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Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Page: 36

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (4:27 PM) —Earlier today when I saw this motion from Senator Mason I thought that it was quite audacious on this of all days. I was pondering in the chamber a moment ago with my interjections that perhaps the good senator was seeking the education portfolio. Consider the content of the motion—

The failure of the Rudd government to appropriately plan, cost and implement in a timely manner its flagship election promise, the ‘education revolution’.

You can only help but reflect on the inconsistency of the opposition’s current approach. On the one hand we have: ‘Everything is being pushed off to review after review after review. All this government is about is reviews.’ Then, on the other hand, we have: ‘They are not doing anything now. They are not doing anything immediately.’ The Rudd government has achieved an awful lot in the short time that has been available in relation to this agenda.

Senator Humphries made the point—and did cover some other relevant areas to this debate—that the education revolution is not just about the sexy idea of improving digital infrastructure in schools. There is a hell of a lot more to the agenda. He suggests that the Australian public needs to know more about the philosophy and the background being covered here. There is a mighty lot of information that can be referred to to sustain that case. We have before us now a ground-breaking, unprecedented COAG agenda.

Let us look at a couple of the key priorities of that agenda. But before I do that I also want to put before the Senate some other facts about school funding. Senator Humphries says that the funding between government and non-government schools has been misrepresented in the discussion by some parties. Others have suggested that we are really only looking at the rollout of digital infrastructure. But the real point is: what is education spending as a proportion of the total government spend? That was where we went backwards under the Howard government. Let me be very clear and very fair: for the benefit of the Senate I will now I will apply exactly the same measurement criteria to their previous period and to our current period, and let us look at the difference. The previous government was heading for a decrease in education spending from 7.54 per cent in 2007-08 to 7.47 per cent in 2008-09. Under the same measurement basis, the current government has increased its spending from 7.83 per cent in 2007-08 to eight per cent in 2008-09.

These small figures, when you are not looking at the total context of these scenarios, do not quite paint the full picture, so let me do that. In our first budget we allocated $19.3 billion to education initiatives, including not only the $1.2 billion for the digital education revolution, which will over time provide access to a computer for every student in years 9 to 12, but also the $11 billion for the Education Investment Fund, a national curriculum for all students in English, maths, science and history as well as national Asian language studies programs, and the $2.5 billion trades training centres program across Australia, which will help to provide robust trade skills for students and keep them engaged in schooling. That is the broader context. Senator Humphries can raise implementation issues. Indeed, Senator Milne also mentioned implementation issues, although she, in far better perspective, made the point that we do need to be mindful of how well these programs are being implemented. The flexibility and the preparedness to deal with that is something that I think this government has and is quite prepared for and able to do.

The final point I make about keeping students engaged in schooling takes me back to the COAG agenda. We know that during the Howard government era keeping our students engaged in high school was, to the disgrace of Australia, going backwards. We had an appalling standard—if you look at other OECD countries—on the schooling and retention in schooling of our secondary school students. Worse than that, whilst most other OECD countries were going forwards, we were going backwards. This is not an issue to do with the debate between government and non-government schools; this is a pretty basic, clear benchmark for our school education. Why is it so basic? I encourage any of the senators to have a look at this document about quality education that was recently released by the government. Very clearly, it highlights for all of us the impact and the difference it makes for students to complete year 12. Any government concerned about social justice or inclusion cannot look past a simple benchmark such as improving the level of students remaining in our institutions until year 12. The consequences of them not doing so are appalling.

Let me move to the other area that is part of our COAG agenda. The secondary schooling benchmarks are one key area, but another area very close to my own heart is early childhood. It is another area where we measure very, very poorly—in fact, possibly worse—on OECD standards. What did the Howard government do in that area? It talked about having a national agenda for early childhood. It talked about it repeatedly, but it never had a plan. It never had a plan, yet we have had Senator Mason here today criticising at this early stage of the Rudd government our ability to appropriately plan, cost and implement our education revolution. Early childhood is a key part of our education revolution. A key part—and, again, the former government talked about it—is ensuring that every Australian child has one year of access to preschool education before they make the transition into our schools.

So our COAG plan is about the transition into schools and also about the transition out of schools. That plan is something that is easily available for any senator to refer to. As I said, it is groundbreaking and it is unprecedented. Yes, we will have implementation problems with the states. It is not easy to roll out these types of agendas across areas where you have had state management of delivery across a whole range of policy areas as well, but I believe the Rudd government will achieve that end. (Time expired)