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Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Page: 3646

Mr OAKESHOTT (11:40 AM) —I rise to also support the Nation-building Funds Amendment Bill 2009. I want to raise some points of concern for consideration, not so much by government but by the community, with regard to a lost opportunity over the last 12 months which is now seeing a significant amount of money—$2.5 billion—set aside for the Education Investment Fund being redirected. I think it raises very real issues for Australia that the government should consider if they are serious and genuine with regard to the education revolution. The language I hear from this place, from peak organisations involved in the education sector and from many international voices in the education field is proving to be on many occasions at odds with and significantly different from the language that I hear in my home electorate from teachers, students and those who are, on a day-to-day basis, delivering on the front line of education. I am not giving an opinion one way or the other regarding which language is right, but there seems to be a significant disconnect between what is happening on the ground and how the government would like to see education delivered in Australia today. I therefore look at this shift of $2.5 billion as a lost opportunity in the education field.

Whether it is, once again, due to the lack of quality of submissions that have been put forward by the various education sectors throughout Australia in trying to tap into the mindset of government on the education revolution or whether there are other reasons is unbeknownst to me. But I do think it raises the point that here was an opportunity for good money to be spent doing good work in an area of much-needed government reform, the education field. We are now seeing that money being redirected away from an area in need of great support.

Much is being done in the education field. In fact, from the various voices on the ground in the Lyne electorate, it would seem there is a deal of difficulty keeping pace with the amount of money that is being offered by government and the opportunities that are presenting themselves. It is certainly the desire of government to have the education revolution; however, as we are seeing with this bill, opportunities are being missed by communities such as mine on the mid-North Coast.

So I hope this is not a dropping of the ball on the concept of an education revolution. I hope that what goes with this $2.5 billion redirection in the education field is instead some greater assistance to those on the ground to produce quality submissions, some greater assistance to the states and some pushing of the states to really consider the options now available in the education field as to how it is delivered. Hopefully, we will live in an era where the focus becomes more and more on student needs and student wants and on flexibility in delivering education in all its forms to students. Whilst I will be one accepting this shift, I am certainly disappointed that the shift is away from an area which is much needed within my region, so much so that in my first eight months of being the federal MP we have set up two mid-North Coast education and skills forums, one in Hastings and one in Manning Valley, to try to really up the ante on the importance of education and skills development within our region.

As I say repeatedly, our area has a comparatively low education level—and we do need to do a lot of work to improve that—and I do think it has direct correlations with our other comparative disadvantage figures. We have comparatively some of the lowest income levels throughout Australia. We have comparatively one of the highest unemployment rates throughout Australia—it is over the 10 per cent mark at the moment. We have comparatively some of the highest poverty levels in Australia—we are in the top 10 electorates on the poverty scale. These are all directly linked. The role that education can play is to offer that long-term structural meal ticket out of the poverty, unemployment and low-income traps. So I hope this is not a dropping of the ball by government on the value and importance of education to this country’s future.

As for the money that is going into the Clean Energy Initiative, I also hope that this is a genuine attempt by government to shape a future for this country that is as much as possible a clean and green energy one and to start a shift from a brown economy to a green one. I would be deeply distressed and concerned if it was about vested interests getting their claws into environmental policy, in particular the vested interests in the coal industry getting a green win through this redirection of dollars. I have raised this issue in the Main Committee in regard to $100 million in a recent appropriation bill being put into the carbon institute. I raised the question of the process of a significant amount of taxpayers’ money going into what is at this stage still an unproven science. I was interjected upon by someone saying we need to prove it and that is why we are spending the money. I think an approach to public policy by government where significant taxpayers’ dollars, 100 million of them, go into what is still an unproven science creates an extraordinarily poor precedent. I could come into government with a tray of cow manure and say: ‘I can turn this into gold. It is an unproven science at this stage but give me the money and I’ll prove it up.’ That is the type of logic behind what we are seeing and therefore I hope that this is not, once again, a failing, through poor public processes, in handling taxpayers’ dollars.

I hope that this concept of carbon capture and storage is not about vested interests but about the long-term future of this country. There are areas that deserve funding support for future activity. I mention Copenhagen in that context as I think there is some great potential as to that. If one thing comes out of that meeting at the end of the year it will be that a thing such as a tree in the ground prior to 1991 does have a value and that these arbitrary lines that have been drawn by developed nations—by which, for example, a tree only has value if it is planted post 1991, which I think came out of the Bali agreements—are flawed logic and do nothing to protect biodiversity, and therefore carbon storage, on a global scale. I note that there are various projects like the REDD projects around and that, for example, Macquarie Bank is investing in one in Cambodia. It would be great to see some of this activity happening in Australia. If this investment by government facilitates greater attention for the role of the public tree—its worth in being in the ground as well as its worth in being out of the ground, and its role not only in carbon capture but also in protection and promotion of biodiversity—then we are getting good economic and environmental outcomes all at the same time.

It is the mandate of government, as part of the budget process, to see this redirection of funds. It is not for me to oppose that. I do think it flags some issues on both the education and the energy fronts. On the education front, I really hope, regardless of the global economic times or whatever else, that the language that we have heard and the commitment that we have seen in the first 18 months of this government continue. There is at times a need to drag the states and various providers by the ear to the table of genuine reform in the education sector. But it is important and good work—in many ways, the most important work that government can do for the future of this nation. So I hope this redirection away from the education field is not a dropping of the ball.

I also sincerely hope that this redirection of money is focused on sequestration or pasture improvements, or what I have talked about regarding the public tree and the role that it plays in carbon capture and storage, rather than, once again, some vested interests getting a green-brown win out of government. In no way am I saying that the coal industry does not have a role to play or that the coal industry is not of value in Australia. But, if we are serious about shifting the direction of our economy to meet the needs of the future, vested interests must be kept at bay in this process.