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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 1532

Senator MASON (9:39 AM) —The Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011 seeks to amend the Schools Assistance Act 2008 to extend the current funding arrangements for non-government schools from 2012 to 2013 for recurrent funding and from 2012 to 2014 for capital grants. The coalition welcomes the extension to the current funding arrangements in this bill. It gives schools certainty and gives the review of school funding chaired by Mr David Gonski AC time to finish its work on reviewing the government funding formula for non-government schools.

I wish to foreshadow an amendment the coalition will move in the committee stage, but before I do that let me just give this debate a little bit of context. The Labor Party has had a long history of antagonism toward the funding of non-government schools, from right back to the prime ministership of Sir Robert Menzies and all the way, for 50 years, up to Mark Latham’s hit list of independent schools. For some reason—and I have never, ever been able to understand this—there has been an inherent loathing of, an antagonism towards, a suspicion of, non-government schools by Labor for over 50 years. This really is intergenerational loathing by the Australian Labor Party, and I have never quite been able to work that out.

Despite waxing and waning on the issue by the Labor Party, there is one very important golden rule in Australian politics, and it is this: the funding of non-government schools is never, ever safe, never, ever secure, under the Labor Party—ever. Funding for non-government schools is never secure under the Australian Labor Party. Every time they are in office, every time there is a review, non-government schools go into a huddle because the Labor Party will never secure their funding. Whether the Labor Party will continue to fund non-government schools, how much and by what formula always divides the Australian Labor Party between the Left and the Right. Non-government schools, Catholic schools and Christian schools can never, ever be certain, never be safe and never be secure about ongoing funding. That just is not possible under the Australian Labor Party. It never has been and it never will be.

Non-government schools are always in the Labor Party’s crosshairs. But this bill, which the coalition supports, means that the trigger will not be pulled on non-government schools at least until after the next federal election. What a coincidence. Again the Australian Labor Party has put off the decision about funding. There will not be a government reply until after the next federal election. Shock, horror, surprise—once again. Why? Because, in Australia, non-government schools, Christian schools and Catholic schools can never, ever take it for granted that the Labor Party will fund them—ever.

The Prime Minister has in the past, it is true, said that she is an economic conservative and then, on the weekend, by some divine revelation, the Prime Minister said she was a social conservative. Despite her now being both an economic and a social conservative, the Labor Party cannot be trusted with the funding of non-government schools. Let’s face it. I looked at the front page of the Australian today and Paul Kelly, a senior Australian journalist, said that Ms Gillard must come clean with her convictions. The fact is that Ms Gillard does not have strong convictions except those lent to her by the Labor lobbyists Hawker Britton. We now know that. But we should do what the Senate always does and review this legislation.

Senator Jacinta Collins —Stop laughing while you’re speaking!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Troeth)—Order! Senator Mason, resume your seat for the moment. Senator Collins, just as you would wish to be heard in silence when it is your turn to speak, Senator Mason deserves the right to be heard in silence. I would ask you to limit your remarks to your own speech.

Senator MASON —Madam Acting Deputy President, thank you for that. I assumed that Senator Collins was whispering words of support. I must have misheard her! Nonetheless, let me carry on.

I foreshadowed before that at the committee stage the coalition will be moving an amendment. This amendment does not debate the quality and structure of the national curriculum. This amendment does not debate the equity of funding for government and non-government schools. It is rather more simple than that. When I move the amendment in the committee stage it will be about having realistic time frames for non-government schools when the Gillard government has been dragging its heels. This amendment will seek to remove the 31 January 2012 deadline and replace it with a realistic time frame for non-government schools to implement the national curriculum prescribed by the regulations. This is a natural flow-on from Labor’s failure to keep to its original implementation schedule.

Why is this necessary? I am flagging it because at the last meeting of state and territory education ministers it was indicated that, in the real world, substantial implementation of the national curriculum will not begin in government schools until at least 2013. Yet the current act requires non-government schools to introduce the national curriculum prescribed by the regulations on or before 31 January 2012. Once again, the government has been dragging its heels, necessitating the coalition’s proposed amendment in the committee stage. This time line needs to be amended. Where is the common sense in the government asking non-government schools to introduce the national curriculum before its design is even finalised? What is needed here is a consistent approach to government and non-government schools. After all, we thought that was what the national curriculum was all about—having a common curriculum for non-government and government schools right across our country.

Last year we saw the government underdeliver on its original promise to have the national curriculum available to implement from the beginning of this year due to serious concerns about the quality of the national curriculum. The national curriculum has become another government failure as state education ministers last year at the ministerial council refused to begin implementation in January 2011 as was promised. I could, if I was provoked, again outline my concerns on the national curriculum. But I am not being provoked this morning, so perhaps I will not. I will spare the Senate a tutorial on my concerns about the national curriculum. The national curriculum time line is behind Labor’s original schedule, with some states and territories having announced they will not implement it until 2013. This bill obviously needs to be amended to remove the 31 January 2012 deadline for non-government schools as it simply is not realistic.

We know all too well what happens when the Gillard government rushes into policy implementation. Again, we do not have to look too far. And, again, if I was provoked, I could give some background about the Building the Education Revolution program and the pink batts scheme. I have been known to do that. However, this morning perhaps I will spare the Senate. However, I think it is fair to say that there are some implementation issues with respect to the government’s capacity to implement even policies that one might see as creative. But the Gillard government is at it again. It has not learnt its lesson. Mr Garrett, the relevant minister, knows firsthand the effect that rushing into policy implementation can have. Again, the implementation of the national curriculum has been slow. It has not been well handled. State governments are no longer uniform in their consent to implement it, and at the moment this legislation is inaccurate in the sense that it does not accurately reflect when non-government schools will be able to implement it.

The amendment that I will move at the committee stage is a common-sense amendment that seeks to restore a realistic time line for non-government schools to implement the national curriculum as a result of the Gillard government’s failure to keep to its original and stated schedule. The coalition, however, does welcome this bill and welcomes the extension of funding arrangements to non-government schools but calls on the government to support the amendment that I will circulate in the committee stage.