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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 12023


Ms BIRD (4:38 PM) —I rise this afternoon to support the three bills being dealt with in cognate before the House: the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, the Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008. I take the opportunity to focus on the COAG Reform Fund Bill, although I will make some reference to the nation-building funds bills. I indicate to the chamber that I intend to keep my comments to about 10 minutes, being conscious that some of my colleagues also want the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

The COAG Reform Fund Bill establishes the COAG Reform Fund, which will make payments of financial assistance to the states and territories on written agreements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. Payments for the COAG Reform Fund may come from three sources: payments from nation-building funds, annual appropriation acts and/or special appropriations in the form of national partnership payments. National partnership agreements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories set out performance benchmarks and the amount of payment for each benchmark met. The COAG Reform Council will determine whether or not the agreed benchmarks on national partnership agreements have been met. For payments sourced from the nation-building funds, the terms and conditions for this financial assistance will be determined by written agreement under the Nation-building Funds Act 2008. The bill therefore modernises financial relationships between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. The COAG meetings held since the government was elected in November—one of which was held this weekend, of course—are designed to end the blame game and modernise the federation to create a new, modern relationship that will send us well into the future. COAG has an ambitious reform agenda, of course. It is focused on health and education, skills and training, climate change and water, infrastructure, housing, disability reform, business regulation and competition and Indigenous disadvantage.

I want to take the opportunity to indicate how important this program is and why a bill such as this, in establishing the new form of the financial relationship between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, is so critical to the long-term wellbeing of our nation. On Saturday, the most recent COAG meeting was held in Canberra, and it was an important and historic meeting in terms of many of the areas that it dealt with. It acknowledged that we are in a period of major reform, particularly to the specific purpose payments that have been a long-time feature of the relationship between the Commonwealth and the states. Given the circumstances in which these reforms are being passed through that process—we understand that global financial market conditions have created a great deal of pressure in our systems and for all governments at all levels—the way in which we arrange our agreements and funding to ensure that when government money is spent it is being spent against preset benchmarks with transparent measures in place to indicate how effectively that money has been released into our economy and communities is very, very important. No longer do we want to be able to simply say to the states, ‘There’s a bucket of money; you’ll get yours allocated on a particular formula and then you’ll sink or swim based on how you spend it.’ Clearly we now have a view that we have a common interest across all three levels of government in making sure that we all stand responsible at the end of the day for the outcomes in areas where the relationships in delivery of funding between the three levels of government have become more and more complex over time.

This program is a recognition of the fact that increasingly the people whom we represent in this House have become frustrated by their inability to pinpoint exactly who takes responsibility for an issue that they may have in the local area. I am sure all of us, as local members of parliament in our own electorate offices, regularly have those calls where someone will ring about an education, health or housing issue and we have to say: ‘That’s actually not under the Commonwealth’s area of responsibility; that particular part of the service delivery is under the state. Here’s who you need to talk to at the state level, and here’s how you can progress that through the other level of government.’ Increasingly, you have to go away yourself for a couple of hours to try and unravel the situation that they find themselves in and find out which components of that particular matter relate to state or federal responsibilities. A classic example was a complaint I had from a parent about a quality issue to do with the curriculum at an independent school. She had the view, which was not surprising, that it is the federal government that funds private schools and therefore it should be something I take up. I had to explain to her that the curriculum and standards are administered by the state authorities.

Those sorts of complex relationships, while we can understand why they have historically developed, have created, I think, that sense of frustration in the community about where the buck actually stops, to use the old political term. So what we are attempting to do here is to address that in a meaningful way with a reform that says that, when the federal government gives money to the states under these national partnerships, it will be done in a collaborative way that sets out up front, from the beginning, exactly what outcomes are expected and what the measures and reporting processes will be so that all people can see how that is actually progressing.

Given my own background, I want to particularly acknowledge the importance of the COAG program on education and schools in particular. It is very important that we come to an agreement on the computers in schools program. I know those opposite have been quite critical of this, but I have to say it is a real passion of mine. I have observed with frustration for many years as a teacher and parent—I have two sons, who are now 24 and 19, so well past their high school age—that kids would head off to school with a backpack full of textbooks that look very similar to the ones I had when I was at school. And if you looked at those little stamps they have in the front of them, where each student each year writes their name and the year it was issued to them, that is not far from the truth. I looked at that and thought how meaningless that experience is to the reality of the world out into which they are going to go seeking work. The only slightly parallel example I can think of is seeing, when I was walking through the Macquarie Street end of Sydney, a lot of the legal profession walking around dragging their trolleys full of books behind them. But in most professions nowadays that is a very uncommon experience. Most of them are digitally driven; they are connected with computers; they access information through a common database. That was the experience these kids were going to have going out into the world.

Indeed, if they are going into the trades, every tradesman now has in his ute not only the tools in the back but also, on the spare seat, the laptop with which he is doing his quotes and processing his business. To me it is a really major issue that we have to get our kids into the 21st century. The toolkit of the 21st century is the computer. It is only possible to roll out that program in a partnership with the education sectors—that includes the state schools, through the state and territory authorities, and the independent sectors, through their own authorities. So that is a really important part of the announcement from Saturday’s COAG that that program has been allocated the additional money that is needed to get it up and running. I would encourage people to reject the argument that somehow this is not a significant and important part of modernising our education system. It is; it is critical. While there may be criticisms about the rollout detail and so forth, the actual concept is a really important one in continuing to engage our young people in a meaningful education.

I want to acknowledge that it is also important that the primary school component of funding has also been increased. I know that we put a lot of focus and effort into the secondary school sector through the computers in schools program and the trades training centres. Some primary schools in my areas have been saying to me: ‘Look, we understand that you always address the critical end. These are young people about to go out into the workforce and therefore you cannot leave any longer the need to address the gaps that may be in their education, but of course you also need to focus on the primary school end.’ There has been an important shift in the formula for funding students in primary schools in the government sector, as that is what is dealt with obviously in COAG. I think that will see, as I understand it, $100 per student additional funding, and I think that will be very welcome in the primary school sector as well as, of course, the additional money for literacy and numeracy.

In my final moments, I just want to make the point that, as a former teacher, I know that change can be daunting. I know that accountability for anybody in any profession is always viewed with the concern, ‘I don’t mind being accountable, but how exactly are you measuring me and is it legitimate?’ I think the measures in here for school leadership and quality teaching are critically important. They support people who are already doing that. They allow them the opportunity to develop themselves further and I think that the program overall is a tremendous one. I commend all three bills to the House and I thank the House for the opportunity to address them.