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Wednesday, 1 July 1998
Page: 5778

Mr FITZGIBBON (12:25 PM) —I rise in support of the amendments put forward by the member for Werriwa (Mr Latham) to the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 1998 which call upon this House to condemn the Howard 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 . . .

We see evidence of that every day as the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, the member for Goldstein (Dr Kemp), approaches that dispatch box and does his very best to distort figures to present false facts to the Australian community. He gives the term `Lies, damn lies and statistics' new meaning each time he approaches that dispatch box. The third amendment moved by the member for Werriwa condemns the Howard government:

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

I hope I have time to say something about that before my time expires.

The member for Wakefield (Mr Andrew) chose to make the debate on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 1998 in part a debate on youth unemployment. I am pleased that he did, Mr Deputy Speaker. You will recall, as do all of us here, that prior to the last federal election the now Prime Minister (Mr Howard) had a fair bit to say about youth unemployment. He told us it was the most pressing issue facing this country. We certainly all agree with that. But the point is that he travelled the length and breadth of this country promising to fix it, as did the member for Goldstein. What is the result after 2½ years? The result is that youth unemployment in this country is now higher than it was when this government came to office. In particular, youth unemployment in my region is now higher than it was when John Howard and the member for Goldstein came to office.

It is very disappointing that, in the last budget, the government ran up the white flag on unemployment. They now tell us that they do not expect unemployment in this country to be any better than it is now—in 12 months time the situation will be the same as it is today. This is the hope they are giving us on unemployment and, in particular, youth unemployment. The Minister for Finance and Administration (Mr Fahey) is sitting at the table. It must be very distressing for him to have to put his name to a budget that gives up on unemployment and youth unemployment.

Today is the day the government runs up another flag. But this time it is not a white flag; this time it is a victory flag. Today, 1 July, is the day on which the award simplification provisions of the Workplace Relations Act come into effect. The point to be made is this: those provisions will undermine the award system in this country. They will destroy the protections contained within that system that Australian workers have enjoyed for very many years. But the main point to be made is that it is not trade unionists who should fear 1 July and the award simplification process; it is those who are not members of trade unions, those who rely solely on a strong award system for protection. This means young Australians in low paid jobs. They are the people under threat as a result of the award simplification provisions that come into effect today.

Creating jobs in this country needs a whole of government approach. First, we need to get the economy growing so jobs can flow from that. Again, the Minister for Finance and Administration must be very disappointed to see that his rather poor growth projections in the budget are now coming under the scrutiny of the markets, and all the experts and economists are predicting that the growth projection is—modest as it was—too high and growth will be much slower.

Second, we need to give young Australians equal access to decent education and training. Third, government should always do all it can to create new jobs. For example, early in 1996 a firm known as Rack Rite Pty Ltd sought to establish a plant in Maitland to manufacture shelving that is used in supermarkets and hypermarkets. The proposal would have created 600 full-time jobs in Maitland and the wider Hunter region. Rack Rite is South Africa's largest private steel user, and it is a significant player in the market. Early this year, unfortunately, Rack Rite announced that it would, at very best, be significantly downscaling its proposal—leading, of course, to a significant loss of job opportunities.

The downsizing has occurred as a result of difficulties experienced by the owner of the firm, Mr Melvyn Lahner, in securing a visa. Mr Lahner is, of course, a South African. Concerned that such a significant proposal has been lost to the region, the New South Wales Minister for Regional Development, the Hon. Harry Woods—a former distinguished and well-liked member of this place—instructed the New South Wales Standing Committee on State Development to inquire into the loss of the 600-job proposal.

Today, the chairman of that committee, the Hon. Tony Kelly, MLC, released the committee's findings. The committee found, amongst other things, that Mr Lahner's inability to secure a visa was a `major factor' in the loss of this great opportunity in Maitland and the wider Hunter region. The committee recommended:

. . . that the Minister for Regional Development—

that is, the New South Wales minister—

urge the federal Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to conduct an internal investigation into the processing of Mr Lahner's visa applications to ensure that mechanisms are put in place to prevent the loss of any future investment proposals to New South Wales.

The standing committee also commented on the role of the member for Paterson (Mr Bob Baldwin) with respect to this proposal. The standing committee stated in its findings:

. . . despite the fact that Mr Lahner requested assistance with his immigration application from the Federal Member for Paterson, Mr Bob Baldwin MP, in April 1997, Mr Baldwin did not bring this matter to the attention of immigration officials until September 1997. Earlier action by Mr Baldwin would have reduced the delay in processing of Mr Lahner's application—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Quick) —Order! I would remind the honourable member for Hunter that he is straying considerably from the bill, and I would ask him to come back to it as soon as possible.

Mr FITZGIBBON —I appreciate your comments, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am trying to draw together the implications of this bill for youth unemployment, as raised by the member for Wakefield. The point I am trying to make is that poor representation by the member for Paterson and stuff-ups by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs have unfortunately led to a significant loss of jobs in the Hunter. The standing committee further stated that it was:

. . . surprised to note a report in the Maitland Mercury on 15 January 1998 stating that both immigration officials and the Federal Member for Paterson, Mr Bob Baldwin MP, had asserted they had done as much as they could to entice Mr Lahner's business to Maitland. Mr Baldwin is quoted as saying that when he was made aware of the immigration problems, he "moved on them straight away." A letter from Mr Martin—

the former Mayor of Maitland—

to the Editor of the Maitland Mercury on 16 January 1998—

which happens to be my birthday—

also indicates that Mr Baldwin made statements in radio and television interviews on 15 January 1998 that he had no knowledge of immigration problems until September 1997.

The committee goes on to say:

The statements attributed to Mr Baldwin conflict with evidence provided to the Standing Committee by Mr Martin that Mr Baldwin was informed of the immigration problems in April 1997. The Standing Committee is of the view that if Mr Baldwin had taken a greater interest in Mr Lahner's development proposal in April 1997, Mr Baldwin may have been able to alert high-ranking Australian immigration officials to Mr Lahner's problems sooner than September 1997.

The Standing Committee is also of the view that the failure of departmental officers to respond to, or subsequently locate, any of the five letters written to immigration officials in 1996 detailing Mr Lahner's business intentions, was a major contributing factor to the visa processing delays. These failures suggest less than satisfactory departmental administration processes, both in Pretoria and Australia.

I appreciate your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, but this is an example of how government failure can lead to significant job opportunity losses in Australia and particularly in regional Australia.

I should turn back to education and the common youth allowance. There is another reason why it is very appropriate that we should be debating this bill. Today, 1 July, is not only the day the award simplification process has come into effect; it is also the day that many of the nasties contained within the common youth allowance come into effect. This is the day when some 45,000 young Australians will either lose their unemployment or income support benefits or, at the very best, have them significantly reduced. This is the day when Australia's young people up to 21 years of age will start to lose their benefit as soon as their parents earn around a measly $23,000. I do not have the figure in front of me but it is certainly very low.

This sends an extraordinary message to the Australian community. Where is it based? It is based in the same sort of ideology which led this government to entitle their new initiatives for the work for the dole as just that—to put that `work for the dole' term into the title of the bill. It is their attempt to send a message out to some in the community that they are prepared to get tough on `bludgers', as they see them. But these are not bludgers; these are people who have been denied opportunity. These are people who are disadvantaged. These are people in this position as a result of the failures of the education system in days gone by. The response should not be to punish them for it. Nor should it be to punish their parents, who are on low incomes and who are now going to face an additional $87 a week out of the family budget. This is not the way to treat these people.

If the government are serious about giving these people some vocational education, let us send them through the TAFE system. Let us restore some of the funding that the Howard government have cut from TAFE and give these people some real vocational training. Let us not send back to school some 27,000, as the member for Werriwa mentioned in his amendment, and expect the school system to cope with them, because it simply cannot.

I have talked to teachers and educational professionals right around this country who are absolutely distraught about the prospect of these kids coming back into the school system. The kids are not going to be making a contribution in class. They do not want to be there. In many cases, they have been out of the system for more than two years. What impact is that going to have on the kids in the class who do want to learn and who are interested in what is happening? What sort of disruption is this policy going to cause for them?

As the member for Werriwa has pointed out, the government has very generously allocated something like $42 million to schools in this country to deal with this problem. I think the member for Werriwa suggested that that falls short by some $100 million if you are really going to expect the school system to cater for the 27,000 kids re-entering school. But, again, this is the ideologically driven approach. This is the approach of the member for Goldstein. It is the same approach that leads to policies such as the enrolment benchmark adjustment.

The Labor Party got over its state aid debate long ago. We are committed to both a strong public system—a government based school system—and a private system. My kids go to a Catholic school—all three of them. I am proud of that. I am a product of the Catholic system myself. It is a good system and a system we need. It costs me more than $1,000 each year to send my kids to that school, and probably more than that if you take into account other costs. I am fortunate that I can afford to pay that more than $1,000, but not all Australians can.

In this country we need to ensure that, regardless of your means, you have access to a decent and quality education. But the member for Goldstein's policies—supported by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Mr Abbott), who has just arrived—are trying to force funding away from those government schools into the private sector. What does that mean? It quite clearly means a decline in educational standards in the government sector. It also means more stress on teachers working within the government sector. But this is the ideological approach.

In the regions, in electorates like my own, some state schools rely on a critical mass of students to survive. In some small government schools you need lose only one or two stu dents to render that school unviable. What the member for Goldstein wants to do is encourage this shift from the government sector to the private sector. What that will lead to in electorates like my own is the closure of government schools. In many of these areas it is not easy to access the private sector schools. Some will, but some who are already disadvantaged—and that is why they are in the government schools in the first place—will find it extremely difficult to access those private schools.

I recently attended a hook-up of a Sky Channel viewing which was intended to reach all members of the New South Wales Teachers Federation. They had a two-hour stop-work meeting to protest. They are very concerned by this government's approach to schools funding in this country. Likewise, those involved in higher education are concerned about this government's approach to higher education. They are concerned about up-front fees and the implications of those for equity of access to education. They are concerned about HECS differentials. They are concerned that this government is completely driven by the view that the private sector is good and government is bad. I do not agree. A government has a very important role to play. It raises taxes and redistributes that money to ensure that all Australians, regardless of their means, have the opportunity to access decent community services—services required by them. Just as important is the ability to access decent and quality education in this country.

As the member for Barton (Mr McClelland) pointed out, that opportunity is everything. This approach by the government will do nothing to bring down youth unemployment. They know that, and that is why already in a budget which projects more than 12 months out they have run up the white flag on unemployment. That is recognition on their part that this particular policy will fail.