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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 152


Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (21:02): As young people return to school, I want to make some remarks about the nature of schooling, but before I turn to the major focus of my comments this evening I would also like to initially acknowledge the Ourimbah Hospital Auxiliary, who are one of the most hospitable groups that support our hospitals on the Central Coast. They do an amazing job.

This organisation has been operating since 1946. I was very happy to attend their annual general meeting. It is a real joy for politicians from the Central Coast to be invited to this august group. One of the great things that they give us as we depart for the afternoon is some of the fruit that is grown in the local Ourimbah area.

This is a group of wonderful women and community members, who have undertaken great work over all those years since 1946. They have had a stall outside Ourimbah Public School selling goods to raise funds for Gosford Hospital since that year. Other activities include social days, social bus trips and morning and afternoon teas. This is a community that is highly connected.

During the past 15 years the group has raised more than $90,000, which has been spent on items such as oxygen monitors, vital sign monitors, treatment chairs, blood pressure monitors, pressure mattresses and an ECG machine. It is one of the smallest of the 204 auxiliaries operating in NSW, but one of the most dedicated. They punch well above their weight in terms of the impact they have in the local community. This tireless group of volunteers are remarkable people and a wonderful example of a community-based organisation that makes tangible differences to the lives of people in need. But we must never forget that this is a support to the basic responsibility of governments to provide for the health needs of our community. The community can support that, but the basic infrastructure to meet people's health needs must be met by our governments.

The group see their work as a privilege in building upon the previous seventy years, and I consider it a privilege to know them. I send my admiration, respect and best wishes together with the hope that the next seventy years of the group's work proves just as inspiring and successful in improving the lives of local people in the community.

To the lives of people in the community one of the greatest investments we can make in our communities is education. The Labor Party absolutely understands that. Unfortunately, under this government the future for our schools, and therefore for our students, our community and indeed for our economy looks bleak.

Nationwide, the Liberals are intending to cut $30 billion from school funding. That is like sacking one in seven teachers. There is absolutely no doubt that this savage attack on the nation's future will damage our schools and the learning of our students, who are obliged by law to attend school for 13 years of their lives.

The Liberals' cuts mean that, on average, every single school in Australia will lose $3 million. That is a $3 million investment in our children, in their learning, in improving our teachers' professional development and in improving the opportunities for our young people to have the skills they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It will inevitably mean fewer teachers and less one-on-one attention for those needing additional learning support, and it will mean students will be left behind. It will mean students getting less help, with fewer resources to help them master the basics of learning: reading, writing, mathematics, science and computer skills. And that is to say nothing of the powerful soft skills that are often talked about at schools, the skills that make people great participants in the workforce when they leave school—through learning how to work in a group, through learning how to problem solve, through all the social skills that are acquired when good learning happens in our schools.

Yet again this government's policy on funding schools proves that in spite of all the promises, in spite of all the platitudes and rhetoric, you simply cannot trust them on education. The Turnbull government are cutting funding from schools at the same time—they were here in the parliament today, fighting to give a big business cut of $50 billion to the top end of town. They have made a choice, but they just have not made a choice for the nation's schools. Instead, as they always do, they have chosen in their policy settings to spend taxpayers' money on handouts to big business and the banks, while they can never seem to find the money to do the basic job of building the future of this nation; investing in our schools, investing in our learners, investing in the future of this country.

Nobody should be fooled by the argument the government is proposing that funding for schools is increasing in millions of dollars of years and that is meeting the need. The fact is that the number of students attending schools is increasing. It costs more to educate a larger number of students. People know in their own budgets that inflation has an impact, and the cost of educational inflation is higher than that of inflation in the general economy, so that costs more.

Senator Seselja interjecting

Senator O'NEILL: This government keeps misleading the public by saying, 'We are spending more money'. In raw numbers they are spending more money because there are more students, because inflation is happening. They are not investing more money to make sure that students get their needs met.

The Labor Party has always believed and continues to believe that a high-quality education is a ticket to a lifetime of opportunity. A high-quality education is absolutely critical to ensure Australia has a strong economic base from which to secure jobs and create new jobs for a prosperous future. It was Labor that committed to a national needs based funding model for schools to lift equity and achievement, by supporting students, parents, teachers and principals to get on and do the real job of education. If we are to reach those goals, we have to be investing in education, not cutting funding. Raw numbers of dollars invested in education do not tell the truth about the proper investment that should be going into schools.

Senator Seselja interjecting

Senator O'NEILL: I can tell by the outrage of those opposite that we are touching a raw nerve, because they do not want Australians to understand that they lied at the election when they said they were going to match Australian Labor Party funding—

Senator Seselja interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ketter ): Order! Senators are entitled to be heard without interjections.

Senator O'NEILL: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. We know that we have hit a raw nerve, because they do not want people to be reminded that leading into the 2013 election they said they would match Labor's funding for education, dollar for dollar. That was the promise writ large on posters right around the country at every school where people were voting. They lied. And the minute they got into parliament in that 2014 budget, they attempted to cut funding from the Gonski model, from needs based funding for Australian students.

It is blatantly obvious that this government refuses to treat education as a national priority. The outcome is their lack of vision for the future of this nation. I have heard those opposite say that needs based reform is too expensive. I have heard them say that we cannot afford it. I have heard them say that it is not working. But this is nonsense to any person who has a young student at school right now; because, although it has only been going for a couple of years, the impact of the proper investment in needs based education is transforming what teachers are able to do and the learning that is able to happen for our students in schools.

When will this government come to understand the blindingly obvious, that rather than saying we cannot afford to invest significantly in education, the truth is we cannot afford not to invest. It is all very well for the Prime Minister to go on about Australia as an innovation nation—although, I do notice he has gone a bit quiet on that lately—when we spend less on schools per capita of the GDP than the OECD average: 18 per cent for primary compared to the OECD average of 22 per cent. We are below the average of our competitors. And they continue to tell lies about the amount of money that is being invested. It is 23 per cent for students in secondary school compared to the average OECD contribution of 25 per cent. That is way below the spending of some of our regional economic competitors.

When Labor negotiated the Gonski needs based funding with states and territories, we did so with very clear targets in mind and a clear plan on how we were to get there. When the Liberals got elected, they threw this plan out. They said states could have Commonwealth funding with no strings attached. They did not even make sure the states kept investing in schools. So it is very, very rich of the Liberals to turn around now and say to the states, 'You need to reform your schools.' They threw out the extensive reforms that Labor argued were needed. And they are ignoring the reality that investing in schools—where the Gonski money has gone—is actually making a profound difference and improvement in students' learning.