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Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Page: 4347


Senator WATT (Queensland) (15:33): I would have very happily listened to you go on and on, Senator Smith, for some time! But there will be other times for that. I also rise to take note of answers by Minister Birmingham to questions asked by a number of opposition senators today concerning the government's proposed arrangements for the funding of schools in Australia.

Last night, I gave a short speech in the debate on the Medicare Guarantee Bill, and one of the points that I wished I had made—had I thought of it—was that, as well as being a great national institution, Medicare is a great symbol of what governments can do to bring us together as a community. By properly funding public health care that all Australians can receive no matter what their background, we are actually making sure that our community stays together. Similarly, the theme of my contribution today is that the proper and fair funding of all schools in our society is a very important way of making sure all people in our society get an opportunity and, therefore, we help to bring our community together.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing from the Turnbull government right now is not taking us in that direction. We know that their forebears, particularly in the Howard government, rejigged school funding arrangements to advantage wealthy private schools at the expense of public schools and poorer Catholic schools. That is to their eternal shame and it is one of the great contributors to rising inequality within our society today. It is a fact that children from wealthier backgrounds going to more privileged schools have had all sorts of opportunities arising from previous funding arrangements put in place by the then Howard government that in many respects continue to this day.

Of course, the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments attempted to correct this by changing our funding arrangements for schools again to ensure that some of the most disadvantage schools in our community actually got the proper support they needed and, more importantly, that the kids who attended those schools got the support they needed. We are actually seeing the benefits of that come through right now. One of the duty electorates that I represent is the electorate of Forde, which is on the southern outskirts of Brisbane in the Brisbane-Gold Coast corridor. There are many quite disadvantaged areas in the community. I know from personal experience that some of the schools have been using that funding to employ speech therapists and teacher aides to provide much more individualised education and support for children who really need that support in order to reach their own potential. These are the kinds of things that kids from wealthier backgrounds do not necessarily need, and that is what the purpose of this funding was.

Minister Birmingham and the Prime Minister want us to believe that their new funding arrangement is going to continue this sort of support; but, of course, they do not want to acknowledge that their very own policy documents state very clearly that they are going to be taking $22 billion out of the education funding system compare to what Labor in government had proposed to spend. We know that public schools will be worst affected by this; but also there has been significant debate in recent times about the impact on Catholic schools, which also disproportionately service poorer communities, disabled children and children in Indigenous communities, the very kids who most need federal government support and stand to lose most if this funding package get through.

I mentioned that our approach to schools and school funding should be something that binds our community together. But not only is the minister, with his stubborn approach on this funding arrangement, driving individual schools further apart; he is also driving school sectors apart. We have seen the Catholic Education Commission publicly criticise this minister in a way we have not seen for a very long time. In fact, they were reported today as saying that this minister's consultation is the worst they have seen in 50 years. So I guess that makes him an even worse education minister than Christopher Pyne, which is really saying something. The independent schools sector, having supported the government's arrangements up until this point, can see the writing on the wall, can see this minister backing away from his previous statements that he will not be cutting special deals.; and they have warned that they are going to walk away from this funding arrangement if the Catholic schools sector gets some sort of special arrangement from the minister.

So every single school sector is now expressing deep concern about this package. In addition to that, we all know that the minister is driving his own government apart with an increasing number of backbenchers coming out publicly expressing serious concerns and flagging the possibility that they will cross the floor and vote against this legislation. This is no surprise when the minister has been revealed to be providing to the crossbenchers, in order to gain their support, departmental modelling data that he will not even share with his own side of politics. This minister needs to come up with a fair funding arrangement rather than the unfair one he is proposing. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.