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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1879


Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (11:56): I rise to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2012, which—in a fashion we have come to expect from this government—sets out a list of noble and lofty aspirations with no plan as to how to actually achieve them. I want to make three points in the time available to me today. The first is that, despite all the noble and lofty aspirations which are articulated in this bill and elsewhere, the Labor Party is unable to guarantee that no school will be worse off when it comes to its proposed funding arrangements. The second point I want to make is that the measures which are contemplated in this bill will add substantial regulatory and red tape burdens, but the case has not been made out that they will deliver compensating and justifying benefits. My third point to the House today is that, on analysis, this bill is an entirely meaningless piece of legislation: it is explicitly stated, on the face of it, that it creates no legal obligations. To introduce a bill which does this is to demean the parliament and the legislative process.

I turn to the proposition that the Labor Party and the Rudd-Gillard government are unable to guarantee that no school would be worse off when it comes to funding arrangements. Clause 9 of the bill purports to deal with the issue of school funding. It states:

For any Government of a State or Territory, or non-government education authority, that reaches agreement with the Commonwealth on its implementation of the national plan referred to in section 6, the Commonwealth will provide funding for schools or school systems, through grants of financial assistance to States and Territories, based upon the following principles …

It then articulates a list of very noble and worthwhile principles. In other words, the bill sets out a very high level outline of the funding model that was described in the Gonski review of school funding. The Gonski report recommends new funding for education of some $6.5 billion per annum, which raises a fairly obvious and essential question: where is the $6.5 billion going to come from?

The original proposal in the Gonski review was that the incremental cost of introducing the model be split between the Commonwealth and the states on a 30-70 basis. The implication is that each government would be required to increase its existing expenditure on school education by around 15 per cent. It might have been thought that, when a bill dealing with the implementation of the broad model set out in the Gonski review was introduced, that bill would give detail, that bill would set out the precise implementation mechanics. But anybody who approaches this bill with that expectation would be gravely disappointed, because this bill gives no detail about the funding split at all and nor does this bill grapple with any of the technical issues which have been raised by the many stakeholders in this sector about the implications of the funding model proposed by the Gonski review.

Both the National Catholic Education Commission and the Independent Schools Council of Australia have highlighted what they see as significant anomalies which would lead to around a third of all schools having reduced funding compared to the current model, and I hasten to add this would include both government and non-government schools. It is no surprise, therefore, that we have seen a steady series of concerns expressed by state premiers and by state education ministers about the glaring lack of detail provided to date by the Rudd-Gillard government on how the new school funding arrangements will operate in practice. For example, Queensland's minister for education had this to say on 20 January this year:

We've had absolutely no detail about numbers. We don't have a model from which we can work and we also don't have any idea about what state contributions are supposed to be let alone whether we can afford them.

The Western Australian minister for education had this to say on 1 February:

It continues to be disappointing and frustrating that the Commonwealth is still yet to provide the states with any proposed funding model, particularly in light of the Prime Minister announcing the date for this year's federal election yesterday, an announcement which is meant to provide the electorate with certainty.

Last year, the Chief Executive of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Bill Daniels, had this to say:

While ISCA appreciates the complexity of the task, many of the 1,100 independent school communities have genuine concerns about the continuing uncertainty of future funding arrangements. Considerable time has passed since the release of the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling and current Australian Government funding arrangements for independent schools expire at the end of 2013.

The Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth was supposed to release data on student characteristics and school finances. There are reports around that data has been provided to stakeholders, but we simply do not know with any certainty whether that is correct and, indeed, what that data consists of.

It is only after the data has been provided that the proposed model is supposed to be finalised. Until all of that is done and until all of that information is in the public domain, there are key questions which remain unanswered, including: where will the at least $6.5 billion per year which is required to fund the Gonski arrangements come from? If it is the case that the Gonski modelling shows that over 3,200 schools will be worse off, how much extra will it cost for every school to receive more funding, as the Prime Minister has promised? And will the Prime Minister promise that no school will have to increase school fees as a result of her changes? This really comes to the core of the issue: are any schools to be made worse off as a result of the new funding model?

It has been the consistent view of the coalition that any new funding model should leave no school worse off in real terms—and I do emphasise the words 'in real terms', because one of the glaring areas where we have seen a lack of commitment from the government is the indexation of funding. As we all know, due to the effects of inflation, a funding commitment in any particular year can be eroded quite materially as several years go by when you get the cumulative effect of inflation year after year. Therefore, indexation is absolutely critical to address that concern.

In addition, as was mentioned in the remarks by Bill Daniels which I quoted earlier, there is a glaring lack of certainty about what is to happen when the existing funding arrangements cease at the end of 2013. There is no answer on this question in the bill before the House today, yet this is a matter which is causing very considerable anxiety in independent schools around Australia. In the electorate of Bradfield, there are a significant number of outstanding independent schools. I know that the school councils, principals and others charged with the management of those schools are becoming increasingly anxious about what is to happen when the existing funding model comes to an end. It is extremely difficult to plan for the future when you have no idea of what the funding arrangements are going to be at the end of the current year. Yet these schools need to make plans for years ahead, and seeking to do so without having certainty as to what degree of funding support will be available from the Commonwealth makes their challenge extremely difficult.

It is really hard to see how any competent government could get into the position where a very significant existing program of funding is to come to an end and yet no clarity on how the new arrangements are going to apply has been given to the many, many schools in the sector which depend upon this funding. You can go to considerable levels of detail as to where that uncertainty extends. For example, we do not know about the future arrangements for capital works funding. We do not know about the funding arrangements to support students with disabilities and other disadvantaged students. The lack of this government's capacity to give a commitment on the future funding arrangements, and particularly a commitment that no school will be worse off should the arrangements contemplated in this bill pass into law, is of substantial concern to those of us on the coalition side of the House.

The second point I want to make is that this bill, as one would expect from any bill introduced by the Rudd-Gillard government, proposes to add substantial additional regulatory burdens. We are told that there will be a national plan which will improve school performance and drive continuous school improvement. It will provide opportunities for school students to develop capabilities to engage with Asia and do a wide range of other very worthwhile and desirable things. There are significant concerns in the sector, based on experience, that the establishment of additional plans, indicators and requirements will add materially to the regulatory burden on schools.

The question therefore becomes: what benefit is to be obtained in exchange for this extra burden which is to be imposed? As many in the sector point out, key aspects which are highlighted in the plan are already addressed under current arrangements. For example, schools already undertake annual performance assessments of teachers. So therefore there is a real question as to whether the plan envisaged in this bill is going to do anything more than simply increase the red tape burden on schools and be yet another opportunity for attempts by the federal government to engage in ever-increasing micromanagement of aspects of activity in various sectors—in this case, education.

I would note, however, that one aspect of what is envisaged is something that the coalition is very much attracted to, and that is the notion of increasing school and principal autonomy. If the present government actually delivers on its ideas in this area, that would certainly be something we would be pleased to support. But naturally enough, based on experience, we are somewhat sceptical that they will in fact deliver.

Let me turn to the final point I want to make in the brief period available to me. The bill before the House today is, in substance, a completely empty and meaningless exercise. Clause 10 of the bill states that, when it passes into law, the act which is so created will not create any legally enforceable obligations. In other words, to take up the parliament's time with considering and debating this empty and meaningless sham is a scandalous misuse of the parliament. It is a sham and an empty piece of trickery, designed to do nothing other than to give the appearance of progress and action. Everything which is in this bill could have been dealt with equally well through issuing a brief government policy statement. But of course that has already been done several times and so, therefore, this government is desperate to give the appearance that they are doing more. And what could achieve that objective better than to introduce a bill? Of course, it is a bill with lots of lofty goals and laudable aims and it repeats the phrase 'excellent education' several times, as if the more often you repeat it the more likely you are to achieve the outcome. I am sorry to say that excellence, while a laudable goal, is unlikely to be achieved just by using the word repeatedly.

The bill before the House today is one that wholly fails to address a concern which is causing great anxiety within the school sector in that it fails to guarantee that no school will be worse off when the new funding model is implemented. This bill before the House today greatly adds to the regulatory burden that will apply to schools. And, thirdly, it is a bill which in fact has no legal effect whatsoever and is therefore a scandalous misuse of the parliament's time.