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Wednesday, 27 March 1985
Page: 902


Senator MacGIBBON(4.36) —This afternoon, as a matter of public importance, the Senate is debating the continuing war of attrition by the Australian Labor Party against non-government schools. It is no exaggeration to compare this folie de grandeur of the Labor Party with the Hundred Years War because the Labor Party has been fighting the non-government schools for the 85 years since Federation. We only have another 15 years to go before we reach the 100-year mark and will have had a century of this pointless, destructive, totally unnecessary war against a group with a long and honourable history in providing education in Australia and supplementing Australia's assets. The importance of what the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia are doing this afternoon does not lie in the fact that we are bringing a factual approach to education. It does not lie in the logic we are bringing to the socialist arguments that are put forward by the Labor Party and the Australian Democrats in support of these policies of attrition against an honourable sector of the Australian education system. What we are doing is asserting again the traditional belief of the Liberal Party and the National Party in the importance of education for all Australian children. Those children are our future.

We on this side of the House believe that it is necessary to have both a first class government school system and a first class non-government school system. In my own State of Queensland, over 23 per cent of children go to non-government schools-about 113,000 children. Over 400 non-government schools receive recurrent grants. From those figures it follows that 77 per cent of the community in Queensland in the school age group go to government schools-nearly half a million students. We raise this Labor policy today not only for the benefit of non-government schools but also for the benefit of government schools because they are vitally involved in the debate. The point that has to be made is that while Labor pursues this ideological warfare against non-government schools it puts all its energies into it and fails to do what needs to be done to lift the government schools. That is the key to the whole point. By pursuing these outdated arguments, this vendetta, with all the passion of some Middle Eastern holy war, the Labor Party neglects to do what is required of it, which is to lift the standing of government schools.

I am speaking this afternoon not just in the interests of the 25 per cent of Australian parents who send their children to non-government schools; I am speaking just as passionately for the rights and needs of the 75 per cent of Australians who send their children to government schools. We cannot afford to have a second rate education system. We need both the government and non-government schools. As I said earlier, non-government schools, despite the attacks of the Labor Party, have a long and honourable place in the history of Australian education. That means that we in the Liberal Party and the National Party support a dual system of education, a system whereby parents have choice, even if, in exercising that choice, as Senator Zakharov affirmed, the parents of those children have to make a great sacrifice to pay for the privilege of sending their children to non-government schools.

Our record on this is very clear. It is a positive record of tangible achievement. When we were in government we supported a fair and just dual system of education. Our belief is that the future of Australia lies in the minds of our children. We have always had a dual system of education in this country. Right from the start of education we had independent grammar schools and sometimes church schools first onto the scene in a district in parallel with government schools.

It is important to remember that when education started in Australia government schools did not have a monopoly, nor was the presumption made that government schools would have a monopoly of education. It was a matter of the community getting in and providing for itself as best it could-with church schools, private independent schools or government schools, whatever the need was. People today are sending their children to independent or non-government schools for the same reasons as they did originally-for spiritual or religious reasons. Regrettably some other parents do it because they believe their children get a better education at non-government schools. It is their right to make that judgment. They make that judgment because they think that higher ethical standards are taught to their children in non-government schools. Some think that there is more discipline in those schools and that, to some degree, parents can become more involved in education in non-government schools other than in the fund raising capacity that is their lot in government schools.

The point is that the Liberal Party and the National Party have been sensitive to and have recognised the aspirations of members of the Australian society to select to which schools they want to send there children. I talked about the tangible proof of it. I go back to the greatest Prime Minister in Australian history, Robert Gordon Menzies. He started to support and develop education in Australia with the granting of interest-free subsidies on interest payments to loans to schools in the Australian Capital Territory and followed up with increasingly imaginative moves into supporting non-government schools in the country. We had the provision of libraries and of science blocks. Ultimately we reached the stage, not as the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, said of unlimited resource support for non-government schools, but of agreement of a formula of a per capita grant to private schools of 20 per cent of the cost of educating students at government schools. We recognise the democratic right of that taxpaying 25 per cent of parents to get a modicum-not all of it-back in return for the load they were taking off the public school system.

As I have said before, Labor has always opposed this. One of the few things that Mr Whitlam did that were correct was to recognise this fact. He kept the dogs from barking about the non-government school system. But they burst forth under Mr Hawke. The first phase of the battle opened against non-government schools when we had the infamous 25 per cent cut against the so-called 41 wealthy schools. Senator Ryan cannot comprehend that it is not a fact that schools are wealthy. There may be a few wealthy parents but the schools themselves intrinsically are not wealthy in Australia. The Government then was prepared to extend its program of cutting more and more support for non-government schools. At the same time it broke the indexed link between the per capita grants to non-government schools and government schools. But the community rebelled and with an election coming on the Government cut and ran. It promised to live and let live and not harm the non-government schools. But, having got through the election, it has now reverted to type and we have now entered the second phase of the battle, which is a covert operation characterised by deceit and deception.

The Minister stacked the Commonwealth Schools Commission. She gave to the panel that produced this report on 'Planning and Funding Policies for New Non-Government Schools' terms of reference that dictated what the findings of the report would be. It is blatantly dishonest for the Minister to come in here and chant the curriculums vitae of members of the panel. The panel had nothing to do with it. The hands of members of that panel were tied. Given the terms of reference, they had to make this report in the way they did. Putting it in plain language, the key to the matter is that the Government is to blame for what is in the report. It virtually told the Commission what to write. More importantly, it has accepted-the Minister has affirmed this in this place-the findings of that panel 100 per cent. If the Government did not like the report, it had every right to reject it. But the Government loves it because it fits in with its ideology.

This report makes it virtually impossible for non-government schools to expand or be created in the future. All the bureaucratic obstruction on earth is put up to do this. Senator Peter Baume went through a long list of hazards and obstructions that have been put in the path of schools in New South Wales. After all this bureaucratic maze that is put in the path of them, we finally have the belt and braces approach of setting up a priority system, not with one or two grades but with four different grades so that the Minister has unlimited power to say: 'Look, I am sorry but we just do not have the money this year and you have a low priority'. The effect of this is to deny through a bureaucratic glacier any development of new non-government schools in this country and progressively to make life terribly difficult for those who are still left in the system.

We on this side of the Chamber would like answers to two questions: Firstly, why are non-government schools so popular with the community? Secondly, why is the Government doing what it is doing? Instead of setting up panels to block the non-government schools and legislating against them, the real question to be asked is: Why are non-government schools growing? In the 10 years between 1972 and 1982 non-government schools increased their enrolments by 100,000 or 17 per cent against a growth of 60,000 or only 3 per cent in government schools. If one talks to any association of non-government schools one finds that they are deluged with people wanting to get their children into such schools.

Senator Teague reported the fact that 25 per cent of parents in the Australian Capital Territory who are sending their children to government schools would prefer to send them to non-government schools. The real question is: Why? They wish to do so because they do not like the social engineering in some of the Labor States that is going on in the schools. They do not like the militancy of the unions. They know, as every good educator knows, the importance of peace and constructive planning in education. Education cannot take place in political ferment. Yet political ferment is the stock-in-trade of those radical teachers' unions in Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and the Australian Teachers Federation. I come back to the point of why people do not want their children to go to government schools. The Government should fix that problem before it goes to war with the non-government schools.

The second question is: Why is the Government doing this? Is it trying to save money? That really cannot be true because the non-government schools carried a load of $834m last year in capital and recurrent costs. If the Government wanted to save money it would encourage the non-government schools. The real reason for the Government's action, as Senator Zakharov said, is that the Left of the Labor Party sees non-government schools as a haven of privilege, as a resource for the elite. Nothing could be further from the truth because most people who use non-government schools in Australia are very poor and they make great sacrifices to send their children to those schools.

What this Labor Government should be doing is trying to see the whole picture and recognising the importance to Australia of a decent primary, secondary and tertiary education and putting its resources into that. In my State of Queensland we have a shortage of 20,000 places in tertiary education this year. There are 20,000 young people who have come through primary and secondary education and who cannot get into universities or colleges of advanced education because this Government will not put the resources into providing for them. Not only will the Government not fill those places, denying those people a fair go in life, but also it is not giving us enough money in Queensland to compete with New South Wales and Victoria. If we were funded at the tertiary level in Queensland in the way that Victoria is we would be able to take 6,000 of those 20,000 students and give them a career in life.

I call on the Labor Party to abandon this pointless cold war against non-government schools and to accept the basic tenet that the Australian community wants a dual choice, that parents want to be able to send their children to either a government school or a non-government school. Children deserve the right to a first-class education in both school systems.