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Monday, 9 October 2000
Page: 18098


Senator HILL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (4:13 PM) —I table revised explanatory memoranda relating to the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Bill 2000 and the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000 and move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

STATES GRANTS (PRIMARY AND SECON-DARY EDUCATION ASSIS-TANCE) BILL 2000

The Bill renews the Government's commitment to school education for the 2001-2004 quadrennium. It secures funding for Commonwealth programmes of financial assistance to the States and Territories for government and non-government schools. It succeeds the States Grants (Primary And Secondary Education Assistance) Act 1996 which authorised funding for the 1997 to 2000 funding period.

This Bill reflects the Government's policy decisions related to the 2001-2004 school funding quadrennium including:

Implementation of the new socio-economic (SES) funding arrangements of non-government schools.

Introduction of a streamlined structure for Commonwealth targeted programmes for schools, improving accountability and permitting greater flexibility in the application of Commonwealth funds to improving outcomes for educationally disadvantaged students.

Strengthened accountability and reporting arrangements where education authorities will be asked to commit to reporting on student outcomes against agreed performance indicators and targets underpinning the National Goals of Schooling.

This Bill acknowledges the right of Australian parents to choose the most appropriate schooling for their children. It supports the devolution of decision-making about education to where it belongs, to parents and communities. It will ensure that we have an education system that is responsive to student needs.

The Bill represents a major investment in the future of our society. Through increased financial assistance to schools, particularly schools serving the neediest communities, the Government seeks improved outcomes from schools and a brighter future for Australian students. The Bill ensures Australia will be in a better position to make major contributions to our global future and to continue our tradition of innovation and technical skill.

To support these commitments, the Government in this legislation will appropriate in excess of $18 billion for the coming 2001-2004 quadrennium.

This Bill includes provision for the new socio-economic status or SES based funding arrangements. This historic reform will provide a more transparent, objective and equitable approach to funding non-government schools.

Under the new arrangements general recurrent funding will be distributed according to need and schools serving the neediest communities will receive the greatest financial support. This means that parents at all income levels will now have a realistic capacity to choose the most appropriate schooling for their child.

The new model will be more responsive to a school's actual need for financial assistance. Unlike the current system, it will not discourage private investment in education and schools will be able to raise private income without penalty. It will also provide financial incentives for schools to attract students from low income families. This is a major leap forward, both for schools and for parents who may not have had such education choices open to them in the past.

Schools will be in a stronger position to respond to the changing needs of students and their families and to direct their resources towards achieving the best possible learning outcomes for their students.

The Bill allows for the increased funding to schools to be phased in over the quadrennium. Schools that are funded on their SES scores will have their increased funding phased in at a rate of 25% of the increase each year, so that by 2004 schools will be fully funded at their new level.

The Bill guarantees financial security for all schools. No school will be financially disadvantaged by the move to the new SES funding system. Schools that would otherwise have their funding reduced under the new arrangements will have their year 2000 per capita entitlements maintained, with the year 2000 dollar rates adjusted annually in line with the latest AGSRC figures.

The Government's 1998 election commitment to Catholic systems will continue to be honoured under the new SES-based funding arrangements. Approved Catholic school systems will be funded on a basis that essentially preserves in real terms the per capita equivalent of their current funding categories in the year 2000.

New non-government schools not belonging to Catholic systems will have their entitlement to Commonwealth funding assessed according to an SES-based measure of need. Therefore, new schools that attract students from the neediest communities will also be eligible to receive a higher level of financial assistance. This is a vast improvement on previous arrangements for new schools and augurs well for the future health of the education sector.

In addition, the Bill provides additional funding for schools experiencing severe financial hardship or facing problems of viability during the transition to the new SES funding arrangements and establishment grants will be available to assist new non-government schools with costs incurred in their formative years and enable them to be competitive with existing schools.

In keeping with the Government's commitment to choice and equity in schooling, the Bill also provides recurrent funding for distance education students receiving that education from non-government schools.

The Bill provides for the introduction of a revised structure for some Commonwealth programmes of targeted assistance for schools which is the outcome of the review foreshadowed in the 1999-2000 Budget.

The revised structure combines the literacy and numeracy grants to schools programmes and the special education school support fixed and per capita grants into the Strategic Assistance for Improving Student Outcomes programme. This programme will be aimed at helping schools and school authorities to improve student learning outcomes of educationally disadvantaged students, particularly in literacy and numeracy and schools, school authorities and government centres to improve the educational participation and outcomes of students with disabilities.

The Bill also combines the priority and community languages programmes into the Languages other than English programme and simplifies administrative arrangements under this programme. Funding provided under this programme will continue to be aimed at helping schools, school authorities, government educational institutions and other bodies to improve the teaching and learning of languages other than English.

The Bill recognises the right of parents to choose the type of education they want for their children. This Bill recognises that every child is entitled to a base level of public funding towards their education. This Bill recognises the right of children to a quality education through improved outcomes for all students. This Bill provides for a more equitable approach to funding non-government schools. We want quality education for all our children. Through improved accountability and outcomes this Bill will ensure the health of our education sectors and the future growth of our nation.

The Bill also introduces significant reforms in accountability for Commonwealth grants to schools. New accountability requirements will strengthen the link between the funding provided under Commonwealth programmes and improved outcomes for all Australian students.

In essence, all education authorities - government and non-government - receiving Commonwealth grants will be required to commit to achieving performance targets against the National Goals for Schooling and to report publicly on their achievement.

With adoption by all education Ministers in 1999 of the National Goals for Schooling in the 21st century, Australia has its first set of outcomes-focussed schooling goals. Ministers have committed themselves to nationally comparable reporting of educational targets in key areas of the goals, such as literacy and numeracy and VET in schools.

Meanwhile national benchmarks for student achievement in basic skills have been put in place. Now, by mid-2000, we have the goals needed to support national performance targets, standards in the form of the first national benchmarks, and the first national performance measures under development.

The Commonwealth has played a key role in establishing National Goals, benchmarks and measures. It is now time that this approach to improving student outcomes be reflected in the Commonwealth's own programmes for schools.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

WORKPLACE RELATIONS AMENDMENT (AUSTRA-LIAN WORKPLACE AGREE-MENTS PROCEDURES) BILL 2000

The Coalition's 1998 workplace relations election policy More Jobs, Better Pay contained commitments to further legislative reform in our second term of office.

These commitments were reflected in four pieces of legislation already introduced by the Government since October 1998, dealing with small business unfair dismissal exemptions, superannuation, youth wages and multiple reform issues in the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay Bill) 1999.

That Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on 14 October 1999 but subsequently blocked by the combined opposition of the Labor Party and the Australian Democrats in the Senate.

Since opposing the More Jobs Better Pay Bill 1999 last November, the Democrats have publicly indicated that they prefer to deal with the contents of that Bill on an issue by issue basis, not as an omnibus piece of legislation.

In a speech to the ACT Industrial Relations Society on 6 April 2000 Democrats spokesman Senator Murray said, and I quote, “In my view only technical Bills should be general and broad ranging. Policy Bills should be specific. It is far better for a reformist government to deal with one issue at a time on a specific and limited basis.”

And again, in the course of the inquiry by the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee into the Bill, the Senator said, “It seems to me the Act can be conveniently broken up into major sectors....I find these kind of omnibus bills result in a lot of negativity and it is very difficult to progress them.”

Taking these sentiments into account, the Government has sought to accommodate the preferences of the Australian Democrats by proceeding, other than on technical issues, with an issue by issue consideration of policy matters arising from the More Jobs Better Pay Bill 1999.

The first of these issue by issue Bills was a Bill dealing with pattern bargaining and related matters which passed the House on 1 June 2000, but which is now also being opposed in the Senate by the Labor Party and, so far, by the Democrats.

The Government is now in a position to introduce further single issue Bills drawn from the More Jobs Better Pay Bill 1999.

This Bill concerns procedural and technical amendments to the approval processes for Australian Workplace Agreements.

The Workplace Relations Act 1996 has provided a wide range of options to employers and employees recognising that different workplace arrangements will suit different organisations. Employers and employees can choose between collective certified agreements, (made with a union or directly with employees), Australian Workplace Agreements which are made directly between a single employer and employee, informal agreements, or a mix of these forms.

The right for an employer and employee to make formal individual employment agreements has been one of the outstanding features of this Government's reforms.

There is no doubt that AWAs have found support among employers and employees. This is evidenced by the increasing use of AWAs. Over 100,000 individual agreements have been made since the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act came into effect, covering around 1900 employers. More than 4,500 agreements are now being made each month and during last month alone more than 6,000 new AWAs were made.

AWAs have been used to introduce a wide range of innovative flexible working arrangements. They have helped lift productivity, often tailored wages to performance incentives and bonuses, and allowed more flexible work arrangements so employees can balance their work and family requirements.

The Government is committed to AWAs and the right of workers and employers to choose to make them. The Government, unlike the Opposition, believes that it is important to ensure that employers and employees have genuine choice about the working arrangements which will apply to them.

Streamlining agreement-making

While ensuring that Australian Workplace Agreements, certified agreements and the no-disadvantage test are retained, the amendments will introduce a streamlined approval process for AWAs.

The current filing and approval processes for AWAs will be amalgamated to ensure a much simpler and speedier formalisation process. AWAs (and variation agreements) will take effect from the date of signing, or the date specified in the agreement or the date employment commences. This will mean that pending approval by the Employment Advocate, there is a presumption that the AWA meets all the statutory tests.

Employers will be required to apply within 60 days to have the agreement approved. There are complementary provisions introducing cooling off periods and compensation provisions to fully protect employees' interests.

AWA procedures for high salary earners (those whose remuneration is higher than $68,000) will be fast tracked. Unless otherwise requested, for employees whose remuneration is above $68,000, an AWA accompanied by the appropriate declarations from an employee will not be assessed against the no disadvantage test before approval. Of course, where the employee still requests such an assessment be made by the Employment Advocate, it will occur.

The employer will no longer be required to satisfy the Employment Advocate that the employer did not act unfairly or unreasonably in failing to offer AWAs in the same terms to all comparable employees. These changes will provide greater scope to recognise individual performance through such agreements.

Approval of all AWAs will be by the Employment Advocate. Currently, where the Employment Advocate has concerns about whether an AWA meets the no-disadvantage test (NDT), the Employment Advocate must refer the AWA to the Commission. This has frequently meant delay in finalising approval of the AWA. The proposed amendments will give the power to the Employment Advocate to decide whether or not to approve an AWA, subject to principles which may be developed for this purpose by the President of the Commission.

Relationship between AWAs and other instruments

In addition to simplifying the processes associated with the making and approval of AWAs, the legislation will clarify the relationship between AWAs and awards (including State awards), certified agreements, State agreements and other legislative instruments, in order to allow them to operate more effectively. For example, provision is being made to ensure AWAs are not excluded by those awards made under section 170MX.

Industrial action and AWAs

Finally, the Bill's amendments will remove the limited immunity available in respect of industrial action taken in support of a claim for an AWA. The AWA industrial action provisions appear to have rarely been threatened, let alone used.

In introducing this Bill the Government is conscious of the fact that the Australian Democrats have supported the role that AWAs play in our modern workplace relations system.

As Democrat spokesman Senator Murray said on 1 June 20000, “AWAs have a good place as part of the agreement mix. A limited number of employees, particularly better paid highly skilled employees, where the one-size-fits-all award could be an impediment to productivity, do well under AWAs.”

The Democrats' dissenting report to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee in November 1999 did not support the AWA amendments as a whole, but did indicate that “there are some positive matters dealt with in this [AWA] schedule.”

The Democrats are also on the record as supporting simplified, less technical and less legalistic procedures for employers and employees using the system.

In these circumstances, it is reasonable for the Government and the Democrat support for AWAs to be translated into a more streamlined approval process. That is what these amendments do.

In introducing this Bill I am clearly indicating that the Government is determined to proceed on an issue in respect of which there appears to be Democrat support. The Government is prepared to consider amendments to refine the detail of the procedures proposed by the Bill, if it is the detail that is the barrier to the Bill's passage through the Parliament.

The Bill is an important one which will build on the objects of the 1996 reforms and improve the AWA system in the interests of employers, employees and small business.

Of course this matter has already been before a Senate committee. However, the government would welcome further Senate scrutiny provided that such a committee will review the Bill in order to ensure a more effective framework for making AWAs, and so underpin better access to the full range of agreement options.

The right of the Coalition to implement its workplace relations mandate, subject to constructive Senate review, is a principle that has been acknowledged by the Democrats - and one that they should now act upon.

On 15th June 1996 the then Leader of the Australian Democrats (now Labor shadow Minister Kernot) said on the issue of workplace relations, and I quote:

“The Democrats accept that the Government has been elected to govern and that it has its right to present its legislative program to the Parliament for consideration. But the Democrats have been elected to do a job, and that is to closely scrutinise legislation to ensure that it is fair, and workable and the best solution to an identified problem.”

“...the Democrats have no intention of being obstructionist in this Senate. As we have done for 15 years of holding balance of power, we will carefully review legislation, suggesting ways to make it work better if possible.”

Adopting a just say `no' attitude to this Bill would be inconsistent with not only the proper role of the Senate as a House of Review, but also breach the principle under which the Democrats themselves marked out their past approach to these issues, at least until 1997.

HEALTH INSURANCE AMENDMENT (RURAL AND REMOTE AREA MEDICAL PRACTITIONERS) BILL 2000

The Health Insurance Amendment (Rural and Remote Area Medical Practitioners) Bill 2000 amends the Health Insurance Act 1973 to enable the Commonwealth to restrict payments of Medicare benefits for a specified time to any medical practitioner who breaches a contract with the Commonwealth under which the practitioner has agreed to work in a rural or remote area. The time specified in the bill is twice that which the medical practitioner has agreed to work in a rural and remote area under the relevant contract. Medicare benefits are not payable for this period unless a shorter period is determined or is in accordance with the relevant contract.

As the Medicare scheme is established by legislation, it is necessary to stipulate in legislation the period of time for which a medical practitioner cannot attract Medicare benefits if they breach their contract to work in rural and remote Australia. The ban on Medicare benefits will apply to medical practitioners who are in breach, regardless of whether they were medical practitioners at the time of entering the contract or at the time of the breach. The bill underpins the government's Medical Rural Bonded Scholarship Scheme, a budget initiative that demonstrates the government's approach to solving the problem of the rural doctor shortage. This initiative is a significant part of a broader package of measures that will deliver on the undertaking to provide more doctors and better services to rural and regional Australia in the short, medium and long term.

The amendment to the Health Insurance Act 1973 ensures that the government's long-term strategy of delivering more doctors to rural communities will not be compromised. The Medical Rural Bonded Scholarship Scheme will provide 100 extra medical students with $20,000 per annum to study medicine, on the condition that they agree to work in a rural community for six years once they have completed their basic medical training and GP or specialist fellowship. These 100 places are over and above the places that already exist in Australian medical schools, so students will be gaining access to a place in a medical school to which they would not otherwise have obtained entry.

Applications will be through the normal university admissions process, and selection of bonded scholars will be according to academic merit. Also, interest in rural health and motivation to work in rural areas will be taken into account where possible. Students will have full information on the conditions and obligations of the Medical Rural Bonded Scholarship Scheme, and they will therefore be able to make informed commitment and to sign contracts with the Commonwealth. These contracts will bond them to work for six years in a rural or remote area in Australia.

Requirement for students to work in a rural community for six years is absolutely reasonable, considering the Commonwealth will pay between $80,000 and $120,000 during the course of their degree and will have to meet a similar amount again for the cost of the place in medical school. This assistance is additional to that which is funded to the universities, and of course they are places in medical school to which the student may not have otherwise gained selection.

There will be another 100 medical students who will be able to choose a career opportunity they would not have otherwise had, and it will deliver these students, once they are qualified, to the areas most in need of their professional services. The conditions of the contract provide that bonded scholars will work in a rural or remote area, once they have attained GP or specialist fellowship, for six years. Should a bonded scholar breach this contract, they will be required to repay the scholarship with interest, and there will be a 12-year ban on their access to Medicare benefits. Without this legislation, there will not be the incentive for bonded scholars to honour their obligation. This ban will not prevent a medical practitioner from practising in a hospital or other area such as medical research where it is not necessary to attract Medicare benefits.

There is a need for more doctors in rural and remote Australia. This is a bill for rural Australian communities that enables the Commonwealth to honour its commitment to provide rural and remote Australia with more doctors. It guarantees to deliver 100 qualified GPs and specialists to rural Australia each year in the long term.

COMMONWEALTH ELECTORAL AMEND-MENT BILL (No. 1) 2000

This bill contains amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Act) which will:

· specifically allow for the provision of a wide range of elector information, in addition to name and address information, to Members of the House of Representatives, Senators and federally registered political parties.

· specifically allow for the provision of age range extracts from the electoral Roll for use in approved medical research and public health screening programs.

· require all political parties applying for registration from 3 October 2000 to prove that they have 500 members.

· provide that currently registered parliamentary parties retain their registration as long as they have a party member in Federal parliament.

· provide that currently registered parliamentary parties which are registered on the basis that they have a party member in a State or Territory legislature have a period of 6 months from 3 October 2000 in which to satisfy the Australian Electoral Commission that they have 500 members or be deregistered.

The Howard government is committed to ensuring that Australia has a fair and equitable electoral system that upholds the values of democracy and principles of fair play. The legislation this government has introduced since we have been elected demonstrates our strong commitment to having an electoral system with integrity and to ensuring that Australia has a world-class system of which we can all be justifiably proud.

This bill addresses the issue of authorising certain access to a range of elector information products and the fields of information contained in those products. It also addresses the important issue of registration of political parties.

The amendments relating to the provision of elector information are required following legal advice obtained in June and July 2000 that indicated that the Australian Electoral Commission (the AEC) could not provide the above information without specific authority in the Act. The AEC had been providing geographic and other information on the basis that the Act did not preclude the provision of such information.

Without those proposed amendments, the only elector information the AEC can provide to members of the House of Representatives, Senators and federally registered political parties will be full name, enrolled address, date of birth, gender, salutation, and federal Division.

In short, these proposed amendments allow for the provision of the range of fields of elector information that was previously available on the AEC's Elector Information Access System (ELIAS) to members, Senators and federally registered political parties. While it is proposed to restrict the data provided to members and Senators to their respective constituencies, it is proposed that federally registered political parties organised in five or more states and territories, or that have at least five federal representatives, would be able to receive elector information for all states and territories.

The AEC had been providing geographic and other information in ELIAS on the basis that the legislation did not preclude the provision of such information. This amendment, therefore, restores the provision of that information to member, Senators and federally registered political parties.

In regard to the provision of age range information to medical researchers, the AEC received legal advice in 1992 to the effect that the provision of decade age-range information to medical researchers and public health screeners was not in breach of the Act. On the basis of that advice, the AEC has been providing decade age-range information to medical researchers and public health screeners since the commencement, in 1993, of the regulations specifically allowing for the use of elector information in approved medical research and public health screening programmes.

Recent legal advice, that there is no specific authority in the Act for the AEC to provide decade age-range information, caused the AEC to withdraw the provision of this information to medical researchers. However, age range information is a critical piece of information needed to make such research useable.

The AEC normally provides elector information to medical researchers and public health screening bodies in a minimum of 5 year age cohorts. However, the bill allows for provision in 2 year age cohorts. This is to allow for studies on critical public health issues, such as immunisation, where it may be necessary to be able to clearly determine the influencing factors in order for the study to be viable and provide useable results.

Such elector information is not made available to just any researcher. Medical researchers must meet guidelines issued by the National Health & Medical Research Council as well as have the research approved by their institution's Ethics Committee. Public health screening bodies must be approved by the Department of Health & Aged Care as well as meet guidelines issued by the department.

In essence, this bill will restore the previous established practice for the provision of elector information by the AEC to these groups.

The amendments relating to the registration of political parties address Government, and broader public, concerns that the political party registration provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 could be open to exploitation where members of parliament use their parliamentary membership to register political parties for federal election purposes, even where these parties do not enjoy the support of at least 500 members.

The amendments also provide that an application for registration of a political party will be refused if the proposed name of the party applying for registration is the name, abbreviation or acronym, or closely resembles the name, abbreviation or acronym, of an existing parliamentary party, registered party or certain parties which have stood candidates under their party name at State or Territory elections in the preceding 5 years.

The government has not moved to make any other amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 at this time. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) has recently reported on its inquiry into the conduct of the 1998 federal election and the government will be responding to that report in due course. The JSCEM has also recently advertised, on 9 September 2000, for submissions to two other inquiries it is conducting. These are an “Inquiry into Electoral Funding and Disclosure” and an “Inquiry into the Integrity of the Electoral Roll”. It is appropriate to leave any further electoral amendments until after these processes are complete.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Ludwig) adjourned.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.