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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1532


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education)(3.29) —What Senator Peter Baume has just inflicted on the Senate is, I suppose, becoming increasingly typical of a ragged and desperate Opposition. One of the clearest signs of a ragged and desperate Opposition is that it starts to promise everything to everybody regardless of cost. It starts to take up any cause which is presented to it and promises that it will deliver on it without any recognition of the realities of government, which are that a government has a finite amount of money and an enormous number of demands on resources and any money that is spent in one area of public expenditure is money that simply cannot be spent in any other area. My colleague Senator Coates noted by way of interjection one of the many contradictions in the series of contradictions and rhetorical flourishes to which we have just been subjected by Senator Baume. On the one hand Senator Baume is claiming that every parent should have every possible choice available to him or her in terms of public, private, local, specialised, ethnic and religious education. He claims that there should be no limit on what the Commonwealth Government spends in funding non-government schools of any kind, character, location, dimension or quality. He says that there should be absolutely no budgetary limit, that we should never ever consider whether there should be any restriction on government funding in this direction. At the same time, of course, we are told that we should be providing unlimited places in the tertiary sector for anyone who would seek a place there.

Of course, the kinds of aspirations that have just been spelt out by Senator Baume, that everybody should have absolutely everything that they might want at any stage of their lives, are aspirations for which we can all feel some sympathy. Every politician in this place would like to say yes to every group that comes along. A Labor government particularly, having such close and traditional ties with the needier sections of the community, is constantly in the position of wishing to say yes-yes to the single mothers; yes to the aged pensioners; yes to the Aboriginal community; yes to the unemployed; yes to those who have housing problems; yes to those who are dissatisfied with their children's education; and yes to every student who wants to get a place in a tertiary education institution but cannot. Much more than conservative governments, which have made a bit of a speciality of saying no when in government as opposed to their performance in opposition, we wish to say yes to all claims. However, because we are in government, because we are governing at a time of serious economic problems, most of which were inherited from the Fraser Government, we cannot simply adopt this careless libertarian stance of Senator Baume, who runs around the countryside saying: 'You should have everything you want, you should have every possible choice available to you and the Commonwealth should pay for it. If the Commonwealth does not pay for it the Commonwealth is engaged in some secret socialist plot to deny you freedom of choice'. This is an extraordinary performance but sadly it is the kind of state that desperate Oppositions get themselves into.

The other very familiar but, I would repeat, regrettable aspect of Senator Baume's performance is his constant undermining of the public education system. Senator Baume cannot get to his feet in this place without attacking public schools and, by implication or sometimes directly-more often by implication-those of us who support public schools, teachers who teach in them, parents who choose them and students who study in them. It seems to escape the attention of Senator Baume that whatever fine things are achieved in the non-government sector-we acknowledge those achievements and we are pleased to assist-75 per cent of this nation's children are educated in public schools and by and large that is a situation which their parents have chosen and wish to continue to choose. He ignores the fact that there is considerable support in this community for the principle of public education-that is, high quality education available to all without fees or religious tests. This 75 per cent of the school community constantly has to endure onslaughts from Senator Baume who, when he realises that he has gone a bit too far, tries to resile by saying that he does not mean absolutely every teacher, he just means those horrible teacher unions. He says: 'Of course, if you really cared about your children, if you really cared about quality, excellence, competition and all the rest of it, you would choose a non-government school'.

That approach by Senator Baume is becoming increasingly offensive to teachers, parents and students who believe in and support the public education system. However, I might say that it is also offensive to many parents who believe in and support the non-government school system because they recognise that no good or constructive purpose is served in the education debate by this constant effort to try to set up public against private as if they were totally polarised when, as we know, in many respects they are very close together. As honourable senators know, in many of the Commonwealth Schools Commission programs which we fund-teacher development programs and computer education programs-teachers from public and private schools work together. In the matter of curriculum development-the Curriculum Development Centre, which is now part of the Schools Commission, was re-established by our Government-we have superb co-operation between the public and private sectors, co-operation on a professional level, co-operation which is concerned with finding the way in which the Commonwealth can assist in achieving better curriculum for children in all Australian schools, be they public or private. We have numerous examples of such professional co-operation. Yet Senator Baume comes in here with the tired old 1960s approach saying: 'Public against private and we back private and we think people who care about their children should do the same'. That is so far from the reality of the constructive developments in education these days that it defies comprehension. That any politician would seek to advance his cause or his party's cause by such a destructive and unrealistic approach defies comprehension.

Let us take a look at some of the facts about parental choice. One would think, from listening to Senator Baume, as unfortunately we have to do too often, that the Hawke Government had restricted choice in some way. Let us have a look at the facts. Since coming to office our Government has, for example, approved 180 new non-government schools. That over a period of little more that two years can hardly be called putting the clamps on or putting the screws down, or whatever hysterical hyperbole Senator Baume likes to choose. I am advised by a Schools Commission officer that a great majority of those 180 schools are small, non-systemic schools for small communities, often styled as Christian schools but the kinds of small schools that Senator Baume now says are going to be excluded from consideration. The facts just fly in the face of Senator Baume's hysteria. The total recurrent grants to these new schools alone have been estimated at over $50m. We have given over $30m in capital grants to these schools. In fact, we have committed ourselves to a total expenditure on non-government schools over the next four years of $2.5 billion-to be precise, $2.517 billion-in general recurrent funds alone. If that is not assisting parental choice, I do not know how else it can be described.

Let me remind the Senate that it is not only by way of capital and recurrent grants that we assist non-government schools. I remind the Senate of other sorts of programs by which we fund non-government schools. These are just for 1985: Some $4.6m under the participation and equity program; $1.2m under the computer education program; several hundred thousand dollars for emergency assistance; over $17m for the English as a second language program; over $1m for the special new arrival element; over $5m for the disadvantaged schools program; over $5m for special education; nearly half a million dollars on integration for special education, and in excess of $55m for recurrent expenditure. These are just for one year. These are decisions made by our Government to assist in the development of the non-government sector, in its expansion and diversification, and in the upgrading of what is offered to children.

It is absolutely incomprehensible in the face of this massive expenditure which is going into the non-government sector that Senator Baume can time and time again come in here and waste the time of the Senate complaining that the question of choice is not adequately being addressed. I would like to say something on the subject of choice, having just heard several lengthy excerpts from the Liberal Party platform on the subject. I would like to say this: I think the choice that parents are most interested in making is the choice of a successful education, of a high standard education, an education that will fit children when they leave school for further education, for training, for the work force and, perhaps above and beyond all that, for life in a democratic society. That is the choice that we want to be available to all parents for their children. How is the Commonwealth, which does not run schools itself, to achieve this? We achieve it by quality of education programs which we fund via the Schools Commission-for example, the computer education program, which is designed to assist children to come to terms with the reality of computer technology either in a specialist way or in the general way in which computer technology is permeating all areas of the work force-and by our continuing efforts to upgrade schools operating in the disadvantaged schools program.

I make no excuse for the fact that as far as this Government is concerned our top priority is to assist children from poorer backgrounds. We do this through the disadvantaged schools program. We will continue to do so. Again, that is a program which reaches into the private and public sectors. It is not of burning concern to our Government, as it is to Senator Baume and his cohorts, whether a child is in a public or a private school. What concerns our Government is the education opportunities available to that child. If they are not good enough, we seek to find ways, through setting up and funding Schools Commission programs, of improving those opportunities.

It is very interesting that when Senator Baume talks about education, competition and standards he nearly always-perhaps I am misjudging him-neglects to raise the most disadvantaged school children in our community, namely, Aboriginal children. The participation rates for Aboriginal children in secondary education are appallingly low, dramatically lower than they are for the rest of the population. The numbers of Aboriginal people who have qualified to enter tertiary education are still pathetically low. Since we have been in government we have instituted a number of programs to assist Aboriginal students at the primary school level, secondary school level and in tertiary education to have more success and better outcomes. I think that is something for which our Government ought to be recognised as having done.

I know that Senator Macklin is extremely interested in these matters. Of course, Senator Baume could not care less. Despite the fact that Senator Baume was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Fraser Administration, he never addresses the problem of Aboriginal disadvantage in education and that is probably because children living in remote communities, until our Government put a bit of capital funding in, had no schools to go to at all. Children living in the Kimberley, the remote parts of the Northern Territory, the Torres Strait Islands or in other parts of Australia where they have suffered terrible education neglect, do not have parents who can hop on planes and spend a lot of time telling Senator Baume how much more money they want out of the system than they are already getting. They do not have powerful advocates, but they do have a government and a Minister who are a little more concerned with their circumstances than the circumstances of schools which have very high incomes and which will be able to maintain those standards because of the formulas we have provided.

There has been a suggestion by Senator Baume that somehow the non-government sector is less than satisfied with the decisions of this Government. That is simply not the case. In the few minutes remaining to me I will remind the Senate of statements made by the spokespersons for the non-government sector last year when our new recurrent formula was announced. Father Williams, then the Chairman of the National Catholic Education Commission, said a number of very favourable things. He said:

. . . Catholic Education Commission welcomed the clear statement of responsibility for all children in the guidelines and the practical implementation of this by increased recurrent funding for both sectors.

It was heartening to see that the Catholic Education Commission concerned itself with both sectors. Father Williams said:

The decision to legislate for the level of recurrent funding for the next four years and to give guarantees for the following four years is a most significant improvement in funding arrangements. Schools, both government and non-government, will be enabled to plan with certain knowledge about the level of Commonwealth recurrent funding.

As indicated in its response to the Schools Commission document Funding Policies for Australian Schools the National Catholic Education Commission welcomes the extension of the categories to twelve and believes that this will provide a greater opportunity to direct funds to those who are most in need.

The greater number of categories, together with the decision to continue to pay the same amount, in dollar terms, to any school adversely affected by a change in category will minimise any dislocation caused by these changes in categories.

I remind honourable senators that these are the words of the Catholic Education Commission. Father Williams continued:

The National Catholic Education Commission wishes to acknowledge with gratitude the decision of the government to provide extra funds for schooling within the present economic restraints. The National Catholic Education Commission welcomes the recognition by the government of the right of parents to choose the type of schooling they want for their children and of its obligation to be a partner in the funding of that right of choice.

The National Council of Independent Schools said that 'the guidelines reflect continuing support for a dual system of government and non-government schools' and were welcome. The Council's Chairman, Mr Tom Chapman, welcomed the Government's significant moves to bring about funding justice for all Australian students and its determination to contribute to long term stability in the dual education system. He went on to say:

We were pleased to be informed personally by the Minister earlier today that schools which might move to a lower category under the new system would have their dollar funding maintained until by inflation it corresponds with the appropriate level.

Mr Slattery, on behalf of the Australian Parents Council, mentioned several pleasing features in the new system. He said:

the government has accepted the need for stability in the non-government sector by its four year funding plans

the increasing percentage allocations for low-resource non-government schools

increased funding for government school children

the continuation of averaging for system schools

the maintenance of special purpose programs in real terms

the new program for basic skills in primary schools.

I could go on and on, but I simply remind the Senate that they were the responses of the non-government sector when this formula was first announced. I know that the sincere people within that sector continue to hold those views because I spend a great deal of time in discussion with them. It is absolutely mischievous and unfounded for Senator Baume to suggest that the decisions we have made have restricted choice in any way or that they have attracted any widespread criticism in the non-government sector. The contrary is the case.

I pass briefly to the new non-government schools policy. We have had lengthy debates about it in this place but, again, its principles and objectives have generally been endorsed. Why would they not be when the Connors panel contained a majority of non-government representatives? Mr Vin Faulkner, from the Catholic Education Office in Victoria, and Sister Denise Desmarchelier from Western Australia, a member of the Schools Commission, were two of the members of the panel. Professor Ron Sackville, who is associated with the Jewish day schools, was the third member of a five-person panel. It was no surprise that the panel's report, when it was accepted by the Government, received wide acceptance. Any responsible person engaged in the administration of schools and the getting together of resources to fund schools at a level whereby children have proper educational opportunity accepts that funding is not infinite, that there must be co-operation, planning and co-ordination in the developing of new non-government schools.

Schools are not amenable to free market principles. A free market principle is a great way to sell toothpaste or soap powder. We can buy one brand one week and if we do not like it we can change to another one. The whole operation of advertising is designed to get people to change their choices. However, the provision of schooling for children is a much more complicated matter, a matter that needs stability and long term planning and whose outcome, successful or otherwise, can be assessed only over a long period. The vision that I have when Senator Baume starts rabbiting on about free market principles applying to education is that children will be dragged in and out of schools week after week: Let us try this school this week; we do not like that, let us try another school next week. Apart from the cost to the Commonwealth, let alone the communities that support the schools, which would be insupportable, what does that mean for the stability of schooling? Schools are not like toothpaste or washing powder. They require planning, development, a stable staff, a stable source of funds and an appropriate curriculum. They require stability and planning of the highest order. Any reasonable person would have to accept that the decisions of our Government have contributed to such stability and to such an improvement in educational opportunity.