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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5166


Senator KEMP (Minister for the Arts and Sport) (4:57 PM) —The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 amends the State Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 2000 to provide capital grant funding amounts for government and non-government schools for the years 2005-07. Specifically, the bill amends schedule 3 and schedule 5 to the act to insert maximum capital grant funding amounts for government and non-government schools for the calendar years 2005, 2006 and 2007. Schedules 3 and 5 of the act set out funding amounts for the capital grants program for government and non-government schools respectively for the period 2001-04. The schedules in the act setting out capital funding allocations include a specific note stating that funding allocations for latter years will be added by an amending act.

The act and previous acts make specific provision for capital funding allocations beyond the normal four years of the quadrennium, due to the size and complexity of school capital projects, which often require long lead times for planning, assessment and construction. School capital projects are regularly funded across several years. As there are substantial development costs associated with capital projects, a guarantee of funding is often sought well in advance of actual construction. By longstanding arrangement, the state education departments and non-government block grant authorities which administer the program are able to recommend funding allocations for projects up to three years in advance of the current calendar year. This enables funding for major projects which require long lead times to be secured at an early stage and payments for large projects to be staged over a number of years. For example, $18 million worth of projects was approved for funding in 2004 as part of the non-government school funding round conducted in 2001.

This bill is not about shifting funding between the sectors; it is about giving certainty in Commonwealth funding to all schools as they undertake planning and construction of major projects designed to provide essential educational opportunities to schoolchildren. There have been various misleading claims made inferring that the coalition is shifting funding away from the government sector to the non-government sector. Indeed, the Commonwealth is increasing its funding to government schools at a faster rate than the states, which have constitutional responsibility for government schools. In the last federal budget, government school funding was increased by 5.6 per cent compared to an average increase on the part of the states of 2.7 per cent. The opposition is confusing the issue of need in this debate. The government reformed the general recurrent grants program by addressing the anomalies of the former ERI arrangements and moving to an SES funding model which funds schools based on the relative needs of the school communities they serve. Capital grants are also provided on the basis of relative need.

In response to the amendment to the bill proposed by Labor I indicate that the government does not support the amendment and I make the following points. Capital funding for government schools has been maintained in real terms and increased in actual dollars at a time when government school enrolments are falling. The principal responsibility for maintaining the fabric of Australia's schools system rests with state and territory governments. While the Commonwealth has maintained its expenditure in this area, the same, regrettably, cannot be said for many of the state governments. The opposition also fails to take stock of the fact that, as a result of the introduction of a new tax system, the states and territories have access to a significant new source of funding through GST revenues. These revenues are expected to rise from $24.4 billion in 2000-01 to $32.6 billion in 2004-05, an increase of 33.6 per cent.

I agree that it is imperative that the capital needs of schools in disadvantaged and isolated areas, including Indigenous schools, receive priority attention. The Commonwealth program is targeted specifically to these schools. The Commonwealth expects states to honour their agreements with the Commonwealth and allocate the substantial funding the Commonwealth provides to these areas of need. I acknowledge that the accountability and evaluation processes established for the program by the Labor Party were inadequate. The government has tightened accountability requirements and will continue to do so while the states, such as South Australia, contravene their agreements with the Commonwealth and their school communities.

Non-government capital works projects are normally approved in October. Schools often undertake building works during the long recess over Christmas to avoid danger and disruption to students. If passage of this bill is delayed beyond October, any urgent projects with 2005 funding that are prepared to let tenders, sign contracts and commence construction during the end of the year school recess will be unnecessarily delayed and some projects may need to be rescheduled.

In summary, there is a compelling argument that the bill should be agreed by the parliament without amendment to allow capital projects recommended by states and non-government block grant authorities, which include a 2005 allocation of Commonwealth funding, to proceed. If the opposition wants to demonstrate that it supports schools and the quality of their educational provision, it should support this bill straightaway. I call on the chamber to support this important bill so that it can provide certainty for the schools that are waiting anxiously for this bill to proceed.

Question agreed to.

Senator NETTLE (New South Wales) (5.05 p.m.)—I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

“and the Senate:

(a) condemns the Government for its failure to provide adequate, open accountability for the expenditure of public funds on private education and its failure to ensure that public money is spent for the public benefit and to produce equitable outcomes;

(b) condemns the Government's unwillingness to invest appropriately in the capital funding of public schools;

(c) regrets that the Government's approach results in an increasing strain placed on the public education system which is being starved of Commonwealth funding and forced to compete with an increasingly well resourced private education system”.

Question agreed to.

Original question, as amended, agreed to.

Bill read a second time.