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Wednesday, 27 March 1985
Page: 905

Senator COONEY(4.50) —I begin by making some comments on the statements made by Senator MacGibbon. He referred to what was, in effect, an attack on the professional ability and, perhaps, integrity of two groups. The first was those who prepared the Commonwealth Schools Commission report. They are listed in the report and they include the people about whom the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, spoke; that is, two people from the Catholic section, one being a nun, and Professor Sackville from Sydney. Secondly, he also attacked the integrity of teachers who are employed in government schools. In that context I say this: Since I became a member of the Senate I have noticed some tendency for people to be attacked on their professional integrity. There was an example of that this afternoon. I certainly did not agree with what was done on my side; nor did I agree with what was done on the other side of the chamber in attacking the people who have prepared the Commonwealth Schools Commission report and the teachers in the government sector who have given consistent and good service over many decades. Of course there are faults. There are faults in any system, but it ill becomes anyone debating this issue to attack a particular group in a particular sector. In my view, we will not get to any settlement of this matter while that sort of thing goes on.

The robust words used by Senator Baume in his matter of public importance-'Labor's cold war of attrition against non-government schools'-set the theme for the debate. Later in his speech he converted the cold war of attrition to a guerrilla war. Senator Macklin thought that it was a phoney war. I think it was Senator MacGibbon who then had us in a 100-year war. The reality, it seems to me, is that there is no war at all. If I ask any member of the Opposition-Senator Baume, Senator Teague or Senator MacGibbon-whether there should not be a public sector in education and whether there should not be government schools they say no, there should be. They would join with me, all being decent men, in saying that the government sector ought to be encouraged. Whether we like it or not, that is where most of the pupils in Australia are now being educated. That is the area in which most pupils have been educated since Federation. Let me make it quite clear that at this stage I am not in any way detracting from or denigrating the non-government sector. It is a sector for which I have the highest respect and a sector that I have used.

One of the problems in the debate that comes from the non-government sector-I am sure that it is not intended by it-is that unfortunately it creates the very bad impression that it wants to, as it were, tear down, throw away, derogate from, be done with, the government schools. Naturally, when that occurs there is a reaction which is then interpreted by those who initiated the attack as an attack on the non-government sector. That is not so. As Senator MacGibbon said, Mr Menzies began a situation which has developed to where a lot of taxpayers' money, government money, is now going to the non-government sector. Everybody agrees about that. They might disagree about the amount. I acknowledge the contribution that Mr Menzies and his Liberal Government made. But is the Liberal Party of Australia now willing to acknowledge the great contributions made by the Australian Labor Party, particularly in the 1970s when Mr Whitlam and the Government which he led saved, in effect, the systemic system, the Catholic system, throughout Australia? That is a fact. We can all come into this chamber and discuss the contributions that our various parties have made to education, but it gets us nowhere. It has reached the point, as it were, of extrapolating certain events and figures and using them to make an attack on a situation which has been created on an almost bipartisan basis.

The Opposition has raised a debating point today. Senator Macklin expressed disappointment that this matter was put forward again for debate. Perhaps one can understand that. On the other hand, it is a debating point, if you like, which is of interest and continues to be of interest to everybody in Australia who has children and who might have children going to school in either the government or the non-government sectors. It is well for us to consider those matters. It has been said: 'Look, this Government has discouraged the growth of non-government schools'. That is put as a criticism of the Government. Later in the debate it was put as a criticism, in some way which I could not quite apprehend, that there has been a growth in the number of enrolments at the non-government school level. If that is so, it must be indicative of the fact that over the years this Government has encouraged the freedom of choice of which people speak.

I want to say something about freedom of choice, because that is a phrase which is used often in this debate. It is something which I think should be brought into proper perspective. The freedom of choice in Australia is a limited one. It is limited to those who are equipped with not only money but also a culture and background in this community which enables them to use schools other than government schools. I am sure that every honourable senator on the other side of the chamber would have great sympathy for those people. What about the situation of the Turkish migrant woman, with three children, who works on an assembly line or on a food processing line in the western suburbs of Melbourne whose husband is on workers' compensation and cannot work? What freedom of choice is there for that person? Many people are in that situation. It seems to me that that is the real problem which we have to face. As Senator MacGibbon said, it is all very well to say that more money ought to be provided for non-government schools, but where is the money to come from? That is a catch-cry. That cry is often echoed in this place and in the other place. Where is the money to come from? That is a proper question to ask in this context. Are we, in the interests of non-government schools, to take money from the government school sector? Who will say that is what ought to happen? If people say that that should happen, from where should it be taken-from what part? Should it be taken from the western suburbs? Should it be taken from those schools which provide education for the children of the Turkish woman of whom I have spoken? Should it be taken perhaps from schools in the eastern suburbs, around the North Balwyn area? Is that where the money should be taken to go to the non-government schools? If we do that, is it not likely to create resentment?

The real problem in all this is to set a system of priorities to work out our priorities and guidelines as to how the money is to be spent in the most efficient way and in the interests of the children. As I understand it, that is the very purpose for which the panel of Commonwealth schools commissioners was appointed. That is the very purpose for which that panel brought down this report. There might be matters in this report with which people disagree and about which people might make trenchant criticism, but in making that criticism why should they go to the point of saying: 'It is the philosophy behind it that has led to this'? Why should they impute evil motives to those who prepare the report? Why should they impute evil motives to those who put it forward? Why cannot the debate proceed in a logical, calm and collected fashion? Why cannot people say: 'In this case you are wrong. We accept your bona fides. We accept that you are trying to do the best thing but we think you are wrong on this point'. What happens instead is that a debate is launched in which the actuality of the problem is not discussed but motives are impugned and a house of cards, representing people's motives, is erected and then knocked over. The reality is that those motives that people attack do not exist.

Somebody said earlier in the debate that the Australian Labor Party philosophy is against aid to non-government schools. Labor Party philosophy is clearly not against it because it gives it. That point was realised by other honourable senators and it was then said that more people in the Labor Party are against public funding for non-government schools than in the Liberal Party. Where does it get us? Should we go around and count heads, line up every Liberal Party member in the country and every Labor Party member, have a show of hands and then have a division? Of course we should not. We look at the reality of the funding provided-provided most generously by this Government. The figures were given by the Minister for Education in her speech, and very impressive they were. If one looks at them in terms of what has been given not only to non-government schools but to education as a whole-that seems to me to be the proper sort of question to ask-one sees that this Government properly has a great regard for education.

It is not for us to debate whether money is going to the government sector or the non-government sector. The question is whether money, tuition and learning are being given to all children, not the children who go to non-government schools or so-called wealthy private schools. I interpolate here that it has been said that there are no wealthy schools. That might well be right; but, certainly, many schools come closer to being wealthy than others. That is the real problem. In any event, it is a matter not of dividing people up according to the school to which they went, but of dividing them up in accordance with need. I go back to my recurring theme.

Senator Peter Baume —Would you direct resources to needy parents more than to non-needy parents?

Senator COONEY —That is a very fair question. I would direct resources, as presently available, to needy schools, because I think there are problems in administering the money that goes to needy parents. The difficulty in directing resources to needy parents is that many of them are locked out. There are parents in the western suburbs of Melbourne-Braybrook and further out-where there are really no schools available of the nature that the honourable senator might be contemplating. For that reason I would direct the aid to the needy schools rather than to the needy parents. I concede that the point raised by the honourable senator is one that ought to be examined.

It is on that basis that the whole question should be examined in rational debate. Senator Baume and I have fallen, I hope, into the category of having a rational debate, rather than debating in the emotional way in which this debate has been conducted in part, with allegations of ideological warfare, socialist philosophy and so on. The fact that money is being spent and large resources are being given to all schools gives the lie-if we like-to the proposition that there is ideological warfare. The only warfare is that waged at every level at the moment and in every sector where money has to be spent: How and where is it to be spent? We might as well talk about the war of attrition against industry, against defence and against any other sphere in which the Government spends money. It comes down to people saying, 'We are not getting enough money for schools'-but that is the plea that any department or body that wants government money would be addressing to this Government.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Elstob) —Order! The discussion is concluded.