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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5155

Senator CARR (4:00 PM) — The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 is the matter before the chamber at the moment. This bill allocates Commonwealth capital funds to government and non-government schools for the years 2005 to 2007. These funds are crucial to government schools in particular and they constitute around one-third of the capital funding for the government schools sector. In the case of non-government schools, this Commonwealth funding is almost the only government assistance available for capital works, although some states provide some forms of indirect assistance for capital expenditure to a small extent.

The Commonwealth program providing capital support for schools was first introduced by the Whitlam government in 1974. Unfortunately, the funding provided under this program has not been increased in real terms since this government came to office. Inevitably, this has had an impact on schools, especially on government schools in working-class districts. The communities of these schools simply do not have the resources to raise funds independently of the government as communities in wealthier suburbs do. This has led to a situation where schools in poorer suburbs and in rural areas are fast becoming run down. The impact of that is a growing gap in the levels of social inequality in this country. We have seen this growing gap in the way in which the Commonwealth funds schooling, particularly those in the privileged elite schools, and in the money that is provided to students in less affluent areas. This has a direct effect through the years on the students and it has an effect on the outcomes.

It is well known that in Australia today the sorts of life chances that you have bear a strong correlation to the postcode that you enjoy. They have an impact on what sort of school you go to and they often have an impact on the sort of university you go to, the sorts of educational opportunities that are presented to you. Let me give an example of that. Despite the equity programs of the Commonwealth over nearly 30 years now since the Whitlam government, there are some universities in this country that have been able to resist the pressure for social change to the point where the levels of income distribution amongst the parents of the students and in the backgrounds of students in those institutions has not changed dramatically in 30 years.

That is not to say that there have not been dramatic changes in other institutions. Let me give this example. Figures tabled by the Commonwealth at the MCEETYA meeting of state ministers last week—and I quote here from table B2 of that report—revealed to the state ministers that seven per cent of the students at the University of Melbourne come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. That is about the same as when I went there, I can tell you—I was one of the few, and I recall that the figure was around seven per cent. If you compare that figure to that for the Victoria University of Technology down the road, according to the Commonwealth 23.1 per cent of its students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. So it is quite clear that there are dramatic inequalities in education in Australia, and it is quite clear that the actions of government can have an impact on that, despite the capacity of particular institutions to resist those policies.

We are seeing a growing divide between government and non-government schools in this country. We have seen that the wealthiest private schools—the ones that, in the debate on the state grants bill two years ago, the Labor Party sought to exclude from the new funding arrangements that the government introduced with its controversial SES funding scheme—are doing extremely well. These are the sorts of schools that are well endowed with luxurious accommodation and facilities. They are the ones that have horse riding centres and yachting facilities—for instance, Geelong Grammar. They are the ones that have indoor rifle ranges, such as King's School at Parramatta in Sydney. These sorts of schools have facilities that people in public educational facilities would only dream about, and they outclass the average public school in terms of their capital support and their moneys for facilities.

We have a situation now where many non-government schools can boast better capital facilities—that is, buildings, libraries and computer facilities—than many public schools can. There is an inequality in educational opportunity that is being experienced in this country. My view is that it is the Commonwealth's responsibility to assist the states in providing a boost to capital funding to try and even up the imbalances that occur. This view is not just held by me. In fact, it is not a particularly radical idea. It is an idea that stems essentially from the tradition of the Karmel settlement of the 1970s. I am sure that those interested in education will recall the Karmel report, Schools in Australia. It is a report that, as a member of the Labor Party, I am very proud of. It was a watershed in that it allowed for the formation of what was known as the Karmel settlement.

The Karmel settlement was one of the greatest achievements of the Whitlam government. It said that the Commonwealth had a responsibility to overcome the sectarian divisions in our society in order to make sure that there was genuine equality of opportunity in our schooling system. Those who remember the divisive state aid debate of the sixties and seventies would appreciate how refreshing that Karmel settlement was. It provided a rational, measured approach for the Commonwealth to provide financial assistance to non-government schools but at the same time provide assistance to the public sector. Many needy schools, particularly those in the Catholic systemic system, were able to improve their facilities quite dramatically, whereas those that enjoyed the lion's share of privilege and a real power in our society—such as Geelong Grammar and King's School—received only a small proportion of the public support given to the poorer schools. I thought that was a very fair approach.

With this government, we have a complete abandonment of that principle. The states grants bill that introduced the SES system fundamentally shifted the balance. The opposition successfully pointed out just how excessive the government's largesse was when it came to former category 1 schools— those elite, very wealthy schools. In that debate I was able to point out to the Senate a number of calculations about the extent of the assistance that would be lent to those very wealthy schools. I confess today that I was wrong. It is a hard thing to say, but I was wrong. I said, for instance, that Wesley College in Melbourne would gain $3 million extra per annum from the Commonwealth under those new funding arrangements. I also said that the King's School in Sydney would get over $1 million per annum. Those were windfall gains by which the very wealthiest schools would benefit the most.

As it turns out, I underestimated the increases that the Commonwealth was providing to those schools. Under the new figures the department has given me through the Senate estimates process, and based on the 2001 enrolments, we find that Melbourne's Wesley College will actually get additional funding of $7.5 million, not the $3 million that I referred to; King's School will get $3 million, not $1 million; St Peter's College in Adelaide will get $3 million; and St Leonard's College will get an additional $3½ million. These figures are per annum. What we are seeing is Commonwealth funding in a form and with a generosity that I think very few persons in this country could possibly have imagined at any point in our educational history and in the debates about the way in which the public system should be supporting the private system. Even if we allow for the enrolment growth that has occurred within the two sectors, there has been a massive expansion in support for the non-government sector.

The government's policy now is essentially that the sky is the limit for some particular schools in this country. It does not hold that view with regard to all schools. What we have is essentially a profligate government when it comes to the question of funding for elite schools in this country. It places no limitations on the funding of particular programs in education—a policy which contrasts sharply with its policy in other areas of government activity. We do not see the same sort of attitude being taken within health, for instance. Government policy now seeks to automatically fund schools on the basis of the indexation arrangements that have been entered into, whether or not their enrolments actually grow, to the point where some of the richest schools will get increases way over and above even what was announced by the government at the time of the introduction of the new SES formula.

Because of the extraordinarily generous indexation arrangements for those particular schools—and remember that what we are talking about here is, I think, a $24 billion program, two-thirds of which go to one-third of the students in this country—we have a situation where the Commonwealth funds are now going to rise at 5.7 per cent per annum, with no debate, no public disclosure and no discussion. Comparing that to indexation arrangements for universities—the figure there is 2.2 per cent—there is a huge gap in the indexation arrangements between the sectors in this country. That means that, by 2004-05, Commonwealth funding for the private schools in this country will be in excess of $4.2 billion. In the same year, university funding by the Commonwealth will be $4.1 billion. So, by 2004-05, the Commonwealth will be spending more money on non-government schools than it is in total on all the universities in this country. Looking specifically at the Catholic education system, by 2007 the Commonwealth will be spending more money on Catholic education than it is on the entire university sector.

I raise that—and all these figures are based on the figures contained in the portfolio budget statements—in the context of the bill we have here before us. With this bill, we are discussing funding for capital works projects which has to be seen in the broader context of educational funding. We all understand that there are non-government schools that are struggling to do a good job. We know that they are servicing some of the neediest communities in this country and catering in some places for the most underprivileged groups in this country. They deserve Commonwealth support. I do not want anyone to suggest that I do not acknowledge that point. Labor do not oppose public funding for those particular schools. What we are concerned about is the new system, whose implications we are now seeing halfway through that four-year program. We are now seeing the implications of this coalition government's approach which substantially advantages the already privileged in our country.

We have noticed that there is often a lot of argument within the states about whether or not the Commonwealth should be acknowledged for its contribution to capital projects. I know that when we were in government there was often a concern, particularly about conservative governments failing to acknowledge the role of the Commonwealth in the provision of facilities, so we often had the unseemly situation where Commonwealth education ministers, or their representatives, were not invited to the opening ceremonies of various capital facilities. That is still going on.

We had a situation, though, where the previous Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, the Commonwealth minister, went to the extraordinary extent of actually withdrawing funding from schools where he felt he had not been given appropriate acknowledgment in the naming rights for new facilities. It is one thing to have an argument with the states to make sure that the Commonwealth is acknowledged for its role. It is very important that the Commonwealth is able to communicate with the public, and I certainly want to communicate with as many people as possible and explain what this Commonwealth government is doing in education. It is important for school communities to know that they can look to the Commonwealth for assistance. It is another thing entirely for a Commonwealth minister to refuse to attend an opening and withdraw $1 million from a school in New South Wales.

This was the case last year, when it was quite clear that the Minister for Education in New South Wales had a dispute with the then Commonwealth Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp. The New South Wales minister was not able to attend an opening ceremony under those requirements and in fact he nominated the state shadow minister to act as his representative—so another Lib! Dr Kemp was not satisfied with that. He said that if he could not go then they were not going to get the money, and that is exactly what occurred. If a Labor government had behaved in the way that the Commonwealth behaved on that occasion there would have been an outcry, and so there ought to be. But when this government acts in this way, like so much of its public positioning, there is not a huge amount of public attention drawn to it.

Commonwealth funding for schools should be aimed at targeting genuine need. That is why the funds that have been allocated by this bill should be increased—so they can assist government schools, particularly those schools that serve the poorest and the least privileged in our community. The funding under this program should be increased so that the government can at least fulfil its obligations to the extent it did it when it came to office in 1996. Further, the guidelines for this program specify that the funds should go to where they are most needed and they should be honoured in more than just words. The Commonwealth does not act to ascertain that the government or non-government school systems around the country actually allocate the funds on the basis of need. So I think there are serious questions about the accountability arrangements under this program. Further, the opposition believes there should be a proper prioritisation subject to periodic review. As a consequence, I have outlined some of my concerns in a second reading amendment. I trust that this amendment will enjoy the support of the chamber, and I look forward to other contributions to this debate. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

“But the Senate

(a) condemns the Government for:

(i) failing to provide real increases in Commonwealth capital funding for schools since 1996;

(ii) failing to address adequately the capital needs of schools in disadvantaged and isolated areas;

(iii) displaying a lack of understanding of the implications of demographic trends on the ageing capital stock of many schools in Australia, especially in the public sector;

(iv) inadequate accountability and evaluation processes for reporting on the achievements of the Commonwealth's capital grants program against stated objectives;

(v) threatening to make capital funding for schools conditional on agreement with the Government's industrial relations agenda; and

(vi) a lack of vision on how to position Commonwealth capital support for schools in the future, including:

(A) information and Communications Technologies infrastructure;

(B) professional teaching support and learning centres;

(C) integration with Commonwealth priorities for schools through its targeted programs; and

(b) requests the Government to:

(i) develop clear and effective accountability and evaluation procedures and incorporate these in administrative guidelines; and

(ii) report to the Parliament within twelve months on the achievements of the Commonwealth capital program and its future development, including in relation to the issues raised in this amendment”.