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Monday, 20 October 2008
Page: 9506


Mr HAASE (1:02 PM) —I rise today to address the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 and related bill. This proposed legislation is focused on simplifying the legislative arrangements for the Commonwealth funding of schools with a high proportion of Indigenous students. That is a topic that I know something about, and I therefore rise today with a great sense of pending achievement.

There have been decades of effort on the part of governments to improve the lot of Indigenous students, primarily, of course, the educational outcomes. At the beginning of the current government there was much said about closing the gap in the quality of educational outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. There seems to be nothing, however, in so much that has been written about these proposed changes, that addresses the fundamental issue as to why people seek out and obtain an education. There seems to be a great deal of warm encouragement, a lot of carrot dangling and many suggestions about the fine outcomes that will be achieved if the gap is closed. But in Indigenous and community terms, and in understandable terms, there does not seem to be much that would change the mindset of average Aboriginal parents in an average remote community from the existing circumstance where education is not valued at all to a circumstance, pontificated on by our current Prime Minister some months ago, of closing the gap.

The hurdles that exist today in Indigenous communities to producing year-12 capable Indigenous students who go on to seek job training, employment and financial independence are monumental. What so many people in this House do not understand is just how monumental that task is. In the majority, we come from an Anglo-Saxon work-ethic background where one is born, is schooled, gets a job, works and then starts the cycle all over again. That is not the case in Indigenous communities. Until such time as our bureaucracies can develop strategies that will say in a meaningful way to Indigenous parents, ‘The future of your race is dependent upon you sending your child to school,’ there will be no great change to outputs from the education system in Indigenous communities—because most of us do not even understand the status of a child in an Indigenous community. We know a lot about children in our own community, even though we seem to be confused because we spend a great deal of money on volumes, written by somebody else, about teaching our children what to do because of what they are. But we collectively know very little about the status of Indigenous children in communities, whether or not a parent has much control over the activities of their child or whether or not the parent is in a position to tell that child to go to school whether they like it or not. Until such time as bureaucracies responsible for closing that education gap and achieving better outcomes realise that they know so little about the realities, we are not going to have any changed outcomes.

The Schools Assistance Bill 2008 is all about appropriating $28 billion for the purpose of non-government school education in non-government schools and specifically those that have a high proportion of Indigenous students. The Education Legislation Amendment Bill appropriates more than $640.5 million for non-Abstudy payments and anticipates Abstudy payments of an estimated $102.1 million, adjusted to demand. Those Abstudy payments actually do a good job. Why they are not simply study payments for secondary students and why they are Austudy and Abstudy payments I will never quite comprehend. It is difference and categorisation that is causing problems, not solving problems. But if we are going to spend approximately $102.1 million on secondary education for Indigenous students then we are on the right track because they represent a group that is on the way to making it. But the $640.5 million and the portion of it that goes to so many of my remote Indigenous schools, be they government or non-government, provides a great deal of employment for mainstream teachers. It provides a great deal of education for those teachers—taking them into land, teaching them about culture, exposing them to some alternative lifestyles in Australia and providing a wonderful experience in learning about Australian geography and remote area dwellings et cetera—but it does not do a hell of a lot else. Until such time as educators charged with the responsibility of achieving outcomes for Indigenous students in our education system—which supposedly equips those Indigenous children for job training, employment and financial independence—and we understand that we need to know more about anthropology and psychology as well as education, that large sum of money is not going to change the outcome a great deal.

I guess I must return to this boring legislation. It is going to, I believe, fulfil an election promise of the government about continuing the coalition’s efforts in improving outcomes for Indigenous students. I will highlight some of the problems we have with sections 15, 22 and 24 of the Schools Assistance Bill 2008. Generally, the coalition, my colleagues, are going to support these amendments because there is nothing particularly offensive about them; they just miss the point. For instance, section 15 of the bill specifies grounds upon which the minister may refuse to authorise or delay a payment to a non-government school—so we fiddle while Rome burns. Parts (a) and (b) of section 15 state that these grounds include if the school is being wound up or is unable to pay its debts. Section 15(c) of the bill provides for new reasons for such refusal or delay in the case where:

if a law of the Commonwealth or a State requires the body or authority to be audited—the relevant audit:

(i)   is expressed to be qualified; or

(ii)   expresses concern about the financial viability of the body or authority.

This means if the audit says this is a qualified audit then we have got grounds for delaying payments for that school. We all know it is sensible that an audit should be required to confirm the financial viability of a school but not that the minister may refuse to authorise a payment if an audit is qualified. Qualifications to an audit do not necessarily reflect financial issues or viability. They could relate to any number of things, including an error or omission in the information provided to the auditor, which is much more to do with record keeping than finances, but under these amendments it would appear that, given a qualification on an audit, we have got justification for the minister to refuse to advance funds. I believe that, certainly as a coalition, we have got to stand up for our amendments to this proposed amendment bill.

Section 22 of the bill relates to the national curriculum. It says that any school receiving funding from the Commonwealth must comply with the national curriculum. I ask: what national curriculum is that? It is still being formulated. We currently only have framing documents for maths, science, history and English. We will see the final curriculum documents during 2009, and yet this bill seeks to start to tie school funding to it—to the acceptance of a curriculum that does not yet exist in its final detailed form. There ought to be concern about that curriculum because Labor is taking the national curriculum in an unknown direction. Let us face it: this is the government that is entrusting Professor Stuart Macintyre, a former Communist Party member whose major works include histories of Marxism in Britain and a history of the Australian Communist Party, to write part of our curriculum.

This legislation may also affect schools with alternative curricula, for example, those which offer the international baccalaureate, or those offering alternative education, for example, the Montessori schools. We do not know how prescriptive the national curriculum will be, so we cannot anticipate exactly how these schools will be affected, but there may be more adverse impacts for non-government schools that affect their ability to deliver the kind of education that parents send their kids there for.

Section 24 of the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 is also of great concern. It says that a funding agreement will require non-government schools to report to the minister the financial operations, including financial viability and funding sources, of the school. I guess that would be a very substantial job.

I had the pleasure on the Saturday just gone of attending the grand opening of the library for the Goldfields Baptist College in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, my home town, in the west. I made the point in discussion with the administrators there that it is quite wonderful to visit that non-government school. It is directly across the road from a very fine government school called O’Connor Primary School. But the difference is that when taxpayers give a dollar to my Baptist college in the Goldfields they get about $10 of value and when the taxpayer gives a dollar to the state government school they get about 90c worth of value. That is because the community of the Baptist school are absolutely impassioned about the education of their children and they give of their heart and soul and their time to the education of their children; they do not simply leave it to the taxpayer funding of their school.

So when we talk about schools now being required by this amendment bill to fully report on the funding of their particular educational institution we are digging down into a complex area. Sure, if taxpayer dollars are going to be used to help an institution then it is only fair that we should know something about it. But I wonder if those developing this legislation and these amendments have thought about just how valid the call for funding is from non-government schools, where parents strive and redouble their efforts—they will do anything in their power—to assist in the education of their children. The legislators in this case seem not to be terribly concerned about the often excessive wastage that takes place in government schools.

Many of the executives from non-government schools in my electorate are saying: ‘What is this? Why are we being subjected to the third degree simply because of the philosophical bent of this current government? We have managed for the last 12-odd years to do very well—to educate thousands of students and to turn them into fine young Australians without this investigation as to where we get the meagre pennies we have to spend on that education. And now this government simply wants to lay bare all of the great donors to our schools so we can continue to get that taxpayer funded handout.’

This legislation gives the minister the new power to demand information about non-government school finances and where all their funding comes from, from benevolent scholarships and bequests to parents and friends group cake stalls. This information is not needed to calculate the socioeconomic status of the school on which the government funding is based, so why does the minister need to know? It suggests a future intervention to change the socioeconomic status approach to funding, an approach which was introduced by the coalition eight years ago and which—although Labor objected to this approach at the time—was part of Labor’s official election policy last year. It seems that there is an intention with this section to develop the groundwork for future changes to funding that would punish schools for receiving funding through benevolent bequests, scholarships or other philanthropic acts.

I am not sure if I used the word ‘humbug’ previously, but this piece of legislation has good intent. It has been introduced to this place to simplify a process that has become complex. It has become complex because Indigenous funding over time has accumulated a large number of various programs—programs that will all be cancelled under this legislation. I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was assured that I had a list of them in dot point form but I do not seem to have that. There were some six or seven funding programs that all my Indigenous schools knew about and tapped into very strongly wherever they could. Those programs did assist in giving additional staff for additional tutoring and introducing various activities for children to try and coerce them to attend class and pay attention in those classes. Attendance is the second most important element of a child’s education. It will come as no surprise to members of this House to learn that the most important aspect necessary as part of a child’s contribution to education is to attend the education institution, because if they are not there then they are not going to learn anything. Until such time as the students of our education programs in remote Indigenous schools, be they government or non-government, are encouraged to attend by their parents or by their principal and teachers there is no education transfer going to take place.

So I say to members in this place, consider this: the average desert Aboriginal community with a large proportion of young children needing to make their way in life need more than amendment bills to improve their shot at getting an education that will equip them for financial independence and a good life; they need some real understanding about what works in creating a total environment where the output is an educated child ready for job training. One of the things that has been overlooked, for instance, is giving a meaningful demonstration to Indigenous parents that education actually matters. We have spent all our time convincing Indigenous parents, down through the generations, that the only outcome that is really required is that you remain alive, because you will be kept alive by government handouts. We invented something that was going to be the be-all and end-all solution—it was called CDEP. It was an abject failure. What we need are very simple programs that keep young people occupied and that demonstrate to Indigenous people generally that the future is not guaranteed to be one made up of welfare payments—just consider a future where one has to paddle one’s own canoe, and that will make an education necessary. That will be the great dawning for Indigenous people, and it will guarantee their future.