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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 4280

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (12:14): I rise to speak on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012. I, along with many Australians, am very much aware of the costs associated with educating children. It does not matter whether the school is a government school, a faith based school or a private school; we all know that there are significant costs associated with educating our children. If taxpayer money is to be spent by government for the purposes of assisting with educating children, then it is essential that the money goes to where it is intended and that the recipients of that money—for example, parents—are accountable for how and where that money is spent.

The Labor government has made it clear that families will be eligible for the payment even if they lose their receipts. What does this actually mean? More importantly, what does it mean in practice? What does it mean for the implementation of this program? To me, it means that, if there is no requirement to produce receipts for expenditure on education, that money could be spent on anything. Without receipts there is no way to verify proper expenditure and there is no meaningful way to audit the expenditure of taxpayer money. So how can this government guarantee that the objectives of this policy are being achieved by the means? The answer is quite clearly that it cannot. There is virtually no accountability for recipients under this program.

Taxpayer money must not be used inappropriately and it must not be squandered. It must be used very wisely and, quite frankly, I do not believe that the program that is being proposed by the Labor government has sufficient checks and balances in place to qualify as an appropriate or wise use of taxpayer money. It is disappointing to see that there is another very ill-thought through move from this Labor government that bears the hallmarks of a desperate move to raise its political fortunes. The government intends to abandon the education tax refund, a targeted program specifically developed and designed to give assistance to parents to relieve the increasing costs of education.

The education tax refund allows for a refundable tax offset for eligible education expenditure up to $794 for primary-school studies and $1,588 for secondary studies. Items such as home computers and laptops as well as related accessories such as USBs, internet connections, software, textbooks, other printed learning material and even prescribed trade tools for secondary-school trade courses have all been covered by the refund. I listened to the member for Deakin criticise the scope of the items that were covered, but surely if the scope of the items was the issue you would add additional items, not scrap the entire program and replace it with a cash payment system where no receipts are required.

Not satisfied with the incentive the refund provided for families to invest in their child's education, this government will now promote a policy which removes any idea of sensibly offsetting education costs and merely creates a sideshow, an attempted diversion from the ever-rising costs of living that affect all facets of our lives. I will speak more about this later, and about how hard the cost-of-living increases are hitting families and will continue to do so, particularly in light of the introduction of the carbon tax. Cost-of-living increases certainly impact on our children's education.

All this measure forms is an obvious attempt to prop up the government's electoral hopes on an artificial surplus, with the refund to be paid out before the end of this financial year. Apparently this government has no wish to make things easier for parents who place a high value on their child's education or on equipping Australian students with the best possible start in their schooling careers. This measure is merely just another example of tricky accounting when the Australian people are demanding transparency and real action.

However, the coalition understands that there are many families with school-age children who are currently burdened with large costs. The best way to lighten their load was through the education tax refund, which ensured that taxpayer money was given only to families who actually spent the money on education expenses. The coalition took a policy to the last election that would have vastly expanded the number of expense items that could be claimed, and increased rebate amounts, including a rebate to families of $1,000 per secondary-school-age child, and $500 for each primary-school-age child. This is in contrast with Labor's scheme, which provides $820 for secondary-school-age children and $410 for primary-school-age children. The coalition's policy was clearly better targeted and would have gone to families who needed it most.

But the record stands clear. This Labor government, since its election, has been attacking middle Australia. Labor means tested the family tax benefit B in 2008 so that any family where the main income earner earned more than $150,000 lost the benefit. Labor froze indexation for the full payment of family tax benefits A and B, the baby bonus and the dependant spouse rebate in 2009. Labor froze indexation for family tax benefits A and B supplement payments in 2011. In the budget handed down last night, Labor cut the age of eligibility for family tax benefit part A for families with children who are 18 years old, meaning families with children aged 19 to 21 will no longer receive assistance through the family tax benefit. We should make no mistake here: Labor is most definitely assaulting the wellbeing of middle-class Australians, and the removal of the education tax rebate is just another blow at a time when it is least needed. What is hurting parents most is the increasing cost of living, and under Labor this has gone well beyond the norm. Electricity prices have gone up by 61 per cent; gas prices have gone up by 37 per cent; water and sewerage rates have gone up by 58 per cent. Families are struggling and I do not believe the government is doing anything to help. In fact, Labor are making a bad situation worse for families with their carbon tax, which starts on 1 July this year. The carbon tax is a new $9 billion a year tax—an immediate 10 per cent increase in electricity bills for the next year alone and a nine per cent increase in gas bills. When you couple the effects of the carbon tax with the other 25 new or increased taxes introduced since Labor were elected in 2007, and the continued pressure of cost-of-living increases, is it any wonder that our families are crying out for help?

However, the coalition has a strong appreciation for education and for families and the contributions that they make to our communities. To find out more about the pressures that are being placed on our students and their parents, as well as the many schools in the local community, I hosted a forum last week for non-government school principals with my colleagues the member for Sturt and the member for Moncrieff so that the educators could raise any concerns that they had with the Gonski review or any other elements of the education system. The conversation was certainly most enlightening. Many of the schools discussed the need for certainty in funding and their concern with the suggestion that NAPLAN could possibly be used as a tool to determine the allocation of resources and funding for schools. This point should be made clear: schools do not want a NAPLAN tested funding regime that in the long term may prove inequitable for the schools that need that funding. The purpose of NAPLAN testing is as a diagnostic school to assist schools and teachers in targeting their learning techniques, and it most certainly should remain that way. I would like to thank the principals from my electorate and also those from further north, in the Moncrieff electorate, who attended the forum and gave my colleagues and me some very valuable feedback with regard to what is in the best interests of their school community and what is currently hurting students and their parents the most.

There is no question that our schools deserve our support. They are not only institutions where children are given life skills and knowledge of the world around them; they also serve as a dual service as social hubs for the community. When school hours are over, many community groups use the premises for meetings. Sometimes they are social gatherings and sometimes they are other classes or functions held in the school buildings. They provide fun days out and opportunities for many residents in the local community. I note that many of the religious schools—and I have a number of faith based schools in my electorate—also open their facilities to worshipers on days of worship or religious holidays and provide a location for the community to congregate. So schools are clearly a key building stone to what constitutes the Australian way of life.

I am certainly very proud to have more than 30 schools in my electorate, ranging from the Queensland-New South Wales border all the way up to the northern part of my electorate, near Merrimac. Some of those schools are quite small and only have 100 or so students, but there are also schools which are very large and have well over 2,000 students. Throughout the year I attend many functions and events held by schools in my electorate and I am always impressed by the professionalism of the staff, the quality of the teaching and the conduct of the students when I visit those schools. I am consistently told by parents from each of those schools that they want choice in deciding where to send their children and they want an opportunity to send their children to schools without being penalised by the government.

I believe the measures that the government is seeking to introduce will do more harm than good in the long term. The education of our future generations is certainly not something that can be played with for political buoyancy. It is disappointing to find members of the opposite side of the House advocating for such a reckless measure that will leave families and students worse off. Education in Australia should be encouraged. I will fight to ensure that the families and schools in the electorate of McPherson receive the assistance that they need so that they can give their students the tools needed for the future.

I have spoken in this place on a number of occasions about the importance of education. A school student's education can last over 13 years. In Queensland we currently have prep to year 12, but a number of schools offer an additional pre-prep year. From preschool children through to adult learners, participants in education have greater opportunities to build their self-awareness and confidence. The years that students spend at school are clearly their formative years. I believe that we have an obligation to provide each student with the opportunity to develop and succeed not only at school but socially and to develop the skills that will take them from their childhood through to young adulthood and beyond.

What makes a quality education experience is not as simple as a cash payment for which there is little or no accountability—a payment that will be made with no requirement to produce a receipt for education expenditure. I want to see good educational outcomes for our students at all levels, from school through to tertiary education.

On the Gold Coast I believe that we are well placed to be Australia's education capital, and I have spoken about that on a number of occasions in this place. We have several university campuses, two of which are located in my electorate of McPherson—Bond University and Southern Cross University, which has a large campus at Bilinga that is currently undergoing expansion. We have TAFE colleges and numerous registered training organisations. As I have said before, there are more than 30 schools in my electorate alone. I consult widely with principals, teachers, parents and students, and I agree with them that the objective is a good quality education outcome. If I were assessing the Labor government's education policy, I would assess it as a fail.