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Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Page: 1655


Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (10:08): I am pleased to take the opportunity in this debate to speak about what I believe is a very positive, cost-effective and productive part of the Abbott government's education policy. At the outset I have to say that the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government's record on education is perhaps one of its worst legacies. Yes, Labor managed to rack up record debt and cripple the economy, but it was in the area of education that they starkly displayed the most shocking record of waste, ineffectiveness and empty rhetoric.

It would take more time than I have today to detail the litany of failures. The school hall rip-offs resulted in between $6 billion and $8 billion being utterly wasted. Just stop to think about that amount of money. How much could have been achieved to actually boost teacher training and increase school standards? Then there was the failed laptops promise which resulted in another budget blow-out of some $1.4 billion. There was the promise of $10,000 to promote excellence in teaching and reward those teachers who were doing exceptional work. Not a cent was delivered to teachers and that policy was dropped. There was the Gonski plan, which generated an incredible amount of discussion, which promised so very much but which Labor ultimately reduced to a battle about funding models. Once again it was a lot of rhetoric and no real substance. We actually saw falling standards in literacy and numeracy under Labor's watch despite billions of dollars being spent. A report released last year by the Programme for International Student Assessment found that Australia has slipped from 13th place to 17th in maths skills, a significant drop.

The coalition government, thankfully, is taking a vastly different approach to Labor. Our approach is to unashamedly put students first. We want students to achieve their best possible outcomes and we will ensure we have the best quality teachers, the most relevant and practical curriculum and a culture of excellence in our schools.

I wanted to specifically talk today about the government's independent public schools program. One of the saddest aspects of the Gonski debate was the demonising of independent schools, a variation of Labor's old class warfare politics. The fact that we have a thriving independent sector means that we can afford to spend more on public education. State and federal governments would have to spend an extra $8.3 billion annually on education if we did not have an independent school sector. Much of the growth in the independent sector has been in low-fee schools, and part of the reason that parents choose to set aside that extra money to send their children to an independent school is so that they can have greater say and choice. That is precisely why the independent public schools initiative has been so warmly received. Both internationally and in Australia, evidence shows the advantages of school autonomy as part of a comprehensive strategy for school improvement. It is about making our public schools better and helping ensure that public school students are not comparatively disadvantaged. Let me be clear: independent public schools do not charge school fees. They remain part of the public education system. However, our policy allows these schools to enjoy many of the benefits of the autonomy and flexibility of an independent school.

I would also like to acknowledge that the Queensland LNP government is committed to helping schools transition to being independent. They began their program of transition in 2013, and I am delighted that our policy can further assist Queensland schools in this regard. In my electorate of McPherson we already have several public schools which have taken up the option of becoming independent public schools. One shining example is Varsity College, a P-12 public school with over 3,000 students. The school is both huge and hugely successful. Varsity College is the only P-12 school in Australia to have the distinction of being a 'Microsoft World Tour School' and is one of just over 30 in the world with this award for demonstrating innovation in education. Microsoft acknowledged Varsity College as a global leader for its ICT platform and has joined the school as one of its exclusive partners in learning. The school also has the only Chinese language immersion program in Queensland. The college clearly already had a culture of innovation and excellence and this is set to grow and expand even further with the autonomy it now enjoys since becoming an independent public school earlier this year.

Varsity College already has a strong maths and science program. As someone with an engineering degree who is passionate about encouraging more students to study maths and science, it is truly awesome to see such a program being run at one of my local schools. This special program will encourage and support those students with an interest in excelling in maths and science. Parents have absolutely supported this concept, with more than 400 attending a public meeting back in October. It is this sort of parent, community, business and school partnership that the independent public school model supports and encourages. Other schools in my electorate, including Palm Beach-Currumbin State High School and Tallebudgera State School, have also become independent. I congratulate the principals, teachers and other staff, and parents of these schools on being pioneers and striving to improve their schools.

There is no doubt that, with proper support, there are many benefits for schools that choose the independent model. I commend the government on this initiative, as I said at the outset. This is a very practical and cost-effective way we can help schools achieve better results. The $70 million we are investing in the Independent Public Schools Initiative is no doubt money very well spent. It is a fraction of the billions Labor wasted on school halls, but the big difference is that it is actually proven to get results, and that is where Labor got it so wrong on its education policy. It is not about how much money you throw at the sector; it is about what actually improves standards.

On that note, I would like to also say that I am delighted that we have appointed practical and pragmatic academics in Professor Kenneth Wiltshire and Dr Kevin Donnelly to head the review of the national curriculum. Once again, our national curriculum needs to be focused on student outcomes, not on ideology. It needs to ensure that students are equipped with the basic skills they will need, rather than concepts that are the fashions of the day. My hope is that a more balanced curriculum will put the focus back on subjects like mathematics and science. It is a great concern that we have seen a decline in the number of students and teachers in these disciplines. The Director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, Geoff Prince, has outlined the extent of the problem. In an interview late last year he said:

Australian graduation rates in the mathematical sciences run at only half the OECD average for men and one-third for women.

…   …   …

More than 30 per cent of secondary maths classes are taught by staff not trained as maths teachers.

The fact is that since 1995 there has been a 30 per cent drop in students enrolling in intermediate and advanced maths, which has a flow-through effect on the supply of graduates, teachers and mathematically literate Australians in industry. This is causing a devastating ripple effect throughout higher education, research and industry. Sadly, we have seen this coming for some time. In 2010 a Group of Eight review carried out by the nation's leading universities into education in mathematics, data science and quantitative disciplines showed:

From 2001 to 2007, the number of students enrolled in a mathematics major in Australian universities fell by about 15 per cent.

The number of students taking advanced maths at high school fell by 27 per cent between 1995 and 2007.

Industry demand for mathematics and statistics graduates was predicted to grow by 3.5 per cent a year until 2013.

A positive attitude towards maths drops by half between Year 4 and Year 8.

In 2007, 40 per cent of senior maths teachers did not have three years of university study.

Professor Peter Dowd, from the University of Adelaide's Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences, warned at the time that South Australia would not be able to produce 'even half' the engineers needed to keep up with major defence and mining projects in that state. The time is clearly well overdue to address this shortage.

I note that the New South Wales government, according to reports last month, is considering making the study of maths compulsory following an inquiry into the state's skill shortages. The Chair of Applied Mathematics at the University of Sydney, in arguing the case for further maths study, outlined examples where basic maths has been lost to the workforce. She said:

"In centuries past we still had brick layers who could count three by four metres—nowadays we don't anymore.

"A lot of people, for example those who want to go into nursing, don't think they need maths, but when they come to university they get a shock when they find out they need to know statistics, be able to deliver drugs in proportion to weight and take into account risk factors."

Yet the problem is that senior students are being encouraged to do other subjects that present as 'easier' as a way to boost tertiary entrance scores. It is clear that the primacy of maths and science in the curriculum needs to be recognised and promoted if our nation is to address the skills shortages we currently face. I am personally working with the university I graduated from, the Queensland University of Technology, to help encourage more girls to study engineering. I encourage all members of this place, whenever they visit a local school, to discuss what steps are being taken to encourage the study of maths and science.

Finally, in the time that I have left in this debate, I want to implore members opposite to right another great wrong of their time in office and support our legislation to repeal the carbon tax. A great deal has been revealed about the devastating effect this pointless tax has had on the economy since we first debated the repeal legislation last year. It really beggars belief that Labor continues to arrogantly ignore the fact that the Australian public voted to get rid of the carbon tax at the election last September. It was the coalition's central policy platform, promise No. 1, yet Labor are taking a 'we know better than you' approach on this issue and thumbing their nose at the Australian people. What is worse is that they have the hide to stand up in this place and cry crocodile tears because businesses are being forced to close under the weight of the economic mess they left behind, including the burden of the carbon tax. Labor told us that the carbon tax would only hit the 'worst 500 polluters', when in fact it has been revealed by the report of the Clean Energy Regulator that the carbon tax has actually directly hit some 75,000 businesses—not 500 but 75,000. Alcoa, which recently announced the closure of its Point Henry smelter, was slugged with a carbon tax bill of some $127 million last year.

And to what end? Those opposite will constantly declare it is all about 'saving the planet'. They prefer to characterise the carbon tax as being about the environment. It should be perfectly clear that the carbon tax has never been about the environment. The carbon tax does not reduce emissions. The previous government's own modelling, which it submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, shows that our domestic emissions increase under the carbon tax from around 560 million tonnes in 2010 to 637 million tonnes in 2020. Australia's emissions were 557 million tonnes in the year to March 2013, the first period under the carbon tax—the same level as the previous year, according to the latest emissions data. The carbon tax was never about genuinely reducing Australia's carbon emissions; it was environmental symbolism and wealth redistribution. It was, as the Prime Minister has described it, 'socialism masquerading as environmentalism'. The Productivity Commission report in May 2011 stated:

… no country currently imposes an economy-wide tax on greenhouse gas emissions or has in place an economy-wide ETS.

As more countries around the world reject the notion of a carbon tax as a means of improving environmental outcomes, it becomes more and more obvious that the carbon tax was just another ill-conceived Labor policy among so many.

If truth be told, the carbon tax was about keeping Labor in power. It was about appeasing the Greens in order to hold on to office. To the Leader of the Opposition I ask this simple question: if you want to make a break with the Labor mess of the past, why would you cling to legislation that represents Labor's ultimate betrayal? Why would you support legislation that adds to the power bills of families, pensioners and small businesses?

Once again, the Clean Energy Regulator found that the sector hardest hit by the carbon tax was the energy sector, paying $4.1 billion extra a year. Power companies have had to add that cost to every single electricity and gas bill. It is putting pressure on already stretched family budgets, and it is putting further strain on businesses, particularly in the manufacturing sector. The first quarterly CPI figures released after the introduction of the carbon tax recorded a 15.3 per cent rise in electricity, with household gas rising by 14.2 per cent. This was the largest quarterly increase ever, two-thirds of which, on average, came from the carbon tax.

As businesses close and energy costs rise, and as the world turns away from the concept of a carbon tax as a practical way to address environmental issues, it is simply foolhardy in the extreme for Labor to stand in the way of repealing the carbon tax. I urge those members opposite to do the right thing, put pressure on the opposition leader to change Labor's position and prove that they respect the democratic process of the last election. The Australian people voted to get rid of the carbon tax, and they want it gone.