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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 124

Senator CARR (9:08 PM) —The opposition is clearly very disappointed by the government's shoddy response to this matter. It was obviously not particularly prepared to even come in here and argue a case. At least we have obliged the government to perfunctorily table its statements. It is an extraordinary proposition that, for a bill of some $32 billion in funding where the Senate moved some very reasonable amendments, the House unilaterally says, `We are not interested,' and does not even bother to put a case to the Senate as to why that is. I think there is good cause for disappointment.

What we have here is a government that has seen quite extensive expansions in the schools program for particular schools. It has rejected funding on the basis of need. It has sought to extend a program for funding which, in terms of the proceedings put before this chamber and the Senate committee, has been demonstrably unfair. It has seen a quite elaborate expansion in the opportunities for those already wealthy and already privileged, and it will further entrench in the system a method of funding which will encourage the already wealthy and the already privileged to do exceptionally well.

The amendments that the Labor Party moved in this chamber sought to get the government to acknowledge that there is an opportunity here to actually address these fundamental principles of social justice and to put into a schools bill of this size an explicit definition of need and a requirement that we have a clear understanding that that is the basis on which schools should be funded. It is not on the basis of how well off you are; it is not on the basis of whether or not your dad has a lot of money in the bank. It is on the basis of actually trying to make sure that everyone in this country gets a fair go. It is quite apparent that the government is not interested in that. It is even not interested to the point where it has not actually come to this chamber with a view to arguing its case.

We have also sought, through these amendments, to provide a framework for school reporting that is, amongst other things, a requirement that reporting must be in the educational interests of students. Of course, this government has sought to make much of its capacity to tell the states how to run schools. It has gone to the point where it says, `We'll provide more money for those schools that already have fees in excess of $20,000 a year. The schools have already been provided with Commonwealth subsidies so that there are boarding facilities for children's pets. But we will make sure that we tell the states how to run a state school system as well.' On both sides of the argument, on both sides of the ledger, the Commonwealth seeks to impose a policy which is essentially very unfair and very unreasonable and that stands against what parents actually want.

The Labor Party proposed, and this chamber accepted, a set of amendments to improve the framework for school reporting and to make sure that school reporting is actually in the educational interests of students. The government says, `We're not actually interested in the argument about that.' The Labor Party also sought to make sure that the overly prescriptive interventions by this government in the handling of state schools by school authorities, especially for teachers in hard to staff schools and hard to staff disciplines, were in fact removed so that genuine partnerships were developed within the education system. The Commonwealth also says, `We're not interested in that.' What the Commonwealth then says is, `We'll give support and comfort to one particular denomination in the education system and we'll make sure that the interests of a particular educational authority structure will be supported without reference to any other educational authority within the system.' This is unique and unprecedented, but the government is not interested in discussing the implications of that new and extraordinarily prescriptive intervention in the education system of this country.

None of the things that the Senate proposed ought to be controversial. But, as we have seen, the government is not prepared to see reason and is pressing ahead with its position willy-nilly in the face of logic. We are now in the situation where a piece of legislation in front of us is, in fact, unsustainable. In the longer term the existing circumstances for a majority of non-government schools, which are not actually funded according to the stated policies of the government with regard to the SES model, will become even more acute. The increasingly divisive nature of this government's policies will become apparent. It is quite clear to me that the arrogance of this government's position is now transparent—we have an arrogant response from an arrogant government. By rejecting out of hand each and every one of the amendments put up by this chamber, the government is suggesting that it has this education bill absolutely right and that it does not need any amendment at all. We will wait and see about that. We will see whether or not that is the case. If it is anything like the higher education bill it will be only a matter of time before the government is back in this chamber seeking amendments because it knows that it cannot sustain the regime that it is imposing by this bill.

Labor is fundamentally opposed to the unfair funding increases contained in this bill. We will not let the government's irresponsible and unjustifiable increases in funding to some of the wealthiest schools in the country get in the way of funding the 9,500 needy government and non-government schools in this country. We will not allow the government's foolishness to stand in the way of the provision of education facilities for the millions of Australian students that require support from the Commonwealth government. That is the great irony of the situation: it is the poorest and the weakest in this country that require the Commonwealth to intervene effectively. It is a tragedy that this government sees fit to give aid and comfort to those already privileged and powerful and to insist upon entrenching that privilege.

As my colleague Jenny Macklin has indicated in the House, Labor will not be insisting on our amendments. The various schools need the money now; they need the money to flow before Christmas. The opposition will not stand in the way of the funding of needy government and non-government schools. The opposition, however, will certainly continue to put forward our view that the funding must be delivered on a fairer basis so that children in all schools, from all social classes and from all communities are able to attract the support they need from the Commonwealth. That position will stand in sharp contrast to the position this government is now pursuing. We will argue that children in all schools, whether they be government or non-government schools, should be funded on the basis of need and that they should be able to look to the Commonwealth to get assistance for their education. All schools should be funded on the basis that all children should have equal opportunity. Unfortunately, this is an objective that will not be met through this legislation.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Watson)—For the benefit of Senator Carr, Senator Nettle and Senator Brown, I am advised that the reasons for the House of Representatives disagreeing with the Senate's amendments have been circulated. They are found on about page 6 of a document entitled, Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004: Schedule of the amendments made by the Senate to which the House of Representatives has disagreed. That is where the confusion may have arisen.