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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1886

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (12:25): It is a privilege to rise and speak on the Australian Education Bill and outline my concerns with the bill as presented by the government. I listened carefully to the member for Petrie and essentially she said, 'We believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.' That is a lovely aspiration I support and which all members of this parliament support. But the purpose of a parliament and the purpose of legislation in the parliament is to outline, in law, the things that we intend to do and deliver, in a funding way and in a legislative way.

The problem with the Australian Education Bill, as it is drafted before this parliament, is that it is nine pages—1,400 words—long, with no detail on how anything will be achieved. So when you think you have reached a new low point, legislatively, from this government and you think, 'Wow, that is the worst-drafted piece of legislation I've seen in 17 years of watching these things,' and 'That is a poor way to word a phrase or a clause,' and 'That is a particularly bad name for a bill', here we have a nine-page bill about nothing, being put into the House of Representatives, with no detail attached, and we are asked to pass it with no detail attached. We do not know how anything will be delivered, we do not know how the future of education will be improved, we do not know if any funding will be attached and we do not know the government's intentions. It will not work.

I have had the privilege, thanks to the House, of being added to the inquiry into this Australian Education Bill. Again, I would point to an additional abuse of process, although my points today will not be just about process. They will also be about content and substance. The process is that we are having the inquiry into this bill. We are inquiring into a nine-page bill that says education is our future. Yes! Education is our future. We all agree. This inquiry process into a bill that is nine pages long with 1,400 words has been a complete farce, if I can put it that way. All of the witnesses and people who have made submissions have said, 'We'd really love to say something about what the government is intending in this bill but, essentially, we don't know the detail.' Some of them have said, 'We're in these bogus secrecy agreements with the government. We can't reveal any detail about what we're discussing, so we can't give you any evidence about it.' So when we have had serious questions like 'What funding models would benefit your system and what benefits would get to your school?', most of the time the answer is: 'We'd really like to say something about it, but we don't know.' That is exactly the problem that we have with this government and this piece of legislation before us. There is no detail. There is simply an aspirational attempt to say that education is wonderful and we need to do something about it.

Of course we do. We do hear that the funding model is one that needs improving. But it is not a good or worthwhile process to ask the parliament to pass this piece of legislation when it says nothing about how we are going to improve things. Why not get a piece of legislation that says something, that has some clause that can improve the quality of education for us?

My points are not purely procedural. I do have serious concerns about some of the content we have been presented with. In the course of our inquiry and hearing from many of the different sectors in education, nationally, we have heard very concerning things about some of the funding models that are being considered.

I, coming from Sydney, have a great concern that there will be winners and losers. Certainly it was the view of ISCA, the Independent Schools Council of Australia, that this bill would produce winners and losers in schooling. That is contrary to the Prime Minister's view that no school would lose a dollar. It is easy to say no school will lose a dollar, and we have heard members opposite in the course of this debate say that, but it is not about the current amount of funding that they receive. Schools are serious enterprises that require increases in funding every single year. The indexation, of course, has not been guaranteed by the government, and the question of indexation is fundamental to the operation of schools. They cannot budget or continue their operations without guarantees, not just of their funding in real terms now, but of their funding in real terms with the guarantee of their indexation next year, the year after and the year after that.

We are now 10 months from all of these funding arrangements expiring, and the best that the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research can tell us—because there is no detail in this bill about the funding arrangements—is that COAG will work it out. I do not want to give advice to the government—it is not my job to give advice to the government and they certainly would not listen to me—but I have been around long enough to know that relying on COAG to resolve these kinds of critical questions, when your agreements are expiring in 10 months, is not a recipe for certainty for the education sector. It is not necessarily the smartest approach to take. If states and the Commonwealth do not come to an agreement—knock me down with a feather; it would not be the first time that that has happened, as we know from the history of Commonwealth-state relations—what is going to happen to the funding arrangements in these schools?

Schools need more than 10 months; they need certainty now to plan for their future years. That is why we have moved an amendment to this bill—this bill that contains nothing about nothing—to continue the current arrangements for two years, to give certainty to schools and the school sector so they can at least make plans for the years ahead. Sure, we may need to improve the funding model. Everybody in this place has a concern about that. But, if we have no detail, if we are relying on COAG to sort it out—perhaps—in a few months, we must have a message for those schools out there, who need to plan ahead for next year and the year after. This is not something we can leave to the last minute. I am very concerned about that.

I am also concerned about what we heard directly from ISCA in their presentation to our inquiry—that there would be winners and losers under the funding scenarios that are currently being considered, particularly in Sydney and Western Sydney. I want to refer to a couple of sections of their submission to make my point. In particular, we heard that about a school in Western Sydney as an example. There are 440 independent schools in New South Wales and about 40 per cent of those, according to ISCA, would be worse off under the funding model that is being contemplated. Some of those are large schools and some are not necessarily high-SES schools. In particular, Dr Newcombe gave evidence of one school:

… with an SES of 91—

which is of course a high score—

so it is a very low socioeconomic area. It only charges fees of between $1,000 and $2,000 per student—so parents struggle there, but the school has well over 1,000 children.

So we are talking about a school community in a low-socioeconomic area with a reasonable level of school fees that the parents are making sacrifices to pay so they can send their children to the school of their choice. Dr Newcombe's contention was:

It would lose almost $1,000 per student under this model.

That is $1,000 a student, for a school in a low-socioeconomic area in south-west Sydney. That is just one example that he provided to the inquiry into this bill.

I read that out in the House today because I think it is extraordinarily important that members in Western Sydney in this place understand this. One in four students in Western Sydney attend a Catholic school, and the Catholic system are saying to the government—and said to us in the House inquiry—that they have concerns about the funding models that are being contemplated. In the course of the inquiry we heard that there were several models being considered. Then we heard there were up to 16 models being considered. This is the kind of detail that this House needs to know and understand before we make a decision on a piece of legislation of this nature. It is contemptuous of this parliament, it is contemptuous of the process of government, not to put the details of the funding before this chamber and put the arrangements in place before you ask us to debate and consider this legislation, because we do not know what the impacts on the sectors will be. The independent sector are telling us they are worried. The Catholic sector are telling us they are worried. They school a lot of students in our country. We ought to be very concerned about those things, and it is not right for the government to force this agenda on us without any reference to the detail or the quality of what they are doing.

You can go further into the detail of what they have provided—the 1,400 words—and see that a lot of those words are just a simple covering to ensure that the Commonwealth is not damaged by the passing of this nine-page bill. In the bill, if members want to have a look, they will find a particular clause in part 3 of section 10 saying that the act does not create legally enforceable obligations. Of course, that reads that the act does not create rights or duties that are legally enforceable in judicial or other proceedings. This is a very odd clause and you do not see it very often in legislation. Essentially, the government is saying to us that there is no legally enforceable part of this nine-page bill. Well, I would hope not, because there is nothing it. Why, then, do we have a clause in the nine pages and 1,400 words saying that it is not legally enforceable?

It also says that we believe the children are our future. I asked Mr Kritz from the Attorney-General's Department about that, and I will quote direct from his testimony to the inquiry. He said:

As to the reason for it, I can merely reiterate the fact—

By 'for it' he means that legally enforceable clause—

that without some substantive provisions being put in there, this bill, if it is passed as it is, would be legally problematical in terms of protecting the Commonwealth.

I attempted to ask Mr Kritz another question about that because that was pretty interesting, and it should be interesting to all members in this House, but I was shut down by the chair. I was not allowed to ask Mr Kritz another question on that day in the inquiry. So, I do not know what this provision means. I certainly would like to ask him what he meant by the statement that the bill would be legally problematical for the Commonwealth if it was passed in its current form. That was my next question, but I was not allowed to ask that question. What does it mean? There are only nine pages and there are only 1,400 words. Some of the words say, 'This bill is not legally enforceable.' There is no detail attached to this legislation. It is another low point that we have reached in the genesis of this parliament that is, I think, a bad example of a legal process.

I also want to turn to some of the comments that have been made about funding and the outcomes of the Gonski review which have led to the wording of much of this bill. Members opposite, in their rush to flesh out their speeches with statements about education, have talked about the BER and about money that has been spent in many other programs. To reiterate, there is no money attached to this bill. They have talked about $40 million here and $80 million there. The actual amount that was spent on the BER is $16 billion. What we know from all of the inquiries and investigations into the BER is that about $2 billion to $3 billion could have been saved.

In my electorate I had public schools where the money was wastefully administered by the department, and I have spoken about that in this chamber before. To give a quick example, I had a small school of 100 students who already had a library. They were told that they had to have a second library for those 100 students. A second library was built for those 100 students for $1 million. They had two libraries in Annangrove for 100 students at a cost of $1 million. The original library was air conditioned and fully functioning, but the new library for $1 million had no air conditioning, no shelving and was completely useless. There was great waste in the BER program.

That $2 billion to $3 billion that was wasted nationally is about half of the amount that Gonski has called for—the $6.5 billion. You would already be halfway there if you did not waste or throw away $3 billion. This government has a hide to talk about the amount of money that it has spent on education. You could get halfway to Gonski on the money that has been wasted on the BER. Certainly, if you gave that $1 million to my Annangrove Public School in my electorate, they could have used that $1 million to set up that school for 20 years. They should not have been told to build a second library for $1 million.

That underscores my point about this bill. We certainly do not want to do anything that damages the independent or Catholic sectors in terms of funding or education outcomes. Funding is not the only component of successful education systems. In Australia we spend more per student than systems overseas that get better results than us. Funding is not the only consideration, even though I have spent a lot of time talking about it today. There are other very important things. I want to make sure that we keep the efficiencies that come out of the Catholic system. I see that the Catholic system spent the BER money about three times better than the public system did in New South Wales. That was a shambles. It is not a good outcome for public schools, but it is a fact and it happened that way. So we have to make sure that we—in this rush from the government, with all of these vague and sceptical terms—do not damage the inherent qualities of the different systems that produce good educational outcomes.

If we are serious about funding, let's get serious about a bill, let's put some meat on the bones and let's see something that is actually going to do something rather than being some sort of aspiration that has no place in a bill without any detail to back it up. This is a parliament and this parliament has to pass laws. Until you come forward with your detail and some practical proposals, please do not lecture us on the quality of education.