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Thursday, 3 March 2011
Page: 2245

Mr RANDALL (1:06 PM) —I am very pleased to speak on this Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011 today, and if the member for Moreton wishes to stay a little I am happy to respond in a positive way on this bill. In fact while he is here briefly, I will. Yes, you can hear it from me, Member for Moreton: the BER itself—the principles behind the BER—were excellent, providing greater resources and greater infrastructure for schools. I do not think that there is a member in this House who would not agree with that. Where we depart though, Member for Moreton, is over the fact that that bill was cobbled, as you know, along with other initiatives such as what we call the ‘cash splash’—the $900 giveaway. It was also a program which under the previous minister, now the Prime Minister, became legendary for its mishandling.

To be fair, in Western Australia the BER is going along very well mainly because the state government has taken out several layers of interference, which are some of the mates along the way. In other words, consultants and others cannot get their hands on the cash on the way through, force up the bill and have it blow out to an extraordinary amount for sometimes very ordinary, plain school buildings.

Now the member for Moreton has gone I am willing to continue to say that, when decoupled, this was a good initiative and was part of the stimulus package. The only problem is that some of the packages are still stimulating and we are now supposed to be into reasonable economic times. The problem is that this Gillard Labor government has a continued stimulus package operating when the Reserve Bank is trying to dampen the economy by increasing interest rates. You have this conflict going on at the moment because it was beset and beguiled by so many problems, particularly, as I said, on the east coast rather than on the west coast. The fact is there has been a lot of criticism of what could have been a really good program in terms of school infrastructure and facilities. I will move on to the nub of the bill now that I have addressed the member for Moreton’s challenge.

The bill amends the School Assistance Act 2008 to extend the existing funding arrangements for non-government schools including indexation arrangements until the end of 2013 and grants for capital expenditure until the end of 2014. This will ensure certainty for Catholic and independent schools. Can I again point out that, as the member for Moreton mentioned, my bona fides are that I was a schoolteacher for some 18 years—one of the few in this place—as was my wife, my brother and my two sisters. So we come from an education family and we are very proud of the fact that we were all educated in government schools in Merredin, a tiny wheat belt town in Western Australia. We were very happy with the education we got and we were big supporters of the government system. But on the record, I am now making sure that people understand that in this country there is need for choice and that is what this bill goes to address.

If you listen to the teachers unions, they are not interested in choice that much and I will get onto further details about the choice that the teachers unions are trying to stymie and the penalties that they are bringing to parents who wish to exercise their choice. This bill needed to be extended because the then education minister in the lead-up to the election, the now Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for months and months would not commit to any maintenance of school funding, particularly for non-government schools. I recall being at the opening of the Catholic school in Dawesville when Senator Glenn Sterle opened the BER project there and Bishop Holohan from the Bunbury diocese was very critical of the government not giving any certainty to the education system by making any statements regarding this issue. The Catholic bishops of Australia in particular became quite vocal in their call for the government to come out and say something about the continuing of the funding.

Obviously, as the polls closed up during the election campaign Julia Gillard was forced into making a statement and she did. Today this is what this legislation is about. The cynic in me says: ‘It’s good, but the timing of this is interesting. This is going to be extended to 2013 and the capital expenditure to 2014.’ What do we have in 2013? Probably a federal election, so it gets them past that because 2012 would have been a terrible time to have come down with any variation on the funding model. The SES model is one that has stood the test of time. It is not perfect, like most things, but flexible enough to deliver into the areas because it certainly hits all the buttons. It includes the dimensions of income, education and occupation in the census collection districts and it drills down to those levels where in a CCD you have on average 250 houses in any one area, so it gets quite sensitive in the information that it draws upon.

As I said, this funding needed to be retained in real terms for non-government schools. An interesting article by Janet Albrechtsen in the Australian on Australia Day this year pointed out a number of issues regarding the Gonski inquiry and some of the hypocrisy surrounding the input, particularly by those who do not want to see growth in non-government schools.

Let’s just get this fact clear—this is an irrefutable and indisputable fact: the growth in government schools across this country averages about one per cent per annum; the growth in the non-government sector is about 20 per cent per annum. What does that tell you? It tells you that the parents of this country are voting with their feet and exercising their choice. When they exercise a choice they know that it is going to cost them whether it be a low-fee school—and I have a number of them in my area like the Pioneer Village School in Armadale, which is an independent school, and of course I have a number of Catholic schools and other independent schools. The low-fee schools cost roughly $2,000 a year at most. Then you can go to some of the other schools in my area such as the Frederick Irwin Anglican School and the Serpentine-Jarrahdale Grammar School, which started not so many years ago—which, by the way, the then Premier of West Australia, Alan Carpenter, tried to quash but it is full now and they are trying to extend it. So these parents do make a commitment on education. I will refer to this article by Janet Albrechtsen where she talks about this mentality of the rich taking from the poor. She said:

Take Trevor Cobbold, convener of Save Our Schools, who likes to highlight average total expenditure. In government schools in 2007-08 it was $10,723 a student, compared with $15,147 in independent schools and $10,399 in Catholic schools. It’s true that total expenditure in government schools is about $10,500 per student. But now add the relevant facts. State and territory governments provide about 88 per cent of funding to public schools, the federal government provides about 8 per cent and parents the remaining 4 per cent.

Understand this: 88 per cent of the funding for state schools—as their very name suggests, they are owned, run and financed by the state—comes from the state which they are in and the rest, 12 per cent, comes from other means. Ipso facto, non-government schools get 12 per cent funding from various sources. As for where the rest comes from, I will return to the article. Ms Albrechtsen said:

Almost the reverse funding pie applies to independent schools. State and territory governments provide just 12 per cent of the funding per student, the federal government picks up the tab for 31 per cent …

And here is the rub: the rest, 57 per cent, is provided by the parents. It is estimated that if parents did not fund the $3.1 billion which they take out of their own pockets every year to send their children to these schools, the federal government would have to pick up the tab.

This is where the slur on the non-government sector comes in, from those who want to make some mileage of this. The slur is that the people who go to these schools are filthy rich and it is abominable that they are getting such a walk-up start. The fact is that a lot of the parents who send their children to these schools are single parents, those who are doing it hard. I know parents in my electorate, for example, who get a second job or take a second mortgage on their house to send their children to some of these so-called elite schools. It is their choice.

I am not saying for one moment that we should say, ‘Isn’t it terrible that they are not getting more money?’ The fact is that they pay taxes and they are entitled to some money. But they make this choice and, as I said, quite often some of them go through distinct hardship to do so. But, as the member opposite said earlier, they see education as the path to the enhancement of opportunity, a better career path and therefore a better income. Most parents want to see their children have better opportunities than they had. My daughter and my son went to a government primary school and then went to a non-government school for their secondary education. I am glad the pain has finished. It cost a lot of money. But we did that because we thought, like many other parents in Australia, that that choice would give them better opportunities in tertiary education and therefore better career paths.

So let us not in any way say that this bill is anything but the right thing to do. As I said, I am a bit sceptical about its timing, but, at the end of the day, as has been said, real funding in real terms is something that needs to be maintained. We do not want to go back to the threat that we were getting from the then shadow education minister under the Latham opposition, the member for Lalor, that there was going to be a schools hit list. We have to get past that and realise that the education opportunities in this country are something that should be available to all. Choice in education is something that is desirable. Therefore, we are keen to see this go ahead and in no way be undermined after the review. We do not want to see the review being used to reduce opportunity for the taxpayers of Australia, the parents, who make a choice. We do not want to see their funding being in any way eroded because of this class warfare that sometimes goes on from other sections of the community, particularly the education unions in this case. Therefore, I support the intention of the bill.