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Wednesday, 27 March 1985
Page: 888

Senator PETER BAUME(3.13) —Non-government schools across Australia are full to overflowing. New non-government schools across Australia fill as soon as they are opened. It is now necessary, in many parts of Australia, to enrol children soon after birth if one wants them to get a place in a non-government school. The Hills District Grammar School, which opened only a few years ago in north-west Sydney, already has filled bookings through the 1990s. Places in Catholic regional high schools are filled as soon as they open. I attended the opening of a regional high school in Marayong a year or so ago. It was full on the day it was opened. The regional bishop told me then that he could have filled the school four times over. Furthermore, we learned this week that 24 per cent of the parents of children in government schools in the Australian Capital Territory would prefer to be able to have their children in the non-government system. In view of this obvious support for the non-government school system and in view of parental preference which surveys are now showing, it is necessary in Australia that existing schools in the non-government sector be supported and encouraged. It is necessary in Australia that new non-government schools be allowed to develop and be encouraged to open. The evidence suggests that they would fill as soon as they are opened.

The actions of the Labor Government in these areas will affect the opportunities which parents have to put their children into the schooling of their choice. Through administrative means the Government is restricting the access of parents to new non-government schools and is making the life of existing schools more difficult. Any government has an entitlement to promote its own values, but an opposition has a duty at all times to expose and to challenge those values. Here in education we do challenge the Government. We think that the Government has got it wrong in terms of the values it is promoting in education, in view of the attitudes it is promoting, in view of the priorities it is promoting and in view of some of the issues of equity which it is promoting.

I want to talk a little about some of the values and the reasons why parents are keen to use the non-government system. The Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), in her published speeches, has said a number of things. She has said that excellence has overtones of elitism about it. She has said that she is concerned about equality of outcomes in education; whereas we on this side are concerned about equality of opportunity. She has said that she wants to see an education system that should produce 'a sense of self-esteem and identity sufficient to enable the individual to resist manipulation by the massive institutions of capitalism'. So far so good. What she does not say is that she also wants to equip children to resist manipulation by the massive institutions of Labor or government. No, she says, it is only the massive institutions of capitalism, because the Minister's values set is quite well known. It is a socialist values set and the Minister, of course, has no love for the non-government school system.

We know that in 1983 the Minister mounted a frontal assault upon non-government schools in Australia. We know, because it is an historical fact, that 41 non-government schools had their funding slashed by some 25 per cent in that year. We know, as a matter of historical fact, that there was a massive reaction, a sense of outrage in the community, at what had gone on in the Government. I remember well the meeting held in the Sydney Town Hall. The Town Hall was packed inside. The 3,000 people who were outside listened to the meeting by way of loudspeakers and watched the proceedings on television screens. I remember the several meetings in Ballarat, Albury, Cowra and Melbourne which the Minister also attended. I am sure that she will not forget them. I remember that the Catholic Church leaders and the operators of the Catholic systems stayed firm with the rest of the non-government sector throughout that battle, saying: 'An attack upon one of us is an attack upon us all'. I know that in the end, after the Catholic bishops called upon the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), Senator Ryan was rolled in Cabinet and a program was brought down to continue to fund non-government schools through a program which has given funds for some four years.

I acknowledge that the four-year funding program which has been put down has brought some certainty to existing schools. Some schools will have received more money. The 41 schools which lost their funding have received nothing back. More schools, of course, lost their funding. The Government has brought in a new system of classification. I ask the Minister whether she would care to let us know now the number of schools in each of the categories. We have been asking for them. How many schools are there in each of the funding categories? Is it a fact that some 90 schools have now had their funds slashed as a result of the reclassification? Some schools have received less, but funding has been preserved.

The Government has moved from a frontal assault upon the non-government system to an attack, through administrative control and restriction, both on the operation of existing schools and on the creation of new schools. The battle has not ended and it continues. It continues by means of new administrative rules to make life more difficult for established schools. It exists still through a slow down of administration. It exists through the Minister ceasing the operation of some important programs such as forward commitments for capital assistance. It continues by means of the imminent emasculation of the Commonwealth Schools Commission. It exists by means of new rules which are designed to inhibit the establishment of new non-government schools to meet the wishes of parents. Choice is being put at risk. The choice of parents and the expression of that choice are being put at risk in the interests of system efficiency.

I remind the Senate that in relation to new schools the Government has laid down new draconian conditions. These will require any new proposed non-government school to give two years' notice. As well as meeting State registration requirements, as well as proving that it is a non-profit organisation, it will have to give two years' notice. New schools will then have to go before a new kind of committee yet to be established and be graded on a priority basis. So new schools which meet all the educational requirements of a State will then be graded by one of the committees of the Minister for Education, as high, medium or low priority. The Government funds to be announced in the middle of each year will then be distributed as far as is possible across those priority groupings. It is entirely possible that by limiting funding within a Budget total, the Government will fund only some of the approved places and that some parents wanting to open a new non-government school will miss out.

What is particularly galling is that in some regions where parents are desperate to have new schools opened, they will be given low priority ratings because the Government school enrolments in that area are going down. The Government has actually said that a low priority would be given if a school were being established in an area of declining population. The Government has even gone so far as to say that it will define what is an area of declining population by looking not at the population, but at the enrolments in government schools. This is a stunt by the Government to maintain and ensure enrolments in government schools. The Government says so. In fact, it says that choice is not to be acceptable if it puts the system at any kind of risk.

The administrative battle that we have been fighting goes further, even to what has been a very strange and coincidental misuse of departmental moneys. I refer to the pamphlet produced by the Government at the end of last year, which was distributed to every school in Australia at government expense just in time to coincide with the election campaign. It was a political document. It was issued by the Department of Education. It was not authorised, and the Department just happened to issue it coincidentally with the election campaign. I say to the Minister that our correspondence with the Australian Electoral Commission as to whether the Minister or her Department has breached the Commonwealth Electoral Act by what went on is continuing and remains unresolved. The Electoral Commissioner draws attention to the fact that it was a very unfortunate coincidence that this piece of propaganda just happened to be issued at public--

Senator Ryan —Facts.

Senator PETER BAUME —Facts and opinion about the funding practices of the previous Government; that was not good enough. It was just one of Senator Ryan's cute little tricks that the pamphlet went out just at the time that her Government was moving towards an election.

I wish to use my time to be more specific. Within my State of New South Wales, we have a number of examples of what is going on by way of administrative blockage and difficulty, making the life of non-government school authorities more difficult. Heaven knows what confusion will be added by any new political restrictions which will come under the new guidelines announced last week for new non-government schools. The examples relate to the restrictions that Senator Ryan managed to bring in last year.

I should say that the officers with whom I deal in the Commonwealth Schools Commission, who are trying to administer these programs, are good officers. They are working hard and they are not playing politics; but they will do whatever the Government policy calls for. One thing it calls for is a whole range of new requirements, restrictions and definitions, so that any group wishing to relocate a school-just to move it from cramped premises to more spacious premises-must now have it redefined as a new school and will have to go through all the procedure of priority setting. If that happens, it is even possible that there would be no recurrent funds for them, because if the school were relocated, if it was reassessed and said to be of low priority, and if Senator Ryan could not then win through Cabinet enough funds and did not fund the low priority places, we would have the prospect of existing schools which dare to try to relocate being cut off from funds.

Senator Ryan —Fearmongering.

Senator PETER BAUME —I am sorry, but the Minister has put out the guidelines and I am telling her what the guidelines provide as a possibility. I shall refer to what has been happening in New South Wales. My colleagues will talk about some of the national dimensions of this guerilla campaign, but we have had enough examples from New South Wales to ask the Minister to consider them. I am advised that 17 new schools in New South Wales proceeded with applications to the Commonwealth Schools Commission for permission for funding in 1985. They are open now. They applied for funding permission during 1984. Each of these 17 schools got its application in by 30 June 1984 as was required. These schools were told that they would be informed by 30 September whether or not they would be funded. So they should have been, because they needed the time from September to December to make their arrangements and set their fees.

Did this Minister keep that promise? Of course she did not. In fact, not one of those schools was informed by 30 September. I do not know whether Senator Ryan ever intended that they should be. By 30 November, some two months later, only six of them had received information as to whether their funding for this academic year would be coming through. The Government cannot tell us that it is not conducting a guerilla campaign. We have examples of where it has not done the right thing by schools. Another eight schools heard in late January 1985 that funding would be forthcoming. What kind of arrangement is this? The schools were to open at the end of January and in late January they still had not heard from the Minister. I do not know whether the papers had been sitting on her desk for months, but they had not heard whether they were to get recurrent funding for a school year which was imminent.

I am further advised that by March 1985 three of the schools were still awaiting a decision as to whether the children would get funding this year. That is almost six months after the declared guideline to which the Minister is supposed to be working for decisions on these schools. I refer to the True Vine Christian Community School at Mullumbimby, the Kangia School at Murwillumbah and the Joseph Varga School. I shall look at the difficulties being experienced by two of these schools.

True Vine School made its application for recurrent funding in 1983 and it operated throughout 1984 without such funding because of the failure of the Minister to make a decision on its future. It applied again in mid-1984, and at the beginning of March 1985 it was still awaiting a response. This is a disgrace and it is evidence of a cold war of administrative attrition being waged by this Minister. Joseph Varga school at Randwick has been operating as a pre-school with a good mix of normal and handicapped children. It was to allow those children to go on and to be catered for at the primary level that it applied to extend. It had sufficient students willing to continue but by March 1985 the school had still not received any notification or any resolution of the application it had made to the Minister. This placed the school in a catch-22 position. If recurrent funding had been granted at the time that it was promised, there would have been time for the enrolment of children whose parents were keen to have them come to the school. But those same parents, when they could get no answer in November, December and January from this guerilla warfare being conducted under the control of the Minister, as to whether they would get funding, took their children elsewhere and enrolments at the school are fewer than they would have been.

I turn to paragraph 91 of the Connors report, entitled 'Planning and Funding Policies for Non-Government Schools', which states that the area of schooling for the disadvantaged is where the need for sharing and planning of educational provision is most obvious; that is, between government and non-government sectors. It seems that even then, giving an example of a specific school, that is just rhetoric, and anyhow, the need for sharing seems to apply only to the government school sector.

What about other schools in New South Wales which missed the 30 June 1984 deadline by just a few days? They were dealt with, though, by the Commonwealth Schools Commission as though their applications were still sound. They received good treatment. They answered further questions and engaged in discussions with the Schools Commission, only to be told in December 1984 that their applications were to be rejected because they were received a few days late. These tactics have meant that two schools, St Pauls at Bankstown and Cringila autistic children's school near Wollongong, have been engaged in a tragic waste of time because of the incompetence of the Minister and the incompetence of the directions which she has laid down for the Department. These are actual examples of schools in difficulty. They have had a six-month waste of time that they need not have had. It is frustrating and makes them wonder why they bother to try to do their job. It is especially interesting to note that no special consideration was given to Cringila autistic school, given the Connors Committee's comments about the general assistance to be provided to schools for the handicapped.

We have to turn then to the question of schools seeking to relocate. Here we have a classic example of the bureaucratic war of attrition. I am informed that the Schools Commission currently has before it over 200 applications for relocation. This has come about because of a repressive range of restrictions that have been imposed. A school is now defined as relocating if it buys a property next door. Most schools relocate within half a kilometre of the old campus, yet such relocations must be approved if schools are to be certain that their recurrent funding will continue. In fact, I know of one school that bought the next house but one, only 50 metres down the road, that still had to apply for approval to relocate. The school was told by the Schools Commission that the purchased house would be considered as a second campus. It might be said that that is ridiculous. It is not ridiculous if the objective is to make life difficult for non-government schools.

I have been informed that 20 schools in New South Wales applied to relocate, as they now have to do so as not to lose their funding. They all made their applications before the cut off date of 30 October 1984. Some of them made application as early as June 1984. The schools that made their applications before June were told that their applications would be dealt with by September and the others by November. I do not believe that the schools have yet had their answer. Ten schools made their applications before 30 June. None had its applications dealt with by September, none by October and none by November. I could go on with example after example. It is clear that, either by design or incompetence, this Minister presides over a situation in which non-government schools in Australia, particularly in my State, are suffering the effects of bureaucratic obstruction and difficulty. The Minister should give us assurances that that obstruction will be removed forthwith.