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Thursday, 21 March 1985
Page: 539

Senator TEAGUE(10.57) —The Government's decision, announced today, is the death knoll of new non-government schools in Australia and reopens the whole debate that we had in 1983, and have had over the last 20 years and more, about the future of non-government schools. Senator Grimes announced with a very wry smile the death knoll of non-government schools. The Opposition will not take this decision lying down. There will be a renewed debate in every part of Australia because of this disastrous news. It is disastrous not only for the 25 per cent of Australians who are connected with non-government schools and who believe in freedom of parental choice for the enrolment of their children in schools and for the type of education they will then have for their children, but also for more than that 25 per cent.

The Government today has laid down a gauntlet that will alienate a significant quarter of Australia and the vote will tell not only in the coming election but also in the polls in the intervening period. This Governments acceptance of all the recommendations of a panel of the Commonwealth Schools Commission, prescribed from the start by the terms of reference and instructions from the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), is a disastrous outcome for education.

Over the decade from 1972 to 1982, there were an extra 100,000 new enrolments in non-government schools, which was a 17 per cent increase. In the same period, there was a 60,000 enrolment increase in government schools, which is only a 3 per cent increase. That decade reflected the educational intentions of increasing numbers of families. The five-fold increase in non-government schools compared with government schools indicated the clear choice of so very many families. It is that trend and preference for freedom of choice by families for enrolment in non-government schools which by this decision the Hawke Australian Labor Party Government is seeking to stop in its tracks and to reverse. By so doing, it will alienate that proportion of families which will be shown eventually by a falling away of support for this Government.

The Minister for Education is not in the chamber today. She is, I understand, absent from Canberra on some exercise for the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). However, she had this report more than five weeks ago. She had it before the Senate was convened, and the decision to bring down this major report-the death knoll of new non-government schools-has been left to the wry and cynically smiling Senator Grimes, Deputy Leader of the Government in this chamber. He understands the politics of this document. He understands that a gauntlet has been thrown down to middle Australia.

The absence of any speaker on the Government side and the absence of the Minister for Education is testimony that the Government believes that it can continue to wryly smile and get away with it. I believe that the Minister has been discredited as a Minister for Education on the strength of her performance in 1983 and 1984. One of the greatest surprises in the formation of the new Ministry after the last election was the Prime Minister's retention of Senator Ryan, a discredited Minister, in this important portfolio of education. She had led an attack on non-government schools throughout that two-year period until she had so alienated the community, concerned about freedom of choice in selecting schools, that the Prime Minister just had to stop her in her tracks and lay on her an eight-year funding program for government and non-government schools.

That election ploy by the Labor Cabinet and by the Prime Minister was to try to reassure that group of alienated Australians that they could still hope that a Hawke government could be trusted in education matters. The ploy was to give an assurance on funding increases which gave greater real increases to government schools, compared with non-government schools, but to defer completely any commitment to capital grants, any kind of commitment to the future growth of non-government schools and any kind of commitment that would allow a family to exercise the freedom to support the building of new non-government schools.

Originally, this contentious matter was deferred for the panel of the Schools Commission to report by mid-November 1984, but, lo and behold, that date became inconvenient when it fell in the middle of an election campaign called early and cynically to try to gather votes so that a program such as we see of hard, hurting decisions could be made by this Labor Government now, at the beginning of its new period after re-election.

I believe that there was a direct ploy in the Prime Minister's decision to softly sell to concerned Australians an eight-year funding program, and at the same time, not disclose in any way whatsoever a policy with regard to the growth of non-government schools. However, there is not just a ploy; there is a trade-off. The Prime Minister, by reversing completely the policies, statements and the direction taken by the Minister for Education during 1983 and 1984, was totally rebuffing the apologists for the Teachers Federation and the socialist Left who wanted to eliminate non-government schools in this country. In so rebuffing those elements within his own party, he has to have a trade-off now. He has said to them: 'After the election we will finish off new non-government schools. Be patient with us; allow us to announce this eight-year funding program, because we need to reassure concerned Australians so that they do not desert us completely in this election. But I promise you, members of my Party, that there will be steel ribs in our boots which kick the guts of the non-government system after the election'. That is the decision that has been announced here today.

I was quite amazed to hear the spokesman on education for the Australian Democrats being an apologist for this socialist decision of the Labor Government. In the opening remarks of his speech today, Senator Macklin made incredible statements which will only rebound on the diminishing public support for the Australian Democrats in this country. I genuinely believe that the Democrats, by saying that this is, in fact, a gain for non-government schools, are giving a blind to concerned Australians. I totally reject the Democrats soft-soaping of this socialist decision. I believe it will rebound on them just as much as it will on this Labor Government.

I return to the absence of the Minister for Education from the chamber today. The most important decision that she will make in this Parliament has been announced today by her colleague, Senator Grimes, in her absence. She has been discredited not only in 1983 and 1984, but also in the last two days in this chamber she has been more than embarrassed. She has been caught out for misleading the Senate. Given that record as recently as the last two days, I do not believe that the Government would trust the Minister for Education to be here. It would not face the possibility of her further embarrassing the Government by allowing her to present this decision here today. I treat that as a most serious point. The people in Australia do not trust the Minister for Education. She has a track record of commitments to a socialist scheme for education which is offensive to a majority of Australians, not least the 25 per cent of Australians who are concerned and involved with non-government schools. We do not have the Minister present with us today; we only have Senator Grimes's wry smile.

What we will now see in Australia is a return to what could have been avoided by the Government-a series of public meetings throughout the country protesting about this death knell that the Government is announcing to new non-government schools. The Prime Minister's soft words prior to the election that he was working towards some consensus in schools policy have now gone out the window. There is no doubt that the arrangements announced in this panel's report, which has been fully accepted by the Government, will tie up the system completely with barbed wire barriers, every kind of administrative delay and all kinds of definitional problems so that it will become almost impossible for the pattern of new non-government schools of the past decade to be seen in Australia. The only way that we will see a return to allowing freedom of educational choice for Australians is to see a rejection of this Government and the election of a Liberal Government again.

Let me turn to the letter that was addressed to the Minister and which the panel has included as the first page of its report. The letter, dated 14 February this year, is over the names of each member of the panel. Very significantly it says this:

Dear Senator Ryan,

In accordance with the Government's Guidelines and your related letter to the former Chairman of the Commonwealth Schools Commission of 14 August 1984, I have pleasure in submitting the final report--

In other words, the panel is explicitly saying from the beginning: 'You have given us terms of reference; you have given us guidelines; and our report is predicated on those guidelines.' The first statement that the panel members make in the report is to say that they did not have a free hand to look at capital funding of non-government schools in Australia; that their hand was restrained entirely by the guidelines that were given to them. Senator Robertson is in the chamber. I remember that when he was in opposition he took offence on many occasions at what he saw as the Commonwealth Schools Commission having its hands tied by government guidelines. I am making this point in good faith not only to Senator Robertson. I understand that governments do give guidelines to statutory authorities and that they have every right to do so. But let me see some acknowledgement that this is not a free report about the capital funding of non-government schools; it is a totally prescribed report. Its guidelines have already defined the logic that leads to its conclusion.

I refer briefly to the Minister's letter of 14 August 1984, in which there is reference to such guidelines. The letter is attachment A to the panel's report and I refer to a middle paragraph which sets out eight matters which should be considered by the panel. When those eight areas are considered, the letter is, I assert, manifestly restraining the panel to consider only areas of population growth, such as those from migration or from new housing extensions of a town or city, or some special educational need not provided for in the existing or so-called stable area. These prescriptions, I assert, totally proscribe anything of the expansion that we have seen in the last 15 years.

I repeat that in the decade from 1972 to 1982 there was a 17 per cent increase in non-government school enrolments, compared with a 3 per cent increase in government school enrolments. That five-fold difference in the rate of enrolment growth is not the outcome of new migration, or newly alerted needs for special education provision or growth areas of new housing in cities and towns. It is directly the outcome of families in Australia expressing their freedom of choice to have their children enrolled in schools in which they have confidence. They pay for that choice, and we on this side of the chamber will continue forever to guarantee that such families have the ability to make that choice. My point is that the Minister's guidelines in these eight matters for consideration totally preclude the driving momentum that has led to the increase in non-government school enrolments over the last 15 years. There is no way one can construe any of the guidelines given to this panel as allowing for that freedom of choice factor in Australian families. It is restrained, by barbed wire barriers, to population growth arising from migration, population growth in new housing settlement areas, and special needs in education, especially in regard to educational disadvantage, which have not been fully met in so-called stable areas. The Opposition has no quarrel with the extension of non-government schools or government schools in these areas according to parental choice, but we object entirely to the preclusion in those guidelines of the most important factor, the driving force that has led to the expansion of non-government schools in this country.

I turn to the tabling statement made by Senator Grimes today on Senator Ryan's behalf. The statement is full of such phrases as 'consistent with the need to make the best use of available resources', 'will lead to a more equitable and efficient approach to the planning and establishment of new non-government schools' and 'to the benefit of all Australian children in government and non-government schools'. I support the actual meaning of those phrases. Of course we want equity, efficiency, reasonableness and benefit to all alike, but by using these deceptive phrases, which are spread throughout the entire statement, a smokescreen, a ploy, is put forward that the Government endorses the restricted conclusions of this panel. I reject the ability of a government to use administrative strategems to tie up completely the free exercise of the development of the non-government school system in Australia. Again, I reject the use of such high sounding phrases to put the steel-ribbed boot right into the guts of the non-government school system.

Paragraphs 70 to 80 of the report set out initial eligibility for Commonwealth funds. I believe that the report sets out a new offensive regime of barbed wire barriers to any new non-government school being established in this country. There is barrier after barrier. Again, some of the continuing requirements are supported by this Government. In its application for funds a new non-government school needs to demonstrate that it has a viable plan for the maintenance of the school and also has the ability to gain registration within a State. These were always requirements under the previous Government, and we continue to believe that they are a reasonable basis for the Commonwealth funding a new non-government school. But these ordinary and reasonable requirements are added to enormously by the new barbed wire barriers. Reasonable prospects of financial viability have to be demonstrated, and such are the definitions put forward by this panel that they can be used administratively to rule out the requirements of the past.

There is a set of words in paragraph 73 that will allow a government to conclude that it is not satisfied that the plans for a school are financially viable. There is a requirement to meet minimum enrolment guidelines, but such are the terms of paragraph 74 that, again, administratively this Government, given its determination to achieve socialist goals in this area, can use that as another direct veto on a new non-government school being established. There is to be evidence of notification of government and non-government education authorities in the State, and a requirement for adequate consultation. Again, administratively, this can be used as a veto by the Commonwealth Government of any proposal for a new non-government school. We go on to a central new criterion which requires those proposing a new non-government school to give 24 months advanced notification. In July 1983 Senator Ryan announced that there would be no new capital grants for non-government schools and that that decision would be backdated to the date of the election in March 1983-a retrospective rebuff to new non-government schools. So any applications received from March to July were completely denied by the Minister's announcement. The whole question of new non-government schools was put into the melting pot and eventually this panel was set up. The deadline of November 1984 was deferred and only today do we have the outcome. For the whole period of this Government there has been a retrospective aspect to this matter. Now we have this forward aspect, with schools being denied the ability to gain any capital grant unless there is a full two years' notice. I know that there is a transition provision with regard to applications received before January this year and that there may be a speeding up of that process for 1986-87. The criteria are that those putting forward a new school must have a fully described financially viable proposal, that proposal must be as a result of consultations with the State education authorities, and the school can be only in a new housing area or an area that is swollen by migration. When that package is defined and planned those putting it forward have to wait two years before they can expect any support. It is practically not possible. I believe that these barbed wire barriers are directly designed to tie up any proposal for a new non-government school so that it just cannot be proceeded with.

The following paragraphs of the report state that, after the announcement of this fully defined new non-government school, there must be widespread notification of the proposal, so that everybody in that area can hop in to the proposal and say that they will be negatively affected by it. This, of course, will be taken into account before any approval can be given. I thoroughly distrust the direct provision for administrative action by the Commonwealth Minister at every point in this process. This is explicitly set out, for example, in paragraph 78 of the report, where it states:

The panel also recommends that responsibility for determining initial eligibility criteria, as outlined in paragraph 77-

which is a summary of the other criteria-

continue to be exercised by the Commonwealth Minister for Education on the advice of the Commonwealth Schools Commission.

It is possible that, even if a brave group of Australian families tries to define some package that will go through all these barbed wire barriers and somehow they meet each one of them in turn, they will still have to face a two-year wait before they can actually see it being put into practice. There is an explicit emphasis upon the Commonwealth Minister for Education, at every point in the process, putting in a veto and directly denying that school.

I believe that the announcement of this decision of the Government to support fully the findings of that panel, when that panel has been given guidelines that entirely prescribe its findings, is of enormous political importance for this country. It will be heard day after day in this chamber and from the public that this Government has sold out that middle ground of Australia on whose support it has won government and whom it has conned by its soft-soap promises about funding to the detriment of education in this country.