntary contributions. Schools are not being provided with sufficient funding through the states or the Commonwealth at the moment to provide what any of them would call a satisfactory free secular education.

In my own state of South Australia, there is now provision for schools, the boards of the schools, the parents association, or whichever is the body approved in that school to make the decision, to make decisions about the sale of land on which the school is sited. Fifty per cent of the money from the sale of that land will be returned to the state, but 50 per cent will be retained by the schools to assist with their further and continuing costs.

One organisation from Queensland is now going around to the public schools in South Australia trying to buy land on which it will build a private child-care centre. As I said before, 50 per cent of the money from the sale of that land will be retained by the school to enable them to continue to provide what they regard as being sufficient, adequate or necessary for free secular education.

In one place, the child-care centres in the neighbourhood of that school heard about this proposal and attended the meeting. They were so persuasive in pointing out the number of child-care centres around that school and that a further one at the school was absolutely unnecessary and would only guarantee the failure of all the centres that, in the end, the school decided not to proceed that way.

Now what is happening when schools are having to go to these lengths to find sufficient funding? They are certainly not going to be assisted by this piece of legislation, which says that if students move from the public sector to the private sector, a lot of the dollars will go with them. That is not going to help state governments deliver free secular education. It is certainly not going to help the states to continue under the current financial constraints that they bear and which they have made extremely clear to the Howard government. These involve cuts to untied grants—the financial assistance grants—to the states of $1.5 billion over three or four years. I believe that one senator in here today estimated that it would mean at least $400 million out of state education—that is if the states continue their commitment to education on the current arrangements.

I urge people to look at the dissenting report of the legislation committee on this bill, because it points out that one way the government is obfuscating with the figures is by rolling in the financial assistance grants, or FAGs. I will read a paragraph from that report:

The Labor and Australian Democrat Senators note with interest that, although the States Grants Bill deals with the allocation of Specific Purpose Payments to States, the Commonwealth's submission to this Committee, and the Minister's arguments elsewhere, insist on the inclusion of attributed levels of Financial Assistance Grants throughout the Commonwealth's justification and explanation of its funding proposals.

There are lots of concerns. One is that the states will continue to provide something like a 24 or 25 per cent share of FAGs to education. It is also important to note that those so-called FAGs grants now include road grants of something approaching $400 million and will pass $400 million by the year 2000. That is a significant distortion of the total FAGs money that might be available to the states, from which you could ascribe 25 per cent to education. Take out the road funding first before you do that.

What we have is a significant cut of money directly to the states. We have now got a clear statement that, for the enrolments to private schools, the funding for the public schools will be reduced. It is a simple proposal. It is actually all part of allowing anybody who wants to establish a private school to do so, with the only real restriction on their opportunity to do that being registered with the state.

The arguments are very clear. State registration might be adequate for some sorts of assessments, such as the ongoing viability of the school and the capacity of the school to provide an adequate education and so on, but it certainly does nothing for the adequate placement of our schools in this country or the overall planning requirement for the distribution of Commonwealth, let alone state, dollars for schools. It is a certain move away from the brakes, checks and balances that allow the proper allocation of both Commonwealth and state dollars to education.

Nobody in this place is standing up and arguing against private or public schools. If anybody says that I am, let them say it to my face in here or outside and I will make it clear that that is not what I and rest of the opposition are saying. The opposition is saying that it objects strenuously to removing the new schools policy, with its balances, program and planning, and allowing people to establish a private school with nothing more than state registration. There is now no coherent proposal or planning possible under that kind of arrangement.

Worse is the concurrent removal of money from the public sector to the private sector. The comments of Senator Murray earlier today are also very useful. Again, I say on behalf of the opposition that we do not object to private schools. Indeed, look at the history of the Labor Party's contribution to sorting out the debate between public and private schools, sometimes short handed to the expression `state aid' in times past. Labor governments have done so much to contribute to the balanced provision of public and private schooling. This bill blows apart that coherence.

I ask the minister how he will know when this is not going well. What criteria does he have that will highlight when public schools are underfunded to the point of becoming unviable? Most public schools around this country are already screaming for more funds. They are seeking outside private funding to enable them to continue what they call basic level funding. Schools have told us that some of their private funding goes to pay recurrent costs, particularly teachers' salaries, and that state governments are managing to obfuscate their books by not being totally honest about actual recurrent funding for teachers.

We will continue to take evidence on these very serious matters in our Senate inquiry. Nobody around Australia says that schools are so flush with dollars that they are happy to see any shift in allocations. They are not. They are struggling very much to provide the sorts of things that the parents of Australia want. The parents of Australia are asking, `If we are having free secular education through our public schools, how come we are paying and being asked to pay more and more each year by way of voluntary contributions or fees?'

Funding to our public sector schools is not adequate. That is the consistent report from all over Australia. As honourable senators would have read, schools in various places have toyed with varieties of sponsorships. We have had proposals from chains, such as McDonalds and others, to start providing assistance to schools. Most education departments have worked out that they are not satisfactory provisions. Some state systems are looking at ways in which they can be assisted by private contributions and not in any way jeopardise the independence or quality of schooling provided. They are very major concerns about the adequacy of funding. Allowing new schools to emerge with no coherent planning and with no more than the requirement of state registration is moving very clearly in the opposite direction of coherence and best planned support for our schools.

Again, I ask—I am sure it is a question I asked rhetorically before and forgot to finish pursuing—what criteria does the minister have for when this proposal will need to be reined in? What criteria will we have when there are too many too small schools or is this a case of saying, `Oh, well, the states can manage that; they'll be approving the registration. If it blows up, it will blow up in the states' face and the Commonwealth will be clean'? That is a very nice policy if you can pull it off. But I do not believe that the community will be fooled any more.

Senator Carr —If you are a cynic, its a nice policy.

Senator CROWLEY —Thank you, Senator Carr. Indeed, if you are a cynic, you could settle for that. But this dispute between the Commonwealth and the states will not be assisted by this dramatic cut in funding and change in funding to the public sector. Thousands of people do choose the public sector for their children but, more importantly, we know that even within the public sector there is a range of differences between the schools. If you visit the public sector schools in our western suburbs, they are the schools which are much less likely to find sponsorship or private assistance for them to meet what they require and regard as necessary for adequate schooling to supplement the shortfall from the state and Commonwealth allocations.

Further run-down in funding to our public sector schools will do nothing to advantage those schools already struggling. It will certainly not do anything to improve the quality of education for families in those areas where schools have to manage on the government allocations and almost nothing more. Many of the parents who attend those schools are not the parents who are flush with spare capital to make their so-called voluntary contributions. Those schools are struggling to meet the needs of their children. They are not assisted by any re-allocation of funding, as this bill proposes.

This bill is taking an awful step. The biggest concern I have is that under the name of choice and in a very large educational policy vacuum, we have what is clearly a privatisation by stealth. No, it will not happen overnight and no, there will not be a rush to close public schools and open private ones, but the trend is established. The big tick for that kind of behaviour and that kind of movement is now written in law if this bill passes. That is what this bill is about. It is a move away from a commitment by the states to free secular education, adequate and sufficient and enabling of our children and our families, to blowing that apart and saying, `We will now see much more irregular—

Senator Carr —Deregulated.

Senator CROWLEY —Deregulated, but I mean irregular emergence of schools. Many of them will not be sufficient to provide anything like the same adequate education for our children. The cost will be insufficient education in many of our public schools. If anyone doubts that, go check the scene in Victoria. In yesterday's Age there is a report that the retention rates that this Labor government had built up to 81 per cent are now falling significantly in the public schools and schools across Victoria. There are many thousands of schools closed in Victoria. There are teachers out of jobs. This bill will do nothing to supplement or support or recreate and commit to education the vital needs of the families of Australia. (Time expired)