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Wednesday, 1 July 1998
Page: 5764

Mr PRICE (11:11 AM) —I am pleased to speak on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 1998 and, in particular, to support our shadow minister for education and youth affairs, Mr Latham, who has moved an amendment, namely that:

"whilst not declining to give the Bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government:

(1) for failing to provide schools with adequate resources to cope with the expected increase of up to 27,000 students a year as a result of the introduction of the Youth Allowance;

(2) for presenting distorted and misleading figures on school funding to the Australian people; and

(3) for imposing the unfair Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment on government schools".

It is interesting that at the same time as I am speaking in this House, there is a media conference being held by a number of youth groups which condemn the federal government's introduction of the youth allowance. Those groups are the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition, the National Youth Coalition for Housing, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission and the Welfare Rights Network of Australia. It is really interesting that none of these organisations is welcoming the government's initiative on the youth allowance. You can catch them in one of the Senate committee rooms at this moment, condemning the government for the youth allowance.

I do not think that there is a more mendacious minister in the house than the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Dr Kemp), who is introducing this bill. On the opposition side he is not held in any high esteem, particularly for his mendacity. I think education and employment are too important for us to be scoring points about because, basically, particularly in terms of education, young people are Australia's future. The extent to which we allow young people to realise their full potential is the extent to which we will be enriched in the future.

To give you an example of the mendacity of the minister, let me give you one quote of his about youth unemployment and the youth allowance:

The government is committed to reducing youth unemployment—

no problem with that—

and believes that it is important to encourage our young people under 18 to complete their schooling or, if they leave school early, to move on to further training or employment.

Actually it is not a system of encouragement at all; it is a system of compulsion. In my own electorate, when the news hit about this so-called government initiative, I think I calculated that about 1,000 young people were going to be forced back into schools.

Mr Deputy Speaker, even if you support compulsion, as I presume government members do, wouldn't you think it would be aided or complemented by a system that facilitates re-entry; that there would be some additional resources, some additional approach within the schools to facilitate re-entry? Some states have particular re-entry schools which are specifically designed to cater for students who may have left school for more than six months and want to get back into mainstream schooling. But it is not possible for those students to do so instantly. You cannot be unemployed and then suddenly sign up for schooling and pick up where you left off because, clearly, you have missed out on a lot. What does it do to other students who already may be very motivated to continue with their education if they are confronted with a significant proportion of their class who have been compelled to return to school?

The opposition supports the idea—and we talk endlessly about it, I suppose, because we are so passionate about it—of the need for further education or further training. But I am not convinced that compulsion is the answer; and compulsion unaccompanied by any other remedy certainly is not the answer.

In reality what is happening is that young people who do not go back into further training or schooling get zero support from unemployment benefits from the government. Benefits are assessed also on their parents' income, and it is a very modest amount of money—$23,000. That income can be brought into the house by one parent or both. I believe that there would be very few people working in my community, which I am proud to represent, who would qualify on that basis. It almost indicates that people have to be on welfare benefits to qualify. I think that is very wrong.

I have spoken also about the opportunity I had in chairing the employment, education and training committee. We brought down a unanimous recommendation—all the recommendations, incidentally, were unanimous—where we said that the age of independence should be lowered from 25 to 21 years of age and the Labor government went about lowering the age of independence.

What has this government done? It has made a 180-degree turn and reversed the age of independence. How galling it must be for young people aged 16 or older to have to be totally dependent on their parents—how galling. And what does it do for family relationships? We hear the coalition say, `We are in favour of the family. We want to strengthen the family. The family is the cornerstone of Australia.' I accept all those things, and I believe in them too. But then they set about policies that destabilise families—and dramatically destabilise them.

I support, in a sense, the rationalisation of the various allowances. I very much oppose the implication and the exclusion of young people who currently enjoy those allowances from having them. But I note that the department—that is, the Department of Social Security—in implementing this new youth allowance has awarded itself nearly $70 million. In other words, a whole range of existing payments are being consolidated into one payment. But to me, by far and away the biggest winner seems to be the Department of Social Security. I think that is particularly unfortunate.

I remember at the last election when, in South Australia, Rupert Murdoch said that the rate of unemployment amongst young people was terrible and that the government—meaning the Labor government—ought to do something about it. I suppose that was a statement welcomed by a lot of people; it certainly had a tremendous impact at the time. But I also have to say that, in fact, under this government the rate of unemployment for youth has increased; it has not been lowered at all.

Given his earlier statement, I am just waiting for Mr Murdoch, a very powerful and influential media proprietor, to come out and say to the Australian people how bitterly disappointed he is. I am sure that young people are very disappointed about their inability to find jobs, notwithstanding all the coalition rhetoric at the time about how it would decrease the unemployment rate and how it would create jobs for young people if they wanted them.

There are some interesting statistics around relating to job creation. Let me just rattle a few off, if you do not mind—and I am not trying to point score here; I am just trying to really present in this speech the facts of the matter. It is like a report card of this mendacious minister.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —Order! I realise that `mendacious' is a relatively obscure word, but the meaning is quite clear and the member should be careful.

Mr PRICE —Mr Deputy Speaker, I am certainly happy to take up that caution, and I will certainly desist and refrain from using that word again in this speech. But this minister exercises no caution when he uses figures, and I want to avoid what is common practice for the minister and just present figures that are incontestable, figures that are on the public record.

Mr Martin Ferguson —Meaning you won't fiddle them.

Mr PRICE —I do not believe in the longer term it does anyone any good fiddling them. Whilst the minister may feel good about it, it lowers the reputation of all ministers and all members of this parliament. I think it is a practice to be avoided, as the point I want to make is far too serious.

If you compare the last 27 months of Labor and the Howard-Fischer coalition's first 27 months, total jobs growth under Labor was 561,600. Under John Howard it was 231,100. Full-time jobs growth under Labor was 350,300. Under John Howard it was 74,100. Part-time jobs growth—and this is perhaps the best performing area for John Howard—was 211,300 under Labor and 157,000 under John Howard. What was the impact of our government on unemployment in those 27 months? The unemployment rate came down 2.4 per cent. What has happened under John Howard? It has come down certainly—by 0.3 per cent. Let me repeat that: under Labor unemployment came down 2.4 per cent; under John Howard it came down 0.3 per cent.

The unemployment rate for youth under Labor was 26.4 per cent, and the unemployment rate under the coalition was 27.9 per cent. I apologise for using an old figure of May 1998, but it has increased under this government. There are fewer people now looking for work—in other words, the discouraged numbers in our community have increased dramatically because the participation rate has not increased under John Howard. These are statistics that I have been using, but underneath every statistic is a human being looking for dignity, wanting work and not being able to find it. It is really disappointing that, when a government introduces a youth allowance which denies young people the ability to get unemployment benefits, this is triumphed as tremendous government policy. In fact, it is going to put serious pressures on that young person or, alternatively, their family.

In reading the newspapers today, I could not help noticing in the Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald the headlines `Mt Druitt teachers stage walkout' and `Teachers in west walk out'. This has everything to do with something that I have been fighting for for 10 years, and that is the creation of a senior high school in Mount Druitt with junior feeder schools. I have said to the House before that the earlier campaign was unsuccessful because we did not get the model that we wanted and Mount Druitt missed out, but St Mary's senior high was implemented and became the first ever public senior high school in New South Wales. I note that one report says 80 and another report says 100 teachers gathered at the office of Paul Gibson, the present member for Londonderry. Why teachers feel that they need to go to Mr Gibson as some moral authority in the community I do not know.

What I can tell the House is this: Mr Gibson has a very firm position on improving student outcomes in my electorate, particularly amongst the five high schools in Mount Druitt. What he says is this: notwithstanding declining school enrolments, we should do nothing about increasing subject choices. We should do nothing about improving vocational educational opportunities in years 11 and 12. What we need to do to combat declining enrolment is to throw more teachers into a declining student population. That is clearly a recipe for failure. Some may be attracted to that proposition if it improves student outcomes, but there is no evidence that that is the case.

I cannot in all conscience stand in this parliament and say, `I support in one of those five high schools one year 11 student being taught by one teacher.' I apologise to you; I cannot defend it. I cannot defend that school's concept of providing choice for students in Mount Druitt by directing them to take distance education for one of their subjects—that is, by correspondence. I am appalled that, because of low student numbers and because choices are so limited, this school is encouraging year 11 and 12 students to take a subject, an everyday common subject, by distance education. To me, that points to failure.

Last but not least, in the instance that I gave of one on one teaching, someone has to pay for it. The students who are paying for it are the junior students—the years 7 to 10 students. They are being robbed of teaching resources to provide such incredibly low student numbers. It has been claimed that there is a lack of consultation. The minister hired the University of Western Sydney, and they went round all the five schools, spoke to students separately, spoke to teachers separately and spoke to the community. I think I was at three of the five community consultations. Out of that process everyone has recognised that things have to change in Mount Druitt.

A working party was set up comprising a principal, four teachers—one of them I understand a representative for the teachers federation—and a community representative. To his credit, Minister John Aquilina allowed that working party to travel to Victoria to see first-hand how a multicampus arrangement—a college arrangement—can work. I congratulate him for it. They came back and developed a particular model on the way forward. That model has been presented to the school principals. That model will go to the wider community, including the teachers. Let me say this: I am very happy to organise a public meeting at the Rooty Hill RSL and invite every parent and every student to come along—teachers can come along if they want to—and we will discuss the merits of this change.

The clock is ticking away. We need to have the new structure in for next year. Narimba has already borrowed from the work that was done in Mount Druitt; their college system has got a green light, they are proceeding and it will be implemented in 1999. It is unacceptable to me that having already lost ten years, we should lose another year. We must have this new arrangement in place for 1999.

As much as I believe that teachers are a very valuable and important aspect of teaching, and I esteem their role, as a federal member I cannot sell out the interests of my students and their futures on the basis of this walkout. I have been committed for a number of years to senior high schools. I am not going to waver in fighting for the best outcomes for my students; whether they are at high school or at primary school, I am committed to them. I am disappointed, but I understand that the majority of the teachers came from the two high schools that are not involved in this arrangement rather than from the five schools themselves. I commend the amendment moved by the shadow minister. (Time expired)