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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1890


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (12:40): Every child has the right to a good quality public education. To make that happen, public schools need money now—not in 2019 or at some unspecified date in the future but now. To even match the OECD average, Australia would need to put an additional $7 billion into education right now. Australia's public investment in all education is 3.7 per cent compared to the OECD average of five per cent. In relation to public expenditure on schools, we rank 24 out of 30, with Australia's public investment of 3.0 per cent comparing to an OECD average of 3.5 per cent. By OECD standards, only Belgium and Chile spend a smaller proportion of money on public schools than Australia, and only Belgium, Chile and Israel spend a higher proportion on private schools.

We know that this current inequity in funding hits disadvantaged public schools the hardest. As was reported in the Australian, over the last seven years public funding of independent schools has increased by 82 per cent and for Catholic schools it has increased by 64 per cent, but for public schools it has increased by only 48 per cent. Why are we in this position? We are in this position because the previous government, the Howard government, put in place a very unfair funding model. It is a model that does not take into account the streams of private recurrent income from sources other than fees, such as endowments, donations and capital works loan schemes. It is a model that gives an advantage to schools in regional areas and those with a high proportion of country students, leading to some wealthy city boarding schools receiving lower SES rankings, such as Geelong Grammar. The funding given to schools with high SES scores is disproportionately generous compared to schools at the lower end of the scale. That funding model has been in place for a number of years and has led to us having the distinction of being near the bottom of the heap in developed countries when it comes to spending on public schools.

For many years the Greens have said we need to fix this. The Greens know that public education is a cornerstone of democracy. The Greens firmly believe that every child has a right to a good quality public education. When the Gonski report came along, we said, 'It's well overdue. Let's get on with it.' We find ourselves in a situation where, five minutes to midnight, with only a few months to run on this parliament, we still have not fixed the unfair Howard funding model. Labor has had so many chances to fix this problem. At the early stage of its government, it had the advantage of having almost wall-to-wall state Labor premiers with whom it could have worked to fix the John Howard unfair funding model. Instead, Labor came to this parliament and said, 'No, we want to extend it, because we're not ready to fix it yet.' As a result, a child who was in grade 1 when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister has just finished primary school, all under a Labor government and all under John Howard's unfair funding model.

So now we have the ludicrous situation where, at five minutes to midnight, there is a much more hostile environment for public education, with conservative state premiers around the country, and we have a bill that still does not contain a new funding model. If a public school or a parent were to ask, 'How much more will I get for my public school or for my student if this legislation passes?' no-one would know, because still there is no money on the table to redress that massive disadvantage that has us ranking amongst the bottom of developed countries in terms of how much money we give schools.

Even if this legislation were to pass, there is a clause in the legislation that says nothing in it is binding on the government. So still, even if we voted for this and it passed today, it would not result in our public schools, who desperately need the money, getting one more cent. What worries me is that, having passed up years of opportunities where there was a really good environment to fix this, we are now in the increasingly heated environment of an election campaign, where as the government looks around the states it does not find many political friends, and we still do not have a funding model.

This is not a good time to be debating such a significant reform, because history tells us that in the heat of a fight Labor gives in. We saw that with the mining tax. When one of the most significant reforms that could have set this country up for decades to come was recommended by Treasury, after a $26 million advertising campaign Labor caved in to the big miners, we got a change of Prime Minister and, as a result, the public purse is about $100 billion worse off over the next decade. That probably explains in part why we have not yet seen any money put on the table, despite five-odd years of government, and why when it does come, if the reports are to be believed, it will be put off into the never-never—because Labor has not had the courage to stand up to the big miners and raise the money we need to fund the services Australians expect, like decent public education for our kids.

So now we find ourselves speculating about when any money might arrive. According to one report, if it does arrive it will not be phased in until 2019. By 2019, if we get the full $6 billion that has been committed, we will still be behind the OECD average—because, of course, the rest of the OECD will have increased their spending. By 2019, that child who started primary school when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister will have finished high school without seeing the full benefits of the Gonski reform package. This is what happens when you do not have the courage to stand up in the public interest and says to the big miners, 'You have got to pay your fair share.' It means that there is no money to pay for important reforms like this.

That is why I will be moving an amendment to this legislation to provide that, when the money does come in, given that it is probably going to come in dribs and drabs, the first lot should go to those disadvantaged public schools. We know from the Gonski report that public schools are where you find the highest concentration of disadvantage. As I go around and look at the schools in my electorate, that certainly rings true. But, because the money is going to come in dribs and drabs, if we do not give it to those public schools first, they are going to fall further behind. It will also mean that, of a limited quantum of money that is well below what is needed, money will be going to wealthy private schools that do not need it anywhere near as much, while the disadvantaged public schools continue to drag further and further behind.

This is a sensible amendment that says, if you are not going to pay for it all upfront, then give it to those who need it most first. If the government comes out and releases the funding formula to say that from tomorrow we are going to fund the Gonski recommendations fully then there would be no need to proceed with this amendment. But I reckon you can pretty safely bet that that is not to happen. We are going to see funding promises put off to the never-never, and we are going to see years and years before public schools get the funding they deserve. We are going to see, whatever happens at the election in September, the legacy of the unfair Howard model continuing because Labor was not willing to act when it could to raise the money that we need to fund services that Australians expect.

I am also worried that the delay after delay potentially means that the decline in funding for public education and its consequences become irreversible. I read an article recently that suggested that whilst in Victoria the majority of parents still send their children to public schools at the primary level, it has now changed so that the majority of children at high school level are going to non-government schools. What I find from talking to people in Melbourne is that parents would love to send the kids to a government school at the secondary level. But they look around their neighbourhoods at the government schools and worry that they are underfunded at the high school level.

In areas like Flemington and Richmond we have enormous disparities. As well as some very wealthy people we also have more public housing than any other electorate in the country. So you have schools that are trying to educate people from backgrounds of extreme disadvantage as well as people who come from backgrounds of wealth. Of course, they get slugged when the Victorian conservative government hacks away at public education, as it has done recently. They look at these schools and say, 'We want to be guaranteed that our child will get a good quality public education. We look and see that you are struggling for funds. Maybe we will look somewhere else.' There are some very good principals and school communities in Melbourne who are trying to reverse that trend and who are trying to make sure that government secondary schools again become the school of choice for people to send their kids to. I have done everything I can to support them with that.

One of the things schools need are resources, and they need them now. If we do not give resources to these schools now, these patterns of decisions that parents are making are just going to continue and government schools are going to fall further and further behind. We need to give them the resources to support what the parents and the school communities are doing to turn that around. As a matter of basic principle, people should be able to send their children to private school if they want to. It is not a matter for government to stand in the way of that. But it should never become a forced choice. It should never be a choice that a parent makes because they feel that the quality of education their child is going to receive at a public school is under a cloud. You can do it if you want to, but do not do it because you feel that government schools are falling behind.

Unfortunately what the Gonski report tells us is that we are at risk of that happening: we are below the international average and we need to act quickly. So, if the government were serious, we would be putting in place a proper mining tax now so that we could have the money from next year to get our public schools up to the average of international developed countries. I hope that in the lead up to the election the government has the guts to do that. It would be an extraordinarily popular move amongst the Australian people.

If you ask people, 'Would you rather that we increase the taxes on the most wealthy companies in this country that send 83 per cent of their profits overseas so that your children can have a good quality public education or would you rather that our public schools fall further and further behind and the government raises taxes that the rest of us have to pay?' I bet I know what the majority of Australians would answer. That takes a bit of guts. It takes guts to stand up to the mining companies. The Greens have the guts to stand up to the mining companies and raise the revenue we need to fund the services that Australians expect. It is time the government got on with it. If it is going to roll out funding in dribs and drabs, we will move an amendment to say, 'Give it not to those wealthy private schools that need it the least but give it first to those schools in the public system where the greatest areas of disadvantage are.'